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​Box Office: How Did ‘The Maze Runner’ Break the YA Curse?

box office maze runnerEver 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.

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