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.
Fashion and beauty brands have been a particularly good fit for this, both because of their ability to draw on the style of the movie and also because they appeal to teens and grown women alike. For Catching Fire, for instance, online retailer Net-a-Porter is launching a clothing line inspired by the movie and made by its costume designer, while Cover Girl has created a line of makeup and nail art inspired by the film – including 12 looks tailored to each of the districts found in the fictional society. Its "Capitol Collection" hit store shelves on Oct. 1. While the beauty brand has done product placement in the past, it is the first time it has partnered in such depth to market looks around a film, said Diana Nguyen, communications manager for Cover Girl at Procter & Gamble in Canada.
Lions Gate also created an online fashion magazine called Capitol Couture that is entirely fictional – a publication made for the society of Panem in which The Hunger Games is set, featuring 3-D-printed dresses made-to-measure by bots, and a profile of Katniss that mimics the style of a real fashion rag. By owning its own magazine, Lions Gate was able to promote not just a fantastical fashion world but also partnerships with real designers for makeup and clothing that can be purchased.
In other words, brands that wanted in on the campaign had to be willing to join the fantasy.
"They wanted storytellers," said Katrina Markoff, founder of Vosges Chocolate, of her discussions with Lions Gate to co-market a line of Hunger Games chocolates. "They wanted someone who was going to do more than slap a logo or a photo on a package they already have. They wanted someone who would craft something new and tell a deeper story." That's how Markoff's brand of artisanal, high-end chocolate landed their first movie partnership.
Vosges devised chocolates inspired by both the districts and the characters (the Katniss bar includes apples, hickory-smoked bacon and alderwood sea salt). Her mass-market brand, Wild Ophelia, has the district bars – sold in stores such as Walgreen's, they are more widely popular (and feasible for younger fans to buy). The Vosges brand is more high-end, to sell to adult fans: Markoff has even produced a limited-run Capitol truffle collection – an 18-course chocolate "experience" paired with cocktails and teas, all imagined to mirror the kind of dessert that might be featured at a party in the extravagant Capitol of the films.
What all of this boils down to is a potential new model for product integration spurred on by these young-adult franchises, said Max Valiquette, managing director of strategy at Toronto advertising agency Bensimon Byrne, who specializes in marketing to younger consumers in new media.
"A lot of these books have a world that is not our own at all, so actually taking real-world products and integrating them into these films is a problem. So you have to find a way to bring that world to you," he said.
"Product placement is the easiest way to do product integration, but it's also the least interesting way," Valiquette added. "This is a much more interesting angle for marketers."
And it's exactly the right way to approach a young, digitally-savvy consumer. As more eyeballs migrate online, advertisers respond with marketing that feels more like entertainment – the kind of ads people won't mind watching. That shift is especially important for building an entertainment franchise – and it is what Lions Gate achieved by extending its fictional world beyond the film itself.
Lions Gate CEO Jon Feltheimer has said the company expects Catching Fire to "significantly outperform" the first movie in international box-office numbers. The Hollywood Reporter has forecast that Catching Fire could earn $175-million (U.S.) in its North American debut this weekend, which would put it second only to The Avengers's $207.4-million in its first three days in theatres.
By the time the profits are being counted, the marketers will already be working on the push for the third instalment in the series.
The irony, of course, is that all those sumptuous fashions and truffles fit for a futuristic Versailles evoke the films' villains, not its heroes. The Capitol's riches are relegated to the 0.001 per cent in that fictional world. What is being sold to consumers in our world diverges somewhat from the revolutionary message at the heart of the story.
It is all part of making viewers buy into the next blockbuster franchise. But Katniss herself likely would not buy it.
HOW THE YOUNG-ADULT MOVIE JUGGERNAUTS STACK UP
Worldwide box-office numbers (all U.S. dollars)*:
The Harry Potter franchise:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (released Nov. 16, 2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Nov. 15, 2002)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (June 4, 2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Nov. 18, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (July 11, 2007)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (July 15, 2009)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 1 (Nov. 19, 2010)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 (July 15, 2011)
The Twilight franchise:
Twilight (released Nov. 21, 2008)
Twilight: New Moon (released Nov. 20, 2009)
Twilight: Eclipse (released June 30, 2010)
Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (released Nov. 18, 2011)
Breaking Dawn Part 2 (released Nov. 16, 2012)
The Hunger Games franchise (so far):
The Hunger Games (March 23, 2012)
THE ALSO-RANS: YOUNG-ADULT MOVIES THAT WERE SUPPOSED TO BE HUGE, BUT WEREN'T QUITE
Not bad, but not huge: Percy Jackson
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Feb. 12, 2010)
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (Aug. 7, 2013)
Less than expected: The Mortal Instruments
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (Aug. 21, 2013)
Lowered expectations: Ender's Game
Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. may have struck gold with its Twilight and Hunger Game franchises, but creating such success is not easy. Its new film Ender's Game, a science-fiction epic which opened earlier this month, is not expected to match up to those successes. It shares many of the elements of other young-adult epics – specifically the plot of a young hero forced to fight grown-up battles: It is based on a futuristic novel about children who are brought up playing war games. A particularly talented player, Ender Wiggin, must aid in the fight against aliens who are attacking Earth. But it is being released at a competitive time, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire out this week and Thor: The Dark World performing well. Conversation about the film on social media, a key element for building anticipation among a younger demographic, has been weak. And a gay-rights group started calls to boycott the film over stated opposition to the legalization of gay marriage by the book's author, Orson Scott Card. Bloomberg reported that Lions Gate has sold foreign rights to the film, a move meant to protect the studio from losses. A $28-million opening weekend in the U.S. – not disastrous, but not as successful as hoped – has led analysts to predict that a sequel, and another big franchise for the studio, will not follow.
* Source: boxofficemojo.com