Some of the last decade’s biggest entertainment success stories have been drawn from the Young Adult publishing market. These franchises are aimed squarely at female fans, an underserved but lucrative demographic in film, which tends to look for four-quadrant (all ages, all genders) or males 18-24 as a sweet spot.
While considered a niche market for films, publishing houses rely on the YA female reader. The successes of Twilight and The Hunger Games have begun to open film industry leaders’ eyes to the potential of the female market. Because these novels for young women have found an audience with older readers as well, many similar book series have been put into production in Hollywood during the quest for the next big franchise.
The most recent book-to-film adaptation to hit the screens was Beautiful Creatures, which premiered February 15, 2013, and earned $7.5 million in its opening weekend. The movie placed sixth on its most crucial income earning weekend behind: A Good Day to Die Hard, Safe Haven, Identity Thief Escape from Planet Earth, and Warm Bodies.
Twilight opened at, $69.6 Million, The Hunger Games opened at $152.5 Million. Beautiful Creatures doesn’t even start to compete with those numbers. The film’s performance is more reminiscent of The Golden Compass another YA novel-based franchise false start that failed to recoup its costs.
The original material for Beautiful Creatures had the same potential as these successful franchise adaptations. All three depicted teens, romantic entanglements and fantasy action. What made The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games adaptations hits while Beautiful Creatures failed to launch?
While Twilight’s fandom was self-organized, it was extremely vibrant, growing organically without hindrance from Summit Entertainment. All the studio had to do was maintain a feed of quality images, news releases and appearances by the films’ casts. A slough of press interest and the momentum of being a huge, recognized phenomenon encouraged it.
Twilight fandom became the story for film marketing; Summit simply amplified their efforts by giving them places and times to do so.
While Beautiful Creatures’ fan base from the book series helped bolster the social media numbers — — those numbers didn’t translate to box office nearly as much as hoped. Both Twilight and The Hunger Games built on an active, ravenous fan base, and then reached out smartly beyond those fans to validate and increase their numbers.
Behind the scenes content will no longer satisfy the contemporary audiences’ need to explore the narrative story world of a property. It is the characters and fabric of the fiction that is of interest to this audience, far less so the actors or director.
What is compelling about the many extensions of The Hunger Games is not just that they are reaching out to fans, but that they match the tone and the essence of the story world. The Hunger Games is not just about a dystopian death-match; it is about a bizarre, colorful authoritarian world, celebrity, and public perception. Summit’s campaign was and continues to be a tonal fit that brings the books to vibrant life and successfully expands the films’ story world, while directly engaging and involving the target market. What’s more, they are readily adaptable and expandable to the subject matter, imagery and iconography of the forthcoming sequels.
By focusing on the wider story world — giving fans a chance to explore — The Hunger Games showed that it was more than just another love triangle and found a male audience in the process.
Beautiful Creatures has several strong female characters, but the point of view character is male, would a wider audience have been enticed if they learned more about his journey early on? Would male viewers have shown up if they’d been given an opportunity to see him beyond the romance and hoop skirts? Had they been given the chance to explore the rich historical past of the world in new ways, would they have purchased more tickets?
Building a foundation for a long running entertainment franchise requires techniques such as transmedia storytelling that expand narratives successfully across multiple media platforms, so that fans can dive deeper into the world in ways that feel authentic. It’s becoming clear that if the campaign is superficial, even ardent fans will flip to something else that will hold their interest — and there are a growing number of alternatives. In future installments of this column, I will talk about different ways these techniques are being successfully applied.
Hollywood has a number of YA novel-based slated for release in 2013 (Mortal Instruments, The Host) green lit at the apex of fan clamor for Twilight and The Hunger Games. What can be done to help these projects meet better fates?
- Understand the Core Themes and Essence of a story world, not just how to jam the plot into a screenplay.
The Hunger Games brought fans into the world of Panem, but the world of Panem is also one where perception, communication and the building of movements are strong themes. This fit was essential to fans participation and continued enjoyment.
- Reach Out to the Audience and play, listening to Fans and validating their experiences, early, often and everywhere.
Let them have a piece of the world to play in, to explore and own, not just consume. Twilight and Harry Potter grew their fan bases through fan fiction, The Hunger Games gave people a dynamic portal into which fans can enter the story world through any screen or device. Beautiful Creatures and The Golden Compass didn’t give fans the opportunity to play in their worlds (or even teach potential fans much about them), and so, couldn’t find ways to translate potential interest into action at the box office.
- Transmedia Narrative Extensions give fans opportunities to explore the world they already love, and newcomers’ ways to fall in love with the story.
While fan fiction and fan meet-ups do some good, they pale in comparison to the sort of rich, repeatable engagement that narrative extensions can create. Nor do fan fiction and meet-ups yield the kind of sustaining income over time that well made, relevant and thematically authentic games, novellas and web experiences can bring to sustain a franchise’s business.
Nothing spreads quite like a good story — from person to person — or outwardly and organically as creative minds explore new elements of a story world. In the age of pervasive media, it seems short sighted to expect that a franchise would hold people’s attention for years without any new ways to experience it.
Caitlin Burns is a Transmedia Producer with Starlight Runner Entertainment and has worked on properties ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean for The Walt Disney Company and James Cameron’s Avatar, to Halo for Microsoft and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nickelodeon. She is a Board Member of the Producer’s Guild of America’s New Media Council and an Advisor to the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund. Find her on Twitter: @Caitlin_Burns
Special thanks to Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment: @Jeff_Gomez for his editorial input into this piece.