Just as “The Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins introduced a dystopian world that entranced millions of readers and moviegoers, so Lionsgate’s marketing chief Tim Palen has brought that universe to life in an elaborately detailed campaign for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” that goes beyond traditional movie posters, billboards, trailers and websites to establish a unique realm of its own.
Palen’s innovative ideas — not the least of which was setting the book’s iconic mockingjay logo ablaze — helped propel the first of four planned “Hunger Games” movies to nearly $700 million in global ticket sales. He’s now taken the marketing narrative and imagery to a new level in hopes of broadening the audience for the upcoming Nov. 22 release beyond teens and tweens to the faith and family crowd, Hispanics, African-Americans, fashionistas, even seniors.
For Palen, whose soft-spoken, understated demeanor defies a fierce, tattooed marketing warrior with a meticulously plotted battle plan, “Catching Fire” has unleashed the 51-year-old’s creative ingenuity, and he’s seized the opportunity to tell a bigger, more color-saturated story through provocative visuals, bringing a complimentary world to life that has connected with Collins’ rabid fan base.
“This was dramatically different from anything we did on the first movie,” Palen says. “It was brave of the filmmakers to agree we should be that bold.”
During the year-long campaign that launched last November, Palen went so far as to create a faux online fashion magazine, dubbed Capitol Couture, modeled after luxury publications like DuJour, Gotham and Ocean Drive, built around the ultra-rich and style-obsessed capitol city of Panem, the fictional nation in the bestselling author’s trilogy of young adult novels. The mag features manufactured articles curated by freelance journalist Monica Corcoran Harel, and photos of the film’s characters that reveal their elaborate look, shot by Palen himself.
A professional photographer in his own right, it’s not the first time the marketing executive, who spends as much time as he can attached to a camera at his home studios in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, has taken the image-making for a campaign into his own hands. He’s produced the art for many emotion-provoking one-shots for Lionsgate’s campaigns over the years — from the “Saw” series’ bloody naked nurse to the hard-edge bodies and bloodied upper lips of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as two brothers fighting in the high-stakes world of mixed martial arts in “Warrior.”
With Palen crafting the images and message, “Hunger Games” is well protected. He’s as much of a fan of the franchise as the teens and tweens who made the original film a hit, and passed the books on to their friends and family. Collins has a loyal friend in the marketing topper.
“I’m thrilled with the work Tim Palen and his marketing team have done on the film,” Collins told Variety via email. “It’s appropriately disturbing and thought-provoking how the campaign promotes ‘Catching Fire’ while simultaneously promoting the Capitol’s punitive forms of entertainment. The stunning image of Katniss in her wedding dress that we use to sell tickets is just the kind of thing the Capitol would use to rev up its audience for the Quarter Quell (the name of the games in “Catching Fire”). That dualistic approach is very much in keeping with the books.”
Pretty much every element of the sequel’s campaign is bolder than its predecessor. Where the first installment relied on a more subdued look to capture Collins’ bleak, oppressed world, Palen and the author felt this was his chance to brighten things up.
“This is the book and the movie of color,” he says, having consulted closely with Collins before designing the campaign. “This is the moment where we can actually have some fun and explore some opportunities that we might not get to have later,” he added, referring to the final book in the “Hunger Games” series, which Lionsgate is splitting into two movies, “Mockingjay — Part 1” and “Part 2.”
In March, Palen and his team used Capitol Couture to create a series of so-called Capitol Portraits — dramatic photographic images that revealed the look of the sequel’s 11 major characters who play significant roles in laying the groundwork for the final rebellion in the third and fourth films. It was also a way to establish the visual sensibility that the film’s director, Francis Lawrence, was bringing to the screen. In each Capitol Portrait, a character is posed in a chair, with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence, whose 22-pound wedding dress, featuring Swarovski crystals, made it difficult to sit.
Other studios release such photos as character posters, but Palen wanted to avoid the idea of something so mundane, and at the same time carefully control the story he was trying to tell — while also having some fun.
Lionsgate was able to turn the release of each portrait into an event, sending images as exclusives to a variety of online partners like MTV, IGN, Yahoo Movies, Empire, MSN and the Huffington Post, and through the fake magazine’s Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook feeds. The shots were first teased with empty chairs on Instagram, which generated considerable buzz on their own, and helped four different characters trend on Twitter in the week their portraits were released.
In each case, outlets were asked to officially refer to the images as Capitol Portraits, and all were amenable. Other media outlets that picked up the photos promoted them that way as well.
At the same time, Capitol Couture gave Lionsgate a place for promotional partner Cover Girl to tout its products and tie in with the film. The cosmetics brand is spending heavily around “Catching Fire,” its first movie promotion. Fashion e-tailer Neta-Porter and nail polish brand China Glaze are other beauty partners tying in via Capitol Couture.
Palen says the Capitol perspective helped the campaign avoid overt product placement or sponsorships, which tend to turn off fans, and instead let them pretend they were living within the environment of the story. “There’s a little punk-rock, anti-establishment in the true core fans, the purists (of the franchise),” Palen says. “There was always a strong sense we should keep (the campaign) authentic and not overtly gross.”
