What the internet giveth, the box-office taketh away. Fifteen years ago, the Samuel L. Jackson thriller Snakes on a Plane became the first meme movie — an unlikely online sensation generating viral content that ranged from blog posts and fan art to amateur trailer parodies and songs. All of that internet activity convinced New Line Cinema, the studio behind the movie, that the modestly budgeted thriller might be their next Lord of the Rings… or, at the very least, their next Nightmare on Elm Street.
New Line was so confident in Snakes, the studio awarded the film a prime Hall H spot at the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con. This writer was in the crowd for the panel, and the atmosphere inside the enormous auditorium started off raucous and only got louder as 10 minutes from the film unspooled across Hall H’s multiple screens. Then Jackson himself bounded onstage to seal the deal with the web-savvy audience primed to love the movie sight unseen. “I hope that people in Hollywood are paying attention to this phenomenon,” the actor told the room. “Maybe some young filmmakers out there will understand that you can put a premise on the internet and eventually create a film that’s all-inclusive.”
As it turned out, Snakes on a Plane did teach Hollywood a lesson… but it’s not the one that Jackson and the filmmakers hoped. When the $33 million movie finally premiered in theaters August 18, 2006 — without any advanced critics’ screenings — it performed well below expectations. Despite the internet fervor, mainstream audiences shrugged their shoulders and the movie earning only $15 million over its opening weekend.
The snake-filled plane continued its descent from there, just barely doubling that number by the time it slithered out of theaters. To this day, Snakes on a Plane remains the industry’s highest-profile cautionary tale about how internet buzz doesn’t automatically translate to box-office gold — a story that’s since been re-told by movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Blade Runner 2049, where the online love isn’t necessarily reciprocated by the general public.
It’s safe to say that New Line didn’t set out with the intention of making a case study in the perils of online hype. Originally conceived in the early ’90s by academic-turned-screenwriter David Dalessandro, Snakes on a Plane was rejected by multiple studios until New Line acquired it in 1999. The first director to attach themselves to the nascent project was Hong Kong action expert, Ronny Yu, who’d previously made Freddy vs. Jason for the studio, and had also directed Jackson in the 2001 action-comedy The 51st State.
In a 2006 interview with Cinemablend, the Pulp Fiction star said that he personally reached out to Yu about starring in the movie, to the shock and awe of both New Line and his own representatives. “I read in the trades that Ronny Yu was doing a movie called Snakes on a Plane so I emailed him to see what it was,” Jackson recalled. “[He said] ‘Well, it’s a horror movie about poisonous snakes on a plane.’ Oh wow, can I be in it? For real? Yeah, for real. That was the beginning of it all. New Line didn’t believe it. They called my agent. Agent said, ‘I don’t know.’ My manager said, ‘Yeah, he probably said yes.'”
Yu ended up deplaning the movie, but Jackson stayed aboard as New Line looked for replacement directors, eventually settling on David R. Ellis, who’d just made Final Destination 2 and Cellular — starring a pre-Captain America Chris Evans — for them. (Ellis passed away in 2013.) Meanwhile, Dalessandro’s script also passed through additional hands with John Heffernan and Sebastián Gutiérrez receiving credits on the finished film, which casts Jackson as top FBI agent Neville Flynn, who has to transport a key witness (Nathan Phillips) from Hawaii to Los Angeles in order to testify against a crime kingpin. Rather than kill the witness himself, the gangster fills the plane with a bevy of venomous snakes that treat the cabin like an all-you-can-bite buffet.
Funnily enough, a screenwriter who didn’t even work on the movie is partly responsible for igniting its online popularity. In a 2005 blog post, Josh Friedman — whose credits include Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and the Terminator TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles — revealed he’d been offered the chance to do “a little work” on the movie. “I ask Agent the name of the project. … He says: Snakes on a Plane. ‘Holy s***, I’m thinking. It’s a title. It’s a concept. It’s a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It’s perfect. Perfect. It’s the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles.”
It’s worth noting that Jackson personally fought to keep that title in place. During production, New Line floated the idea of switching the name to Pacific Flight 121 only to have the star vocally object. “I got on the set one day and heard they changed it, and I said, ‘What are you doing here?'” Jackson told USA Today at the time. “It’s not Gone With the Wind. It’s not On the Waterfront. It’s Snakes on a Plane!'” Friedman’s post backed up that argument. “If Sam Jackson thinks he’s doing a movie called Snakes on a Plane … you’re doing a movie called Snakes on a Plane.”
Friedman’s unbridled enthusiasm for the movie proved infectious: His blog entry quickly went viral across a worldwide web where now-established social media platforms like Twitter were in their infancy. Inspired by Friedman, a Georgetown University law student named Brian Finkelstein founded the now-defunct fan blog, SnakesOnaBlog.com, which became a one-stop internet shop for all things Snakes on a Plane related.
