Ever since “Twilight,” the studios keep making adaptations of Young Adult fantasy/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic-future novel series, but for every “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” that scores, there are several that fail (“Percy Jackson,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Mortal Instruments,” “The Giver”). This weekend’s “The Maze Runner,” however, seems to have figured out a way to beat the curse, as it debuted at No. 1 with an estimated $ 32.5 million, enjoying the sixth biggest September premiere ever.
What did “Maze Runner” do right that allowed it to find its way to box office success? Here are a few things.
Go with a guy. Unlike “Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” the hero of “Maze Runner” is a young man, leading a predominantly male cast. That’s no guarantee of success (look at the “Percy Jackson” movies, “Ender’s Game,” and “The Giver”), but it does help attract young male viewers as well as young female viewers.
Play up the action. The film’s marketing played up the thriller/survivalist aspects more than, say, the various “Hunger Games” promos have, even though both series are also political allegories and psychological dramas. Again, way to cater to the dudes.
Exploit social media. It helps that the series’ author, James Dashner, has a strong online following. So does star Dylan O’Brien, whose starring role on MTV’s “Teen Wolf” has earned him more than two million Twitter followers. The movie has been cross-promoted well, reaching out via Instagram to MTV viewers, as well as “Pretty Little Liars” fans and “Hunger Games” fans (letting them know that the trailer for “Mockingjay” will precede “Maze Runner” screenings), thereby making sure to get the attention of young female viewers as well as male.
Stars aren’t important. O’Brien aside, there aren’t really any big names (certainly no one as well-established as Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley already were when the first “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” movies came out). What sold this movie wasn’t the performers as much as the concept and the execution.
Get good word-of-mouth. “Maze Runner” got very good word-of-mouth, as measured by its A- grade at CinemaScore. So those social-media-savvy fans must have been texting their recommendations furiously after Thursday night’s advance screenings.
3D and IMAX aren’t important. In fact, they can even hurt, since teens are often too cash-poor to pay the surcharges. Only 10 percent of this weekend’s “Maze Runner” grosses came from IMAX screenings. Even without them, it still would have been the weekend’s top-grossing movie.
Open against weak competition. The PG-13-rated adventure was lucky that its two wide-release competitors this week were R-rated movies for grown-ups. And that one, “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” was Liam Neeson’s sixth movie this year. (Could it be that a little Neeson goes a long way?) And that the movie turned out to be more a psychological thriller than the usual Neeson action-fest that it was sold as. And that the other new movie, “This Is Where I Leave You,” was an adult drama whose all-star cast wasn’t enough to overcome tepid reviews – or tepid word-of-mouth. (It earned a so-so B+ at CinemaScore, while “Tombstones” earned a weak B-.)
Keep costs low. “Maze Runner” cost just a reported $ 34 million to produce. Add in foreign grosses (the movie opened early overseas and has already made $ 49 million abroad), and you have a movie that’s already profitable after just one weekend. Not that low budgets guarantee a hit, but they do make for lower expectations, so the movie looks more impressive when it clears that low bar. Plus, low costs help ensure that sequels will be made.
Explore new calendar territory. Speaking of low bars, it’s not that hard to achieve the sixth-biggest September opening ever when September is always such a dismal month at the box office. Teen movies especially tend to avoid September, assuming that kids newly returned to school will be too focused on readjusting to classroom life to have much interest in movies. No one’s ever tried to open a movie like this one in September, but “Maze Runner” has proved it can work. Which is why the second installment in the trilogy, “The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials,” is already set to open on this same weekend next September.
Gallery | YA Books That Couldn’t Cut It as Movies
- ‘Return to Oz’ (1985)
Gross: $ 11,137,801
What filmmaker can recapture the whimsical spirit of L. Frank Baum’s treasured “Oz” books? How about the guy who edited “Apocalypse Now”? Facetiousness aside, Walter Murch is a genius editor (he’s got three Oscars to prove it), but his directorial debut on “Return to Oz” took Dorothy far from Kansas to something that resembles a Salvador Dalí fever dream. Nightmare fuel includes Tin Man and Cowardly Lion turned to stone, severed heads of dancing girls lining a hallway, and creepy Claymation stone giants. Did we mention Dorothy getting shock treatment? Sam Raimi got it far more right this year with his candy colored, tongue-in-cheek “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”
- ‘The Indian in the Cupboard’ (1995)
Gross: $ 35,656,131
In the early ’90s having the word “Scholastic” on a dust jacket usually meant you were destined for a Disney Channel Movie at best, but this movie was different… it had pedigree. British author Lynne Reid Banks had spawned five incredibly popular “Indian in the Cupboard” books that became staples of elementary school libraries, and Paramount got Melissa Mathison (writer of “E.T.”), Kathleen Kennedy (producer of “Jurassic Park”) and director Frank Oz (Muppet genius) to craft a big budget movie with state of the art special effects used to… make actors tiny. Therein lay the problem: Banks’ tale of a cupboard that magically brings toys to life is a perfect world for a 4th grade imagination, but is pretty inert for anyone much older than 10. Lead Hal Scardino is perfectly sweet and earnest as lead boy Omri, and nowhere to be found is Oz’s trademark cynicism.
