For the producers behind "The Hunger Games," a movie based on a young-adult novel about a teenage girl fighting for survival and struggling with a love triangle, the guys matter.
The movie doesn't open until March 23, but soothsayers are already predicting an opening-weekend gross in excess of $100 million. Barclays Capital estimates that the movie will generate $275 million domestically, on par with the most recent installment of the "Twilight" series. The studio, Lionsgate, is hoping to launch a multibillion-dollar franchise. Expectations have already sent its stock price soaring.
To avoid falling short of such lofty predictions, Lionsgate has been picking its way through a minefield of gender issues: reeling in male moviegoers without alienating core female fans. But male audiences, long the driver of blockbuster openings, have proved increasingly fickle as they divide their attention with videogames and other diversions.
Set in a dystopian future, "The Hunger Games" centers on Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who is called upon to fight 23 other teens to the death in a twisted annual survival competition that is televised to the nation of Panem. The quick pace, strong characters and blood sport of author Suzanne Collins's trilogy helped attract a robust male readership.
From the start, the books were aimed at a crossover audience. The publisher, Scholastic, considered dozens of cover designs, including portraits of Katniss, before settling on a more "iconic" image of a bird pendant that plays a role in the story, said Rachel Coun, Scholastic's executive director of marketing. When the book was first released, young male readers were targeted with a promotional videogame online. A viral campaign to get fans to become "citizens" of Panem drew a surprisingly large number of males, says producer Alli Shearmur.
"We always saw this as a four-quadrant movie," says Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns, meaning that the film would appeal to boys and men, girls and women. "We never thought this was going to be 'Twilight,' " the vampire-romance franchise produced by Summit Entertainment, which Lionsgate acquired in January.
Still, some guys could be turned off by the perception that female cult fandom has sprung up around the movie, reinforced by the boisterous crowds—predominately girls—that have gathered at malls where "Hunger Games" cast members have appeared on a promotional tour. The mall strategy is pure "Twilight."
After a "Hunger Games" trailer was posted on YouTube, one commenter wrote: "Please I beg you don't turn this into another 'Twilight.' It will be very hard, as a male fan, to walk into a theater without getting embarrassed if there are 13-year-old girls yelling 'Team Peeta!' or 'Team Gale!' " (Peeta and Gale are the two male characters that circle Katniss.) On Thursday, Summit announced plans to debut its first trailer for the next "Twilight" movie, "Breaking Dawn - Part 2," on screens showing "Hunger Games."
According to a recent tracking report, 73% of young women surveyed had definite interest in seeing the movie, a "staggering" figure on its own, according to a former studio executive. But male interest could boost the box office for "The Hunger Games" exponentially, with 48% of young men saying they're definitely interested in seeing the movie. The movie has sold more advance seats than any film in online ticket seller Fandango's 12-year history, and has sold out 47 opening-night shows at IMAX theaters.
The tracking figures are "up there with 'Twilight' and 'Harry Potter,' " says Jeff Gomez, chief executive of Starlight Runner Entertainment and a producer who has consulted on such films as "Avatar."In the promotional trailers for "The Hunger Games," Katniss, played by 21-year-old actress Jennifer Lawrence, can be seen volunteering as "tribute" to save her younger sister from having to compete, after which she is shown shooting at a human-shaped archery target. "They've taken away the love story and focused on the hero, who, by virtue of her altruism and fire, is going to stand up against this situation," says Vincent Bruzzese, president of Ipsos MediaCT's Motion Picture Group, which does market research for movie studios and filmmakers. "What they are doing is marketing the archetypal themes that are gender-neutral." Mr. Bruzzese says young men will watch action heroines: he cites Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the videogame-inspired "Tomb Raider" films.
One promotional strategy aimed more directly at guys: Lionsgate's decision to open the film on nearly 300 IMAX screens for a limited, one-week engagement, touted in an ad that aired during the Super Bowl pregame show. "They knew that IMAX core audiences are typically fanboy as opposed to fangirl," says IMAX Chief Executive Richard Gelfond.
Producer Nina Jacobson, who optioned the books, says she has long been aware that "Hunger Games" resonated with younger guys. She was first turned on to the books in 2009, when Bryan Unkeless, a young male colleague at her production company, Color Force, gave her a copy. At the time, the book had sold about 150,000 copies and was hardly the best-selling sensation it is now, at 23.5 million.
The older male demographic, however, "feels like the latest wave," says Ms. Jacobson, adding that her daughter's soccer coach recently asked her if she had an extra copy of the book.