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YA Films By The Numbers – From HARRY POTTER To DIVERGENT

YA – (adj.) Abbreviation for “young adult” as a designation of the intended/ primary audience for books, movies, and other forms of entertainment.
The American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association defines ‘young adult’ by the age range of 12 to 18.
Alternatively, genre aficionados split the age range into “teen” (ages 10-15) and “young adult” (16-25). [Wikipedia – “Young-Adult Fiction”]

YA films

1 Corinthians 13:11 defines the ‘natural’ order of life: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” My life vis-à-vis novels, films, and other cultural entertainment, however, seems to have gone against this tide. For when I was a child/tween, I read books like The Joy Luck Club, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Flowers for Algernon; did a 6th-grade oral book report on The World According to Garp; stood on opening weekend lines (with a parent) to see Forrest Gump (1994), The Birdcage (1996), and The First Wives Club (1996); and watched Sex and the City live from Season 2 (1991) on.

It wasn’t until late 2001—and 3 in-theater viewings of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone—that I really discovered the wide world of young-adult (YA) fiction. In the years since, I’ve saved the Wizarding World with Harry Potter, fought the Titans with Percy Jackson, pondered “sameness” with The Giver, brought down the government with The Hunger Games, defeated the Buggers with Ender’s Game, and declared myself Divergent. I’ve loved (almost) every minute spent immersed in these universes—though, I’ll never love the HP Epilogue (and you can’t make me!).

For years, I’ve bought advance tickets with friends and excitedly counted down the days leading up to various movie releases—and, until recently, was rarely truly disappointed by a YA film adaptation. (Though, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive HP for starting the whole let’s-split-the-last-book-into-two-movies thing.) And as I experienced all this again while eagerly awaiting Divergent—which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend—I got to thinking about the YA films of years past…

It’s no easy task to adapt any literary work for the silver screen—especially when the work has a zealously passionate fandom, as many YA series do—so frankly I’m impressed by how many of the early YA adaptations did so well at the box office…or so it seemed.

According to Entertainment Weekly: “For a movie to turn a profit, its domestic gross has to double its budget.” (Geoff Boucher & Grady Smith, “How Did These Movies Get Sequels?”, Entertainment Weekly (July 26, 2013), #1269, pp. 50-51, 50) For example: Divergent‘s production budget was $85M, therefore for it to be considered “profitable,” its domestic gross must be at least $170M. [$170M/$85M = 2.00 “P.Ratio“]

Applying this formula to the Harry Potter (HP), Twilight (TW), and Hunger Games (HG) franchises yields interesting results:
….• Only 2 of the 8 HP movies were “profitable”: Sorcerer’s Stone (2.54) and Chamber of Secrets (2.62).
….• Of the other 6 HPs, 4 missed a 2.00 P.Ratio by less than 0.1—Prisoner of Azkaban (1.92), Goblet of Fire (1.93), Order of the Phoenix (1.95), and Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (1.91)—while Half Blood Prince (1.21) and Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (1.52) had significantly larger differentials. (Franchise average P.Ratio = 1.839.)
….• All 5 TW movies were “profitable,” with 3 grossing move than 4-times their budgets: Twilight (5.21), New Moon (5.93), and Eclipse (4.42). (Franchise average P.Ratio = 3.542.)
……..New Moon currently has the highest P.Ratio of the 36 YA films I surveyed, followed by The Hunger Games (5.23) and Twilight (5.21).
….• Both HG movies have grossed more than 3-times their estimated costs: The Hunger Games (5.23) and Catching Fire (3.27 [to-date]).
….• Overall estimated franchise costs: HP = $1.3 billion; TW = $385M; and HG = $208M (to-date).
Including foreign grosses, however, indicates that neither Warner Bros. nor Lionsgate/Summit were/are likely to be too unhappy with the performance of any HP, TW, or HG movie, which had/ have worldwide franchise grosses of over $7.5 billion, $3 billion, and $1.5 billion (to-date) respectively.

Intriguingly, there does not appear to be any definitive correlation between this kind of “profitability” and critical acclaim. The 8 HP movies had Rotten Tomatoes scores ranging from 78-96, with an average score of 84.75. (The 6 un-“profitable” HP averaged an 86.) On the other hand, TW’s 5 movies had a 24-49 score range, with an average of 39.6. The 2 HG movies topped both franchises with a range of 84-89, averaging an 86.5.

