…And Your Next Franchise Is…

…a movie based on a book you may not have read yet and might not be aware of if not for rags like Entertainment Weekly enthusiastically jamming the upcoming film adaptation down your damn throat at every opportunity.

I’m not bitter, really. Color me more perplexed. If you ask EW— or any other major media outlet, so as not to throw one publication under the bus– The Hunger Games seems like the natural candidate to hold the crown of “next big, universally popular franchise” now that the Harry Potter saga has come to a close and the thoroughly turgid, insipid Twilight films are winding down to their last two entries. Confronting this with honesty, there’s really no room for surprise that the search for the next big series has begun; the Hollywood hype machine never sleeps, after all, and when it can it likes to get a leg up on generating buzz. So in that respect, I’m totally on-board with the reasons for the unrelenting coverage and pushing of the 2012 movie. I get it. No sweat.

But I’m confused– very confused– regarding the approach Lionsgate has taken to promoting the film. If Hunger Games had an iconic, classic status forever cementing it in over-arching literary canon, or the same watershed cross-cultural popularity enjoyed by the aforementioned Potter books, then the context-lacking and, frankly, inert promotional campaign would make some sense. Images like the one below would come packaged with inherent context; it’s not just a shot of Josh Hutcherson elbow-deep in baking flour (something that’s bereft of any sort of meaning for people like me who haven’t read the book), it’s a shot of his character in a particular point in the narrative. To someone who’s read Suzanne Collins’ novel, that image signifies something. To the rest of us, it’s bupkiss.

I can’t get excited about this, and I can’t understand why anyone might consider this a reasonable teaser shot designed to generate interest in the film. To me, this and almost every single other preview image released to this date just boils down to actors standing around in their costumes– which is fine for Jennifer Lawrence, who happens to have a prop (a bow and a quiver of arrows) that adds some kind of context to at least some the promo material in which she features.

Of course, as much as the marketing and promo tactics on display leave me cold and baffled, their employment doesn’t constitute the primary thrust of my point here. More than anything, I’m curious as to what makes the media-at-large think that this franchise should be or even will be the Big One, the next major draw to replace the gaping holes left in cinema hierarchy by the departure of Potter and– soon enough– Twilight from theatrical rotation. What does a young adult novel speak to in popular public consciousness that makes The Hunger Games into the media’s race horse? Why is this the franchise we should all be excited over?

Take the Lord of the Rings series as an example. One could very easily look at 2001 through a discerning lens and conclude that Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring became a box office monster in part due to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. While the Tolkien faithful needed no convincing at the time, myself included, those on the other side of the fence with little knowledge of the books did. What got them into the theaters to watch one of the best genre epics of all time? The conflict at the film’s heart– the themes of good versus evil, of a peaceful ideal world coming under siege by an unrelenting and unfathomable evil– must have struck a chord with many in the wake of the destruction wrought that day. And so the Lord of the Rings franchise became one with crossover appeal, something that fans of the iconic literary works would flock to by default but that the less-familiar mainstream could also relate to.

I’m not saying that The Hunger Games requires a national or worldwide tragedy to become palatable. Rather I’m suggesting that there must be something about the material that has both the studio and media outlets alike convinced that they have a winner on their hands. I’m already giving both parties far too much credit, since the motivation comes down to the bottom line, guaranteed– at a $75 million studio budget (which admittedly says nothing about what the advertising budget could be), and boasting a cast of pretty young actors with respectable visibility, this is probably a pretty secure gamble for all involved (though similar young adult fare– e.g. D.J. Caruso’s I Am Number Four— hasn’t even been able to break even at home*). But the analytical side of me can’t help asking: Why The Hunger Games? Why now?

The narrative concerns a dystopian vision of America’s future in which the country is segregated into twelve districts, which house the impoverished masses, and the Capitol, where the wealthy indulge themselves and ignore the plaintive suffering of the district populations. While I’m generally not one to talk straight-up politics (with some notable exceptions), I think America’s experiencing a political and social climate that’s heavily defined by division (or perceived divisions), and arguably has been for a while; from the “you’re one of us or you’re one of them/you’re with us or you’re against us” mob mentality that spawned in the wake of 9/11 to the culture war between “real” Americans and, ostensibly, “fake” ones, Americans have been isolating themselves from one another based on ideology for years. If The Hunger Games speaks to anything, it’s that sense of division, though admittedly the novel’s dividing lines are not self-imposed (and I would argue that the opposite is true in America today).

Moreover, the book’s central conceit– in which the minority upper class lives the sort of high life only dreamed of by those outside of the Capitol, who barely scrape by living day to day– speaks to both liberal and conservative perspectives on sociological issues pertaining to the allotment of wealth in America and also to the stature and role of government in American society. The left-wing perspective, for example, might revolve around the disproportionate quality of living enjoyed by the minority upper class versus the majority of the population, as well as the distribution of wealth.

