The blogosphere has written enough thinkpieces and features (ourselves included) about the YA movie/Teen Dystopia craze to know this trend went into overdrive right around 2012. While “Harry Potter” arguably launched the phenomenon of fantasy YA adaptations and the rabid millennial audience for it a few years earlier, 2012 became the peak YA year: “The Twilight Saga” was reaching its final installment and the inaugural “The Hunger Games” was just kicking off. In fact, as popular and noisy as “Twilight” was with tweens, it teed up its successor in a big way: the highest grossing film in the series, “New Moon,” peaked at $338 million domestically while the first ‘Hunger Games’ film exploded with an astonishing $442 million domestic gross, eclipsing every ‘Twilight’ film’s final domestic tally right out of the gate.
And while fantasy like “Harry Potter’ and romance fantasy like ‘Twilight’ helped launch the millennial thirst for teens in peril, its the particular future-dystopian sci-fi strand of YA that ‘Hunger Games’ ushered in what seemed to spark the legitimate spin-off genre that is Teen Dystopian YA. While many of these films were in development, post ‘Hunger Games,’ the genre went into overdrive.
Already sensing the blood in the water, thirsty studios chased the YA phenomenon, greenlighting “The Divergent” series, “The Maze Runner” and a few more would-be franchises that were basically dead on arrival in terms of box-office clout ("Mortal Instruments,” “The Host,” “The Seventh Son,” “Ender’s Game,” “Beautiful Creatures” and more).
But what a difference a few years makes. While ‘The Hunger Games’ saw every studio trying to replicate that success and find the next Jennifer Lawrence to lead their millennial-leading post-apocalyptic world, the Lionsgate series started to wane in popularity by its third film. ‘Catching Fire‘ was the flashpoint of the Dystopian Teen YA genre, grossing $865 million worldwide in 2013. And it doesn’t look like any film or series is going to come remotely close to cracking this mark anytime soon. Even the highest grossing ‘Twilight’ film worldwide, ‘Breaking Dawn Part 2,’ closed out globally at $829.7 million. ’Deathly Hallows Part 2’ is the genre’s standard bearer with $1.3 billion and the closest after that is the aforementioned ‘Catching Fire.’
And speaking of ‘Deathly Hallows 2,’ that movie kicked off the studio trend of splitting a final film into two parts: essentially milking the franchise for a few hundreds million more bucks. It worked in the case of ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Twilight,’ but just as ‘Catching Fire’ was ascending, it seems audiences started to lose their patience. While it’s maybe too much to say this trend is already backfiring, ‘Mockingjay Part 1’ fell short of ‘Catching Fire,’ falling 20.3% domestically. Dour, grey and grim, the second half of the ‘Hunger Games’ series hit a nadir in a big way with the fourth and final installment earning the ignominious distinction of being the lowest grossing film in the series both worldwide and domestically — and studios aren’t in the business of making sequels to have their grand finale peter out to underperforming numbers. ‘Mockingjay Part 2’ was down a whopping 36.6% from ‘Catching Fire’ and was the only ‘Hunger Games’ film to not crack the $300 million mark at home.
As evidenced by the aforementioned series that never caught on, dystopian YA was hot, but always appeared to be a hit-and-miss affair. And it seems to be quickly falling out of fashion with audiences. The “Divergent” franchise with Shailene Woodley and Theo James is Lionsgate’s next franchise hope, but the numbers haven’t been remotely close to "The Hunger Games." The first film was successful in a modest manner ($297.3 million worldwide), but there was a stiff downturn in the attendance and box-office of “Insurgent” (down nearly 14% domestically). And “Allegiant,” released this weekend, opened to $29 million; a strong number for most films, but down a massive 46.8% from the first film at home (and investors are already worried about series finale "Ascendant," with Lionsgate shares dipping in trading today). Generally speaking, YA films tend to grow internationally and make up the difference for any waning domestic box office fall off, and while "Insurgent" did scale financially in worldwide territories, overall it was by a tiny +2.9% margin.
The new hope for the genre appeared to be, for a brief minute, “The Maze Runner” which quietly grossed nearly $350 million worldwide, but its sequel struggled (down 10% globally) and its star Dylan O’Brien was recently injured in an on-set accident so who knows whether the third film, ‘The Death Cure,’ will make its 2017 release date. But overall? It appears that Dystopian Teen YA has peaked and is trending downward with a steady and consistent decline. And as studios like to make big bets, not modest ones, one can easily see a scenario where Hollywood begins to cool on these properties. There are several iterations still in the incubator, such as “The Scorpion Races” (being helmed by an up-and-coming indie auteur no less), "The Walled City,” "A Tale Dark & Grimm," "Shadow And Bone," and "The Immortal Rules," but the inconsistent post-‘Hunger Games’ performance of YA-related films points to the fact that not all teen dystopian YA series are created equal.
And yes, at the end of the day, even the trending downward ‘Hunger Games’ series grossed $2.9 billion worldwide, and even though ‘Mockingjay – Part 2’ was down 24.5% percent from ‘Catching Fire,’ those numbers are nothing to sneeze at. And maybe studios will think twice about splitting their finales into two movies, but then again, the $1.4 billion combined gross of both ‘Mockingjay’ films isn’t too shabby. But it is remarkable to see a genre peak in late 2013 and before 2016 is even halfway through, begin to run out of gas. It’s possibly premature to say Dystopian Teen YA has become passé to young audiences, but the quickly fading lifespan — look at Marvel’s Cinematic Universe going strong after almost 10 years — is certainly cause for concern if you’re a studio exec hoping to find the next big hit.