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Sarai Cruz, a blogger and University of Florida senior, is a connoisseur of young adult novels and their movie adaptations. She devoured every photo that leaked online during the production of the Twilight movies, and she was among the hordes at shopping mall hypefests staged prior to the releases of The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and Divergent.
Most of these young adult (YA) franchise launches came with enormous efforts to rally their YA bases, but Cruz says she has seen nothing like the PR push for The Fault in Our Stars, the adaptation of John Green's best-selling YA page-turner about two cancer-stricken teens in love, starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort and opening June 6. The all-hands-on-mobile-devices operation has involved, among other things: flooding Instagram, Tumblr, and other social media feeds with set photos; galvanizing fans to dictate the schedule for a recent publicity tour; and giving Green free reign to blast out updates and video clips. "It's never been like this, where the author is tweeting [from the set] and saying, 'I just cried for the fourth time,'" says Cruz, 21, who reports every tweet, Instagram, press conference video, interview, and any other fleeting mention of the film on the TFIOS fan site that she administers with three friends flung across the globe in Boston, Austria, and Switzerland. "For us as bloggers, it was amazing because we had content to put up on our blog. As fans, it made us feel really involved."
Making the fans feel involved is the mission of Twentieth Century Fox’s marketing campaign, which has borrowed the elements that are now standard in the promotion of wildly popular YA-inspired cinema (embracing the book's fans, providing early sneak peeks, hosting cast Q&As) and taken them to an even more social media-obsessed level. TFIOS is a very personal book to the millions of people who wept when they read this bittersweet terminal love story, and wept anew every time they reread it. They're protective of the film, and by keeping them intimately updated on its progress, the studio has made them not only feel nurtured and listened to, but also turned them into proselytizers for the major release. While the final word on the strategy's effectiveness won't become clear until the movie opens, there's no doubt it is amplifying excitement to an incredible degree: A recent TFIOS cast appearance on May 6 at Miami’s Dolphin Mall had to be shut down early because the crowd was larger and harder to control than anticipated. Cruz, who witnessed the crush firsthand, said the turnout at a similar event for The Hunger Games two years ago was "probably one-fifth of what the TFIOS event was." The studio and Green apologized to disappointed fans in Miami but were surely heartened by an oversized response indicative of how high excitement has been stoked by the online push. "Other movies have done [social media outreach] in places," George Dewey, Fox's senior vice-president for domestic digital marketing, tells Yahoo Movies. "We're doing it across the board. I think the combination of the passion that pre-existed the movie with the decision to involve fans every single step of the way is why you see so much conversation about The Fault in Our Stars now."
The studio has been very savvy about embedding its marketing efforts within the online worlds TFIOS loyalists inhabit. For example, the movie's official website is a Tumblr page filled with images and tribute-GIFs created by fans that have quickly spread through the fan community. (Tumblr is owned by Yahoo!, which co-sponsored a recent press conference with the TFIOS stars and Green that posed questions submitted by Tumblr users.)
On Instagram, YouTube, and other platforms, cast members and Green have documented what happened on the set and during the current promotional blitz. Joining them in the effort: the so-called "Fault Fanatics" that Fox has recruited to become the film’s "brand ambassadors," dedicated fans who'll spread news about the production across social media. "Brand ambassador" is really a fancy term for unpaid publicist; this seems like the kind of thing purist fans would normally be wary of, not wanting their emotions to be co-opted for commercial purposes. But in this case, the fans feel invested in the cause: According to Dewey, more than 20,000 people have volunteered for the job. Other metrics also suggest the approach is working, including the fact that the initial TFIOS trailer recently became the most-liked movie trailer in YouTube history. (It currently boasts about 280,000 likes, though it may help that the display screen features a "Click the like button!" message in the corner, with acolytes eagerly following the call to arms.) "When you have an active fan base, they have a huge appetite for content," says Brian Lovell, the CEO of RED Interactive, a Santa Monica, Calif., digital design and marketing agency that created The Hunger Games Explorer, the social-media-aggregating, deep-dive web experience created with Microsoft. "If you give it to them and you do it in a smart way, you're going to see results."
And then there is the TFIOS secret weapon: John Green. Authors of previous adapted novels (Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games, Stephenie Meyer of Twilight) have been eager evangelists for the movie versions of their wildly popular work, but they weren't already embedded in social media the way Green is. Dewey describes him as "a digital platform all to himself," and he's enthusiastically serving as the brand ambassador-in-chief. Recently included on Time's list of the world's 100 most influential people, Green has 2.34 million Twitter followers and more than 2 million subscribers to the “vlogbrothers” YouTube series he co-hosts with his brother, Hank; to his legion of Nerdfighters — a "vlogbrothers" term that has become synonymous with Green's fandom — he's not just the author of a heartbreaking love story. He's practically a spiritual guru, with a wry, conversational writing style that's perfectly attuned to precocious, Web-immersed teens. (Green, through the studio, declined to comment for this story.) "A lot of books have become movies, and the original book people always like to follow the journey," says Rachel Fershleiser, the director of publishing outreach for Tumblr, who has watched the swelling of the TFIOS populace. "But I think that John is unique in the amount of connection that these kids feel to him."
"Feel" being the operative word for all things involving this wrenching novel. Like Divergent and The Hunger Games, TFIOS fans are attached to a strong heroine, but this time her life and death battle isn't superhuman or fantastical. She's in the most human fight of all: to live and love. This is not the kind of movie that, on its surface, would naturally attract a wider audience in the way that The Hunger Games could also catch the eye of the action-movie crowd who knew nothing about the book trilogy. Yet even at a time when anything that is not at least 74 percent computer-generated explosion is a question mark at the box office, Fox is not hiding the fact that this is a story about emotions: The tagline on the website promises the movie will "bring on the feels." "The one thing we learned very early on was that we need to treat this source material with respect," Dewey says. "These people will tear you apart if you do something that's not true to Gus or Hazel," the story’s protagonists.
TFIOS is a unique phenomenon; a one-off bestseller with a Catcher in the Rye-like following that spreads further than teenagers. (Many a parent will confess picking it up off their child's desk and blubbering loudly themselves.) There are other active YA communities whose beloved books — including Gayle Forman's teen-in-a-coma drama If I Stay and Rainbow Rowell's misfit love story Eleanor & Park — have been or are about to be made into movies. But in future marketing campaigns, Dewey isn't sure that all the strings can be played in exactly the way they're being strummed here. Even though he says, "In general, treating fans as part of the campaign as opposed to the audience for the campaign is the future of how movies will market." Dewey also notes, "I don't know that we'll ever get to this type of level [again.]"
What the movie industry hasn’t seen yet is social media data that can guarantee that the flurry of activity on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram will translate into ticket sales. For all his enthusiasm about the number of likes earned by that YouTube trailer, Dewey is well aware of that. "The engagement rate and the volume [of TFIOS chatter] is much higher than anything we've seen," he says, "but you have to be careful of the teen-girl effect, which is that people talking doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody’s talking." For a cautionary tale, one need only look to last year's Beautiful Creatures, the adaptation of the gothic YA love story that opened to disappointing box office after negative buzz from fans. Things look more positive for TFIOS.
According to the latest tracking data, the film is projected to open with a strong $29 million and could approach $100 million in total ticket sales.
Still, as Dewey notes, "The ultimate barometer will be June 6. And we'll see on June 6."
(This story was updated May 16, 2014 at 7:25 a.m. PT with current tracking data.)
Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation