Creating a Spark: Official and Fan-Produced Transmedia for The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games (THG) has become one of Hollywood’s biggest success stories of the year. Since the film is based on a successful young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, the cinematic adaptation could count on a built-in audience. In order to mobilize the existing fan base and court new fans, Lionsgate’s marketing department rolled out a campaign that incorporated transmedia storytelling elements. The centerpiece of the campaign is an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) that allows fans to become citizens of Panem. Accessible through the “Citizen Information Terminal,” a website that aggregates content from Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and Youtube, the ARG mixes diegetic information (such as trends in Capitol fashion) with extradiegetic material (e.g. a link to Fandango, accompanied by a note declaring that “attendance [of the film] is mandatory”).
Transmedia storytelling has become a familiar element of film and television promotion, especially for media properties incorporating fantasy and scifi elements (currently, transmedia campaigns are underway for Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises). While many fans readily engage with official promotional material, they also create their own media. Transmedia produced for THG shows how multifaceted and sometimes conflicting interests among fans and marketing departments arise out of shared media platforms and a shared storyworld.
With the widespread use of Twitter and Tumblr, official and fan-produced transmedia increasingly share the same media spaces. Both fans and those who address fans through marketing use these spaces because they make sharing media easy. Indeed, sharing images and videos via reblogging is perhaps Tumblr’s core functionality and defining characteristic. Via reblogging and retweeting, fans spread news about the latest part of a marketing campaign faster and wider than a print ad, poster, or traditional preview could. Most importantly, reblogging turns officially produced transmedia into a personalized message: fans feel they receive an update about THG from a fellow fan, not from a studio’s marketing department. Or at least this is the perception that marketing departments try to create.
It is important to recognize that both Lionsgate’s marketing department and fans face constraints when producing transmedia for THG. Official transmedia’s main purpose is twofold: create interest in THG and persuade as many people as possible to purchase a ticket to see the film. In order to create this investment, official transmedia has to offer material about the world of THG that appears new and exciting to fans; at the same time, this material cannot give away too many details about the film itself. This is particularly crucial for a book adaptation because many fans are familiar with the story and are most interested in seeing how this story has been translated to the screen. In addition, official transmedia cannot stray too far from “canon.” It has to remain faithful to the story moviegoers will see. Working within these constraints leads to transmedia elements that focus on exploring places and settings rather than on expanding plot or characterizations.
Two core elements of THG transmedia campaign, namely the Capitol Couture Tumblr and the related virtual tour of the Capitol, focus on the culture of Panem’s premiere city. Both are perfect examples of official transmedia that provide new insights about the world of THG without spoiling the film or diverging from Collins’ canon. While the Capitol is an important location in THG‘s storyworld, neither the film nor the novel spend much time there. Offering a deeper insight into the city expands fans’ understanding of Panem without giving too much away. At the same time, a campaign that centers on the people and culture responsible for the terror of the Hunger Games is also a risky strategy. Fans might not have been willing to engage with this aspect of the book(s) and film. But the Capitol also appears as a decadent and alluring place in Collins’ universe, which makes it an interesting place to see even if one disagrees with its ideology.
Additionally, I would argue, fans can easily find the more sympathetic people and places of THG in fan-produced transmedia. Free from the constraints of avoiding spoilers and adhering to canon, most fanfiction and fanart delve into the lives of central characters, envisioning moments before, during, and after canon events. Fan creations spread across the same platforms as official transmedia: a new interpretation of a character might emerge in a tweet, turn into a story posted on a blog, and generate accompanying fanart on Tumblr.
Of course fans also face constraints: their creations are not officially sanctioned and often exist in a legal gray area, and they don’t usually have access to the resources that fuel official transmedia such as the Capitol tour. Frequently, these divergent sets of constraints in official and fan-produced transmedia enable new and largely complementary perspectives on the world of THG. This co-existence is less harmonious when fan productions appear too “official,” as was the case with Panem October, a fan-authored ARG that also revolved around a “citizens of Panem” theme. An early iteration, launched in spring 2011, was shut down by Lionsgate. The second version appeared simultaneously with the official ARG last fall. Thanks to fannish word-of-mouth, participation in Panem October grew to 50,000. Despite its popularity, the creator announced last December that he was abandoning the ARG to pursue other projects. It is unclear whether or not increasing pressure by Lionsgate motivated this decision.
It is tempting to draw parallels between Panem October and THG trilogy’s overall story (a temptation the pursuit of which I leave to someone else). Regardless, it seems apparent to me that fan enthusiasm is most welcome when it stays within officially endorsed boundaries—as participation in the official THG ARG—and is tolerated as long as its focus does not encroach on commercially significant territory.