With an opening this weekend that’s expected to top $100 million, the movie version of The Hunger Games is already a blockbuster in the same league as Twilight and the Harry Potter films. Deadline Hollywood reported that online sellers Fandango and Moviettickets.com have pre-sold more than 1 million tickets. By Wednesday, the main theater chains – including AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, and Regal Entertainment – had sold more than $15 million in tickets, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
And Fandango announced that the film is its top ticket seller of the year so far, with nearly 2,000 showtimes already sold out. “The fact that The Hunger Games is selling out so fast is a testament to the gripping story, and underscores the impact a best-selling novel can have on a movie,” says Fandango spokesperson Harry Medved. “Normally, we see this kind of excitement surrounding a hotly-anticipated sequel or remake, but it’s unusual to see a ticketing frenzy for the first film in a series.”
Like the trilogy that spawned it, the film reaches out to an audience far broader than just teens. “The great thing about the Hunger Games property is its universal appeal,” says Mary Amicucci, v-p of children’s books for Barnes & Noble, which shelves the series in its teen fantasy and adventure section. “Not only does it appeal to boys and girls, but it also appeals to men and women. Our Hunger Games promotion is focused on a book and a series everyone must have."
In 2008 author Suzanne Collins, who previously wrote children’s television shows and the Underland Chronicles series, introduced The Hunger Games – about a futuristic society that each year commands 24 teens to fight to the death on national television. One year later she published book two, Catching Fire; the third in the series, Mockingjay, followed in 2010. Today Scholastic reports 26 million Hunger Games books in print in all formats, including the packaged trilogy and movie tie-in books.
Here’s a look at recent developments for Team Collins:
The Los Angeles premiere: The first 400 fans in line at 6 a.m. on Sunday, March 11, earned camping privileges and a ticket to the Monday night premiere at the Nokia Theatre. A happy surprise: the film’s biggest stars showed up to give autographs in a Lionsgate-arranged area called the Hob, named after the abandoned warehouse used for secretive swaps in the book and movie. “People were trading posters and autographs. It was like the Hob!” says 13-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg, an eighth grader, who plays Rue. Kimmy West, 19, nabbed two signed posters. She plans to give them away on mockingjay.net, the Hunger Games fan site she co-founded, which gets around 1 million clicks a month. West, who also founded Twilight fan site hisgoldeneye.com, predicts a bigger audience for The Hunger Games than for similar movies. “Harry Potter was more popular for younger people. It grew into something for older people,” she says. “Twilight was more for young adult girls. For this, there will be a lot of adult fans and a lot of guys who like it, too. The demographic is so much more broad. Not many guys like Twilight, but a lot of guys will see this. It’s futuristic, action-packed, with a little bit of love in it.”
Stenberg watched the completed film along with the campers at the premiere. “It wasn’t what I expected. It was better!” she says. Purists can breathe a sigh of relief; Stenberg reports, “It’s very true to the book.” And yes, her eyes welled up. “Willow Shields [Prim] made me cry,” she says. “She was just so helpless and adorable.” Even after seeing the film at the premiere, Stenberg still plans to go to the midnight show Thursday night, though she’ll need to get up for school Friday. She did, however, miss nine days for the book tour and premiere. “It was very different traveling around and meeting fans – and coming back to school and having geometry!” she says.
On the “National Mall Tour,” as Lionsgate dubbed it, which took place from March 3-10, hundreds of fans slept outside the Mall of America in chilly Minnesota to be first in line for autographs. After the signing, a local DJ asked the actors questions submitted by teens. Other cities, such as Miami, followed a similar format – always with throngs of fans, many of them holding signs or shooting YouTube videos.
The media attention: The Hunger Games landed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (March 9, “The Hunger Games: Inside the Making of the Movie – and Why It Will Surprise You”), Parade (March 18, “Do You Know Me? Meet 2012’s Most Anticipated Movie Heroine – and Go Inside the Hunger Games Phenomenon”), and People (March 26, “Secrets of The Hunger Games: the Stars, the Story, the Sensation”). But the buzz began much earlier: In May of 2011 EW ran the first national cover story, revealing Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen; and in August 2011 the magazine ran a "Men of 'The Hunger Games' " cover with Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. Both issues outperformed typical newsstand issues by about 12 percent and showed the popularity of the film long before Lionsgate's marketing campaign, according to an EW spokesperson. Sales are not yet available for the March 9 cover., but with the likelihood of a record-breaking opening weekend, additional covers are in the works.
