An impressionable young girl falls in with the wrong crowd—and they turn out to be supernatural beings. By now it’s a story teens know by heart. But The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, the latest fantasy film targeting teens and tweens (and adapted from bestselling novels by Cassandra Clare), didn’t exactly post Twilight-size numbers. It pulled in a paltry $9.3 million this weekend, proving to be the latest box-office disappointment this year for the typically lucrative young adult fantasy genre.
Not long after the Harry Potter and Twilight series minted money throughout 2010 and 2011, the first installment of the Percy Jackson movies, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, opened with a $31 million weekend. The pattern continued in 2012, as The Hunger Games grossed $408 million domestically, the highest box-office take for a YA adaptation ever, spawning the inevitable sequel coming out this fall. Even the marginal I Am Number Four managed a $19 million weekend last year.
But 2013 tells a much different story. February’s Beautiful Creatures, about a teenage boy discovering that his crush has magical powers, earned just $7.5 million on its opening weekend and under $20 million gross. The Host, about a teenage girl whose body is taken over by a friendly alien invader and from the same author of the juggernaut Twilight books, did only slightly better with a $10.6 million opening and $26.6 million gross. Two weeks ago, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, about a pack of teens whose parents are Greek gods, opened to $14 million—not even half the opening weekend of the preceding film, although it performed well overseas, taking in $62 million. The Mortal Instruments, about a teenage girl discovering that she may be part of an ancient group of “demon-hunters” (and whose teen-girl-and-hunky-and-tormented-supernatural-guy love story borrows heavily from the Twilight series), failed spectacularly.
So is YA fatigue kicking in? Possibly. “You’ve seen these elements and these places, now you’re seeing them in a different costume,” says MaryLeigh Bliss, trends editor and strategic consultant for the market research company YPulse. “Audiences know when something is a rehash.” They also know when Hollywood takes liberties with their beloved stories, she says, and they don’t like it. “When we talk to young millennials across the country, one of the things that comes up with both Percy Jackson and The Mortal Instruments is a perceived lack of involvement of the author. Readers really want these movies to be replicas of what they read in the books. Details are important to them.”
But the biggest problem with this year’s crop of YA titles is that they’ve been adapted from fiction lightweights. “We talk a lot about ‘next-level fandom,’” Bliss says. “Online, because you’re able to find people who have the same interests, certain brands are able to have a consumer push that is well-organized, impassioned, and very powerful. Percy Jackson and The Mortal Instruments, while they definitely have a following, didn’t have an organized and impassioned fandom that could match something like Harry Potter or Twilight. And those books crossed over, too. It’s well-known that the majority of Twilight fandom was older women, for example.”
This bodes well for the upcoming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire sequel, slated for release over Thanksgiving. But it doesn’t necessarily look good for next February’s The Maze Runner or March’s Divergent, both obscure sci-fi adaptations aimed at the young adult market. “There are stories out there that are still able to capture a broad audience. But studios can’t expect that just grabbing a YA franchise and putting it onscreen will lead to a multibillion-dollar success,” says Bliss. “They really do have to captivate people.”