Eddie Mansius, left, Cullen McMillian, Nick Rhyne, Duncan Rule and Maddie… (John W. Adkisson / For the…)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Duncan Rule discovered "The Hunger Games" shortly after the novel came out four years ago. He recommended it to Eddie Mansius, his best friend since seventh grade. Eddie urged Nick Rhyne and Maddie Moore to read it.
Maddie devoured the book, which meshes a teenage coming-of-age story with reality TV and war, in three days.
"It was like I never wanted it to end," said Maddie, who went to YouTube and was disappointed to find a movie hadn't been made.
She and her three friends, high school sophomores at the time, decided to make their own.
Maddie played Katniss, the 16-year-old heroine who is forced to fight other children to the death for the entertainment of a vapid futuristic society. Nick played Gale, the heroine's love interest; Eddie portrayed Peeta, a former schoolmate of Katniss' who teams up with her in the arena. Friends and family members were enlisted to round out the cast.
Their budget starting out: $30.
When they needed to shoot interiors, they used Duncan's home in Charlotte's Eastover neighborhood. Exteriors were shot at Maddie's family farm an hour north of Charlotte, or at the park down the street from Eddie's house. Costumes came from Goodwill or their own closets.
After their first video and subsequent installments went live on the Internet, they were on their way to becoming celebrities.
These days, the friends — minus Duncan, who is camera shy — get stopped in all sorts of places; outside the Sprint store, at Wendy's and at summer camp. Nick was recognized while on vacation with his family in Turks and Caicos Islands in the Bahamas.
Even the new girl at their school who arrived from Ireland last year had seen the videos. "Don't I know you from somewhere?" she said to Eddie and Maddie in an honors French class.
Last spring Eddie, Maddie and Nick were invited to ConCarolinas, a science fiction convention in Charlotte, to sit on panels including "Film Directing 101" and "Everything You Wanted to Know About Filmmaking." Then they entered an overflowing screening room and watched their videos on a big movie screen for the first time.
It was billed as their North American premiere.
On a recent Saturday evening, Eddie and his friends gathered outside Duncan's house to shoot a sequence from "Catching Fire," the second book in the trilogy. The scene involves Katniss stumbling up the steps of the house and falling into Gale's waiting arms.
Duncan lighted the scene with a $40 LED video light. Cullen McMillian, a friend of Eddie's, held a makeshift boom built from a shotgun microphone attached to a broken camera tripod.
Eddie, who directs the videos, looked down at his camera. "This isn't going to work," he said. "Duncan, make sure to follow her with the light. Cullen, you don't need to do boom because there is no dialogue in this scene. Maddie, walk slower this time."
Two more takes and the scene was done. They put it on YouTube on Jan. 4. The feature film version is scheduled to come out in November.
So far, the group has written, produced, edited and starred in 10 videos based on the "Hunger Games" trilogy, each about eight minutes long and posted on YouTube under the name L4gMast3Rz. The teenagers posted their first video in December 2010, more than a year before Hollywood's first film came out. That episode was quickly picked up by the "Hunger Games" fan site Mockingjay.net and in less than a week was viewed 6,000 times.
The friends were so excited they filmed a video thanking their fans for watching it.
It has become easier for amateur productions to find an audience beyond indulgent friends and relatives. Sites such as YouTube and Vimeo give even the most amateur backyard auteur access to millions of viewers.
Today, the friends' DIY videos altogether have been viewed more than 4.5 million times. Their videos are popular, but the friends haven't made any money from them.
"YouTube said they would send us a check when we hit a certain threshold from the advertising on our videos, but that hasn't happened yet," Eddie said.
It's not unusual for high school friends to make home movies. Steven Spielberg made his first film as a teenager in 1958. He used a Super 8 camera. Soon the family camcorder became popular. Now, inexpensive digital cameras and desktop editing software can let any teen produce polished videos.
The friends are embarrassed by their early videos, shot with their parents' camcorders in fall 2010. The sound is a bit muffled, and the picture quality isn't great, but there are moments of beauty — the shots of nature that run behind the credits, a close up of Maddie's fingers worrying the rim of a water bottle as her character contemplates her next move.
"Production value doesn't matter if a video captures the spirit of the books," says Crystal Watanabe, an administrator at Mockingjay.net. "Our audience just wants to relive the feeling they had when they were reading the books for the first time."