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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Los Angeles (Reuters): So much for the Internet hype. ''Snakes on a Plane,'' a camp thriller that generated an unprecedented tsunami of online hysteria during the past year, crawled into the No 1 slot at the North American weekend box office with estimated ticket sales of just 15.3 million dollars, its distributor said. New Line Cinema had hoped the movie would open in the low-20 million dollars range, a spokeswoman said yesterday. While the Time Warner Inc.-owned studio was disappointed, she said the film would be profitable. Hailed by celluloid cognoscenti as being so bad that it's good, ''Snakes'' cost about 30 million dollars to make, a relatively modest sum. The sales figure covers actual data from Friday and Saturday, as well as an estimate for yesterday. It also includes 1.4 million dollars from Thursday-evening screenings.

Samuel L Jackson plays an FBI agent trying to regain control of a plane that the Mafia had filled with poisonous snakes in order to kill a protected witness. The only problem was that the title so handily summed up the film's plot that there was little incentive to see it, said Brandon Gray, an analyst at boxofficemojo.com. ''This tells you that you need to have a compelling story or premise to get an audience for your movie,'' he said. Senior New Line executives were not available for comment.

The project had been in development since 1999, going through several studios, rewrites and directors. It became a cause celebre last year when Jackson publicly assailed New Line for changing the title to the nebulous ''Pacific Air 121.'' The studio backed down, empowering Jackson and adoring online fans to complain that the film was not violent enough. Scenes were added ratcheting up the gruesome quotient. The bloggers' victory ensured plenty of media coverage, seemingly turning the little B-movie into a preordained must-see hit. But filmmaking-by-Internet committee has its limits.

Industry surveys in recent weeks indicated only modest interest among the moviegoing masses. New Line found itself both playing up the film's unusual backstory and playing down its sales expectations. It did not screen the movie in advance for critics, a common tactic when a studio fears the reviews will be less than complimentary. The box-office champion for the previous two weekends, ''Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,'' slipped to No 2 with 14.1 million dollars. The total for Sony Corporation's Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy rose to 114.7 million dollars. Director Oliver Stone's September 11 drama ''World Trade Center'' held steady at No 3 in its second weekend with 10.8 million dollars and the two-week total for the burgeoning hit rose to $45 million. The film was released by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc.

The top-10 contained two other new releases, as well as an arthouse hit that entered the top tier for the first time after expanding into national release. The college comedy ''Accepted'' opened at No 4 with a solid 10.1 million dollars. The film stars Justin Long as a youngster who starts his own fake college after he fails to be accepted into any real colleges. It was released by Universal Pictures, a unit of General Electric Company's NBC Universal Inc. The teen comedy ''Material Girls,'' starring siblings Hilary and Haylie Duff, opened at No 9 with 4.6 million dollars, in line with the modest expectations of its closely held distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. Doing considerably better was the family comedy ''Little Miss Sunshine,'' which jumped five places to No 7 with 5.7 million dollars in its fourth weekend. The crowd-pleaser has earned 12.8 million dollars to date. It was released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the arthouse arm of News Corp 1 Twentieth Century Fox unit.

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