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Originally published March 19, 2012 at 3:45 PM | Page modified March 20, 2012 at 3:19 PM

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How 'Hunger Games' movie built up must-see fever

A small crew with a tiny marketing budget made gradual use of social media to build interest in a movie with tricky subject matter.

The New York Times

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SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Selling a movie used to be a snap. You printed a poster, ran trailers in theaters and carpet-bombed NBC's Thursday night lineup with ads.

Today, that kind of campaign would get a movie marketer fired. The dark art of movie promotion increasingly lives on the Web, where studios are playing a wilier game, using social media and a blizzard of other inexpensive yet effective online techniques to pull off what may be the marketer's ultimate trick: persuading fans to persuade each other.

The art lies in allowing fans to feel as if they are discovering a film, but in truth Hollywood's new promotional paradigm involves a digital hard sell in which little is left to chance — as becomes apparent in a rare step-by-step tour through the timetable and techniques used by Lionsgate to assure that "The Hunger Games" becomes a box-office phenomenon when it opens Friday.

While some studios have halted once-standard marketing steps like newspaper ads, Lionsgate used all the usual old-media tricks — giving away 80,000 posters, securing almost 50 magazine covers, advertising on 3,000 billboards and bus shelters.

But the campaign's centerpiece has been a yearlong, four-phase digital effort built around the content platforms cherished by young audiences: near-constant use of Facebook and Twitter, a YouTube channel, a Tumblr blog, iPhone games and live Yahoo streaming from the premiere.

By carefully lighting online kindling (releasing a fiery logo to movie blogs) and controlling the Internet burn over the course of months (a Facebook contest here, a Twitter scavenger hunt there), Lionsgate's chief marketing officer, Tim Palen, appears to have created a box-office inferno.

Analysts project that the "The Hunger Games," which cost about $80 million to make and is planned as a four-movie franchise, could have opening-weekend sales of about $90 million — far more than the first "Twilight" and on par with "Iron Man," which went on to take in over $585 million worldwide in 2008.

Along the way the studio had to navigate some unusually large pitfalls, chief among them the film's tricky subject matter of children killing children for a futuristic society's televised amusement. The trilogy of novels, written by Suzanne Collins, also featured violence as entertainment, not an easy line for a movie marketer to walk, even though the movie itself is quite tame in its depiction of killing.

"The beam for this movie is really narrow, and it's a sheer drop to your death on either side," said Palen, during an unusually candid two-hour presentation of his "Hunger Games" strategy at the studio's offices here last month.

A built-in fan base for "The Hunger Games" certainly helps its prospects. More than 24 million copies of "The Hunger Games" trilogy are in print in the United States alone. (About 9.6 million copies were in circulation domestically when the movie's marketing campaign intensified last summer, so Lionsgate's efforts appear to have sold the book as well as the movie.

Lionsgate has generated this high level of interest with a marketing staff of 21 people working with a relatively tiny budget of about $45 million. Bigger studios routinely spend $100 million marketing major releases, and have worldwide marketing and publicity staffs of over 100 people. Lionsgate has been able to spend so little largely because Palen has relied on inexpensive digital initiatives to whip up excitement.

The irony is that all of this may still not be enough to save Palen's job. In a corporate twist on "The Hunger Games," Palen is being forced to fight for his professional life following Lionsgate's acquisition in January of Summit Entertainment, which controls the "Twilight" franchise. That means Lionsgate now has two marketing chiefs, and there is only room for one.

Palen declined to comment on his job status, but it is clear that Collins is perplexed at the possibility of a future without him. "He's a generous collaborator," she said in an email. "His work is so exceptionally good, I rarely had any notes. If he keeps his emails, he must have about 50 from me that say, 'That looks amazing!' "

Early promotion for "The Hunger Games" started in spring 2009, when Palen flew to New York to meet with publicity executives from Scholastic to learn about the book franchise. Rubber didn't hit the road, however, until last March, when the Lionsgate team, including Julie Fontaine, executive vice president of publicity, started methodically pumping out casting news via Facebook.

