Who needs Hollywood?

Internet chatrooms are a fertile resource for film-makers

When the screenwriter Josh Friedman wrote enthusiastically in his blog last year about the haplessly prosaic title of Samuel L Jackson's soon-to-be-released film Snakes on a Plane, he inadvertently started a ferocious, self-replicating internet trend, commonly known online as a "meme".

The film's moniker inspired such mirth online that soon early fans were uploading fake plots and spoof trailers on portals around the net. The abbreviated form of the title, SoaP, became accepted shorthand in discussion forums for the sentiment previously captured by the phrase "Shit happens".

Although the film had wrapped in 2005, it was reshot in March to meet the fans' expectations, surfing the virtual wave of anticipation to maximum effect. A competition to write music for the soundtrack followed, initiated by the studio in the online community TagWorld. The buzz has attracted substantial media attention months before the film's August release.

Film-making is already a highly collaborative endeavour. But "crowdsourcing" to the online masses, a term recently coined by Wired magazine, offers film-makers the opportunity to outsource anything from funding to distribution. Snakes on a Plane inadvertently stepped into this online energy field, but others have been alert to it for some time.

Robert Greenwald's US production company, Brave New Films, solicits donations from fans to create documentaries that might otherwise go unmade, such as Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's war on journalism and Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price. Donors get their names in the credits, and enthusiasts apply to host screenings in their home town, bypassing the major studios that have historically had a monopoly on film distribution. It is a powerful model, especially in the context of US media hegemony.

But could this method work for a feature film? Despite its parallel life online, Snakes on a Plane remains the property of the Hollywood establishment. Yet the UK experiment A Swarm of Angels is embracing and extending Greenwald's model to produce the world's first truly collaborative film. Aiming to solicit £1m in £25 donations to make a cult movie, "because we are tired of films that are made simply to please film executives and sell popcorn", Swarm will give the first thousand donors (or "angels") the opportunity to make a creative input. They will use the same format as the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia to create scripts, with regular votes on the project's direction.

The notion of a film designed by a 1,000-strong committee sounds like every director's worst nightmare. But the point is the means, not the end. Whether A Swarm of Angels produces a blockbuster or a flop, it will have achieved its end if the process works. And whatever the result, surely it can't be as ridiculous as Snakes on a Plane.