How do you market a film to a young adult audience wherein 23 kids are killed in brutal battle? That was the conundrum posed to the marketing team at Lionsgate, who in 2012, were tasked with promoting the first film in a franchise based on the ultra-popular Hunger Games novel series.
To resolve the campaign’s first barrier, Tim Palen, CMO of Lionsgate and additionally now Summit, said the team set some ground rules. The first, much-contested but ultimately decided-on, was to not show the actual games. According to Palen, there were others. “We made a rule that we would never say ‘23 kids get killed;’ we say, ‘only one wins.’” They also banned the phrase, “Let the games begin.”
The marketing team needed a way to promote Hunger Games’ cutting social commentary, one that shows how the upper class reams the lower class in order to maintain their luxury status. While the U.S. government is not oppressive like the one in the series, there still exists a large wage gap in corporate America, where the average salary ratio between CEO and employee is 319:1 (the ratio was 119:1 twenty years ago). Those same corporations partner with movie studios to market films.
To walk that fine line, the team conceived their marketing materials to mirror the Capitol’s propaganda in a sly version of art mirroring life. In speaking of the second film, author Suzanne Collins felt it struck the right balance. “It’s appropriately disturbing and thought-provoking how the campaign promotes Catching Fire while simultaneously promoting the Capitol’s punitive forms of entertainment. The image of Katniss in her wedding dress that we use to sell tickets is just the kind of thing the Capitol would use to rev up its audience.”
Seth Schur, senior account executive at Signal Entertainment Marketing which specializes in branded entertainment partnerships agreed on the importance of a unified marketing campaign. “Keeping brand partnerships organic to the world of the film is crucial for creating an emotional connection for consumers. A seamless brand/content fit creates a sense of authenticity that consumers look for which in turn will enhance their viewing experience. Absent of that, any positive brand messaging gets lost and you risk alienating the audience and fostering a negative view of the brand and film.”
Another hurdle the team faced was how to turn the YA adaptation into the next big franchise on a $45 million marketing budget—half of what other studio franchises are usually earmarked. To solve that problem they had to get creative, and by creative we mean digital. To date, Hunger Games towers above comparable YA films like Divergent and Maze Runner, though it has a ways to go before reaching Twilight’s 48 million Facebook fans. Still, Hunger Games is the dystopian YA winner, with 21 million fans compared to Divergent’s 3.7 million and Maze Runner’s 1.7 million.
Thanks are due in part to the adoration of the novel series, but anticipation was certainly spiked by the marketing team’s digital strategies. Below are some of the tactics the team used to create a buzzy campaign that lead to the two films’ gross of over $1.5 billion dollars.
SSN Insight: Lionsgate partnered with Microsoft, and digital agencies Ignition and The Nerdery, to develop an augmented reality Capitol Tour site beginning with the first film. On the original site, visitors experienced what it was like to arrive at the fictional government Capitol. The site inconspicuously promoted Internet Explorer by displaying a message that it was best viewed in IE9. Once in, hidden features encouraged curiosity and lengthened the time fans spent on the site. For the latest film, the site has morphed into the Capitol.pn site under the guise of the Panem council.
Twitter Jigsaw Puzzle
SSN Insight: One hundred days before the first film’s release, the team came up with a new way to create buzz around a simple movie poster—they devised a game. Lionsgate designed a poster and then cut it into 100 puzzle pieces. The pieces were then dispersed digitally to 100 web sites who were asked to post them on Twitter. Using Photoshop or just an old-fashioned printer, fans pieced together the puzzle. The result of this playful experiment? #HungerGames100 trended worldwide in minutes. Palen was surprised at the success of the ploy, saying, “it was a silly little stunt, but it worked—bam.”
Capitol Couture Faux Fashion Magazine
SSN Insight: The films’ opulent Capitol district is a place where people parade around in high-priced couture fashions. What better way to showcase those looks than to create a magazine? Beginning with Catching Fire, Lionsgate did just that. The online magazine full of avant garde designs ranging from runway looks to pieces that would fit right in at LACMA. While the magazine’s premise is fake, the attention to detail and creativity springs from very real designers from around the world. The proximity-sensing spider dress that contains nano-bots is a work of science fiction, but a dress designed through a collaboration between Noa Raviv and Stratasys uses 3-D printed elements that can be made and worn today.
“Our Leader the Mockingjay” Mobile App
SSN Insight: The team created the very large (87MB) app in support of Mockingjay to look as if it was created by the rebellion and not the Capitol—ironic, considering the prominent placement of Mazda and Doritos logos throughout the app. The app augments the world around you, allowing you to place a hovercraft within your surroundings (albeit only viewed by seeing your phone) and explore them. Same with the District 13 app, which includes a fan-created scavenger hunt to find “District 13” marks within your neighborhood. Not only does it increase engagement by allowing ways to interact with like-minded rebels, but adds an exclusive, underground coolness factor.
Capitol TV’s District Voices YouTube Videos
SSN Insight: In quite possibly the most brilliant, synergistic move from Lionsgate marketing comes the Capitol TV video series, District Voices, created for the latest film. Each district has essentially what are different guilds- District 1 is in charge of clothing and luxury items; District 2, masonry and soldier training; and so on. Lionsgate cleverly teamed up with YouTube celebrities and paired them with the District that best matched their brand. In the case of District 9, responsible for grain production, Lionsgate tapped the Feast of Fiction crew for an “in the world Hunger Games” cooking lesson. Every pairing increased the marketing reach by leveraging each channel’s passionate subscribers, numbering upwards of 200,000, or in iJustine’s case, two million.
Hunger Games latest entrant, Mockingjay Part 1, has already grossed $17 million since Thursday and is predicted to add another $152 million this holiday weekend alone. But the games are far from over. How will Lionsgate’s marketing team evolve for Mockingjay Part 2 now that the rebellion is in full swing? Will there be more hacks into Panem’s government sites? Sound off in comments below with your ideas.