Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Divergent" Drops Out

I hadn't been keeping up with the "Divergent" series after the first movie, which I only found notable for securing an excellent cast of promising young actors, including Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Miles Teller. Like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," its creators had elected to split its last installment into two parts to extend the franchise. I had always wondered what would happen if one of these series started tanking at the box office before it reached its last installment. Well, now we know.

Earlier this week it was reported that after the poor performance of "The Divergent Series: Allegiant" back in spring, Lionsgate is going to skip the theatrical release of the climactic fourth and final movie, "Ascendant." Previously, it was expected to shoot this summer with a scaled down budget to reflect more modest expectations, and reach screens in June of 2017. Instead, "Ascendant" will now be a TV movie leading into a spinoff "Divergent" television series. It's not clear how much of the current cast is going to return, where it will air, or when we can expect to see it.

There's some precedence for a franchise moving from one genre to another like this. "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones," was another film based off of a young adult genre book series, released in 2013. It failed to recoup its budget, but a television series based off the same material with different actors found some success on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). It premiered earlier this year as "Shadowhunters," and at the time of writing, has been renewed for a second season. Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" are also in the process of being adapted for web and television series after theatrical films meant to launch longer-running franchises failed to find audiences. However, I'm pretty sure that "Divergent" is the first time a previously successful film series has sputtered out after multiple installments, and made the switch to television while it's still technically trying to maintain the same continuity.

The part of this that I find really interesting is that Lionsgate has decided to use "Ascendant" to launch a new television series. I would have expected them to churn out a cheap sequel to finish off the film series, given it a quick release next January, and then tried to recoup as much as they could via VOD and home media. Then, if they wanted to return to this universe, maybe wait a year or two before going the television route. The approach that Lionsgate has chosen seems awfully rushed. I wonder, can rejiggering "Ascendant" into a backdoor pilot work if the main series is already on the rocks? Are they trying to capitalize off of the existing "Divergent" fans before they evaporate? And exactly what source material are they using for the show if the final "Divergent" book was already split into "Allegiant" and "Ascendant"? By picking this option instead of a later reboot or TV adaptation, Lionsgate is potentially sacrificing a second chance for the series' success. It's a bold move, to be sure.

In any case, I'm fairly sure that this is the end of the "book splitting" trend that "Harry Potter" sparked in 2008. With the young adult genre losing steam, it's getting riskier and riskier to commit these longer, serialized franchises. After the end of "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent," there aren't many ongoing ones left. The second "Percy Jackson" film bombed, and no more are planned. "The 5th Wave" broke even, but a continuation looks unlikely. And the final "Maze Runner" film is delayed until 2018 after its star Dylan O'Brien was seriously injured during production. More telling is that there aren't any new titles on the horizon - and the few adaptations that are in the works all seems to be heading to television.

"Divergent" does have its fans, and so far they haven't been happy with the announcement. It's understandable, because no matter how you look at it, Lionsgate seems to be conceding defeat. Still, everything still seems to be up in the air at the moment, so it's much too early to draw any conclusions. It's going to be interesting to see how this is all going to play out. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised at all if they just end up cancelling the whole thing. Stay tuned.

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