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Terror in the Aisles

Picture this: You’re away from L.A. for a few days, visiting friends and family in Florida; you’re about to walk into a restaurant to have dinner with your parents, when suddenly your phone rings. The caller ID says it’s Mark, the editor of a magazine you write for. But when you answer, Sam is on the line. Sam Jackson, that is.

“Scott! This is Samuel L. Jackson,” barks that unmistakable baritone.

Holy shit!

“Now, you may know me from my roles in movies like Pulp Fiction, Star Wars and The Incredibles . . .”

Know you? You’re Sam Motherfucking Jackson. Everyone knows who you are!

“. . . but I’m here today to make sure you go see a movie that holds a special place in my heart. That’s right: I’m talking about Snakes on a Plane. I know that sounds crazy, but I don’t give a damn, because Snakes on a Plane just might be the best motion picture ever made!”

I have no trouble believing that.

“So, listen up: Forget about your regular job working in the media.”

Hey, how did you . . .

“Just hop in that tin can you call a car.”

Well, it does have over 100,000 miles on it, but . . .

“Go get your homeboy, Mark. And go see Snakes on a Plane — the one summer blockbuster that will take a nasty bite out of your butt.”

Dude, say no more. I am so there.

As you’ve probably already guessed, among the many glamorous perks that come with this job, access to Sam Jackson’s inner friendship circle isn’t one of them. I’ve never so much as met the man, and as intimate as our 50 or so seconds of phone time were, it wasn’t exactly a personal call. Rather, I was the victim of one of the more ingenious weapons in the arsenal of what was arguably the summer’s most ingeniously (albeit unsuccessfully) marketed movie. Log on to the official Snakes on a Plane Web site, choose some personal details from a series of menus, and, before you can say “Kool and the Gang,” your own customized Sam-o-gram will be making its way to the “homeboy” or “homegirl” of your choice. It’s partly because of such gimmicks that people in the industry expected so much of Snakes: It was the one movie out there that seemed to have it all figured out, to have broken across that perilous old-media/new-media divide, to have become a certifiable cult classic before anyone had seen so much as a frame of it. And here’s the kicker: Snakes on a Plane turned out to be one of the best studio movies of the summer — exuberantly crude and unpretentious and driven by a vaudevillian sense of giving you the most possible bang for your buck. No wonder many reviews of the film — none of which broke until midway through opening day as a result of New Line’s decision not to hold advance press screenings — spent as much or more time reviewing the enthusiastic audience response to the film, which, at the show I attended, included deafening anticipatory cheers starting with the first few flickers of the studio logo upon the darkened screen. As the L.A. Weekly’s own Chuck Wilson reported in an e-mail sent a few hours after attending an opening-night Snakes screening, “I haven’t seen an audience that excited in years.When it felt like time for another snake attack, they’d start hissing, ‘Ssssssssssssss.’ Afterward, they stood outside, laughing and grinning to beat the band. People will see it more than once, not just because it’s a kick-ass thrill ride but because they’ll be hoping to feel again that almost joyous sense of having had a shared experience, which is a bit of movie magic that not even the fanciest home theater system can duplicate. Think of these as the snakes who saved Hollywood.”

Well, by now you’ve likely heard that Snakes’ hiss turned out to be far worse than its bite. As the so-called “industry experts” performed their ritualistic Monday-morning quarterback routine on the movie’s opening-weekend number, the collective sigh of disappointment was practically audible. And by the time a curious little news item (later discounted as a hoax) surfaced, reporting of a multiplex in Phoenix where some merry prankster released a couple of diamondback rattlers into an audience full of Snakes viewers, I imagine that there were those at New Line slapping their palms to their foreheads and wondering, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

So, what went wrong? The theories quickly proliferated: Some said that the movie’s target audience of teenage and 20-something males simply stayed home downloading bootleg copies of Snakes from the Web. Others, like online columnist David Poland, reasoned that the “key demo” did turn out en masse, but that the film failed to appeal to a wider audience. (My mother, for one, still hasn’t heard of it.) Certainly, if you did find yourself among a Thursday-night late-show crowd somewhere in L.A., it was hard to imagine that Snakes would prove to be anything short of a phenomenon. But what I wonder about are the folks in Phoenix, and Topeka, and Nashville, and all those other places on the map where not everybody knows somebody in “the industry,” and where the billboards and bus benches advertise things other than movies: Were they as stoked to see Snakes as those of us who live inside the major-market mass-media bubble? In Greensboro, was the film perceived as the ne plus ultra of post-postmodern in-jokiness or just another low-budget horror flick? And in Fort Lauderdale, where the geriatric crowd-pleaser Boynton Beach Club (a movie my mother has heard of) turned into a massive local hit, did a movie called Snakes on a Plane exude the same innate appeal as, say, one called Yentas on a Yacht?

