The Hunger Games movie opening is expected to break all Hollywood records, even eclipsing the now benign-seeming franchises of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Twilight. The first of four planned movies is projected to rake in more than $100 million at the box office this upcoming weekend, with more than $1 million worth of tickets already pre-sold.
The trilogy, written by bestselling author Suzanne Collins, has 24 million copies in print in the U.S. and a built-in fan base that Lionsgate Entertainment has leveraged with unprecedented acumen.
They started traditionally with print ads in newspapers, 50+ magazine cover stories, 3,000 billboard and bus shelter displays, and 80,000 distributed posters. And then came the digital build, creating a series of “little online brushfires to create a box office inferno,” as New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes comments in the video that accompanies his must-read story.
Starting a year ago, the Lionsgate marketing team, led by CMO Tim Palen, leveraged social media to the hilt, building anticipation and participation via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, iPhone games and the promise of live Yahoo streaming at the premiere.
Palen’s team was comparatively small, 21, as was his budget, $45 million. They worked the fan blog network, releasing tidbits about the upcoming film on an almost daily basis, while a sweepstakes brought five bloggers to the film set in North Carolina.
But the penultimate stroke was Palen’s idea to never show the actual games in the campaign. “If you want to see the games you have to buy a ticket,” he told the Times. Because 24 children fight to the death in the movie until one wins, “we made a rule that we would never say ‘23 kids get killed, we say ‘only one wins.’”
"If you can get people excited while insinuating that you haven't even shown them the good stuff yet, it's an incredibly powerful notion," commented Jim Gallagher, the former head of marketing for Walt Disney Studios (which just learned a hard lesson about how not to market a new movie with the John Carter flop, expected to generate a $200 million loss for Disney). "Most films can't afford to play so coy."
Ironically, Scholastic, the largest publisher and distributor of children's books, is the publisher of The Hunger Games in which Collins criticizes violence as entertainment. On the Scholastic website there’s a downloadable conversation with Suzanne Collins and answers to fans' “Burning Questions,” such as “Is there a reason Cinna picked District 12?” and “Did Katniss feel any love toward Peeta?”
Palen’s comment on the marketing challenge: “This book is on junior high reading lists, but kids killing kids, even though it’s handled delicately in the film, is a potential perception problem in marketing.” It's a challenge they've clearly overcome.
According to the New York Times, "Analysts project that the 'The Hunger Games,' which cost about $80 million to make and is planned as a four-movie franchise, could have opening-weekend sales of about $90 million — far more than the first 'Twilight' and on par with 'Iron Man,' which went on to take in over $585 million worldwide in 2008." Bloomberg hears the opening could exceed $115 million.
Some of the campaign tactics, in addition to live-streaming the red carpet movie openings with the cast: In August, Lionsgate released a 60-second sneak peek on MTV.com and 800,000 people created digital ID cards for Panem, the futuristic home of the Games found via a Twitter prompt which led to TheCapitol.pn.
The November iTunes trailer release garnered eight million views in 24 hours, while a December 15th stunt issued digital versions of a puzzle based on a movie poster to 100 web sites to be posted on Twitter “in lockstep,” which trended globally in minutes as movie hub sites orchestrated massive ticket giveaways, and a fan-creased Hunger Games videos arrived on YouTube in February, generating about 18 million views over and above the official movie videos and sneak peeks.
Pre-release polls indicate that more than tweens and teens will be lining up when the movie is release on March 23rd; “a staggering 84% of moviegoers said (last) week that they had heard of 'The Hunger Games,' and 61% said they were definitely interested in seeing it. Both figures have grown in the last two weeks, indicating that the title is only now coming onto some people's radars.”
While the book is marketed by Scholastic to kids 12 and older, “Some [moviegoers] could be surprised by the movie's violent content, particularly if they bring children. At Monday night's world premiere, sobs could be heard throughout the theater at one character's particularly tragic death.”
Not missing a beat, Lionsgate has just launched a Facebook game and a virtual tour of the Capitol in partnership with Microsoft. “You’ve got to constantly give people something new to get excited about, but we also had another goal in mind,” said Danielle DePalma, Lionsgate SVP of digital marketing, “How do we best sustain online interest until the DVD comes out?” We think they've got that question figured out.