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2013 saw an unprecedented deluge of YA adaptations, with the release of 10 films—2 sequels: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (PJ:SoM) and Catching Fire (HG:CF); and 8 new/solo: Warm Bodies (WB) [SOLO], Beautiful Creatures (BC) [SERIES #1], The Host (SOLO), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (TMI:CoB) [SERIES #1], The Spectacular Now (SOLO), Ender’s Game (EG) [SERIES #1], How I Live Now (HILN) [SOLO], and The Book Thief (BT) [SOLO]. Comparatively, the years 2012 and 2011 had 3 YA adaptations each, while 2010 had 4.

The number of releases was not, however, the only unprecedented trend of 2013—so too was the number of those movies that fell so far short of being “profitable”:
….• 7 films had P.Ratios of less than 2, with all but WB (1.91) having ratios of less than 1: BC (0.32), TMI:CoB (0.52), Host (0.67), PJ:SoM (0.76), EG (0.56), and BT (0.61). [No production budget was available for HILN.]
……..— Putting WB’s “profitability” in perspective: WB needed to domestically gross an additional $3.6M in order to be turn a profit.
……..Beautiful Creatures (0.32) has the lowest P.Ratio of all 36 YA films surveyed, followed by 2007’s The Golden Compass (0.39), and TMI:CoB (0.52).
….• 2 very different 2013 adaptations were “profitable”: HG:CF (3.27) [to-date] and The Spectacular Now (2.74).
….• Overall, only 20-22.2% of 2013’s YA films were “profitable”. [20% if HILN was not profitable; 22.2% if HILN is excluded; 30% if HILN was profitable.]
….• Comparatively, the years 2010, 2011, and 2012 saw profitability percentages from 25% to 66.7%:
……..— 2010: 25% profitable— Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (0.93), Eclipse (4.42), HP:DH1 (1.52), and The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (0.67);
……..— 2011: 33.3% profitable— I Am Number Four (0.92), HP:DH2 (1.91), and TW:BD1 (2.56); and
……..— 2012: 66.7% profitable— HG (5.23), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1.36), and TW:BD2 (2.44).

As a fervent lover of YA fiction/adaptations, I’ve felt a need to make sense of 2013’s drastic shift. It seemed highly unlikely that any one factor that determined an adaptation’s ‘success’ (or lack thereof). Rather, a number of contributing factors seem more likely to affect the outcome:

(1) Studios have taken to buying rights before a series’ first book is released, which limits their ability to predict the size and fervor of a property’s fandom. Consider the following comparison of Harry Potter, Twilight, Vampire Academy, The Hunger Games, Beautiful Creatures, Divergent, and upcoming series The Outliers:
ya adaptationsThere may (or may not) be more to gain from a wait-and-see approach to optioning/acquiring rights. Ultimately, it appears to come down to two things: (1) Luck—that the optioned series does, in fact, built a strong (and lasting) fan-base; and (2) What you do with those rights—whether the filmmaker’s vision matches and/or is pleasing to the fandom (and, ideally, its most vocal overlords).

(2) Adaptations may fail to turn a ‘profit’ because their production cost too much. Some YA films spent $50+M to adapt a book that sold fewer than 1M copies, which may not be the best strategy.
ya adaptations

To be fair, however, Divergent may demonstrate a new trend of fewer moviegoers being lured to YA films by their books. Only 50% of Divergent‘s opening weekend crowd had read the novel, compared to Twilight‘s 74% and The Hunger Games‘ 76%. [BuzzFeed]

……Other YA films cast big names for smaller roles, which may serve only to inflate cost without corresponding box office benefit. In Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010), Greek gods/goddesses and other adult characters, who are probably on screen for approximately 10 minutes (of a total 118), are played by the likes of Pierce Brosnan (Chiron), Uma Thurman (Medusa), Catherine Keener (Sally, Percy’s mom), Sean Bean (Zeus), Steve Coogan (Hades), Kevin McKidd (Poseidon), and Rosario Dawson (Persephone). With a group like this, is it any wonder that the movie cost $95M to make? (Did you know Ned Stark played Zeus? If so, is that the reason you went to see PJ:LT in theaters? If you answered “yes” to both these questions, I’m not sure I believe you….) [Domestic Gross = $88.8M; P.Ratio = 0.93]

……Ultimately, spending more does not guarantee better box office results. Two of the Narnia adaptations—those distributed by Buena Vista, as opposed to the third distributed by 20th Century Fox—serve to illustrate this point:
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(3) Others may have simply been better suited for television, where adapted series have found varying degrees of success, from the modest success of The Secret Circle and The Lying Game, to the uber-success of Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries. Kass Morgan‘s The 100 (2013) recently elected this strategy. Its success on The CW—a powerhouse of former and current YA adaptations—remains to be seen.