Stories blanketed the press in the final days before the release. This week Salon.com published “The Making of a Blockbuster: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Readers and Booksellers who Launched the Hunger Games Franchise.” The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the Ellen DeGeneres Show and the Today Show all jumped in, too. Meanwhile, more than six million YouTube users have clicked on Taylor Swift's video for the film's lead song, "Safe and Sound." And last week the financial press, including the Wall Street Journal and CNBC, noted that the franchise was helping Scholastic’s stock price. In an article titled “Hunger Games boosts Scholastic’s shares,” CNN/Money said the spike was fueled by strong sales ahead of the film’s release.
The booksellers: The Hunger hoopla is good news for booksellers. “Each week sales are increasing exponentially as we continue to see more people come to the series in both e-book and print book form,” says B&N’s Amicucci. “We’re seeing those increases in all of our channels – stores, e, and online.” Since November the chain has been promoting the series with “a shout-out to the movie release on March 23,” she says. “We’re refreshing the promotions with a lot of great non-book products.” The t-shirts, journals, and bookmarks are selling best, she says. Amicucci applauds the creation of movie tie-in books, including the March 23 release of The World of the Hunger Games, a photographic tie-in with footage of the movie’s Games inside. “That was a great publishing strategy on the part of Scholastic,” she says. (She notes that Hunger Games products are “outpacing our Twilight peaks.” This week, B&N held parties in 26 markets.
If trends continue, Amazon customers will soon have purchased more Kindle and physical copies of Hunger Games titles in 2012 than in all of 2011, says Amazon spokesperson Sarah Gelman. The movie (as well as the books) get thumbs up from Jessica Schein, Amazon.com’s young adult books editor. “There’s always this concern that the movie won’t be as good as the books,” says Schein, who saw the premiere. “[But] the movie really lived up to the books. What [director] Gary Ross and the actors did was really capture the stark atmosphere of the districts vs. the wealth of the Capitol.” She expects the film to increase interest in the trilogy and its content. “These books have a lot of themes such as rebellion and sacrifice and loyalty that are worthy of discussion,” she says. “I think it definitely has the feel of both Harry Potter and Twilight.” As it did for both of those properties, Amazon.com started a special brand store, Amazon.com/hungergames, for all products associated with the series.
Some independent booksellers are also celebrating the release. On Thursday, March 22, at 7 p.m., Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., is setting up edible plant-identifying and archery stations, and bringing in a professional makeup artist who will paint kids’ faces a la the Capitol. Guests will eat book-themed snacks such as beef jerky – but when they indulge, they’ll need to put their name in a reaping bowl. When picked, they’ll do face-off competitions to, for example, hold a Hunger Games book on their head the longest. Periodically store employees will drop candy-filled parachutes from the second floor. It’s all completely safe. “I don’t think we’re going to set anyone on fire!” says store manager Krista Gilliam.
Elsewhere, some booksellers are sticking to their usual tradition of just hosting parties for book, not movie, releases. That’s the case at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Wash., and at DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine. “I’ve only done parties around book releases, rather than film releases, and that holds true now,” says owner Kenny Brechner. He did, though put the second two hardcover books on sale for 20 percent off. “I want to make reading the whole series more accessible for my customers who are climbing on board,” he says.
From mid-February through Monday, March 19, Alamosa Books in Albuquerque entered the names of Hunger Games book buyers in a drawing for movie tickets. “A not insignificant reason that we’re not doing a party at the store is that we’re going to be down at the theater!” says co-owner Sean Anker.
The products: Let the promotional games begin! Lionsgate officials declined to discuss how licensed merchandise is selling. But a cornucopia of Hunger Games products – both authorized and not – are on the market. “The greatest form of flattery is thievery!” jokes Jason Dravis at the Monteiro Rose Dravis Agency, who is Suzanne Collins’s entertainment agent. On Amazon.com, which sells official products, Hunger Games t-shirts make up two of the top 10 spots on Amazon’s bestsellers list for clothing. And “The Hunger Games Movie Mockingjay Prop Rep Pin” is the top-selling item on Amazon’s bestsellers list for toys and games, as well as the third most wished for item on Amazon customers’ wish lists and registries.
