Welcome to the YA Movie Countdown, our resident expert’s biweekly guide to young-adult book-to-film adaptations.
The summer season is most definitely the time for major moneymaking at the box office. If just about every young-adult book-to-film adaptation out there is outwardly vying to become the next Hunger Games, why not plop it down right in the middle of summer to maximize its box office potential?
Pros: The obvious pro to being a summer season release is that movies arriving during the summertime tend to be some of the year’s highest earners. If you look at last year’s top three biggest openers, two were summer debuts and the sole anomaly was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which arrived in November. The year before? Same thing. Hunger Games hit it big in March, but The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises both crushed it in summer slots. There’s just always more money to go around during the summer season. Generally we see a box office spike the first weekend of May and then the overall gross total flirts with the $200 million line through the end of July before the August drop-off.
The saying is very familiar at this point, but it’s true: if you want to make big money, a summer debut will put the odds in your favor. But of course, there’s more to it than just selecting a summer slot and keeping your fingers crossed.
Cons: Simply put, YA adaptations just don’t fit in with other movies on the summer lineup. The large majority of summer movies are going after a specific audience. If you look at almost every single weekend of the summer 2014 schedule, it’s generally two movies and both have completely different target audiences. 22 Jump Street goes after the R-rated comedy crowd while How to Train Your Dragon 2 makes a play for families. Blended will attract those on the hunt for a silly comedy while X-Men: Days of Future Past will consume the enormous superhero crowd. You’ve got two clear-cut options and that makes it easy to pick, leaving little room for a middle ground, which tends to be where the YA films fall.
Superhero movies can appeal to just about anyone, but at this point it’s a pretty defined crowd. There’s a built-in audience and it’s almost a guarantee that they’ll come out for each and every one. It’s not the same with young-adult material. Yes, every young-adult series has a pre-established fan base, but it’s a significantly smaller group than those who hold comics near and dear, and there’s also far less crossover. Many YA readers do love Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner, but there’s no connectivity like in the Marvel universe. You can pick and choose, skip one here or there and never feel left out.
The difficulty in classifying YA films also makes them less summer friendly. Warm Bodies has zombies, romance, comedy and action. Hunger Games has action, romance and some sci-fi components, and Divergent can claim the same. They’re all over the place. Fans of the source material who know what to expect will be in, but those unfamiliar with the books will need convincing, and when you’ve got to do that convincing while up against more familiar fare, it’s going to be even more challenging.
The Facts: Hunger Games was going to be big no matter where it landed, but the fact that it debuted all by itself on March 23, 2012 absolutely contributed to that epic $152.5 million opening-weekend haul.
The Twilight Saga, however, is more interesting to track because it jumped around from Thanksgiving to summer and back again. After the first film tested the waters and sparked the Twihard madness, the release of New Moon proved the franchise’s blockbuster status with a $142.8 million November 20 debut. If the second installment made that much money in the fall, it’s got to hit it even bigger in the summertime, right? Far from it. In June of 2010, Eclipse opened right after Toy Story 3 and Grown Ups, and went against The Last Airbender and suffered for it, only collecting $64.8 million to start. The moment the franchise moved back to Thanksgiving for Breaking Dawn Part 1, things picked right back up and the series posted a $138.1 million debut for film four.
Similar to Twilight, Harry Potter laid the groundwork using the Thanksgiving slot with The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. Its first go in a summer spot with Prisoner of Azkaban marked an improvement, but likely not as much as they hoped because after it claimed $93.7 million to start, the franchise moved back to November for the Goblet of Fire, which snagged a more impressive $102.7 million opening haul. After that, Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince got summer releases and neither managed to crack $80 million, but when Deathly Hallows Part 1 shifted back to November, it scored a whopping $125 million. Clearly there’s a trend here, but Deathly Hallows Part 2 is the only one that deviates from it, likely because it was the series finale. Part 2 brought the franchise back to the summer season and absolutely decimated the competition with $169.2 million for its first few days out.
It’s also worth looking at some of the more modest, yet successful, YA releases, and particularly Warm Bodies. This one broke the mold. Just when frustration with the schmaltzy supernatural YA love triangle hit the max, Warm Bodies swooped in to poke fun at it while supporting that satire with an exciting, engaging story. Positive reviews and prerelease buzz likely gave it a good push, but Warm Bodies also had an optimal debut date. It followed a string of weak January releases, only went head-to-head with Bullet to the Head and then enjoyed some breathing room before the Valentine’s Day movies hit.
Conclusion: Young-adult book-to-film adaptations have loads of potential, but most require a lot of prerelease attention. There are films like the Harry Potter series – and probably The Hunger Games at this point – that can hold their own in a summer slot, but they’re still better off battling themselves, not other movies.
Most summer releases have the benefit of having pre-established fan bases or being able to tap into a specific demographic that’s been proven to turn up for certain kinds of films. The large majority of YA material that has hit theaters thus far tends to dabble in a variety of genres rather than go after just one, so no matter when it hits theaters, it’s got some serious promotional work to do. By locking a release date with less competition, moviegoers unfamiliar with the text are left with no choice but to at least consider it, but that generally isn’t an option during the summertime.
The Fault in Our Stars should be okay courtesy of its lower budget and the fact that it’s only facing off against Edge of Tomorrow, but the Weinstein Company really gave The Giver quite the uphill battle. Not only will the more intense sci-fi spin throw some potential viewers off, but the mid-August debut against three other wide releases doesn’t bode well for its box office haul either.
Releasing a Marvel movie in the dead of summer is a probable win. The summer season is a time for superheroes, explosions and worldwide destruction with a few strong comedies and dramas in the mix. We expect it and want it. It’s not that there’s no interest in trying something new, but had something like The Maze Runner dropped in the middle of summer, no matter how strong the movie is, it undoubtedly would have been swallowed up by X-Men: Days of Future Past, Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy and more.
There’s no point in saying it can’t be done because, of course, you really never know, but if you’ve got a potential YA-to-film hit on your hands, giving it a summer release will certainly diminish the chances of hitting it big and spawning a franchise.
What do you think it would take for a YA adaptation to become a summer blockbuster?
The YA Movie Countdown runs here on Movies.com every other Wednesday.
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