Audiences and critics being split on movies is nothing new, but the difference of opinion between them regarding Divergent is fascinating as both sides clearly had an impact this weekend that will have long-lasting industry effects.
In recent weeks predictions for Divergent's opening have ranged from a soft $40 million to a massive $70 million, and will actually likely end up in the middle with a haul of about $55 million.
Analysts were legitimately stumped at first with the project as the young adult film genre as a whole has not had a good run recently. In Divergent's case positive buzz gave way to negative reviews, which were then trumped by strong word of mouth by consumers. Divergent's run opened with impressive late-night showings on Thursday totaling $4.9 million -- more than both Despicable Me 2 ($4.7 million) and World War Z ($3.6 million) -- and then rose another $22.8 million on Friday giving it one of the best opening days of 2014. While business slipped a little the rest of the weekend, this will still rightfully be seen as a hit.
Summit (now a subsidiary of Lionsgate (NYSE:LGF)) did a nice job marketing and promoting the picture, which isn't a shock considering they did the same thing with Twilight. Lionsgate also handled the release of The Hunger Games, so combined the two studios control three of the most profitable young adult franchises since the craze took off.
The twist though is that while the young adult sub-genre is a hit with a specific group, it eludes others, most notably critics. Divergent currently (at press time) sits at a 40% fresh rating on critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes where it has risen from below 20%. Despite the jump it's still a low rating and it's safe to say critics are getting tired of the young adult genre. Those negative reviews were recently cited as a contributor to a recent decrease in Lionsgate's stock price.
Audiences are fighting back, or at least ignoring critics and making up their own mind, especially when it comes to movies based on beloved books. Sometimes the two sides are in lockstep -- see The Hunger Games (which have averaged a 86.5% freshness rating), but a lot of people credit that with being more cross-demographic, whereas a more teen-driven franchise like Twilight never broke the 50% freshness mark.
In the end for Divergent it's a moot point as Friday the studio officially greenlit work on Insurgent, the second in the Divergent trilogy. In addition to reopening this debate in 2015, we'll also hear it again this year, with tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars (also starring Divergent lead Shailene Woodley) and fantasy drama The Giver (featuring rising star Brenton Thwaites) hitting theaters.
The brilliant marketing/promotions team at The Weinstein Company even released the first trailer for The Giver this week to capitalize on the buzz around Divergent. Insiders know that if there's one studio more adept at marketing to a certain demo than Lionsgate, it's The Weinstein Company.
The Giver is based on the 1993 novel by Lois Lowry, which won the prestigious Newbery Medal and has sold over 5 million copies. The story revolves around a "utopian" society without war and pain, but also without differences or choice ... everything is in a state of "sameness." Yet when a young boy is chosen to become the new "receiver of memory," the person who stores memories of the past before the new world order, he becomes conflicted about whether he wants to go along with the status quo.
The film shares many Divergent traits including a post-apocalyptic society, a controversial way of life, and a young hero not content with the "accepted" path. Yet it also has Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, so those are two potential draws for a broader audience.
If anything Divergent's opening take did little to settle the argument about the success of the young adult genre, it just extended the conversation. As a result both Stars and The Giver will go under the microscope as well, but especially Giver as it's one of The Weinstein Company's biggest 2014 films. After the studio's young adult film, Vampire Academy, went the way of genre flops Ender's Game (Summit) and The Mortal Instruments (Sony), this one will become even more important to them and get a sizable launch campaign to help bolster returns.
Yet it's not just the film industry that's being affected. Many wonder how the publishing industry is faring off the trend. A recent Wall Street Journal story notes that over the last decade the young adult market has been one of the book industry's biggest gainers with 16,800 titles released in 2012, up from 1,481 in 2005. Part of the success is seen as a combination of adults showing interest in the titles and the successful film adaptations of the books.
The same article though notes that according to the Association of American Publishers, children book revenue for 2013 dropped 7% from $1.7 billion to $1.6 billion, due to the absence of a new big hit. Over 2013 that 16,800 has shrunk to 10,965, a 34% drop. What's remarkable is that part of that initial rise was purely off The Hunger Games. Stats show that after the first film's release in 2012, over 40 million additional copies of the book began circulating.
Divergent didn't have that grasp with the adult demo, which is part of why you didn't see it hit $100 million in its first week. You have to look at Divergent for what it is ... a promising new franchise that will sell tickets.
Still ultimately the question about success comes down to choice. Will audiences listen to critics or will they listen to their gut? Something tells me that like the stars in Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Giver audiences will make their own choices.
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