One approved product, China Glaze’s Capitol Colours nail polish – with hues such as “Stone Cold” (for District 2 – Masonry) – taps into the most glamorous aspect of Panem. “Not necessarily if you lived in one of the districts, but if you lived in the Capitol, this would be appropriate,” says Dravis. On tour, actress Stenberg saw a fan with Mockingjay earrings. “I thought, ‘I need those!’ ”she says.
The Hunger Games Café Press store sells both official licensed merchandise and fan-generated content. Lionsgate approved and participated in the creation of the space on Café Press, to aggregate fan content alongside official merchandise, but that fan content isn’t official, licensed or studio approved. Etsy lists more than 3,400 Hunger Games products, and Café Press offers a “Peace, Love and Hunger Games” hoodie ($45) and t-shirts that say “Future Mrs. Peeta Mellark” and “I Love the Boy with the Bread.” The National Entertainment Collectibles Association is producing all licensed products, from a Katniss jacket to the Mockingjay pin.
Schools, libraries, and communities: Educators and librarians are using the movie, like the book, as a teaching tool. On Friday morning, March 23, six English teachers at New Rochelle High School in New Rochelle, N.Y., are taking more than 500 ninth graders to see the film at the local movie theater. “It’s the first time we’ve ever taken the entire grade somewhere at the same time,” says ninth grade English teacher Mered Kopstein. When kids return to school, they’ll skip the usual math and science and devote the rest of the day to discussing the book (which they read over the summer) and the film. Already this year, the students have compared the themes in the story to other assigned stories, such as “The Most Dangerous Game,” Lord of the Flies and Great Expectations – and they have used it to make connections to the reality television ubiquitous in their own lives, says Kopstein. Post-film, they will also analyze everything from the costumes to plot changes.
In Westport, Conn., the entire "Myth and Bible" class – which studied The Hunger Games this year – is also hitting the theater together, at midnight. "We'll all be at school in the morning!" says Charlotte Weber, 17. The senior won her local pubic library’s 120-student, five-round Hunger Games competition for Tribute-aged 12- to 18-year-olds on Friday evening, March 9. Kids competed to the “death” with Nerf balls and answered questions such as, “What is the name of Prim’s cat?” (It’s Buttercup.)
Bill Derry, assistant director of innovation and user experience at the Westport Public Library, notes that live streaming of the event added to the Hunger Games-like effect. The copy center became the food distribution center, and the circulations desk became the Capitol information center, with Library staff dressed as Capitol residents.
Other libraries have staged their own Games. At the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, 23 teens competed in the “Hunger Games Live Action Survive Game” last Thursday. At Bristol Eastern High School in Bristol, Conn., librarian Janet Kenney held a longer-term Hunger Games celebration that began with a reaping on February 3 and featured different weekly elimination challenges, including a “Project Panem” Capitol fashion show with Capitol Colours nail polish as the prize.
Barbara McDonald, Outreach Coordinator for the Sarasota County Libraries in Florida, expects a big turnout for the movie since her community picked The Hunger Games for its “One Book, One Community” selection last June. “It did win by a landslide,” she says. Last month residents met at a local newspaper community room for a Skype chat with Emily Baines, author of The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, and at the area's biggest library for an in-person presentation and Q&A from Leah Wilson, editor of The Girl Who Was on Fire, a collection of essays about The Hunger Games. The group read officially ended February 29, but a local horticulture expert is continuing to teach about edible plants. Her tally: 20 presentations and counting, including an outreach at the local senior center on March 20.
Future films: Catching Fire will hit theaters on November 22, 2013, according to Lionsgate. “It’s kind of sad that there are all these awesome cast members that I love, and they’re not going to come back,” says Mockingjay.net’s West. “[But] I’m excited to know that Lenny Kravitz and Jennifer Lawrence will be back for all four of them.” (It’s rumored that filmmakers will follow the tradition set by Harry Potter and Twilight and split the final book into two movies.)
Unlike those of earlier blockbusters, the Hunger Games stories have a real-world resonance for fans. “Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and Harry Potter all had some magical elements to them, like wizards or vampires,” says West. “This is like a real story that could really happen.”
It has also become a cultural phenomenon. “Most people in the country seem to have read The Hunger Games,” says Jacob Lewis, co-founder and CEO of the online teen writing community Figment.com. And soon, it seems, they will have viewed the movie, too.