Thursday, March 22, 2012

Playing the Franchise Card (again)

The Hunger Games does not open until tomorrow, but the BBC is already treating it as a major news story.  They are hardly alone, but they may be the most honest player in the pack.  What struck me while watching Tim Masters’ report for World Service Television News was his preference for the noun “franchise” over “movie” (or any of its variants).  Yes, one cannot avoid mentioning that the lines for the opening have been forming for several days;  but, at the risk of sounding too cynical (if that is possible), folks need to line up for something now that they have their new iPads.

Still, there may be a similarity.  The first generation of the iPad certainly had a lot both to attract and to sustain customer attention;  but, like so many other brain children of Steve Jobs, it also created a “hunger” (yes, I’m playing with my words) for what the next model would bring.  Apple has always been good about creating a craving strong enough for what would come next that would eventually block out any pleasure taken in what you already had.  Thus, a film based on the first book of a trilogy is likely to create that hunger, perhaps even as soon as the lights come up after the screening of this first film in the set.  Selling a franchise is not about creating desire for the product but about creating desire for one product motivated by a strong desire for what would follow it.

This is, of course, a dicey business.  Edgar Rice Burroughs made a successful (at least for his strong fan base) franchise out of his books about the adventures of John Carter.  Walt Disney seems to have turned that franchise into “one of the biggest flops in cinema history.”  In trying to prognosticate about The Hunger Games in the historical context of what just happened to Disney, I am reminded of how, back in 1999 writing for The New York Review of Books, Louis Menand compared Star Wars and Titanic.  In a review of The Phantom Menace, his opening sentence was:

Star Wars is entertainment for eight-year-old boys.

Two paragraphs later, he then described Titanic as a movie for ten-year-old girls.

We should not think about The Hunger Games in the context of either the initial Star Wars success or the John Carter failure.  We should think of it as the franchise that is trying to move in on Twilight’s turf.  Perhaps what matters most is that the ten-year-old girls are already hooked on the Suzanne Collins books;  and this new attraction may have come right around the time that they were beginning to have their fill of Bella and her romantic entanglements.  Nevertheless, I think it is important to stress that weasel-word “may.”  Ten-year-old girls can be fickle;  and hopefully Lion’s Gate will have enough Hollywood smarts to avoid counting any numbers they do not yet have.

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