They assigned one team member to cultivate "Hunger Games" fan blogs. Danielle DePalma, senior vice president for digital marketing, drafted a chronology for the entire online effort, using spreadsheets (coded in 12 colors) that detailed what would be introduced on a day-by-day, and even minute-by-minute, basis over months. ("Nov. 17: Facebook posts — photos, Yahoo brand page goes live.")

One important online component involved a sweepstakes to bring five fans to the movie's North Carolina set. Notably, Lionsgate invited no reporters: The studio did not want consumers thinking this was another instance of Hollywood trying to force-feed them a movie through professional filters. "People used to be OK with studios telling them what to like," DePalma said. "Not anymore. Now it's, 'You don't tell us, we tell you.' "

Last summer, the Lionsgate team, including Nina Jacobson, a producer, and Joe Drake, then the studio's top movie executive, started debating how to handle the movie's subject. The usual move would have been to exploit imagery from the games in TV commercials. How else would men in particular get excited about the movie? But Palen was worried.

"This book is on junior high reading lists, but kids killing kids, even though it's handled delicately in the film, is a potential perception problem in marketing," he said.

One morning, he floated a radical idea: what about never showing the games at all in the campaign? Some team members were incredulous; after all, combat scenes make up more than half the movie. "There was a lot of, 'You've got to be kidding. I don't see how we can manage that,' " Palen recalled.

Eventually, he prevailed. "Everyone liked the implication that if you want to see the games you have to buy a ticket," he said. Boundaries were also established involving how to position plot developments; in the movie, 24 children fight to the death until one wins, but "we made a rule that we would never say '23 kids get killed,' " Palen said. "We say 'only one wins.' " The team also barred the phrase "Let the games begin."

"This is not about glorifying competition; these kids are victims," Palen said. A few months later, when a major entertainment magazine planned to use "Let the Games Begin" as the headline on a "Hunger Games" cover, Fontaine, traveling in London, frantically worked her cellphone until editors agreed to change it.

In August came a one-minute sneak peek, introduced online at MTV.com. People liked it but complained — loudly — that it wasn't enough. "We weren't prepared for that level of we-demand-more pushback," Palen said.

The footage did include a Twitter prompt through which fans could discover a website for the movie, TheCapitol.pn. (The Capitol is where the Hunger Games take place.) The site allowed visitors to make digital ID cards as if they lived in Panem, the movie's futuristic society; more than 800,000 people have created them.

October included another Twitter stunt, this time meant to allow those ID-makers to campaign online to be elected mayor of various districts of Panem. November included the iTunes release of the main trailer, which received eight million views in its first 24 hours.

On Dec. 15, 100 days before the movie's release, the studio created a new poster and cut it into 100 puzzle pieces. It then gave digital versions of those pieces to 100 websites and asked them to post their puzzle piece on Twitter in lockstep.

Fans had to search Twitter to put together the poster, either by printing out the pieces and cutting them out or using a program like Photoshop. "The Hunger Games" trended worldwide on Twitter within minutes.

"It was a silly little stunt, but it worked — bam," Palen said.

More movie hubs went live on sites like PopSugar, Moviefone and The Huffington Post in January, which also was the start of a lavish Tumblr blog called Capitol Couture (http://capitolcouture.pn/) dedicated to the movie's unique fashions. Fifty more websites coordinated a ticket giveaway. Capitol TV — movie footage, user-generated "Hunger Games" videos — arrived on YouTube in February and has since generated almost 17.7 million video views.

This week, remembering it is operating in the attention deficit era, Lionsgate will introduce a new Facebook game and, separately, a virtual tour of the Capitol in a Web partnership with Microsoft.

"You've got to constantly give people something new to get excited about, but we also had another goal in mind," DePalma said. "How do we best sustain online interest until the DVD comes out?"

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