LOS ANGELES – When the receipts are tallied for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” heroine Katniss Everdeen and her famed arrows will likely hit a box-office bull’s-eye. The film starring Jennifer Lawrence is forecast by some to sell as much as $180 million in tickets for its U.S. debut this weekend, which would be the biggest opening of the year.
If it delivers as expected, “Catching Fire” will buck the recent trend in which films based on young adult books have fizzled.
In the last 18 months, Hollywood adaptations of “Ender’s Game,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “Mortal Instruments,” “The Host” and others have failed to ignite with audiences, scuttling hopes of moneymaking new franchises.
So why is “Hunger Games” different?
Like these movies, the “Hunger Games” films are based on a very popular literary franchise. But not all best-sellers are created equal – the Suzanne Collins books, like the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” titles that preceded it, are outright publishing phenomena that boast sales in the tens of millions of copies or higher.
Collins’ dystopian trilogy, which depicts a heroine coerced into a brutal kill-or-be-killed competition, has appealed to males and females alike, which isn’t always the case in the young adult genre.
“ ‘The Hunger Games’ is popular with both boys and girls almost equally, and I think that’s because the story has a lot more adventure in it,” said Maria Nikolajeva, a professor of children’s literature at the University of Cambridge.
Collins’ work also appeals to older audiences, giving it an edge over many other young-adult properties. “Many of these books are big sellers to children, but they’re not known by adults,” said Diane Roback, children’s book editor at the trade publication Publishers Weekly. “So when these come to theaters, for a lot of the audience they’re really like new properties.”
Still, just because a book is a hit with a broad spectrum of readers doesn’t always mean it will find success on screen. Other mega-best-sellers such as “The Lovely Bones,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife” have become film flops.
To make sure adult filmgoers are interested in “The Hunger Games,” studio Lionsgate has brought on pedigreed older actors, including Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, who had juicy roles in the first movie and return for the second.
They are joined in the new film by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and a pair of Oscar-winning screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Michael DeBruyn (a pseudonym for “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Michael Arndt), lending the movie a more grown-up vibe.
One of the film’s younger actresses believes the franchise’s more mature orientation has caused her generation to latch on too. Jena Malone, who plays fellow Katniss competitor Johanna, said young filmgoers “have been hungry to be treated like adults for a while. They’re like, ‘I get dragons and wizards and all this stuff, but what about actually what I’m going through, and the struggle of a real human living in society today?’ ”
The young-adult category has generally been difficult for producers. While all movies offer a fair amount of risk, young-adult films, say those who make them, yield a unique challenge.
“With a YA movie, if you don’t connect with a core audience, you often have nowhere else to go,” said Andrew Kosove, principal at Alcon Entertainment and producer of “Beautiful Creatures,” a romantic fantasy that grossed just $19 million at the domestic box office last winter. “It’s the narrowest kind of green. If you miss, you’re in the water or a bunker.”
Kosove, whose producing credits include hits such as “The Blind Side” and “Prisoners,” called “Creatures” the most unsuccessful movie he’s made and said he wouldn’t make another. “To really do these movies well you have to understand not just filmmaking but teen culture, like which actor is hot one month and which one is hot the next,” he said. “I didn’t understand teen girls when I was in high school, so I certainly don’t understand them as a 42-year-old man.”
The new “Hunger Games” is also given a boost by its emergent star, Lawrence. Since the first film was released, the 23-year-old won a lead actress Oscar for her role in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Her Q-score – which measures the appeal and familiarity of celebrities to consumers – was a 5 ahead of the first “Hunger Games” movie. Two years later it had jumped to a 20 – far exceeding even the 12 that Kristen Stewart had when the final “Twilight” was released last year.
Though “Catching Fire” is now destined to become a blockbuster, it was only a little over a year ago that the fate of the project looked uncertain. Shortly after the first movie became a hit in spring 2012, director Gary Ross opted out, prompting a furious scramble to replace him. Producers eventually settled on Francis Lawrence, who had little experience with YA properties.
Despite the struggles of the YA category, the movie business is going back for more: In February, Lionsgate will release “Divergent,” another hot dystopian property it hopes will follow in the footsteps of “The Hunger Games.”
With the next “Hunger Games” movie, “Mockingjay Part 1,” set to hit theaters a year from now, and a fourth film planned for 2015, is there room for another franchise?
Not right now, said Heather Duval, a 23-year-old fan from New Hampshire. “It was ‘Harry Potter’, then ‘Twilight’ and now ‘Hunger Games,” said Duval, who traveled to Los Angeles for the “Catching Fire” premiere Monday. “Nothing will top this until it ends. There can only be one object of our fandom at a time.”