‘The Hunger Games’ Box-Office Bonanza: 4 Lessons Hollywood Must Learn

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“The Hunger Games” hit on a winning recipe with its strong female protagonist and March release date. Hollywood should take heed as it looks for future blockbusters

"The Hunger Games" and its astounding success have Hollywood studios and executives furiously scheming about how to manufacture their own young adult film franchises.

There is no a perfect recipe for transforming a film into a phenomenon, but industry observers tell TheWrap that "The Hunger Games" does provide a template for crafting future box office winners. 

From outfitting the film with a strong female heroine to harnessing the power of social media to steering clear of a crowded summer film slate, Lionsgate, the studio behind the picture, ensured that its fantasy adventure would have a record-breaking debut.

It also helped that the movie was good, with  85 percent of critics ranking it “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and audiences rating it an “A” based on CinemaScore.

Also read: 'Hunger Games' Devours the Box Office With $155M

With more than $152 million at the domestic box office last weekend, the debut of “The Hunger Games” is one for the record books, but it does not have to be a historical anomaly. 

Here are some key ingredients from the film's development, marketing and distribution, that industry observers maintain should be used to spice up other major releases.

SUMMER MOVIES CAN OPEN IN MARCH

Lionsgate opened like “Harry Potter” or “The Dark Knight” with one key difference — it put up those impressive numbers in March, not during the summer or holiday movie season.

Although it probably would have been an event picture no matter when it hit theaters, by steering clear of the summer blockbuster pile-up, “The Hunger Games” had last weekend all to itself.

“Alice in Wonderland” pulled off a similar feat in March 2010, opening to $116 million, so it seems like a safe bet that major studios will put more and more of their Tiffany franchises in the spring or fall.

Also read: Inside the New 'Hunger Games' Facebook Game: Exclusive First Look

“If you build it, they will come,” Nikki Rocco, distribution president for Universal Pictures, told TheWrap. “This is a 52-week-a-year business business and there are projects that will draw audiences regardless of what the date is. If you have the goods, it doesn’t matter what week it is.”

Rocco said that she expects more big films will venture outside of the summer season, noting that Universal recently had great success opening “The Lorax” in March and plans to open its Tom Cruise blockbuster hopeful “Oblivion” in April 2013.

STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS ATTRACT CROWDS

Although Hollywood has catered endlessly to teenage boys with a string of superhero films and monster robot franchises that center on largely male protagonists, “The Hunger Games” showed once again that females are a vibrant, ticket-buying demographic.

In contrast to the glut of male action stars, “The Hunger Games” centered on a bow and arrow-wielding female, Katniss Everdeen.

In the case of “The Hunger Games,” a movie and book that seemed influenced by such dystopian fantasies as “The Running Man” and “Battle Royale,” that decision helped differentiate the film and made it feel fresh.

“It is rare to see a young woman as a protagonist, who is the active person in an action film,” Patrick Corcoran, director of Media & Research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, told TheWrap. “There is  a real hunger for movies that are not just the usual.”

Also read: 'The Hunger Games': 5 Things You Need to Know if You Haven't Read the Book

The success of “Hunger Games” combined with that of “Twilight,”  a young adult fantasy that also boasted a strong female lead, may have studios rethinking old prejudices.

“Five or six years ago, there was a sense that movies with female stars were difficult to pull off,” a rival studio executive told TheWrap. “I think what this tells you is th"at kids will support something like that and we’ll probably see more movies with strong female heroines.”

For evidence that Katniss won’t be the only big screen action heroine look no further than next summer’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” with Kristen Stewart as an armor wearing  “fairest maiden of them all.”

SOCIAL MEDIA WORKS

Lionsgate sold “The Hunger Games” to moviegoers by adroitly exploiting Facebook and Twitter, not by lining up a barrage of fast food merchandising partners or flooding the zone with expensive television advertising.

As The New York Times documented recently, Lionsgate kept marketing costs down by using the social media and online sites where teens gather to help build word-of-mouth.

It knew its core audience and it knew where they  congregate. 

It is a low-cost strategy that has also been applied to such viral hits as "The Devil Inside" and "Paranormal Activity," though rarely to a four-quadrant film like "The Hunger Games."

Lionsgate spent roughly $45 million to generate interest in the movie, less than half of what most studios shell out to market tentpole films. To help keep the budget lean, Lionsgate sponsored digital scavenger hunts on Twitter using poster images from the film, launched a Tumblr blog that explored the film’s fashions, and launched a Facebook game with Funtactix called “The Hunger Games Adventures.”

“As awareness grew among its core fanbase and they talked about it, the audience for the film added more people, and it became a true ‘must-see’ event,” Corcoran said.

The excitement around the film seeped into traditional media, as well. Instead of being forced to shell out big bucks to advertise on "Good Morning America," for example, the program devoted significant coverage to airing an exclusive trailer to the film hosted by star Josh Hutcherson.

That was a prime plug for "The Hunger Games" that did not cost Lionsgate a cent, but one that might not have been possible to pull off were it not for the scores of tweets and Facebook shares. 

YOUNG ADULT BOOKS RULE, BUT KEEP IT SIMPLE 

Studios’ thirst to discover the next “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” will only intensify with the success of “The Hunger Games,” but not every best-seller makes a great movie.

“The Golden Compass,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles” and “Lemony Snicket” were publishing gold, but their film versions were box office disappointments.

The key to finding the right material is to take a book set in a fantastical world that has the potential to be visually arresting, but not unduly complicated.

‘The Golden Compass’ and films like that were pretty obtuse and there was just too much going on for audiences to take in,” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. “If you have to put in a voiceover at the beginning to explain everything about this world, you’re in trouble.”

At its core, “The Hunger Games” centered on a teenage heroine struggling to survive a brutal gladiatorial game. It was a distant future, yes, but its rules and terminology did not require a dictionary to sort through or loads of expository dialogue.

“It’s a risky concept, but what captured people’s imagination is that it really was grappling with the concept of death,” Bock said. “People gravitate towards films where someone is in imminent danger.”