Actors Josh Hutcherson, left, and Jennifer Lawrence arrive at the premiere… (Kevin Winter, Getty Images )
As anticipation for the opening of "The Hunger Games" reaches a fever pitch, a central element is absent from every trailer, television ad and online video: the games themselves.
It's impossible to imagine a commercial for a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie that doesn't show a single buccaneer or a "Transformers" trailer without any robots.
In an unusual and risky strategy, Lionsgate studio has crafted a $45-million marketing campaign that shows none of the titular combat, in which teenagers fight to the death while their futuristic society watches on TV.
The stakes for the Santa Monica company could hardly be higher with next Friday's opening.
"The Hunger Games" kicks off a planned quartet of films that analysts estimate could generate between $800 million and $2 billion of profit for Lionsgate. Failure could cause the company's stock price — which has nearly doubled over the last six months partly because of expectations for the movies — to plummet.
The odds of a flop are slim, however. Fans of the books by Suzanne Collins, which have been translated into 26 languages and have sold nearly 24 million copies in the U.S. alone, have already snapped up enough tickets to sell out more than 1,000 shows. Pre-release surveys indicate "The Hunger Games" will open to more than $100 million domestically, making it the biggest debut of the year and the first to ever reach such box-office heights while hiding so much of its content.
"If you can get people excited while insinuating that you haven't even shown them the good stuff yet, it's an incredibly powerful notion," said Jim Gallagher, a consultant who formerly ran marketing for Walt Disney Studios. "Most films can't afford to play so coy."
The filmmakers themselves faced a careful balancing act in loyally adapting the books while still earning the PG-13 rating needed to draw a broad audience and turn a profit on a movie that cost nearly $100 million to make (tax credits brought the total closer to $80 million).
"It was important to us to make a faithful adaptation that doesn't soft-pedal the subject matter but is respectful of our audiences," producer Nina Jacobson said. "We wanted to make sure that our movie is not guilty of the crimes of the Capitol," she added, referring to the elites in the books who organize the Hunger Games to entertain an oppressed populace.
Lionsgate's marketing president, Tim Palen, decided soon after the studio bought rights to the "Hunger Games" books four years ago that the marketing materials would downplay the story's most dramatic and potentially disturbing moments, according to people present in meetings who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
With the exception of horror films that only hint at their characters' gruesome fates, few movies show as little of their main narratives in marketing materials as "The Hunger Games" campaign has done.
But at a time when audiences complain that trailers and ads too often give away the entire plots of movies, Palen wanted to take a "less is more" approach that would make "The Hunger Games" stand out. Some at Lionsgate were also concerned that out-of-context shots of teenagers hunting and stabbing one another and snapping one another's necks could alienate potential viewers.
Although millions of people have read the books or heard what they are about, tracking polls indicate that the picture's appeal is so broad that some may not be familiar with the details. A staggering 84% of moviegoers said this week that they had heard of "The Hunger Games," and 61% said they were definitely interested in seeing it. Both figures have grown in the last two weeks, indicating that the title is only now coming onto some people's radars.
Some of them could be surprised by the movie's violent content, particularly if they bring children. At Monday night's world premiere, sobs could be heard throughout the theater at one character's particularly tragic death.
Two of the people present in marketing meetings said Lionsgate did have a backup plan: If the movie was not generating sufficient interest, new ads would have been cut to show more of the gladiatorial action. (A spokesman for the studio declined to make Palen available for an interview.)
The wild popularity of the books themselves, which have sold about 12 million copies in the last seven months alone, may make recutting the trailers unnecessary. Lionsgate has already whipped up fan hysteria with numerous online initiatives.