Joanna Miles thought she might get a breather.
It was the summer of 2012, and a massive marketing effort had just turned the young-adult novel The Hunger Games into a hugely successful theatrical release that made hundreds of millions. The DVD was coming out. But for the vice-president of marketing at Entertainment One Group, the Canadian distributor of the film, the work was far from over.
Still 15 months away from the release of the Hunger Games sequel, the advertising plan for Catching Fire was already being put in motion.
This is how you build a film juggernaut.
“It started all over again,” Miles said. As the person in charge of selling the film to Canadian audiences, she was communicating constantly with the studio, Lions Gate, about its plans, which included a massive social-media effort and 26 movie posters to be teased out on sites such as Tumblr and Instagram. Simply promoting the movie would not be enough. To keep the juggernaut moving from the first movie to the second, the global marketing team had to work to keep up the excitement in a slow burn that would build over more than a year. “It has been continuously in market – not always top of mind, but it’s definitely been percolating.”
While in the past the word “blockbuster” may have evoked shoot-’em-up Die Hard-style action offerings or sci-fi epics such as Star Wars, often largely targeted at men, the last decade has seen the rise of mega-hits based on the previously underestimated genre of Young Adult (YA) literature. Since 2001, the Harry Potter and Twilight series have made billions at the box office, and now the Hunger Games extravaganza seems poised to join their ranks. Big-money film marketing behind massive franchises is nothing new, but films based on young-adult fiction have a much different kind of potential. The perfect franchise looks for an audience that can grow with it, as the Harry Potter fans did, becoming a self-perpetuating profit machine – and when done well, it sells to a broader viewership with scenarios that seem like kids’ stuff but cut much deeper, and do not shy away from dark plotlines.
Part of the appeal of films like these is the way they use fantastic, invented worlds to tap into the transitions young people go through in their everyday lives. Their protagonists often have lost one or both parents – a handy symbol for the way young people pull away from family on their way to independence and adulthood – and are finding their way in the face of real, grave situations. They often challenge authority. These themes all resonate in The Hunger Games: Katniss Everdeen lives in a totalitarian society where the leaders in the Capitol maintain their subjugation over a near-starving populace in 12 districts. They do this with an annual fight to the death among young “tributes” from those areas. When her younger sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place, and begins a saga that will lead her into conflict with those authorities starting in the second movie.
The big a-ha moment for film execs like Miles was when they saw that it was not just young girls coming to cheer Katniss on. The sci-fi themes, they found, drew men as well, and adult women who had been drawn into the books. That range of viewers is a big deal for marketers – and it means the way the film is advertised has to be wide-ranging as the franchise grows.
“This one is bigger than anything else,” Miles said of the marketing plan for the sequel. “There’s much more creative to work with.”
Not content with slapping the movie logo on a bag of chips, the studio has instead taken the approach of bringing its fictional world to integrate with real-life brands.