"Snakes On A Plane": Will Buzz Get New Media Era Airborne Or End Up In A Crash Landing?

(CBS/New Line)
We spend a lot of time thinking, talking and writing about the new media landscape that's taking shape. So much focus tends to be on the often tense divisions between bloggers and the MSM or how the masses are crashing the establishment gates that it's sometimes difficult to find the bigger picture: How much is really changing? I suspect we'll have a better idea of that in the not-too-distant future with the midterm elections looming and large changes in the news business. But we may get some leading indicators this month when "Snakes on a Plane" hits theatres.

Just in case you've been living in a cave, "SoaP," as it's known to seemingly legions of fans, is the movie threatening to change all the rules of the business – and maybe demonstrate what kind of changes are in store for the rest of the media world. This movie has generated such advance buzz, based largely on the quirky title alone, that the studio producing it, New Line, has even integrated fan-suggested changes. Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen lays it out like this in the August edition:

For nearly a year, SoaP obsessives have been chatting and blogging about the movie, not to mention producing their own t-shirts, posters, trailers, novelty songs, and parodies. As the movie has morphed from a semiprecious nugget of intellectual property into a virtual plaything for the ethertainment masses, Snakes and its cult are teasingly threatening to revolutionize the rules of marketing for the do-it-yourself digital era.
This appears to be user-generated content in a mature form, with the audience getting at least one of its suggestions incorporated into the movie (an R-rated line by lead actor Samuel L. Jackson). The article looks at how the studio listened to and fed the mania surrounding the event. It also highlights the uncertainty of whether the buzz will translate into box office gold.

More interesting to media watchers is whether or not this user-generated help is, in the end, a good thing. Or as Jensen puts it, "should fans be allowed any input into the artistic process during the actual making of the film?" The actors themselves at least weren't too sure how far they should be allowed to go. Here's what Jackson told "EW":

Films are a collaborative process, and this is the next step. If a film is vying for that mass teen dollar, then yes, they have every right to say: This is the kind of film we want to see. Films of social relevance – well, no."
Co-star Julianna Margulies added:
On the one hand, it's fantastic because it put our film on the map. But it's a slippery slope. If we have to rely on the public to tell us what great work is – I don't know if that's a great idea."
Audiences have always had some say over what they view as great, or at least entertaining, work when it comes to movies – they vote with their wallets. And untold amounts of money are spent trying to find and capitalize on audience tastes. What's new here is the actual impact on the product itself. Like many journalists who bristle at the suggestion that the audience can help shape the news, Jackson and Margulies seem skeptical about the intrinsic value of the trend.

News organizations are no less sensitive to audience appetites than Hollywood producers and are constantly trying to give them what they want along with what editors think they need. And increasingly, they are letting the audience in on the process. Playing off of the success of sites like YouTube, CNN became the most recent organization to join the trend of soliciting user-generated video and stories.

Criticism of it all will surely continue to ask whether news organizations should be in the business of helping distribute this kind of material, and there remain legitimate questions. I may receive the most interesting or shocking piece of footage from anywhere in the world, but how do I verify exactly what it is I'm seeing? How do I protect myself from ever-easier manipulative editing techniques? Can this ever replace having your own set of eyes or ears on site?

Still, I think it's pretty safe to say that user-generated content is something that's not going to go away. The only question seems to be just how much impact it will have on the news we see and read. "Snakes on a Plane" opens on August 18. We just may get some indications then.

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