What Separates The Mortal Instruments, Divergent from Harry Potter (lol) Twilight, The Hunger Games?
“It’s about a boy who goes to a boarding school for wizards.”
”It’s about a high school girl who falls for a vampire.”
”It’s about poor kids forced to kill each other in a game show to entertain the wealthy.”
I’ve just given you one-sentence explanations of the basic plot lines for three of the biggest fantasy film franchises of the last 12 years. Here’s another one: “It’s set in a future world where people are divided into distinct factions based on their personalities.” Need more? ”Tris Prior is warned she is Divergent and will never fit into any one group. When she discovers a conspiracy to destroy all Divergents, she must find out what makes being Divergent so dangerous before it’s too late.”
From a marketing standpoint, what separates the plot of The Hunger Games from Divergent? I don’t have to use up an entire paragraph explaining The Hunger Games. The same goes for next week’s City of Bones: The Mortal Instruments. I’ll have to use another paragraph to explain that one too. When it comes to marketing new young-adult fantasy literature properties, simplicity is key.
I hope that Lionsgate’s Divergent is a big hit when it comes out on March 21, 2014 in glorious 2D IMAX. I’ve long argued that young-adult literary adaptations could well-be the female-skewing blockbuster alternative to the boy-centric superhero films that dominate multiplexes. Plus, Shailene Woodley deserves some karmic payback over the whole Amazing Spider-Man situation. But what we see in the would-be ‘nextHunger Games‘ or ‘next-Twilight Saga‘ is a series of fantasy pictures that don’t necessarily lend themselves to simple summaries. While I would never demand simple or uncomplicated narratives in fantasy franchises, you do need either a simple explanation of what happens or a simple reason to relate to the fantastical story being offered. A great trailer can also sell a tone that wins people over without spelling out the narrative which we pay $10 to see onscreen. When you’re deciding whether or not to play a game, are you more focused on the rules of the game, or whether the game looks fun to play?
Next week’s City of Bones: The Mortal Instruments (also in glorious 2D IMAX) stars Lily Collins as a young woman who discovers that she’s a Shadowhunter. Now what is a Shadowhunter? Well, they are “a secret cadre of young half-angel warriors locked in an ancient battle to protect our world from demons”. But there’s more, because there is also “a dangerous alternate New York called Downworld, filled with demons, warlocks, vampires, werewolves and other deadly creatures”. Again, I like those involved with the picture and I want it to succeed, but the marketing thus far has had to spend most of its time explaining the introductory set-up (via the always welcome Jared Harris as the wise “Elder of Exposition”) rather than teasing the actual adventure being offered or offering character beats that might make me want to spend time with these people. The imagery looks fine, but what we’re being sold is less a first chapter than a glorified prologue to a franchise that may never make it past part one.
While it was a lousy movie, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief told a similar story and was able to coral a $40 million four-day debut over President’s Day 2010. The Fox release used its marketing merely to show off the various big stars it had collared for glorified cameos, an advantage that City of Bones doesn’t have. It also had a teaser attached to every print of Avatar two months prior to its release, but we’ll see if Lionsgate has the patience to pull the same trick for Divergent by holding the first trailer untilThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Percy Jackson had big stars like Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, and Uma Thurman, which allowed it to only toss out its core premise (a boy discovers that he is a son of Greek Gods and must go on an adventure) and use fleeting cameos to sell the rest. Even with young-adult fantasies, star power can help, which the mostly forgotten “young man discovers he’s special” fantasy flop The Dark Is Rising didn’t have either. It also spent most of its marketing spelling out the rules of the game.
I happen to adore last Spring’s box office flop Beautiful Creatures, finding it to be a smart, charming, and occasionally hilarious bit of southern gothic romance. But other than perhaps explaining it as a reverse-gender variation on Twilight, I couldn’t sum up the hook without detailing much of the story, which is of course what the trailers had to do. The film, whose biggest stars were Jeremy Irons and Viola Davis, went out of the way to explain that its magical Southern belles were not witches, costing the film the easy marketing hook of ‘a young man in the Bible Belt falls in love with a witch’. Instead the marketing spent most of its time explaining the nature of the heroine’s curse, the arbitrary nature of her powers, and the core third act conflict. The film was marketed with an emphasis on the rules of the game rather than the quirky characters who were playing.It was a much better film than the trailers suggested, which is an issue since the trailers are what make people buy their ticket on opening weekend.
