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Family Room

Interacting With Hollywood

For decades, movie stars have pined, "What I really want to do is direct." After all, it’s the seat of power. Directors have the most creative control. But that may be changing. If recent decisions by New Line Cinema pay off, studios could start giving audiences final cut—before and after a film’s release.

Take the matter-of-factly titled Snakes on a Plane. New Line realized that this cheesy B-thriller’s success hinged on its ability to achieve cult status. It needed good Internet buzz. So when fans of the genre saw an early screening and hissed online that they wanted more gore, nudity, creative serpent attacks and a certain obscenity, director David R. Ellis went back to work.

"I had the luxury to go back and tailor the film exactly like the fans demand and expect," Ellis said. Suddenly the target audience was invested in the process. And when Snakes slithered into theaters it contained ramped-up sexuality, violence and language. Score a victory for Internet horror junkies. In fact, New Line courted the fanboy underground so aggressively that the film’s Web site boasted a fan sweepstakes and links to external fan sites.

"The online forums have changed the rules regarding fan interaction," an industry insider told the Los Angeles Times. "I tell my writers you can’t obsess, you can’t write a show to please the online community. But you have to balance it out. You’d be silly to ignore it." Note to Hollywood talent: Directing is overrated. For true creative control, what you really want to do is blog.

In addition to online networks impacting content before its release, viewers can also change how a movie plays out when they watch it at home. At least that’s true of the gory, dead-teenager sequel Final Destination 3. A feature on the DVD version encourages the person handling the remote to select which comely characters will die and how. Adolescents can stick it to their least favorite onscreen peers by choosing alternate story paths, endings and gruesome fatalities as the movie plays. Full-page magazine ads spattered with "blood" played up that novelty. Text on the packaging crowed, "Create your own movie! New, interactive viewing feature puts you in control! Change the course of the film and design new character deaths and destinies."

Twisted. In a flick riddled with subtext about teens coping with a lack of control over their lives (the killer stalking them isn’t even a masked madman, but Death itself, collecting souls via a series of grisly, Rube Goldberg-style accidents), the filmmakers bestow a sense of empowerment on fans managing similar angst. But at what cost?

It used to be a thrill just to vote for an American Idol contestant. To personally engage mass media. To influence an outcome. But that’s not enough anymore. This nonlinear, point-and-click generation’s quest for options and interactivity apparently knows no bounds. And the evolving entertainment culture—from realistic video games to DVDs that prompt users to creatively butcher flesh-and-blood characters—is ready to oblige. Apologists will argue that playing the Grim Reaper this way is cathartic fun. It’s not that simple. This is a series of conscious, moral decisions that will further desensitize teens to human suffering.

That’s not to say the technology itself doesn’t have interesting potential. Who wouldn’t like to impact a fictional character’s destiny or shape a story line? If handled properly, Hollywood’s willingness to create interactive movies on DVD could be a fun—even beneficial—activity for families. It’s a great technological development. But as long as movie studios find it more profitable to take the low road, horror lovers wanting a gorier, hands-on adrenaline rush may be the only ones who get to take it for a spin.

Published August 2006