Commentary

'The Hunger Games': Full Course Marketing Lesson

No “Stayin’ Alive” is not the new theme song of Burger King, which formally found itself in third place in the hamburger wars this week. It’s the stick-in-your-head beat from the No. 2 bestselling soundtrack of all time, 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever,” and you can listen to a clip this morning at, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. Wendy’s is the new No. 2 burger joint, but both chains are being whupped by McDonald’s, which announced last night that CEO Jim Skinner is retiring and that president and COO Don Thompson will succeed him this summer.

Karlene Lukovitz has more on this, so let’s turn back to “Stayin’ Alive,” which is a sidebar to a story by Ethan Smith about the decline of movie soundtracks over the years. The genre is not quite dead in the gladiator’s ring yet, as it turns out.

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“Just when you're ready to give up on the soundtrack business, something like 'The Hunger Games' comes along and you've got to move all the chips to the middle of the table and go all-in," Monte Lipman, CEO of Universal Republic records, the label distributing the eclectic collection of 16 original songs by big-name artists, tells Smith.

Never mind that only three of the tunes are actually played during the movie –- accompanying the closing credits, no less –- the story has convinced me that we can no longer ignore the juggernaut that Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games” seems to be, even before it opens tomorrow. Here’s a summary of the plot from the trailer, in the seemingly unlikely event you’re not familiar with it.

“In a not-too-distant future, the United States of America has collapsed, weakened by drought, fire, famine, and war, to be replaced by Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Part entertainment, part brutal intimidation of the subjugated districts, the Hunger Games are broadcasted throughout Panem as 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors, literally, with all citizens required to watch.”

Those participants are teens, and the hero of the story is a 16-year-old girl with the fetching name of Katniss Everdeen. You can divine the natural demographic target. The YA novels by Suzanne Collins that the flick is based on have sold more than 23 million copies, Smith reports — no mean feat in itself nowadays.  

The Journal’s John Jannarone reported earlier this week that some Hollywood observers expect the movie to gross more than $100 million in its first weekend of box-office ticket sales, which would put it in the top 10 of all-time best openings.  

(Before you call your broker shouting “Buy Lionsgate,” be aware that the gist of Jannarone’s story is that advance hype about the film has already garnered well over $1 billion in market capitalization for the studio, which also produces “Mad Men” and “Anger Management,” Charlie Sheen’s new vehicle. “Even if the movie surpasses expectations,” he writes, “it is tough to justify such a sharp increase in valuation.”)

A review in the Los Angeles Times this morning is exceedingly positive: “Making a successful ‘Hunger Games’ movie out of Suzanne Collins' novel required casting the best possible performer as Katniss, and in Jennifer Lawrence director Gary Ross and company have hit the bull's-eye, so to speak,” Kenneth Turan writes. And, he concludes, “if, as the ads suggest, the whole world will be watching this, viewers will likely be satisfied with what they see.” 

A  subhed on a Ben Fritz piece in the Los Angeles Times reported last week that “in an unusual and risky strategy, Lionsgate's $45-million marketing campaign for 'The Hunger Games' shows none of the titular combat.” 

That may be a calculated bit of brilliance as much as it’s a smart bit of restraint -- both in terms of content and in the size of the budget for a movie with such high expectations. The flop “John Carter” had a reported budget of $100 million or more. 

"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," Jim Gallagher, a consultant who formerly ran marketing for Walt Disney Studios, tells Fritz. “Most films can't afford to play so coy."  

Fritz also divulges that the movie’s advance appeal seems to extend far beyond what you might expect. “Although millions of people have read the books or heard what they are about, tracking polls indicate that the picture's appeal is so broad that some may not be familiar with the details,” he writes. “A staggering 84% of moviegoers said this week that they had heard of ‘The Hunger Games,’ and 61% said they were definitely interested in seeing it.” 

Writing in the New York Times, Brooks Barnes reports that unlike many studios that are eschewing “once-standard marketing steps like newspaper ads, Lionsgate used all the usual old-media tricks -- giving away 80,000 posters, securing almost 50 magazine cover stories, advertising on 3,000 billboards and bus shelters.” 

Don’t think for a minute, however, that this Internet thingy has run its course. “But the campaign’s centerpiece has been a phased, yearlong digital effort built around the content platforms cherished by young audiences: near-constant use of Facebook and Twitter, a YouTube channel, a Tumblr blog, iPhone games and live Yahoo streaming from the premiere,” Barnes writes.  

Also be sure to check out Business Insider’s slide show, “'The Hunger Games' By The Numbers: 20 Marketing Tactics To Ensure Success,” which includes such factoids as, “800,000 people have created personalized digital ID cards saying they live in the film's futuristic world, Panem” and “284,644 and counting follow @TheHungerGames on Twitter.” 

Please don’t turn me in to the Cultural Trend Authorities but I’ve got to admit that I had no real idea of what “The Hunger Games” was about until this morning. Now I think I just might push that opening weekend gross to $100,000,024.

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