The 'Hunger Games' hard sell

A poster for "The Hunger Games."

Kai Ryssdal: There's a movie opening tomorrow you might have heard of, the "Hunger Games." Seen the ads probably, right? It's based on a young adult book series. It's got a huge following already. In fact, advanced ticket sales broke the record set by another tween favorite you've probably also heard off, "Twilight." As it happens, LionsGate owns both of those franchises, and it's banking on "Hunger Games" being its next monster franchise.

But with a plot that involves kids killing each other, marketing has been tricky, as Sanden Totten from KPCC in Pasadena explains.


Sanden Totten The world of the "Hunger Games" is grim. People are poor, starving and oppressed. They're ruled by a rich elite who watch a yearly sporting event where children are forced to fight to the death.

 

Pretty dark stuff for a tween flick. It helps that there's a love triangle in the movie and that the cast is really hot.

Girls: Oh my gosh, yes! They're so hot. So hot!

Meet 8th graders Emma Obergon, Mckenzie Mora and Mikayla Minnig. All three of them have read the books.

Girls: She read it, and then she read it and then I read it. So we've all told each other

They've seen the trailer.

Girl: I like watched it like a billion times.

They are so ready for the movie.

Girl: We're addicted, we're obsessed.

The obsession is nationwide. More than 20 million copies of the books are in print. They're a hit with girls and boys. And the movie is projected to bring in over $100 million opening weekend. Could the "Hunger Games" be -- dare I say it -- bigger than "Twilight"?

Susan Gunelius: I think it has a really, really good chance.

That's Susan Gunelius, marketing expert and chief executive of Key Splash Creative. "Twilight" has made $2.5 billion. A lot of it comes from shirts, posters, "Twilight" perfume and other merchandise. Susan Gunelius says it's not hard to sell a romance with sexy vampires and hunky werewolves.

Gunelius: But "The Hunger Games" is dangerous territory in some ways because this is a violent book, this is a violent series. And it involves children.

So how do you sell a story full of poverty, starvation and teen-on-teen killings? Very carefully, says Paula Kupfer. She's in charge of merchandise and cross promotion for "Hunger Games" movie.

Paula Kupfer: The unknown of how is this story going to translate and how are customers going to react was definitely top of mind for many of the brands that we reached out to.

Some didn't reach back. So her team focused on the world and the characters in the movie -- not the action. You won't see a single fight scene on any of the products. You will see cross promotions with brands like Microsoft, Mattel and Barnes & Noble. And of course there will be T-shirts, posters, notebooks, even "Hunger Games"-themed jewelry. Some tie-ins though, just won't happen.

Kupfer: A Happy Meal would never in a hundred years work for "The Hunger Games." It just, it just wouldn't.

Lionsgate's Paula Kupfer hopes that once marketers see the movie, and the money it makes, they'll change their minds. And with three sequels already in the works -- they'll have plenty of opportunity to get on board.

In Los Angeles, I'm Sanden Totten for Marketplace.

About the author

Sanden Totten is the science reporter for KPCC. He is a fan of loud music, comics and movies about time travel.

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