Capitol Couture also would prove the perfect platform by which Palen could launch a series of boldly colored and highly stylized ads he developed and shot for fake products like perfume, eyewear and fashion that seemingly come from the Capitol. The images wound up becoming traffic-stopping billboards throughout Los Angeles and New York City.
The first teaser shot of Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson together in the sequel also played up the Capitol theme, with the two dressed in stark white formalwear standing next to a silver sculpture piercing the sky — a take on Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda posters from the 1930s.
“People who read the books know (“Catching Fire”) kicks off with the Victory Tour, and we wanted to reassure fans that we’re going to stick close to the books. And the costumes and scope of the second movie takes everything to the next level,” Palen says. “It’s a lot to ask of a single image, but this was a very efficient way to say all of that.”
Another iconic image from the “The Hunger Games” books that Palen latched onto was the mockingjay pin, which serves as a symbol of freedom — a way to rise above the oppressive state many of the citizens of the fictional country of Panem find themselves in. Palen launched the campaign for the first film and its follow-up with the pin ablaze.
With “Catching Fire,” though, the mockingjay logo was redesigned. The bird is larger, its feathers fuller, and the billowing flames surrounding it more lifelike. It became a 3D version during the MTV Movie Awards, dramatically igniting behind the pic’s co-star Liam Hemsworth as he introduced “Catching Fire’s” latest trailer during the show.
For the design, Palen took the idea of a living logo from the covers of Collins’ books, where each featured a new version of the mockingjay essentially breaking free and taking flight as the series progressed. So too will the films’ version, Palen says.
“Catching Fire’s” mockingjay was introduced online as a moving digital poster last November, followed by its print version in theaters in January, kicking off Phase One of the sequel’s campaign, designed to remind fans what they liked about the first movie and to give them a taste of what they’d see in the second.
Phase Two, which kicked off in July at San Diego’s Comic-Con, was about getting fans excited about what’s different and new about the film’s games, how the stakes are higher and reveal more about the characters as they try to survive the threats to themselves and to each other.
Also proving beneficial to the campaign: listening to the fans themselves. Palen’s team has been careful not to show Lawrence, Hutcherson and Hemsworth together in posters, magazine covers or even at events, after “Hunger Games” devotees — particularly fanboys — expressed concern that Lionsgate would try to turn the films into another soapy “Twilight” love triangle.
“Romance is part of the story, but it’s not the core of the story,” Palen says. “From the start, we wanted to make it about (Katniss) as a hero.” Lionsgate has partnered with Microsoft to take fan feedback further, launching “The Hunger Games Explorer,” which uses the software company’s Web browser to showcase a dizzying stream of fan-generated content pulled from Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and other sources. Palen also embraced the way fans were using quotes from the books in their social media posts, and he used them as taglines in posters. “They were doing it before we did it,” Palen says. “It was a way for us to talk to them the way they talk to each other.”
Given the awareness for “Catching Fire,” Lionsgate was careful to limit sponsors and not oversell the movie — a similar approach to the one Warner Bros. took with the “Harry Potter” films. The distrib also has been circumspect about the licensed merchandise it will sell at retail. “If it’s not something I would want to give someone as a present, we won’t make it,” Palen says.
Still, the mockingjay pin itself is back, after having generated more than $15 million during the first film’s release. There also are products by the National Entertainment Collectibles Assn., e-tailer Cafe Press, Hallmark Christmas ornaments, and four new dolls from Mattel (the first film featured just one, for Katniss, which sold well). A limited line of chocolates by Vosges also taps into the Capitol connection.
Ultimately, every successful campaign builds to a key image, and in “Catching Fire’s” case, Palen references the final poster of the “The Hunger Games” campaign — with Katniss, a determined look on her face, aiming her bow at an unseen target. Here, though, the final image is bathed in shades of coral, playing off the film’s island setting — and with Lawrence’s hair down.
“Having her hair not in a braid anymore shows her evolution as a character,” Palen says. “She’s not a young girl in a crazy situation; she’s a woman in a crazy situation. She’s more aware of who she is and what she’s doing.”
Lionsgate is now in the midst of its third phase of the campaign — a final push to rally moviegoers with a PR and social-media blitz. That effort involves pre-selling tickets six weeks in advance to boost opening-weekend numbers. But it also has meant surprising foreign distribution partners with a 60-second trailer that launched Oct. 27 during the World Series, and highlighted the action moviegoers will see during the games of “Catching Fire.” None of the Hunger Games were seen in the campaign for the original film.
“With this movie and this book, there are opportunities we won’t have again,” Palen says. “It’s our last games,” given that the third book focuses more on District 13 and a rebellion to take over the Capitol. Also, audiences are now familiar with the games, having seen the first film. “From a marketing perspective, I don’t want to leave anything on the table. I’ve been accused before of being too precious and protective of the franchise, but I want to take advantage of this moment. I want this to be gigantic.”
(Photos by Williams + Hirakawa)