Does Sam make long-distance calls?

When all is said and done, Snakes, which was produced for a relative song (about $30 million) by summer-movie (or any other) standards, will still end up netting a tidy profit for its studio. But in Hollywood, where perception is everything, the movie is already considered a failure, and one more apocalyptic sign in a summer rife with massive layoffs, movie-star meltdowns and expensive “tentpole” movies (Mission: Impossible III, Poseidon, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water, Miami Vice) that failed to live up to box-office expectations. And even if those movies had performed better, would the studios that made them be any better off, with “gross” participants like Impossible producer-star Tom Cruise skimming so much off the top before even a dollar of profit has been earned? How much will Sony really see at the end of the day from the $750-million-and-counting worldwide take of The Da Vinci Code once Tom Hanks and Ron Howard have gobbled up their pieces of the pie? Such questions were unavoidably in the ether these past months, as concerns about ballooning budgets, skyrocketing star salaries and parasitic participation deals reached something of a crisis point, spurred on by the sense of a widening chasm between what audiences want to see and what Hollywood has been giving them.

Ironically, it was at Disney, the studio with this summer’s biggest success story — Pirates of the Caribbean II — that one man set about managing that crisis. His name is Dick Cook, and he is the very definition of a company man, even if those who’ve met the mild-mannered, unassuming father of two say that you’d sooner take him for an insurance salesman than the chairman of one of the most successful movie studios on the planet. A 36-year Disney vet, Cook actually began his tenure with the company as — believe it or not — a ride operator at the Disneyland park in Anaheim, before taking off on a meteoric career ascent that makes Cinderella’s trip to the ball seem like nothing to write home about. But Cook ruffled feathers, both within the Mouse House and beyond when, in late July, he announced a massive reorganization that brought about the dismissal of longtime Disney studios president Nina Jacobson and the elimination of some 650 jobs throughout Disney’s worldwide motion-picture operation. In addition, Cook decreed that Disney would cut back from the roughly 18 movies it currently releases in a given year to something closer to 10, nearly all of which will be branded with the Walt Disney Pictures imprimatur (as opposed to the company’s adult-centric Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures labels).

Doubtless, Cook will find his name deleted from many a Christmas-card list this year, but while pundits scrambled to accuse him of everything from brutal insensitivity (for picking an admittedly inopportune moment to break the news to Jacobson — while she was witnessing her partner give birth to their baby) to outright sexism (for selecting a man, Oren Aviv, as Jacobson’s replacement), something that got lost in the shuffle was the potentially revolutionary impact of Cook’s grand gesture. In other words, at a time when everyone is saying (and has been saying) that there are too many movies being made, fewer people going to see them and ever-more-ridiculous costs involved in producing them, Cook is the one guy who actually seems to be doing something about it. And his reasoning is sound: If you make only 10 pictures a year, and every one of them is either a Pirates- or Narnia-size behemoth, or a profitable sleeper like Eight Below and the teen dance drama Step Up, who’s really going to miss all those Ice Princesses and Hidalgos and Stay Alives and Stick Its that you’re not making instead? Certainly not those moviegoers who wish that the ever-endangered “serious” pictures that the studios have all but relegated to their specialty divisions (including Disney-owned Miramax) had a better chance at having their voices heard above the clamor of so much high-concept dross.

Visionary men are not often fully appreciated in their own time. But mark my words: If snakes won’t save Hollywood from itself, Dick Cook just might. My guess is that in the relatively near future, other studio executives (at least those intent on keeping their jobs) will follow Cook’s lead where trimming excess is concerned. It could be argued that at least one, Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone, already has. For whether you believe that Redstone unceremoniously booted one-time golden boy Tom Cruise off the Paramount lot, or that Cruise voluntarily elected to end his lucrative studio production deal, this much is clear: Cruise’s religious beliefs were indeed to blame — the religion of greed, that is. No one, of course, is crying anything but crocodile tears over Cruise’s fortunes — he, like Paramount and Redstone, will live to fight another day. But the writing is now unmistakably on the wall: In Hollywood, belts are being tightened, and not just because everyone’s on the Atkins Diet.