Does this mean that American audiences, with hot-topic political issues fresh in their minds, will flock to see The Hunger Games in theaters? I have no idea whatsoever. But if they do, then subtext– whether viewers acknowledge it or not– could play a big role in selling tickets. Then again, I may be projecting myself too much onto the average moviegoer, who doesn’t really care about what a film says to them below the surface and really just wants to shut their brain off for a little while** and ignore the world. And I grant that I’m assuming far too much about how well-informed most people are, as well. Nonetheless, I feel very much compelled to understand the massive emphasis being placed on the film’s impending release; do executives and marketers really feel confident that they have a hit on their hands, or is there something intangible and more substantive driving the push behind Gary Ross’ third directorial feature?

Bonus round question: What if Hunger Games doesn’t turn out to be legit and audiences don’t turn out in droves to watch the first chapter in the saga of sixteen-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, whose turn in Winter’s Bone could provide a foundation for the character) as she participates in the Battle Royale-esque game of the title. What franchise could spring up to become the new dominating force in serial cinema?

*Not to mention that their releases both fall in the same season.

**In which case I recommend alcohol; it’s cheaper and it’s more effective. Win win.

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10 thoughts on “…And Your Next Franchise Is…

  1. I mean, I’M going. But that’s not saying much. LOL.

    You’re exactly right. I haven’t read the books either. And unlike Potter (Which people were trying to shove books down my throat) and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which is getting great buzz from people as a book) I dont know anyone who’s a big fan.

    Is it an age thing? Are these teen books? I’m at a loss too. I’m glad you mention this… maybe one of your readers can enlighten us as to what the big deal is.

    Because the official promo campaign sure as hell hasn’t.

    • I’m going. My wife wants to see it– she likes the book, which means I’ll probably be reading it soon enough myself. And I like Lawrence and Hutcherson, so there’s that too.

      They are indeed “young adult” books, much like Twilight is allegedly (though that clearly appeals to the “romance novel” demographic too). I don’t know anyone outside of, again, my wife who’s really into them, but that’s enough to get me interested even if it’s not enough to make me think that these films will be the next big franchise thing.

  2. Well Gary Ross did come out and basically apologize for the shitty teaser by saying they barely started production. I totally get what you are saying but at this point, the movie is still some ways away and Lionsgate has plenty of time to market this a few months before it releases. At this point, I will assume, they just want to create some buzz with the people who should be the die-hard fans, those who have read the books.

    If people don’t turn out, no big deal. Lionsgate will go under.

    • It’s not just the teaser, though, and it’s not so much that Lionsgate is releasing promo material as much as the promo material tells me nothing about the story. It’s a dude baking bread! It’s two dudes in plain clothes! Jennifer Lawrence with a bow and arrow! Admittedly that one got my attention, but marketing for a film like this should be more about giving people who need to be convinced some context and a reason to be intrigued. If they want to create buzz for those unfamiliar, a shot of the Hutch taking a bake break isn’t really the way to go. Why should that sell me?

      I’m assuming better stuff will get released between now and opening night, of course, but I don’t get what makes EW‘s approach to these promo images less weird. “EXCLUSIVE HUNGER GAMES IMAGES!” kind of tells me I need to see this stuff, but it’s not stuff worth seeing. They’re way overselling these snapshots, and it’s really bizarre.

  3. I agree about the marketing campaign starting off pretty weak here. I hadn’t heard of the book until I started hearing about the movie, and in practical terms, I still haven’t. I don’t know who any of the characters are, what the general gist of the plot is, or why somebody dressed in apparently modern clothing looks like she’s about to go to battle with a bow. It’s a little hard to get my sense of excitement going on what’s been shown; confusion, yes, but not excitement.

    When The Lord of the Rings first started getting advertised, though, it was a whole different scenario. Granted, I think most people are at least tangentially aware of the existence of the books, but still, I don’t think most people actually read them. But it didn’t seem to matter. When the first trailer hit, along with the news that they were filming the entire trilogy at once, I talked about it with a friend of mine. This friend hadn’t read the books. Come to think of it, I’m not sure this friend had ever read a book, period. But he was amped up, absolutely excited about these movies. He thought the trilogy had the potential to be this generation’s Star Wars.

    That’s what promotional material needs to do. LOTR and Harry Potter and, regrettably, Twilight have shown Hollywood that fantasy films can bring in an audience, in a way that was seldom achieved before. (What are the big pre-2001 fantasy films? Arguably, they’re all from the 1980s, and were only modest hits and cult classics.) But if they don’t convince the audience that they have to see the movie, then they’ve just sunk a very large budget into something that nobody is going to see.

    • Good thoughts all, Morgan. I definitely think that The Hunger Games‘ marketing isn’t saying enough at this point, and while there’s plenty of time left to advertise it– especially with the holiday season looming ahead, providing ample opportunity to showcase a trailer before the big-ticket releases– it seems like they kind of dropped the ball in terms of getting word out now. Maybe they meant for the preview material to be aimed more at fans of the novel, but they need to reach people who aren’t fans.

      I think LotR managed to do that very well, since I tend to think that the books are kind of on the fringe in the minds of most as opposed to celebrated or even acknowledged/respected cultural icons. Something about the marketing really struck a chord with a lot of people, but it may just be that the novels are more recognized than I realize outside of literary folks and fantasy enthusiasts.

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