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Saturday, April 7, 2012

How The Hunger Games Got Marketing Right

I saw The Hunger Games on opening night and I bought my ticket a month in advance.

This is the only “young adult book franchise that became a huge movie franchise” I’ve indulged in. I actively dislike Twilight and have no opinion on Harry Potter (other than thinking it’s very cool that J.K. Rowling was on the dole, writing in longhand, at first and is now a many-times-over millionaire) – I just never got into it. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series  and saw the American movie but that’s very much geared toward adults. But friends recommended The Hunger Games and we feel similarly about Twilight and Harry Potter, so I decided to give it a shot. I read the first book in one sitting. (I’m a fast reader.) I took two days each to read the second and third. When I found out Jennifer Lawrence was to play Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the series, I was even more on board – her performance in Winter’s Bone was brilliant, and she’s on my “one to watch” list. (If I’d had my way, that movie would have won the Oscar, but I’m not in the Academy.)

It made $152.5M its opening weekend, the third-highest debut of all time, behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows 2 and The Dark Knight. And both of these are established brands – the former is the eighth installment in the Harry Potter franchise, so of course it had built a lot of goodwill among fans, and the latter, while a stand-alone movie, has the benefit of decades of Batman brand-building. The Hunger Games is a new brand (the book came out in 2008).

The movie would have been a success anyway, I think. People love the books, and they have the added benefit of appealing to adults and men in particular, which Twilight lacks. Nearly 10 million copies were in print when buzz for the movie began (a figure that has since doubled, so the movie is increasing book sales, which is to be expected). But I think the marketing for this was stellar. The movie had a $45M marketing budget, which is about half the size of a larger studio’s budget for a blockbuster. The campaign began in the spring of 2009, starting with tidbits about casting that were released via Facebook. The campaign was very internet-heavy (although it did use print – it seems like every popular magazine had a special Hunger Games edition – and outdoor ads and sweepstakes), which is to be expected in the 2012 landscape – but the trick with the web is that you’re actually trying to get your audience to convince more of your audience to see your movie. And it worked.

The other potential issue with this franchise is that while adults love it, it’s intended for kids. The movies are violent, but they simply must have PG-13 ratings, otherwise the franchise shoots itself in the foot by alienating its target audience. (There's no sex or swearing, which helps because all the objectionable content is reserved for violence.) And the subject matter is very bleak – kids killing kids, people regularly starving to death due to the rigid, brutal rule of the Capitol – and Lion’s Gate had to figure out a way to market this very bleak material to tweens and teens.  And they simply left it out. There’s no mention of the games themselves. The posters of the kids, all but (spoiler!) two of whom are going die, many of whom are going to die violently, just show them in profile shots, not in combat. A cop-out tagline would have been “Let the Games Begin”; that tagline was straight-up banned from the campaign. Everyone knows the plot of the books because it's so controversial (conversely, I think this is what doomed John Carter - I have no idea what that movie was about based on the trailers, so the marketing needed to explain it), so the studio didn't need to focus too intently on explaining it. 

Fans got their first sneak peek of the movie on in August, and it included a Twitter feed that directed people to the Capitol’s website , which allows visitors to create Capitol ID tags (and as of this writing, also allows them to purchase tickets and read reviews). The internet allows both instant gratification and a long-term strategy – you can parcel out information piece by piece, and in doing so you give people one more thing to look forward to. (I've read that there was a very detailed, day-to-day marketing calendar in use.) It’ll go on until the DVD comes out and then start anew for Catching Fire, the second installment in the franchise due in theaters in November 2013.

This is hugely effective. At the theater at which I saw the movie, it was an event. People - adults! - were wearing costumes. My viewing partner and I got there 45 minutes early, tickets in hand, and still had to wait in a long line just to get into the theater. My Facebook feed was abuzz with people talking about when they planned to see the movie, what they thought of the movie, how they'd changed their minds about casting decisions. I'm almost as excited to see how Lion's Gate handles the marketing for Catching Fire as I am to see the movie itself. (The violence in that one involves adults as well as kids, so I'll be curious to see if they allow violent imagery into their campaign.) It was crisply executed and creative at the same time - something to aspire to.

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