Creative ‘Snakes’ fans rattle New Line

THE MOVIES that shatter Hollywood’s marketing conventions are never the ones that people remember 50 years later. They’re feckless genre movie that come crawling up from the bowels of the studio system and somehow take up residence in the popular imagination.

Take “Billy Jack,” a vigilante saga released by Warner Bros. in 1971, and later re-issued in a coast-to-coast marketing blitz that paved the way for “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Try finding a restored print of “Billy Jack” today. It’s been all but expunged from the historical record.

Now there’s “Snakes on a Plane,” the trans-Pacific airline thriller from New Line starring Samuel L. Jackson, recently dubbed the “best worst movie of the year” by Wired magazine.

If you haven’t heard of “SOAP,” as it’s known among its many online enthusiasts, just think of the most obvious reason a movie would be called “Snakes on a Plane,” and there you have it. What makes “SOAP” more than a footnote in a typically cacophonous summer is the marketing storm that’s formed around it. Most of the hype has been generated by people who aren’t on New Line’s payroll. Not all of it is flattering. And there’s almost nothing New Line can do about it.

MUCH OF THE BUZZ for “SOAP” can be found on YouTube. The video aggregator is host to dozens of “SOAP” trailers, few if any of which were created by New Line. Most are a dig at the movie and the people who greenlit it.

A few highlights: a clip billed as an interview with the director (a three-year old picking his nose); a rough-cut, described as “two guys, some rubber snakes and a cutout of (Jackson) as Mace Windu”; and a wide selection of fake trailers cobbled together from footage of Jackson in “Pulp Fiction” and “Die Hard.” There’s even a “Snakes on United 93” trailer. Offensive? Sure, but it’s also a funny poke both at trailer conventions and at the high seriousness of the “United 93” campaign.

Google “SOAP” and you’ll find unofficial apparel, blogs, songs, fan fiction, even a multi-user role-playing game.

What’s so radical about all this? Just ask Nancy Utley, who oversees marketing as chief operating officer of Fox Searchlight, and who put together the campaign for “Napoleon Dynamite.” The “Napleon” Web site was modeled after Friendster, with profiles by fans who embroidered it with their own stories and photos.

Searchlight will up the ante for “Fast Food Nation,” out next fall, with a Web site that gives fans the chance to upload their own unofficial “Fast Food Nation” trailers.

“You used to create your trailer and one-sheet and TV spot and you were pretty much done,” Utley told me. “Now you create all this Web material and give fans access to the tools to play with it. It’s much more fun.” 

If that’s bit baffling to the studios, who are famously control-freakish about their intellectual property, it’s equally baffling to YouTube, whose staff of 25 people in San Mateo, Calif., can’t even keep up with what’s on the site. YouTube launched in December. Today people are watching its videos at a rate of 40 million a day.

NEW LINE wouldn’t talk to me about the “SOAP” phenomenon. One has to imagine they’re delighted with all the buzz, if somewhat mystified by the harsh, negative undercurrent.

Director David Ellis told Time magazine that the studio was embracing the collaborative nature of the campaign. New Line has sponsored a “SOAP” songwriting sweepstakes, and the winner will be played over the film’s closing credits.

New Line took a similar approach with its recent ballroom-dancing drama, “Take the Lead.” The official Web site encouraged fans to create trailer mash-ups using footage of the film and desktop editing systems like Final Cut Pro.

The trailer mash-up phenomenon is relatively new. But it has a natural parallel in the music world, where mash-ups like “Blue Eyes Meets Bed Sty,” a Frank Sinatra and Biggie Smalls remix, are a staple of the Billboard charts.

Trailer editors, after all, are the ad industry’s equivalent of hip-hop DJs, sampling the best sequences of a feature film, digitizing and re-sequencing them. What’s new is that now anybody can do this at home and instantly share the results with an audience of millions.

The result: it’s harder than ever to know where the “official” campaign for a movie begins and ends. “The Internet is moving in this direction,” YouTube senior director of marketing Julie Supan told me. “You can either choose to harness it or not.”

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