Commentary

'Mockingjay' Marketing Earns Greater Plaudits Than The Flick Itself

Only in the perverse game of box-office scores can a movie that far outperformed any other this year on opening weekend be deemed a “disappointment,” sending the shares of Lions Gate Entertainment — which houses the studio that “feeds and protects” the franchise — tumbling 5% Friday after it grossed 33% less than its predecessor in its Thursday night launch.

But, by several accounts, it was so-so reviews and decidedly not the lean-and-keen marketing that kept the numbers “down” for Jennifer Lawrence and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1.”

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“With its cutting-edge social-media campaigns for ‘The Hunger Games,’ the tiny 27-person marketing department at Lionsgate has become a model for Hollywood’s legacy studios: scrappy, thrifty, forward-thinking,” writes the New York Times’ Brook Barnes in a revealing look at a publicity operation where the CMO, Tim Palen, “often personally photographs actors for promotional materials.”

As Barnes illustrates, Palen’s team — publicity chief Julie Fontaine and digital marketing executive Danielle De Palma are singled out — also “keeps costs down by taking full advantage of low-cost media like YouTube [and] by making certain advertising decisions without relying on expensive market research studies…”

“Typically at a studio, you sit in marketing meetings and there are 17 proposed versions of a poster and sheets of data about how various proposed materials have tested,” “Mockingjay” director Francis Lawrence tells Barnes. “Decisions are data-driven and made by committee,” he said, adding, “You just don’t get that at Lionsgate.”

Observers have been marveling at the social media campaign for the latest ‘Hunger Games’ since snippets first started leaking out earlier this year.

“The social media team for ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay’ seems to be doing markedly better than their predecessors so far, though — in fact, they seem to be showing the world exactly how transmedia can enhance the audience experience long before people even buy their tickets to the movie,” wrote Alanna Bennett on Bustle in July.

“We caught a glimpse of ‘Mockingjay’’s marketing thought process with their series of posters of ‘District Heroes,’ and chills went through the collective audience’s spines when the first two ‘Mockingjay’ teasers included a captive Peeta and a pirate transmission from District 13.” 

“If there’s anything fans of ‘The Hunger Games’ know, it’s that advertising is propaganda with a nicer name,” observed Wired’s Angele Watercutter In praising the “awesome, new” posters for the upcoming movie in August. “So in promoting the film franchise’s next installment … it is appropriate that the marketing onslaught look and feel like the message war that plays out as Katniss Everdeen … and her fellow Panem revolutionaries rally to take on the Capitol.”

Would that they could be as effective with the critics.

“The previous ‘Hunger Games’ film, ‘Catching Fire,’ also opened on the weekend before Thanksgiving, but ended its weekend with $158 million. ‘Mockingjay,’ though, grossed $123 million. Compared to $158 million, and to the original ‘Hunger Games’’$152.5 million opening in 2012, $123 million is disappointing,” writes Ariana Bacle in Time.

“But in the context of 2014,” she points out, “it’s amazing: ‘Mockingjay’ had a stronger opening than any other film this year, beating out ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’’s $100 million debut.

The third of four installments also opened in 85 markets worldwide  — pulling in an additional $152 million — but not in the world’s second largest, China, where it won’t hit screens until next year. It did better than its predecessors in quite a few.

“In many major markets, the film came in 5% to 19% ahead of ‘Catching Fire,’ including the UK ($19.9 million, up 5%) and Russia ($11.1 million, up 19%),” reports the Hollywood Reporter’s Pamela McClintock. It was also the No. 1 opening of the year in a number of key markets, including Germany ($13.7 million) and Australia ($10.1 million).

E Online’s Zach Johnson sums up critics’ barbs and encomiums in E Online, including Todd McCarthy’s biting review in The Hollywood Reporter.

“Unfortunately, ‘Mockingjay — Part 1’ has all the personality of an industrial film,” McCarthy writes. “There's not a drop of insolence, insubordination or insurrection running through its veins; it feels like a manufactured product through and through, ironic and sad given its revolutionary theme.”

On the positive side, USA Today’s Claudia Puig ledes with the observation that Lawrence’s “Katniss Everdeen comes off like a cross between Che Guevara and Joan of Arc as she blossoms into a full-fledged leader of a revolution.” And she closes by praising the movie for some subtle humor and says that a “well-crafted emotional cliffhanger … “[ups] the suspense and [whets] the appetite for next year’s Part 2.”

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