So you want to see Hunger Games when it comes out on Thursday at midnight? It’s not likely that you will get the chance. Tickets in my community have been sold out for weeks. In fact, the first 10 showings of the film are sold out. This disappoints me greatly because it is one of the few teen flicks I’ve really wanted to see.
The whole phenomenon seems set to make the Harry Potter hysteria and the Twilight mania seem like warm-up acts. Ask around among teens, and you will hear this confirmed. This is a true example of mass frenzy. Actually, the whole thing seems like a modern “madness of crowds.” It’s “pandemonium,” as People magazine put it.
Both the plot line and the marketing genius have lessons for our time.
Based on a book by Suzanne Collins that came out in 2008, the film tells the story of an impoverished, totalitarian society in which rebellion among the subjects is punished by the creation of a killing game for mass entertainment. A teenage girl is put in the position to kill or be killed, but she cleverly plots to stand up to the regime by cooperating with her opponent. Together, they win the hearts of the crowd and bring the regime to its knees.
In other words, it is a story about personal freedom against a powerful state, a tale of courage and defiance in the face of power. The reviews by actual readers (versus professional critics) are over the top. It’s Amazon’s No. 1, and it has 4,000 reviews and counting. This is a phenom.
Aside from the plot line, there is something contemporary about the theme of sheer deprivation and survival. It sums up the way young people are looking at the opportunities they are being presented in these times. We aren’t playing hunger games yet, but when an entire generation is pretty sure that it will not fare as well as its parents’ generation, that’s not good. Life seems like the zero-sum game posited in the film.
The marketing guru behind the push — and don’t kid yourself, for everything needs marketing — is Tim Palen. He began his work three years ago. He used social media to the max. He had video and smartphone app games created. He tweeted constantly. He made puzzles based on finding pieces within Twitter. He worked on amazing posters and pushes of every sort. Not one day went by when he and his staff weren’t pushing some button. (He is also likely to lose his job after this but that’s another story.)
But here’s another thing to know about this. There is no point in marketing — and it certainly doesn’t work over the long haul — if the essential product isn’t good. You have to have both: good selling technique and something good to sell. Only then does the magic happen.
A number of media outlets have examined his strategy, and it is fascinating to see how it all unfolded, all based on the idea that this movie would work only if users themselves were empowered to spread the word. The experts and insiders were kept at bay. The kids were the targets, and they were the ones that the producers relied upon to make this happen. Such is the way stuff works in the digital age. The guys in the boardroom matter only once they figure out that they need to reach the kid on the street.
But in all the marketing roundups I’ve seen, I’ve seen no mention of what might in fact be the central thing that made this book and movie take flight. It came to me in talking to teens themselves. I asked many: Where did you read the book? The answer comes immediately: online. Online? How is that possible? I thought we were living in times when piracy was punished by death or something close to it.
Well, try this for yourself. I searched for “Hunger Games free online.” In about one second, I had access to the full text for all the books, in every format: PDF, doc, txt, rtf, html, and epub. Even audio. It is amazing. And following all these links I see search engines posting notes about how they have taken down many links based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. What this means is that there is at least some perfunctory effort to keep these books offline.
It’s not working. And thank goodness. These kids have become wild for this book and therefore dedicated to seeing the move, buying the shirts, and otherwise doing the whole teen-mania thing. True, the books are selling but, let’s face it, not every parent is willing to shell out money for their young teens to buy books about kids killing kids in a dark, dystopian world.
I’m speculating here but I suspect that a major reason for the insane success of these books and movies — easily the most spectacular teen freak out of our time — is that dread thing called piracy. That’s right, piracy. Except that it is not stealing to read something online. It takes nothing away from anyone. No physical property is stolen. Intellectual property is being shared, copied, duplicated, multiplied.
But wait just a minute. Isn’t the whole energy of the leviathan state swinging in to gear to stop this very thing, all in the name of saving private enterprise, even though the most successful book of our time is universally pirated like few things I’ve ever seen? That’s exactly right. And therein rests the amazing perversity of all this anti-piracy mania. The state is seeking to shut down the sharing of information, the very source that has given life to so much enterprise in our time.
Some authors are figuring this out. The remarkably successful writer Paulo Coelho writes on his blog: “As an author, I should be defending ‘intellectual property’, but I’m not. Pirates of the world, unite and pirate everything I’ve ever written! The good old days, when each idea had an owner, are gone forever.” You see, as a writer, he believes in ideas and he believes in his work and wants it to achieve a universal destination. He has also noticed that the more people read him, the more money he makes.
So get with it, writers and producers and publishers. Look at this case as just another one among thousands. Piracy is your friend. Only second-rate writers and publishers are hip to enlist the state to crack down on people’s desire to know more. You can’t succeed through blackmailing people to buy infinitely copyable products. Successful enterprise comes from giving people want they want, enticing the imagination, and finding ways to profit from people’s desires. You can’t achieve that by stringing people up.
Hunger Games has so much to teach the world: the power of the individual, the evil of the state, the wickedness of the zero-sum game. Maybe it can also teach us that a major initiative by the state today to end Internet piracy is also rooted in fallacy. Sharing information is not a zero-sum game; it is a market process, a joyful area of play in which everyone can win.