Studios gorge on young-adult fiction amid success of ‘Hunger Games’

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The back-to-back blockbuster successes of “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and now “The Hunger Games” have turned the hunt for fresh young-adult fiction white-hot in Hollywood, as studios try to turn what used to be a phenomenon into what might be a formula.

Frenzied auctions are underway for books that haven’t even been published. Studios are paying as much as $1 million for the rights to adapt titles that are relatively modest sellers, particularly those featuring science-fiction, fantasy and dystopian themes.

“Every single studio wants to capitalize on a young-adult franchise,” said Josie Freedman, co-head of the book-to-films department at talent agency International Creative Management. “It’s what’s selling on the publishing side and on the film side.”

In a business plagued by unpredictability but desperate to find the shortest route to a new brand-name franchise, young-adult novels have become the golden ticket. They often come with a built-in fan base that can help create the early buzz that transforms a movie opening into an event. The best of the books feature universally relatable themes of alienation, love and heroism, and cinematic story lines that translate easily to the big screen.

“Young-adult literature is a genre that takes place at a specific time in your life when everything seems to be high stakes,” said Erik Feig, president of production at Lionsgate, the studio behind “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight.” “If you set stories in different worlds with unique protagonists and an element of wish fulfillment, I don’t think people will ever be tired of it.”

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of books about teenagers forced to fight to the death in an oppressive future society has become a new standard. That’s because unlike “Twilight,” which was a hit principally with girls and young women, “The Hunger Games” has attracted men too.

As a result, in Hollywood’s latest young-adult literary purchases, romance is out. Epic battles between good and evil, in which the fate of the world rests on a young hero or heroine, are in.

“The main shift from ‘Twilight’ is the desperation for the young male audience,” said Alicia Gordon, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. “That’s why we are seeing darker, more action-driven stories.”

The dozens of young-adult books that have been scooped up by studios recently carry titles such as “Chaos Walking,” “Scorpio Races,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Night Circus,” “Tiger’s Curse” and “Divergent.” The settings range from alien planets to fantasy worlds to dystopian futures, but all feature a young man or woman — or both — in death-defying competitions and fights to save themselves or their worlds.

Most are still in development, meaning audiences won’t see the results until 2013 at the earliest.

Once producers and executives latch onto a book as the potential next “Hunger Games” — especially if it’s the first entry in a planned series, with the possibility of movie sequels — the competition can become intense. In December, six studios took part in a multi-day auction for “Daughter of Smoke & Bone,” a fantasy book about a rebellious 17-year-old girl caught in an epic struggle between good and evil.

Universal Pictures ended up paying $1 million for exclusive rights over the next several years to try to adapt it into a movie, a figure that industry professionals say is stunning for a title that has sold a very modest 22,692 copies.

“When you see a book that fits the criteria of what has proven to be effective but has its own identity, you want to go after it hard,” said Peter Cramer, Universal’s co-president of production.

Studios have more material to choose from than ever before, as young-adult novels are just as hot in the struggling New York literary world as they are in Hollywood.

“It’s been the hottest growth area in publishing,” said Kassie Evashevski, co-head of the book department at the United Talent Agency, whose clients include “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer.

Development executives who screen books with an eye to turning them into movies are being bombarded with 10 to 20 titles a week, the result of the studios’ insatiable appetite for hits and publishers’ relentless flow of books.

“We’re seeing a million of them, but most feel like imitations or ‘Johnny-come-latelies,’” Cramer said.

A motivating factor is the famous story of how Paramount Pictures had the rights to the “Twilight” series but let them go when executives there didn’t see the making of a successful movie. Summit Entertainment, which is now part of Lionsgate, picked them up and has since released four pictures that have grossed a combined $2.5 billion at the worldwide box office, with a fifth scheduled for November.

Paying what once would have seemed like an outrageous sum for a book before it’s a bestseller also prevents studios from dishing out even more in the future.

Lionsgate, for example, bought the film rights to “The Hunger Games” in 2008, when only the first book in the series was on shelves and had sold a respectable but far from phenomenal 150,000 copies. The studio paid Collins about $200,000 for the rights, according to a person familiar with the deal but not authorized to disclose details. That figure ultimately grew to between $1 million and $2 million, including bonuses for the book topping the bestseller charts and production fees — a hefty sum but less than 2% of the movie’s opening-weekend ticket sales. The studio also has the rights to make three more films based on two follow-up books on far better terms than if it were to cut a deal now that the books have sold 23.5 million copies.

But nothing guarantees success in Hollywood, be it a hot genre or bestselling source material. In the wake of “Harry Potter,” a slew of magic-themed books featuring young heroes fizzled when they became the films “The Golden Compass,” “Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Eragon.”

For now, insiders remain amazed at the desperate push for the next “Hunger Games” and can only wonder when the industry will be ready for a detour.

“Five years ago I would have never thought young-adult novels with such dark themes would be selling,” Freedman said. “But there is going to be a bubble. Everything in Hollywood is cyclical.”