By Ellen Mayer
Perhaps you’ve heard of The Hunger Games. In fact, if you watch television, use the Internet, or even walk around outside with your eyes open, you must have because the name is everywhere. Before The Hunger Games was a record-breaking movie with the highest weekend box-office of any non-sequel film, it was the first of three highly popular young adult fantasy books by Suzanne Collins. When Lionsgate acquired the movie rights in 2009, it also acquired a built-in audience, emulating a formula established by the Twilight and the Harry Potter movies. The books’ popularity alone, however, cannot account for the movie’s $155.2 million box-office in the opening weekend.
In the months leading up to the film’s release, Lionsgate’s marketing team, helmed by Chief Marketing Executive Tim Palen, executed an extensive and extremely canny marketing push which drove The Hunger Games hype to a fever pitch, driving not only ticket sales but also book sales. The New York Times blog, Media Decoder, reported in January that when Lionsgate began production of the film in spring of 2011, there were 9.6 million copies of The Hunger Games books in print. By the movie’s opening on March 23rd, Scholastic announced that the number had increased to 36.5 million.
Though Lionsgate did pursue traditional forms of advertising, including TV spots, billboards, and magazine covers, the marketing team relied most heavily on social media tools, allowing them to maintain a relatively low marketing budget of $45 million. Marketing through social media is hardly a new phenomenon, and these days every movie has a social media presence of some sort. The Hunger Games’ marketing campaign is remarkable, however, for its sheer scale, saturating the Internet with content through the movie’s Twitter, Facebook page, Tumblr, and YouTube Channel, along with a nifty website created for The Capitol, the governing center of the book’s fictional society.
The basic principle behind social media marketing is that fans participate in the process by reposting and re-tweeting the content they find on the movie’s various pages. Typically, marketing teams use these social media outlets to share trailers, promotional stills, and clips from interviews with the movies’ stars, all official content that makes up a carefully controlled brand. Tim Palen and the Lionsgate team took the participatory aspect of social media to another level, creating multiple outlets for fan expression.
Capitol TV, The Hunger Games’ Youtube channel, which as of this moment has 24 million views, contains a sub-channel devoted entirely to fan-made content. The film’s Tumblr heavily features fan art: animations, sketches of the characters, and artful reimaginings of the fashions so fancifully described in the book. Lionsgate even had an employee whose job it was to cultivate fan blogs. Essentially, the marketing team allowed the fans to engage in bottom-up marketing, contributing their own visions of the story to The Hunger Games’ brand. By the same token, they were able to make themselves invisible as a marketing team, which makes the average Facebook user or blogger feel like he or she is not being targeted at all.
As a young adult trilogy featuring a female protagonist, The Hunger Games is forever cursed, it seems, to be compared to Twilight. Perhaps because of the perceived parallels, some aspects of the marketing campaign were clearly drawn from the Twilight playbook. In a clear bid to galvanize the tween demographic, Lionsgate sponsored a Hunger Games mall tour, in which the film’s three stars stood for photos and signed autographs in malls across the country. As in Twilight, a main plot point in The Hunger Games is the heroine’s inability to choose between the two men (Gale and Peeta) who vie for her affections. It was only natural, then, for Lionsgate to encourage the same choosing of sides that Twilight fans have done since book one (remember Team Edward v. Team Jacob?).
Ironically, Lionsgate recently acquired Summit, the studio that has produced all of the Twilight movies. So of course, they have also acquired the man behind the Twilight marketing campaign. There can only be one Chief Marketing Executive at Lionsgate, however, which means that Tim Palen’s job is not exactly secure. That being said, the odds seem to be in Palen’s favor. The Hunger Games far outsold the first Twilight film in its opening weekend; Twilight’s opening box office was $69.6 million. According to The Hollywood Reporter, upon the release of the first movie, there were about 30 million copies of the Twilight books in print, 6.5 million fewer than the Hunger Games trilogy upon the movie’s premiere.
Whatever Palen’s fate, one thing is for sure: you have heard of The Hunger Games. By this time, you’ve probably seen the movie and maybe even read the books. As Lionsgate sustains the hype in preparation for the next three movies (they will be splitting the fourth book in half), chances are that you will somehow be involved, through Facebook posts or fan art, in the ongoing marketing campaign.