Things continued to escalate from there as digitally-inclined creators sought to capitalize on the movie’s online popularity. So many fan videos were made that the Alamo Drafthouse organized the Blanks on a Blank filmmaking challenge where amateur filmmakers could make their best “animal and a vehicle” movie pitches. “To us, the success of Snakes on a Plane is a foregone conclusion,” the Alamo staff wrote at the time — a prediction that later proved to be wildly off.
New Line may not have expected Snakes on a Plane to become an internet darling, but they wasted little time capitalizing on it. Ellis re-assembled the cast — which included Julianna Margulies, Kenan Thompson and Lin Shaye, alongside 450 real snakes plus many more of the computer-generated variety — early 2006 to film fresh material that would feed the appetite of online fans. The new sequences included multiple moments of bloody gore, as well as a T&A-heavy sex scene featuring a baby-faced Taylor Kitsch, who shot to stardom when the TV version of Friday Night Lights premiered in October. The bonus scenes also bumped the movie’s rating from a PG-13 to an R, as per Jackson’s express wishes.
It was during that new round of shooting that Jackson delivered the piece of dialogue that became the movie’s rallying cry: “I have had it with these motherf****** snakes on this motherf****** plane!” The star kept that level of energy up during his barnstorming Comic-Con appearance where he answered fan questions from the Hall H stage. “Is the behavior of the snakes at all realistic?” asked one earnest attendee. “Of course, it’s realistic!” Jackson replied. “We checked with snake experts all over the f****** planet and [they said] that’s exactly what those motherf******** would do.”
Thrilled by the fan response at events like Comic-Con, and potentially wary of having the enthusiasm diluted, New Line decided to bypass showing Snakes on a Plane to critics and instead opened it over 3,500 theaters on a quiet late-summer weekend. That proved to be the wise move as reviews were mixed at best, with many writers rolling their eyes at the film’s internet notoriety. “For months, the anticipated trashiness of Snakes on a Plane has been a marketing hook in the form of a universally shared in-joke, as the bloggy chatterers … have made themselves part of the hype machine,” wrote Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman after seeing the movie with a paying crowd. “Yet what, exactly, is the joke?”
The internet, and not the movie itself, was also the subject of most of the post-mortems that rolled in after the underwhelming box-office returns were revealed. “The tepid opening dashed the hopes of Hollywood … that vigorous marketing on the internet would be a powerful new way to propel fans into the theater,” The New York Times said. New Line was similarly chagrined, with one executive telling the newspaper: “We’re a little disappointed. There were a lot of inflated expectations on this picture, with the internet buzz. But it basically performed like a normal horror movie.”
Like many subsequent viral fads, Snakes on a Plane quickly vanished into the internet memory hole following its release. Even the Snakes on a Blog founder — whom New Line flew out to L.A. to attend the movie’s premiere — turned in his fan card. Speaking with The Atlantic in 2011, Finkelstein characterized the whole experience as a “gimmick” that was confined to a very specific era in pop culture and internet culture, noting that the rise of Twitter and other social media outlets — where hype rises and falls in near-real-time — made the need for dedicated blogs irrelevant. “It was the perfect storm of concept and star and the fact that you didn’t know what the movie was.”
A decade and a half after Snakes on a Plane, Hollywood continues to wrestle with the promise and perils of placing too much faith in online hype. This past summer, Jon M. Chu’s film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway show, In the Heights, danced into movie theaters on a wave of Twitter raves only to eke out a $30 million final gross — roughly the same as its predecessor. (Of course, Snakes on a Plane didn’t have to contend with a worldwide pandemic or the rise of streaming services.)
Meanwhile, speculation is rampant about the impending fate of Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s massively budgeted sci-fi spectacle that already has the internet swooning, but is far from a guaranteed mainstream hit. (In a “time is a flat circle” coincidence, both In the Heights and Dune are Warner Bros. productions, New Line’s parent company.) On the other hand, smaller distribution companies like A24 have found ways to capitalize on online buzz, creating art house hits like Hereditary, The Farewell and this summer’s Zola — the first movie based on a Twitter thread.
There’s at least one person who isn’t interested in re-litigating the rise and fall of Snakes on a Plane: Samuel L. Jackson. To this day, the actor has never said an ill word about his blockbuster that wasn’t. “I still choose movies because they are movies I would go see when I was a kid,” Jackson told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. “So when people criticize Snakes on a Plane, I go, well, you know, ‘F*** you,’ you know? That’s one of the movies I would have gone to see as a kid, and I am definitely glad to see me in it.”
And just last year, Jackson used the power of the internet to take down a Twitter troll who suggested that the movie was a “bad choice.” “For the record, it was a great idea,” the actor tweeted, before proceeding to show off his emoji game.
You might say Jackson’s had it with these motherf****** critics on this motherf****** internet.
Snakes on a Plane is currently streaming on HBO Max.