Monday, March 21, 2011

Casting Katniss

I have some thoughts on the recent casting kerfuffle around Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of upcoming "Hunger Games" movie, based on the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins. Let me make it clear straight out that this is not another diatribe about Hollywood's rotten practice of whitewashing ethnic characters and racially biased casting practices. The questionable casting tactics employed by the producers of "The Hunger Games" has already been addressed by the Movieline blog and other critics who have more knowledge of the source material than I do. I haven't read the "Hunger Games" books, but they're essentially a tamer "Battle Royale" sexed up with more romance and teen angst, and aimed squarely at the same young adult audience that fueled the rise of "Twilight." Also, Katniss is apparently racially ambiguous, which makes the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence, still enjoying the glow from her Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone," a far less egregious example of whitewashing than many other recent examples. Still, it's nice that observers are now actively asking why "ambiguous" automatically codes as "Caucasian" in casting breakdowns. Every little bit if awareness helps.

But what really interests me about the Katniss situation is what happened on March 17th when the choice of Lawrence was announced. "Hunger Games" isn't on everyone's radar yet. Some sites like Deadline and Aint it Cool News didn't even bother to post the news. However, Entertainment Weekly put up three articles in quick succession. One was the announcement, that was quickly flooded with unhappy "Hunger Games" fans who had a bone to pick with Jennifer Lawrence for being too old and physically well developed for the role, and definitely not racially ambiguous. The second article was an open talkback, asking for reactions to Lawrence being cast as Katniss. The third was an interview with director Gary Ross that addressed some of the most common concerns about Lawrence's ability to play the role. Ross emphasized that he had the blessing of "Hunger Games" author Suzanne Collins, and showered praise on Jennifer Lawrence. However, reactions to the article pointed out that Ross was perhaps too dismissive of concerns over Lawrence's age and race, and that some of the information about the casting criteria in the interview was contrary to what had been previously reported in other articles about the film.

Entertainment Weekly has since put up a brief partial interview with Jennifer Lawrence about her reaction to being cast as Katniss, and a letter from Suzanne Collins being explicitly supportive of the decision to cast Lawrence. Both articles seem to be targeted toward the potential audience of "The Hunger Games" and designed to quell the bad feelings that have surfaced as a result of the casting ruckus. Another tried to shift attention toward conjecture over who would play the male lead in the film. This is clearly not the first time that an upcoming production has used media puff pieces to engage in this kind of damage control. Over the weekend, the creators of the new "Wonder Woman" TV show were trying to counter criticisms of their heroine's campy new costume with positive notices from 70s Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter. However, the speed and the responsiveness of both Entertainment Weekly and the creative talent behind "The Hunger Games" film is a little breathtaking. Not only did they deign to address the grumbling of the anonymous posters on the Internet, they did so immediately and with gusto.

You could chalk it up to the entertainment media courting controversy and making mountains out of molehills, suddenly ready to declare any sort of mixed reaction to a casting decision newsworthy, where naysayers would have previously been happily ignored. Entertainment Weekly and many other entertainment news outlets have certainly been guilty of gossipmongering before, and trying to mine any kind of potential controversy for more copy and more content. But the Katniss casting issues don't feel manufactured, and the PR folks have been so swift about heading off any criticism, there's no doubt that they're taking the fan reactions very seriously. But why such defensiveness about the casting decision so quickly, with the film over a year away from release and not a frame shot yet? The LA Times and Wall Street Journal have both written articles on "The Hunger Games," taking note of the book series' unusually devoted fanbase and the potential of a film franchise to be a success at the box office. It's in the best interest of Lionsgate, which is footing the bill for the film, to quash any negative buzz from the start. There's a lot at stake, after all. Everyone involved with the film is hoping for the next "Twilight," and hoping to avoid being the next "Last Airbender."

And there's the elephant in the room. You may remember that fan reaction to the initial casting choices for "Airbender" was so toxic, bad buzz dogged the troubled film all the way up to its release a year and a half later. In that case, the initial furor was touched off by a casting announcement in - wouldn't you know it - Entertainment Weekly, which attracted hundreds of angry comments, fed into the broader Racebending casting controversy, and eventually led to hurried recasting of key roles in the film a few months later. Paramount was likely caught off guard and may have acted too slowly to save "Airbender" by ignoring or downplaying the initial complaints. Lionsgate's tactics with the "Hunger Games" casting announcement, on the other hand, reveal a far warier attitude toward the power of the internet. I expect that they prepared for any eruption of controversy well in advance, as the debates over who would play Katniss had been going on for well over a year and there were already some early criticisms of the wording of some of the casting notices. Instead of letting themselves be pummeled by the anonymous hordes, the film's PR used Entertainment Weekly to fire back and aggressively state in every article, over and over, that their decision was unbiased and the film is in good hands.

Whether that's the truth or not, of course, is an entirely different matter. But by engaging in the online discussion of the topic that would go on with or without them, Lionsgate created a much better chance for themselves to affect the public's perceptions about the decision, which I guess is the takeaway from all this. The studios are catching on and getting more serious about their marketing strategies online, even this far out in advance. I have some thoughts on how this could all end up backfiring on them, but that's a post for another day.

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