- ‘Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’ (2004)
Here’s the sad case of an exceptional film getting the short end of the stick. Director Brad Silberling (“Moonlight Mile”) was originally slated to helm the first “Harry Potter” film before Steven Spielberg’s brief flirtation pushed him out. As a consolation prize he landed this “Unfortunate” assignment, which is based on the first three of Daniel Handler’s thirteen(!) books about the Baudelaire orphans and their transparently evil guardian Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). As they’re transferred from Olaf to other eccentrics who meet terrible ends (Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine and Billy Connolly as Uncle Monty), the kids use their ingenuity (and in case of baby Sunny, biting prowess) to foil Olaf’s scheming. Rick Heinrichs’ anachronistic German expressionist production designs are breathtaking, most of them practical sets unencumbered by CGI, and the darkly comic tone is perfect, refusing to condescend to its target audience, perhaps to its own commercial detriment.
- ‘Eragon’ (2006)
It took J.R.R. Tolkien, a noted linguist and Oxford professor, approximately 17 years from conception to completion to write his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Christopher Paolini wrote his first fantasy novel, “Eragon,” at the age of 15. Something tells us he might have skipped a few necessary steps in his development as an author. This pipsqueak penman conjured up a work as deeply clichéd as it is dull, but we can still marvel that he did it on his own, whereas the adult filmmakers behind the doomed film adaptation had no excuse. Guess Jeremy Irons gotta eat. The title teen warrior (Ed Speleers) and his female dragon Saphira (voice of Rachel Weisz) do battle with hordes of CGI soldiers and cross mountaintops while being circled by cinematographers in helicopters, etc etc. Adaptations of the other three books in Paolini’s cycle will have to remain in juvenile readers’ heads… where they belong.
- ‘The Golden Compass’ (2007)
Based on Philip Pullman’s lauded “His Dark Materials” trilogy, this tale of orphan Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) and her defiance of the oligarchical Magisterium (controlled by an evil Nicole Kidman!) is about as clear an allegory against organized religion as one could imagine, even with cute Coca Cola-esque talking polar bears and magical spirit animals. Problem is Chris Weitz of “American Pie” fame didn’t have the directorial clout to stay faithful to the novels, hence the film pleased neither secularists nor raging Catholics.
- ‘The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising’ (2007)
Yet another chunk of cookie cutter kid lit chucked at the screen by the relentless Walden Media (“The Chronicles of Narnia,” “City of Ember”), this one has 14-year-old Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig), who finds out he’s got magic powers to travel through time and stop “The Darkness,” because making up names for bad guys is too hard. Unlike a lot of other films on this list, “The Seeker” seemed virtually destined to fail, given its low-rent look and cardboard acting, even from the likes of Ian McShane and former “Doctor Who” star Christopher Eccleston (who plays a time travelling Doctor. HI-YO!). Literally all of McShane’s lines have “I need a stiff drink” as the underlying subtext. Fans were disturbed by all the changes made to Susan Cooper’s book series, which this film oddly adapts the second book of.
- ‘Inkheart’ (2008)
We all know how much Brendan Fraser loves acting alongside computer animated things. Hell, he is the Lawrence Olivier of standing against a green screen pretending to look at stuff, be it mummies, Monkeybone, dinosaurs or Bugs freakin’ Bunny. Things start to go south when the CGI things he’s interacting with are less interesting than he is, as was the situation with this woeful adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s trilogy. Fraser plays Mo, a “silver tongue” who can manifest anything he reads out loud to the real world. This is an opportunity for all sorts of kid lit characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan,” and more to be brought into the narrative. This was a well-meaning “books make your imagination come alive!” type premise, one that smacks of “educational,” just about the furthest thing that kids want to see on winter break.
- ‘City of Ember’ (2008)
This movie did YA dystopia before it was cool. Though “The Hunger Games” and upcoming “Divergent” may have young protagonists in some scruffy living situations, author Jeanne DuPrau’s post-nuclear underground city of Ember is coated with an extra layer of super grime. When two young residents (Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway) of this oppressive regime discover a way out to the surface, they worm their way through piping, cavernous tunnels, and streams. After his giddy debut “Monster House” we expected great things from young Gil Kenan, so we were doubly disappointed his first live-action film clearly shows difficulty eliciting anything from cast and crew beyond complex visuals. How can you make a movie with Bill Murray utterly devoid of humor? That’s not even POSSIBLE.
- ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ (2008)
Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi’s bestselling series got the Tinseltown treatment, with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” star Freddie Highmore nabbing the lead role(s) of twins Jared and Simon Grace, who discover their house is surrounded by hidden goblins, hobgoblins, and ogres. More magical shenanigans happen, and the production design is quite good, although by the time this came out YA fatigue had started to set in, leading to lackluster returns. It should have been called “The Spiderwick Chronicle” (singular).
- ‘Beautiful Creatures’ (2013)
When the first footage for this southern gothic romance debuted at New York Comic-Con, you could literally cut the apathy of the room with a chainsaw. The footage was dull, the cast full of generic teens and well-known actors getting a paycheck (Jeremy Irons again!). The novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl didn’t have the same brand recognition as “Twilight,” yet here was Warner Bros. trying to cash in, figuring any prepackaged movie with a female lead (Alice Englert), some hunky young slab of stud (Alden Ehrenreich), and a little bit of witchcraft was enough to fool young women into thinking this was that elusive “next ‘Twilight’ phenomenon.” Screenwriter/director Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”) has done great work in the past, which makes this creature that much harder to turn away from in disgust.
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