This isn’t just a problem with the likes of Beautiful Creaturesor The Host (another fantasy film that spent its marketing campaign explaining its premise), but also comic book films such as Green Lantern. If you recall, Warner Bros. felt to need to spend most of its marketing campaign explaining the rules of the Green Lantern universe and not nearly enough time showing audiences why they would want to see Hal Jordan‘s journey or what fantastic imagery they would witness. If you recall, first Harry Potter teaser was a nearly-wordless preview which briefly set up Harry’s journey to Hogwarts and then spent the rest of the preview showing off wonderful sights and introducing supporting characters. The Hunger Games merely had to establish poor kids being plucked from home to kill each other in contests, so simple a premise that the entire marketing campaign was able to fill itself with context and worthwhile imagery without even hinting at the third act.
Now to be fair, this arguably has much to do with the fact that many of the would-be Twilight/Harry Potter knock-offs revolve around the discovery that the hero/heroine is a figurative or literal ‘chosen one’, meaning that the marketing must jump through hoops explaining why they are special. Now Harry Potter may have been a chosen one and Bella Swann may have been destined to be with Edward Cullen, but those revelations were held off until the later chapters, meaning that the initial films (and initial marketing campaigns) could focus on who these characters were and what kind of world they inhabited. Remember, in the beginning, Lost was just about a group of plane crash survivors stuck on a mysterious island and The X-Files was just about two FBI agents who chased ghosts and UFOs.
In today’s fantasy market, Star Wars wouldn’t have been sold as a story about a farm boy who goes into space to rescue a princess, but about a young man named Luke who discovers that he is actually a Jedi, one of a nearly-extinct breed of intergalactic warriors who once flew around the galaxy enforcing peace and justice. Only once he embraces his destiny and learns to master “The Force” (insert long-winded explanation of what “The Force” is) will he be prepared to fly to the mysterious planet of Alderaan and rescue Princess Lea. Oh, and his long-dead father was actually the Chosen One, a Jedi who it was thought would bring balance to the Force before he became corrupted by power and died at the hand of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“No one can be told what the Matrix is. They have to see it for themselves.” The Matrix‘s marketing campaign had the right idea. They used the complicated world-building to their advantage, teasing its revelations and ‘chosen one’ narrative as something that had to be seen via a purchased ticket while merely filling the screen with amazing sights. I would argue that should be the template for marketing fantasy films. If you have a simple hook, great, more power to you. But if you don’t, if your fantastic story requires copious explanation, try to let the film itself do the expository lifting for you. The Lord of the Rings trilogy successfully sold itself to the masses by establishing only the basic conflict (evil ring must be tossed into a mountain) and then focused on the adventure and large-scale fantasy thrills in store. You’re selling a movie, not a rule book on the fantasy world in question.
We’ll see in the coming months if any of the upcoming young-adult fantasy literature adaptations can hit the sweet spot in a way that the likes of Beautiful Creatures or The Host (or the various pre-Twilight/post-Harry Potter wannabees like The Dark Is Rising) could not. I’m rooting for all of these films on principle and will happily eat crow if they debunk my theories above, as their success would bring a certain gender parity to the blockbuster sandbox, and they are cheap enough (The Host, Beautiful Creatures, and City of Bones all cost over/under $60 million while Divergent cost $80 million) to not have to break records in order to make money. But I see a bumpy road ahead due to not just the intricate nature of the mythologies that these films are offering but also the need to explicitly spell out the world-building right there in the marketing. Like any big film, you need an advantage, be it star power or a simple hook to rope general audiences in to sit alongside the rabid fan base on opening weekend.
Don’t sell the rules of the game, but rather sell why the moviegoer would want to play. If City of Bones or Divergent don’t become big fantasy hits, their overly complicated introductory world-building may be one reason why. But we’ll see, and I’m hoping I’m wrong.
TL;DR: don't be surprised if this shit and Divergent end up flopping.
Still it's an interesting, if somewhat shallow examination on why a lot of YA franchises are stillborn and the poor marketing campaigns of some mid 2000s adaptations tbh.