Friday, July 22, 2016

EDITORIAL: Divergent, Lionsgate, and the Future of YA Adaptations

I remember circa 2013 when The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones came out and subsequently became a massive financial bomb. I remember the prevailing sentiment at the time being that the Young Adult novel film adaptation was either dead or dying, with the last glimmers of hope being the Hunger Games, which at the time was about to release its second film, and Divergent, which would come out a year later and was, by all accounts, looking to be another major hit franchise. My, how times change.

Variety has reported that, after the third installment in the Divergent series, Allegiant, proved to be a financial disappointment this past March, Lionsgate has opted to not release the next film theatrically, and instead, is looking into doing the final installment, Ascendant, as a TV movie and launch a subsequent series with a new cast. This decision comes after Allegiant brought in roughly $179 million on a $110 million budget, continuing the series' downward box office trend since the original movie. While nothing's concrete right now (Lionsgate has unsurprisingly declined to comment), one would assume that the TV movie would be done at a significantly reduced budget. In fact, it's still unclear if any of the cast from the first three films would return for the TV movie.

This story is about more than just a third rate YA film franchise. It's a story about an entire genre, or perhaps more a subgenre, of film and about film trends as a whole. A few years ago, the last installment of the Twilight series made over $800 million worldwide, with the first Hunger Games making almost $700 million the same year. Now, anything that isn't Hunger Games is being sent out to die, trying desperately to grab for the same audience that those two franchises left behind. Currently, the slate of YA films isn't exactly healthy. Let's do a quick little recap. A "state of the industry," if you will. Ignoring the Divergent films for a second, Twilight and Hunger Games, two of the genres biggest cash cows, are over, despite some small whispers of Summit and Lionsgate potentially pondering a reboot of the franchise; Harry Potter (which most would argue started this trend) has pretty much transcended the label at this point with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them looking like more of a straight period fantasy than anything else; Percy Jackson had some success with both of its movies proving financially successful, but with plans for a third falling through; Ender's Game tanked; Beautiful Creatures didn't even recoup its budget; the Giver turned out not to have been given much thought by audiences; Stephanie Meyer's The Host turned out to be as successful a successor to the Twilight film series as the book did (as in, not at all); no one remembers I Am Number Four or Cirque Du Freak; and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones bombed. The Maze Runner seems to be the only remaining YA film adaptation to still be bringing in audiences, though appropriately, it seems to be avoiding the mistake Divergent made by keeping its budget small, at around $30 million each.

Let's not mince words. As of right now, the Divergent franchise has crashed and burned big time, but not so much that the studio thinks its not salvageable. I brought up The Mortal Instruments at the start of this partly because Divergent seems to be taking more of a page from that franchise. While the film adaptation of the first book, City of Bones, failed at the box-office, they tried again, this time on the small screen with the TV adaptation, Shadowhunters. And, while its reception has been lukewarm at best, it's been significantly more successful than its previous film adaptation, with the show recently securing a second season. It wouldn't surprise me if Lionsgate were keeping a close eye on the success of Shadowhunters, as well as the success of other series like The Shannara Chronicles on MTV. Even Marvel seems to be aiming for that same market, with them developing a series based on the characters, Cloak & Dagger, on the Freeform channel, formally ABC Family, which just so happens to be where Shadowhunters airs.

So, what does this mean? It doesn't mean that the YA adaptation is dead, as much as some might want to see it die. On film, it will probably go away for a while, but it seems to be finding its new footing on TV, a market that seems to be much more willing to adapt and cater to specific audiences. Unlike movies, which have to seek out and advertise to its audiences, TV audiences seem to do the seeking themselves, in part due to channels being specifically designed for specific demographics, as well as the ready availability of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. It speaks to how personalized media is becoming these days. What's also interesting, I think, is that, with the lower budgets on TV, these shows have more of an ability to fully explore their own source material, craft more interesting stories, and make it so that not every YA adaptation is just trying to emulate Twilight and Harry Potter. 

In the democratized world of modern media with dozens of shows to watch of all different types, it's adapt or die for these franchises if they want to continue. How successful the Ascendant TV movie and show will be, I'm not too sure. I question whether or not they'll be able to effectively attract audiences on TV seeing as (judging by the box office numbers for Insurgent) not everyone saw the previous movies. I would think the show will likely be more successful than the movie in that regard. While I don't want to make too many big predictions, I get the feeling that the Maze Runner will be the last major push for a YA adaptation on film, at least for a while. That is, unless someone REALLY wants to make another Percy Jackson movie. Please don't.

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