Brian Finkelstein might have just become the most popular man in Hollywood.
The 26-year-old is the marketing genius behind "Snakes on a Plane." But unlike most Tinseltown pitchmen, Finkelstein doesn't have a multimillion-dollar marketing budget or spend his days poring over focus group reports.
Heck, he doesn't even work for the company that is distributing the horror-thriller flick, which opens nationwide this weekend. And he won't make a dime from its profits.
But Finkelstein may be the mastermind of what could be the biggest box office coup of the summer — one that might change the way movies are marketed forever.
Snakes. Planes. Awesome.
If you haven't heard about "Snakes on a Plane" — and if you haven't, you must just be waking from a coma — there are really only three things you need to know: it's got snakes, it's got planes and it's got Samuel L. Jackson.
The plot reads like a stoner film major's knock-off of "Speed" (aka "Bombs on a Bus"). To wit, a diabolical assassin sets loose a crate of 500 assorted deadly snakes aboard a jetliner to kill a key witness being escorted to a high-profile trial by FBI agents. Terror ensues.
So how did a rinky-dink redux become one of the most anticipated movies of the year? It's the Internet, stupid.
Birth of the Buzz
"Snakes on a Plane," or "SoaP" to its acolytes, has been kicking around Hollywood in one form or another for more than 10 years.
The movie was the brainchild of David Dalessandro, who worked as an academic fundraiser and had never written a screenplay before.
In 1995, 30 studios passed on the treatment that he called "Venom." Four years later, MTV/Paramount optioned the rights, which eventually were passed on to New Line Cinema in 2003.
In the wake of Sept. 11, screenplays about terrorism on airplanes might as well have been titled "Ishtar: Part Deux."
As New Line executives began laying the groundwork for the project, which had by this time acquired its now-famous moniker, they quickly realized they had a problem: they had snakes, they had planes. But something was missing. The studio began a search for writers to rework the script.
By the time New Line approached screenwriter Josh Friedman about the project, the script had already shed its skin a number of times and was, by the studio's own admission, a mess.
For Friedman, whose writing credits include 2005's "War of the Worlds," it was love at first sight. He was mesmerized by the guileless charm of the premise. He was spellbound by its audacious honesty. It was the movie he always wanted to write.
New Line decided to hire someone else.
From Backlot B-List to Cyber Stardom
Enter Brian Finkelstein. A first-year student at Georgetown Law, Finkelstein stumbled across a blog post by Friedman lamenting his missed opportunity to write the film with "the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles," in part because he asked the studio not to change it if he was attached to the project.
Finkelstein, like Friedman, says he instantly fell in love with the title and started his own Web site, snakesonablog.com, to share his newfound obsession with a few friends.
In no time, hordes of ophiophiles — that's geek for snake lover — were sending in amateur video trailers, fan art movie posters and even composing original theme songs.
"The most unique and most surprising was the 'Snakes on a Plane' Sudoku — who knew that was even possible?" Finkelstein said.
What started as a simple part-time distraction had blossomed into a full-fledged Internet phenomenon. By the end of last week, Finkelstein said his site was getting up to 50,000 visitors a week.
Even top brass at New Line were logging on regularly. But instead of setting loose a crate of lawsuit-happy lawyers, the studio decided to ride the wave of free publicity.
"Whenever I call New Line, the first thing I always ask is 'Are you going to sue me?' And they always say 'no' and we laugh," Finkelstein said.
"New Line hasn't threatened to sue anybody, and they've been generally genial toward their fans and it's worked hugely to their benefit. I can only hope that other studios take note."
Who's Flying This Plane, Anyway?
New Line, at least, got the memo. It launched one of the most innovative campaigns in Hollywood history by inviting fans to participate in making "SoaP."
First, the studio authorized a five-day re-shoot to up the movie's rating from a teen friendly PG-13 to a solid R. It even added an expletive-laden line for Jackson that originally appeared in a parody celebrity casting call video by impressionist D.C. Lugi.
New Line even ran a contest through the social networking Web site TagWorld for bands to write a theme song for the movie. The Los Angeles-based electropop duo Captain Ahab beat out over 500 other submissions with their throbbing dance track "Snakes on a Brian."
So, just how much buzz can an interactive marketing campaign drum up?
According to the latest report from market research firm Wordtracker, which monitors data from a variety of Web search engines, "Snakes on a Plane" is the No. 166 most popular query (with the somewhat futile adult content filter turned on). That's slightly below searches for "tattoos" (No. 149), "Pam Anderson" (No. 162) and "jobs" (No. 163), and just above "love" (No. 185), Kelly Clarkson (No. 197) and "FOX News" (No. 204).
And the Academy Award Goes to...
Of course, just because something's popular doesn't mean it's good. And New Line is playing its cards close to the vest, not scheduling screenings for critics before the premiere.
Despite the perception that "SoaP" is making a run at becoming "the best worst movie of the year," as Wired magazine dubbed it, director David Ellis says he sees the film as a classic high-concept thriller.
"Everybody thinks that it's a campy, tongue-in-cheek movie, but it's not," Ellis said. "We take ourselves very seriously."
Ellis thinks that by allowing the audience to be involved in the production process, he ended up with a better movie. The way he sees it, the days of the prima donna director are numbered.
"You have to listen to the fans. I'm not trying to make a political statement with 'Snakes on a Plane.' So I would rather ask them what they want and deliver than give them something they don't want," Ellis said.
Cashing In on Cachet
Despite valiant attempts, good buzz is a commodity that money can't buy. Word-of-mouth rocketed 2002's indie romantic comedy "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" to a $241.4 million payday in the U.S. alone — pretty good for a film with a $3 million production budget and virtually no advertising campaign to speak of.
On the other hand, not even an estimated $60 million marketing budget could save Oliver Stone in 2004 from the Hellenistic humiliation that was "Alexander," which cost $155 million to produce but only took in a measly $34.3 million domestically.
Of course, even a stinker can end up turning a profit through DVD sales and rebranding for international markets, which might explain why any type of meritocracy has yet to take hold in Hollywood and why Warner Bros. has apparently given the green light to "Police Academy 8."
The average big studio movie costs an average of $63.6 million to produce and another $34.4 million to market. "SoaP" ran New Line only $36 million to make and reportedly, 10 days before opening, it had spent only 7 percent of its $30 million marketing budget promoting the film.
Looking at the numbers, "SoaP" seems like a safe bet. But looking at the line wrapping around the block for the late-night sneak peek Thursday in New York's Union Square, it looks like a sure thing.
"I'm more excited than I ever have been in my life," said Scott McGuinness, 17. "This is the greatest movie known to man with the greatest actor known to man: Samuel L. Jackson."
The crowd was young and many of them were draped in plastic snakes or dressed — in homage to their hero — like pimps. People sporadically shouted the title of the movie mixed with increasingly creative combinations of expletives.
"I wanna see Samuel L. Jackson battle snakes in every possible arena," said Dino Adamson, 27. "'Snakes on a Subway,' 'Snakes on the Long Island Railroad,' I'd even take 'Snakes on a Taxi.'"
And the sequel ... Well, maybe even the trifecta of snakes, planes and Samuel L. Jackson can't revolutionize the movie business overnight.
"I'm not sure about 'Snakes on a Plane 2,'" Ellis said. "It depends on what Sam wants to do. I'd do it if he would do it — and we had a great script."
How about "Sharks on a Spaceship?"