(4) Some YA series have difficult selling points inherent to their overarching narratives, or narrative structures that may not translate well on film.

……The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, for example, has an extraordinarily hard selling point to overcome. Nowadays, a believable (and, ideally, kind of hot) romance is practically a prerequisite to YA series’ publication. TMI:CoB has such a romance…but (*SPOILER ALERT*) the participants turn out to be long-lost brother and sister. No matter how much Lily Collins and/or Jamie Campbell Bower float your boat, incest is nearly-if-not-always a very hard sell.

……Other YA films suffer from structural problems that arise in the adaptation process. Like its source novel by Stephenie Meyer, The Host relies on an inner monologue between Melanie and Wanda (the ‘soul’ that has taken over Melanie’s body) for much of its exposition. While this works fine on paper, when translated to film just looks like someone talking to themselves too often—and, in this case, serves primarily to stunt both action and forward plot movement.

(5) And still others may do less well because the fandom is not impressed by what was cut, kept, or added in the adaptation process.

……Some make little changes that fans may find merely odd or irksome. For example, Beautiful Creatures changed Ridley’s (Emmy Rossum) car from a “convertible black-and-white Mini Cooper” [Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures, p.191 (iTunes version)] to a red BMW convertible. Why?

……Others, like The Golden Compass (2007), change big-ticket items. Seeking to avoid controversy over His Dark Materials‘ anti-Church bias, GC (the trilogy’s first third) omitted all specific mentions of the Church. In so doing, however, the adaptation likely alienated a substantial portion of its fan-base—including the most hardcore elements who could have been instrumental in building a positive word-of-mouth marketing campaign (before and after the movie’s release) and, if GC had been successful, in lobbying for sequels.

……Others alienate fans by omitting significant plot lines. 2013’s long-awaited Ender’s Game did just this (among other things), cutting the entire Valentine/Peter cyber-politics subplot. As a fan who found this storyline to be extraordinarily interesting, the movie’s decision hardly thrilled me—and it also made me wonder: Why bother casting Abigail Breslin for such a castrated role? Her quote can’t be insignificant, so why increase costs for someone whose talents you’re barely going to use?

With its $54.6M opening weekend and ‘A’ CinemaScore (‘A+’ from age 18 and under moviegoers) [THR], Divergent seems to have avoided these (and other) pitfalls that could prevent its overall ‘success’—and has done significantly better at the box office than its 2014 predecessor Vampire Academy ($12.6M worldwide gross [to-date]). It’s worth noting, however, that Divergent‘s opening weekend gross ranks behind 5 previous YA films—HG:CF ($158.1M), HG ($152.5M), HP:SS ($90.3M), Twilight ($69.6M), and Narnia:LWW ($65.6M)—and average per theater ranks behind 8 other YA films: Perks ($60,052), The Spectacular Now ($50,270), HG:CF ($37,971), HG ($36,871), The Book Thief ($30,193), HP:SS ($24,590), Twilight ($20,368), and N:LWW ($18,129). Only time will tell of Divergent‘s ‘success’…but I think “profitability” lies ahead.

They say those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. I fervently hope that 2014’s 5 forthcoming YA film adaptations—The Fault in our Stars [SOLO] (June 4), The Giver [SOLO] (August 15), If I Stay [SERIES #1] (August 22), The Maze Runner [SERIES #1] (September 19), and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 [SERIES #3] (November 21)—and those of years to come, likewise avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors, both for audiences’ sakes and their own.

YA films
Check out additional DIVERGENT coverage by the Screen Invasion Team!
YA films

Unless otherwise stated, all $$ figures shown and used in calculations taken from Box Office Mojo.
Featured Image: © 2014 Summit Entertainment

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Sarah Katz

Sarah Katz

Born-and-bred New Yorker. Lifelong film & TV lover—from chick flicks, rom-coms, rom-droms, rom-drams, and tweentertainment, to Shakespeare, period pieces, James Bond, fairy tales, and mafia movies.