Hit or Miss: YA Film Franchises

This guest post was written by my friend Jonathan Michael. Jonathan is a marketer in the publishing industry, a fiction writer, and an avid blogger. For a few years we worked together at Zondervan. On his blog today you can read my post: 8 Reasons Why the Book is Better than the Movie. Enjoy! -Andy

If you follow the chatter of film critics (or even just a friend who likes to discuss film), it won’t take you long before you hear a commonly stated gripe: “there are far too many movies coming out that are sequels, part of a franchise, or based on a book.” I understand the sentiment. Essentially, there’s concern that filmmakers and studios are creating cookie-cutter, formulaic movies to make mad stacks of cash, rather than invest in original ideas that help propel the artform of film forward into better quality films and better storytelling.

I would agree that the trend is disturbing, but I wouldn’t blame it on sequels, franchises, or book adaptations. Those things have more or less been around since the beginning of the film industry, and they don’t necessarily result in bad films. In fact, some of the best movies of all time have been part of a series, franchise, or book adaptation (The Godfather, Star Wars, Serge Leone’s Dollars trilogy, just to name a few). I think the root of the problem stems from the fact that there are more film studios in existence making more movies than ever. Franchises have been proven to be successful, so now each studio is doing whatever they can to secure their tentpole franchise–their cash cow. More studios = more attempts at building a franchise = more failures.

Thor Movie PosterFor over a decade, there have been two particular wells of source material that studios have drawn from to great success: superhero films, and YA (young adult) book series. While the Marvel movies (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, etc.) could easily take up a blog post of their own, I wanted to focus specifically on YA book adaptations. At the turn of the 21st century, there were relatively few YA book properties being adapted into movies for general audiences. It wasn’t until the Harry Potter series blazed the trail and became the second highest-grossing film franchise of all time that studios began to look at other YA series for money-making potential.

The next big hit was the Twilight saga, and this weekend we’ll see the premiere of Catching Fire, the second movie in The Hunger Games book trilogy, which also looks to be another huge hit. In response to these massive successes, other studios have jumped into the YA book world to cash in on the trend. As a result, we’ve seen our fair share of duds and rather forgettable adaptations. Let me highlight a few YA adaptations that released over the last few years, but failed to catch on:

  • Ender’s Game
  • Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (#2 in the Percy Jackson series)
  • The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
  • Beautiful Creatures
  • I Am Number Four
  • City of Ember
  • The Golden Compass
  • Eragon
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles

So, what’s the deal? Why is it that Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games can be such huge hits while these others fall flat? I certainly don’t have the definitive answers, but I think there are a few key ingredients that can contribute to a YA book adaptation’s success or failure as a film.

1. The Watercooler/Schoolbus Effect.

Something that Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games all have in common is that the books themselves generated a huge amount of discussion and became part of mainstream culture. When a TV show, movie, book, or music album gets this hot, most people check it out just so they can be in the loop when it gets talked about at work or at school. We want to be “in the know.” The movies benefited from this effect as well, because once the first films premiered, it was another topic of conversation that people did not want to miss out on. You don’t want to be the office idiot who still doesn’t know who Katniss is, do you? It’s a matter of timing, and striking while the iron is hot can make a difference for studios. Unfortunately, I think that was a major reason why Ender’s Game, a phenomenal book, couldn’t bring in a significant audience: after 28 years, it was no longer a part of the cultural conversation.

2. The Marketing.

Maybe most people don’t think marketing could have much of an impact on whether or not a YA movie succeeds, but being a marketer myself, I have a few hundred thoughts about this subject. The first signs of a YA film’s problems is when the studio thinks they’ve purchased the “next Twilight,” or the “next Harry Potter.” Rather than seeing the series as a unique property with its own strengths to feature, they tend to turn around and market the film to us by showing us how similar it is to the other, more popular franchise. As an example, compare this trailer for 2008’s Twilight with the trailer for this year’s Beautiful Creatures. That’s a five-year difference, but the trailer beats, fonts, and story set up are nearly identical. When the marketing for a movie works so hard to make you remember how awesome something else was, it tends to result in your product looking like a cheap knock-off, whether it is or not.

3. The Core Audience.

I think this is probably the most significant determining factor for a YA movie’s success. Studios love making four-quadrant films, which are movies that appeal to 1) male audiences under 25, 2) female audiences under 25, 3) male audiences over 25, and 4) female audiences over 25. Basically, every human being that is currently breathing. Now, while a YA book doesn’t have to be a four-quadrant book in order to be successful, it certainly helps if the book’s core fans are already within 2 or 3 of those quadrants, and it’s especially important that 2 of those quadrants involve an age difference. Twilight had it, Harry Potter definitely had it, and The Hunger Games has it. Of the YA adaptations listed above for their less-than-stellar performance, most of them have core audiences that are either young females or young males. To me, that’s a critical difference, and it’s one that studios should be paying better attention to when they acquire the film rights to YA novels, looking to secure their next big franchise.

So that’s it. Those are my thoughts on why some YA films hit while others miss. Now that you’ve read what I’ve had to say, let’s see if you can predict how an upcoming YA film will perform at the box office. Last week, Summit Entertainment released the trailer for Divergent, which comes out March 2014. Do you think it will be a hit, or a miss?

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