The term superhero fatigue is thrown around a lot these days. People are constantly predicting that the comic book movie bubble is about to burst, yet just this last week the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has proved quite the opposite; despite a more than tepid critical response the film surged to a strong opening weekend at the box office. So while that bubble appears to be as healthy as ever, the same cannot be said or the young adult fantasy genre. While four years ago the subgenre was all the rage in Hollywood, it’s experienced an unprecedented fall from grace, confirming that studio executives really will run any cash cow into the ground with alarming speed.
While there have been several films aimed at young adults not set in post-apocalyptic societies or featuring ridiculously good looking mythical creatures (from mainstream affairs such as The Perks and Being a Wallflower and The Fault in Our Stars to smaller indie flicks such as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Spectacular Now), in recent years the cinematic offerings aimed at this particular demographic have skewed heavily in favour of adaptations of popular YA fantasy/dystopia novels. This can be attributed in large part due to the success of Twilight in 2008, which prompted a wave of similar films to be released, suddenly every Hollywood executive was scrambling to turn any remotely successful “tween” book series into a movie franchise.
It wasn’t just the piles of cash that the Twilight franchise was making at the box office, the first sequel New Moon broke the record for the biggest opening day in domestic history at the time, which made potentially similar franchises so appealing – it was also the dedicated fan base that came with these popular book series. Studio execs love a passionate fan base because they’re like a bursting piñata filled with money, lapping up substandard merchandise and promotional tie ins. Both the Twilight and The Hunger Games franchises have thrived off merchandising, a few years ago the sight of a “Team Edward” or “Team Peeta” shirt was not uncommon.
The subgenre slowly but steadily flourished in the years following the release of Twilight, with the film’s several sequels pulling in serious money, as well giving the genre some credit. However, it was perhaps 2013 when YA fantasy hit its peak and subsequently started to stumble. That single year saw the release of The Host, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bone, Beautiful Creatures, Warm Bodies, Ender’s Game, as well as sequels The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, a glut of movies so similar that it can be hard to tell them apart. Despite most of them having sizeable marketing budgets only the The Hunger Games sequel managed to make a healthy return, the other films were pretty much dead on arrival, failing to earn themselves sequels.
The following year did see the release of Divergent and The Maze Runner, both of which have become franchises, however if anything they’ve only proved how rapid the decline is. The sequel to the latter, The Scorch Trials, released last fall, made slightly less than its predecessor, while the second sequel to Divergent titled Allegiance, released earlier this month, opened to a mere $29 million, massively down from the $50 million opening weekends its predecessors had enjoyed. Sequels are designed to grow a franchise’s box office returns not shrink them, but the clear message that young audiences are sending is that they’re tired of the subgenre and want fresh ideas not recycled ones.
The Hunger Games franchise, aside from being generally a cut above almost all other YA fantasy franchises, is a very interesting example of the rise and decline of the genre. The films contributed to its peak but has also signalled its downfall. Released in 2012 The Hunger Games stormed to a generally pleasing critical reception and a more than satisfying box office haul. The first sequel, and largely agreed upon best film in the series, Catching Fire only increased its brand strength, but around the third entry Mockingjay – Part 1 the changing landscape of young adult cinema became apparent. The franchise’s finale was released in November last year and while it still made $650 million worldwide this was massively down from previous returns and studio expectations, ensuring that this YA series went out with a whimper rather than bang. The Hunger Games franchise stands as the canary in the coal mine, displaying that even the most successful franchises in the genre weren’t safe.
So what exactly caused this decline? Well the answer is fairly straight forward, it comes down to two reasons. Firstly, over saturation of the genre. In 2013 it started to feel like a new YA fantasy movie was being released every other week, creating a general feeling of exhaustion among audience members. The formula had grown stale, a big oppressive government that must be overthrown and a love triangle between three impossibly attractive people are genre staples, but at this point they’re more like clichés. Eventually the truckload of YA fantasy films just started melding together and became almost impossible to tell apart.
Secondly, YA fantasy and dystopia films took a cliff dive simply due to their lack of quality control. YA films as a whole have never exactly set the world on fire in regards to critic scores, but even so films like Insurgent, The Mortal Instruments and The Host, among plenty of others, released to abysmal reviews among critics and audiences alike. Thanks to largely convoluted plots, uneven world building and plenty of questionable castings the genre started to collapse in on itself. When you combined this lack of quality with the over saturation of the genre it comes as little surprise that the resounding message from audiences across the world is “enough is enough”.
There is one genre that has proven it’s possible to survive an over saturated market where most of the films are pretty terrible. Horror movies are synonymous with a lack of quality and there’s usually several released a month, regardless of the time of year. However the key difference between horror and YA fantasy is cost. Take Paranormal Activity 4, the very definition of a terrible horror movie from a worn out franchise, that film cost a mere $5 million to make, whereas Allegiant cost a hefty $110 million. Both debuted to poor critical reception and equally lukewarm audience reactions, but the former only had to make a relatively small amount of money to become profitable, whereas the latter had to gross several hundreds of millions before the studio saw any return.
Adding another nail to an already tightly sealed coffin was the release of The 5th Wave this January, which failed to make even a small splash in the cinematic whirlpool. If that film hadn’t already proved that the YA fantasy genre trend is all but over, then Allegiant this month confirmed it. Sure studios will release whatever they’ve already got in production, and The Maze Runner and Divergent series will be seen through to completion, but it’s clear that the young adult fantasy fire that caught on so quickly has burnt out at a similarly rapid speed.