Having extolled Cook’s business acumen, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I don’t always agree with his taste in cinema. Earlier this summer, I compared the experience of watching Pirates II to what it feels like to spend all day waiting in line for a theme-park ride, only to get to the front and be told, “Sorry, out of order.” Yet, as the film has edged ever closer to $1 billion in global ticket sales — it is, as of this writing, the fourth highest-grossing film of all time — I can barely leave my house without running into someone who tells me how much he or she agrees with me about this slothful, feature-length teaser for next year’s Pirates III. It hardly matters, because like it or not, Pirates was the movie of Summer 2006: the one that people young and old anticipated the most feverishly in advance; the one they queued up around the block to see, the way people used to back when movies were more of a pop religion; and the one that many of them returned to see for a second or even third time. Which is precisely why Dick Cook is running a studio and I’m writing movie reviews. But for how much longer?

I’m not speculating about Cook’s job security here, or even my own, but rather about film criticism itself, which has been in a conspicuous state of decline for years now and which, more recently, has begun seizing about, gasping for air, like a fish out of water. Call me a pessimist, but when the Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein issued the latest eulogy for the profession, in an August 15 editorial titled “Critics’ Voices Become a Whisper,” I had to agree with his assessment that the influence — nay, the relevance — of critics has hit an all-time low. It’s not that there aren’t fine, perceptive, intelligent critics still out there (although any number of them, from the New York Post’s Dave Kehr to the Orange County Register’s Henry Sheehan, have been handed their walking papers in recent years). It’s that even those critics’ voices have become increasingly marginalized in the age of the everyone’s-an-expert blogosphere and the ongoing consolidation of traditional media. Would that Goldstein had had the guts to mention how even his own employer has increasingly resorted to reprinting out-of-town reviews from Times sister papers Newsday and the Chicago Tribune, rather than assigning its own local critics to weigh in on all the new films. Whereas the local critic’s voice was once a cherished staple of any major (or minor) city daily, the world of print film criticism has more recently come to resemble one giant wire service. And the real question is: Has anybody (outside of critics themselves) even noticed, or cared?

Of course, critics have always been and will continue to be irrelevant to the fortunes of pictures like Pirates (which garnered middling notices across the board) and Superman Returns (which received mostly raves, but whose worldwide gross has yet to exceed Pirates’ domestic one). What has been far more troubling of late is just how little effect we seem to have on the performance of any movie, whether it’s an obscure art-house masterpiece like this year’s Romanian import The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or an under-the-radar studio gem like writer-director James Gunn’s impishly scary-funny Slither (a dream double feature with Snakes on a Plane if ever there was one). Even when reviews appear to have buoyed a film nowadays, it’s just as likely a matter of coincidence. (Did favorable notices really bring audiences to Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, as some have suggested, when the even more enthusiastic support for United 93 did little to broaden that film’s appeal?) So it becomes difficult to argue with Goldstein and others — Variety editor in chief Peter Bart has long enjoyed shooting at critics for sport — when they point out the disparity between critical darlings and popular hits.

But why is it assumed that critics should like the ?most popular movies, and that if they don’t, they’re the ones who are out of touch? Is it not possible that critics who, if they’re doing their jobs properly, see several hundred films a year (including many that will never be distributed theatrically) might really know something more about cinema than the casual moviegoer who is limited to the offerings of the local multiplex? By that I don’t mean knowing which movies are good and which ones are bad, but rather knowing how to read a film, in the way that one knows how to read a book. And is it going too far to suggest that intelligent criticism can help to foster that literacy, and that for this very reason criticism is still something vital and necessary? It’s easy to leap to conclusions, of course — that we’re living in pervasively anti-intellectual times, or that people (to quote one colleague’s recent deduction) “are just plain stupid.” I for one continue to hold ?out hope that's not the case, which is easier on some days (like the ones where you receive an e-mail or a phone call from that one person who saw that one movie they would never have seen otherwise on account of something you said or wrote) than on others. If Dick Cook saves Hollywood, who is going to save?the audience?