Snakes on a Meme

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How does a movie that’s not even released yet gain cult status, a legion of fans, and even some critical notoriety? New Line Cinema’s Snakes on a Plane starring Samuel L. Jackson won’t be released until August, but fans have been buzzing about it online since last year. Snakes on a Plane has become the latest Internet meme–something obscure that through Internet magic, becomes widely known seemingly overnight.

It all started when the man himself, Samuel L. Jackson, signed on to play the leading role of a little movie with the working title of Snakes on a Plane. A little while later, when the studio wanted to change the name of the movie to Pacific Air Flight 121, they received some civil, but strong words from Mr. Jackson, who had signed on to do a movie called Snakes on a Plane. It was actually this incident that jump-started the movie’s PR. A few blog posts detailing the failed name change spread the legend of an irate Jackson dropping f-bombs about snakes and planes. It’s a story that’s probably a bit removed from reality, but it’s definitely one that captures the imagination, and is bound to get caught in the cogs of the blogosphere.

Once the blogs picked it up, publicity took off. If Samuel L. Jackson was a company, his brand would be Snakes on a Plane. Like everything in marketing, it’s all about image. People still see Jackson as Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction’s cool, bad-to-the-bone hit man. Put that guy on a plane with a bunch of snakes, and you’ve got a recipe for mayhem. Not long after the story appeared in the blogosphere, normal people picked up the vision of Jackson battling snakes at 30,000 feet and started creating their own promos. Everything from t-shirts and posters to music and movie trailers started appearing, propelling the movie to cult status even before any plot details had been released. Check out the 200+ Snakes images on Flickr. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s snakes on a plane. What more plot details do you really need to know?

You may be tempted to ask, “How can I promote my product and/or service like this?” After all, it’s practically free PR. It gets people involved and excited about the project. But let me ask you this, “Does your product and/or service touch a cultural nerve? Does it inspire people to shout things like ‘motherf—– snakes on a motherf—– plane?'”

One of the things New Line did absolutely right was to catch on to the Snakes phenomenon relatively early. They’ve taken the whole consumer-generated thing one step further, even re-shooting parts of the movie based on feedback from the community (and giving it an ‘R’ rating in the process). In one of the new scenes, Sam Jackson even utters the fan-created line “motherf—– snakes on a motherf—– plane,” which ought to give community members a tingly sensation running up and down their spines when they hear it.

New Line wanted Snakes fans (snakies?) on the MySpace-like TagWorld community site back in April to create some original music for the movie. Musicians and bands submitted hundreds of tunes the community voted on. New Line is taking the top 25 songs and will actually use one of in soundtrack to the movie. What’s going on here? Movies are supposed to be created by faceless monolithic studios sequestered behind wrought iron Hollywood gates, or starving independent film developers living out of vans in the Arizona desert. In some ways, this is not just New Line’s movie… this is a movie for the fans.

Here’s a recipe for “meme” success: snakes, a plane, and one bada– mofo. Shake well, serve chilled.

Memes are tricky. Finding the right thread to pull, or the right word to say is as complicated as deciphering the pulse of pop culture itself. One viral marketing campaign will take off, one will flop. Something that gets absolutely no press whatsoever could spread virally, soundly trouncing everything in its path.

It’s all a matter of being prepared to capitalize on something as it starts to get off the ground. That means reading blogs. Not just knowing your audience, but interacting with them. Talking to them. They’re the ones you’re selling to, after all. And you can anticipate what people will think about something if you know them well enough. Sometimes the signs that something is going to generate a lot of buzz are simple.

Sometimes as simple as Snakes on a Plane.

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