The Wiki-ing of Culture?

Do you always know exactly what you want? Do you know exactly the kind of movie you want to see, book you want to read, or music you want to listen to? And by exactly I mean, the title, script, premise, chords played in the chorus, etc? If you did and I gave it to you, would you still like it? Or would it be mediocre and not a true artistic expression?

This is the problem generated by Snakes on a Plane, the new movie from New Line Cinema, which has been the darling of the blogosphere for months. The story of the movie is well told, but what is most interesting to me at this point are the larger cultural ramifications behind the phenom.

Chuck Kolsterman in Esquire lays out the case:

Its existence represents a weird, semidepressing American condition, and I’m afraid this condition is going to get worse. I suspect Snakes on a Plane might earn a lot of money, which will prompt studios to assume this is the kind of movie audiences want. And I don’t think it is. Snakes on a Plane is an unabashed attempt at prefab populism, and (maybe) this gimmick will work once. But it won’t keep working, and it will almost certainly make filmmaking worse.

Snakes on a Plane is like the Wikipedia version of a movie. A year ago, New Line Cinema planned to change the title to the ultraforgettable Pacific Air Flight 121, but everyone who cared (including its star, Samuel L. Jackson) freaked out. That reaction was understandable; the one thing everyone seems to agree upon is that Snakes on a Plane is a funnier, more expository, paradoxically intriguing moniker… New Line made a philosophical decision: If people wanted snakes on a plane, they would literally get Snakes on a Plane. But the studio did not stop there; at some point, New Line decided to give audiences whatever they wanted. Long after the film had wrapped, the cast and crew went back and shot five additional days of footage, ostensibly to make the snake action more violent and to include a scene in which Jackson says, “I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” a line countless bloggers demanded to hear.

…When it comes to mass media, it’s useless to ask people what they want; nobody knows what they want until they have it.

This reminds me of The Simpsons episode “Beyond Blundersome” with Mel Gibson where Mel enlists the help of an ‘average joe’ to make his remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington “better” & “more appealing” and ends up ruining the film and its box office prospects.

And this is the risk I see with the approach New Line took with this film. The title and buzz initially I believe to be great examples of how community engagement can work to a movies advantage, but re-shooting and changing the script is ridiculous. Did the new dialogue & sceens fit in with the original premise of the film? Was Sam Jackson’s character a clone of his role in Pulp Fiction (the “motherf***r” addition)? Do any of these new enhancements make this a better film? Maybe, maybe not.

I’m not surprised the studios would embrace the “collaborative film making” concept as they must be salivating at the cost savings they could realize by hiring lesser-known screenwriters to perform secretarial work on the scripts as bloggers write them (much like the approach and obsession with reality TV). However, does that make it a film the majority want to go see? Or does it provide a pat on the back to bloggers while diluting the artistic medium?

A far better approach to engaging with consumers (outside of the initial work New Line did with bloggers) is the one taken by Universal with Miami Vice. With one phone call to an influential movie review blogger, the buzz about the film has spread far and wide and is tracking at about 10k conversations around the blogosphere.

There is a limit when it comes to interacting and engaging with your audience, and I believe we’ve found it in SOAP. It’s one thing to release a product that is filling a real or percieved need in beta and solicit feedback, and quite another to build it from scratch based on what people tell you they think they’d like.

As Seth succinctly puts it:

the people want what the people want, but if you ask them first, you don’t always end up with something they actually like.

[H/T - theQview]

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Comments (5) to “The Wiki-ing of Culture?”

  1. Tamera –

    It gets worse (or better – depending on what side of the point you support).

    In the NY Times this weekend there was an article about Live Mansion the Movie. Every aspect of Live Mansion the Movie will be decided by the online community. That’s right – the actors, the director, the plot line – are all being decided by those interested enough to go online and vote for their favourites. And they’re not choosing from from Scar Jo, J Lo or Brangelina either. They’re choosing from others within the community that are brave/bold/brash enough to throw their hats into the ring. (Apparently the script writer will be the only paid professional)

    I can’t help but think that this movie will end up much like any “design-by-committee” project: diluted and disjointed. Things that are designed to appeal to everyone usually end up appealing to no one. Just my experience.

    I do admit a small part of me will be keeping an eye on the Live Mansion experiment to see if it flies or fizzles.

  2. Thanks Aimee, I missed that piece this weekend. Quite interesting indeed. I fear the “design-by-committee” approach as well, but it will be quite an experiment.

  3. [...] As I mentioned previously, New Line went far beyond interacting and engaging with the blogosphere, into content development based on what a tiny subset of the population told them they wanted to see – basically Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules, from Pulp Fiction battling snakes on a plane. Unfortunately, not everybody else wanted to see that movie. The Internet is one channel, albeit a powerful one, to reach customers. For a product that relies on mass-appeal however, ignoring TV and its ability to capture our imagination visually, in conjunction with other media, is risky. The problem for SoaP of course, was that it didn’t have a compelling storyline which could elevate it into the mainstream conciousness ala Blair Witch or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and the storyline it did have was modified to accomodate bloggers requests with an end result being a movie no one will tell their friends they have to see. Snakes on a Plane’s main selling point appears to be the, um, snakes on a plane and Sam Jackson. Is that enough to reach critical mass? [...]

  4. [...] Which is why it was no surprise, but quite poignant and laugh worthy, when they tackled user-generated content, or content by committee in certain instances, in their episode on Sunday. I wrote about the potential pitfalls of over-doing UGC back in the euphoric Snakes on a Plane days, and the point still stands – some things really do take expertise to make them great, and art is one of them, as the Family Guy writers sarcastically reminded. [...]

  5. Carolyn…

    I found this article to be extremely useful for me. Thanks!…

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