Let me begin with a full disclosure: I didn’t see I Am Number Four. Its trailer didn’t hold any appeal for me. However, if the reviews had been raving – “It’s the next District 9!” – I would have seen it. From where I sit, no one really liked it, and it will vanish, too insignificant to ever even be brought up in a discussion of the decade. (The only time you might hear about it again is if one of its stars hits the A-List, and ten years later, some Internet site does a list or feature honoring all things Olyphant or Pettyfer.)
I’m perplexed by its existence though — or rather, a trend that its existence symbolizes. In the rush to capture the next Harry Potter or Twilight (notably the latter), we’re seeing a lot of these movies adapted from a “popular” or “buzzed about” young adult series that no one has actually heard of. (The fact that these books themselves are manufactured in an anonymous and poorly paid English major factory is its own level of ugly.)
Hollywood has been buying up books in galley form for decades, so this isn’t new, though the rate of turnover might be. I think what’s baffling about it in this day and age of “marketability” and “key words” and “recognition factor” is that they are buying properties without a fanbase, and working on the assumption that one will develop between rights purchase and the release date. Again, books are often snapped up in galleys on the assumption that it could be a massive bestseller, and when it isn’t, nothing comes of it. The rights simply expire, and it’s a write off for the studio or production company. No big deal. Logic would dictate that I Am Number Four might have sat around for awhile until it was deemed a marketable and profitable property.
But no. Instead, they churned out a movie, with the angle that there would be a fanbase waiting – a fanbase they (and the publishing company) manufactured. There was an IAmNumberFourFans.com before there was even a book. I went there last summer trying to find out something about it in order to prepare for a set visit, and found it completely empty of real fan interaction or conversation. If you visit the earliest page left standing in its archives, you’ll see what I mean. The only fans to be seen are those drawn in by the actors. That makes sense. There can be no I Am Number Four fans if there is no I Am Number Four yet. Even now with the film out in theaters, the average number of comments is no more than 30, a far cry from any Harry Potter, Twilight or The Hunger Games fan site. Still, that suggests there was room for a fandom to organically flourish, had there been time. And I’m all for that. We’re all fans of things; we’re all invested in seeing a possible movie adaptation. If I Am Number Four could wind up a bunch of young geeks into fancasting what might be their first foray into sci-fi, that would have been ok with me, even if the book was silly. (I never read it. Maybe it’s fantastic. I’m simply taking the most critical stance possible.) That, at least, might have justified its becoming a movie.
Instead, there’s a whiff of “This is popular because we say it is”, and a fervent hope that lots of young people will read or watch the movie because they were told everyone was, without ever having seen any evidence of that. Though, to be fair, that’s primarily how marketing to a youth demographic works (Your friends have it. They do? Yes.) though this approach strikes me as a little cruder.
There’s been other cases of this over the past few youth heavy years. Steven Spielberg optioned The 39 Clues, another book buzzed to become the next youth phenomenon, though unlike Four, it looks to have quietly disappeared. Hailee Steinfeld signed to be in another soon-to-be-published supernatural tween film called Forgotten, and I fully expect we’ll see similar “fan sites” spring up for it, particularly since there’s a lovely star to link it to. I know I’m missing a few more, and that’s just the tween stuff. We’ve seen and complained about dozens of comic “properties” that have done the same thing, though generally without the faux fan communities springing up around them. I imagine that’s not far behind, though. There’s certainly been vague efforts to make us believe fans of Property X are thronging ComicCon, when in reality they’re just wearing the free t-shirt because they ran out of clothes.
I’m not stupid. I know these films are churned out because they are trying to cash in on that gushy supernatural trend. But what I find paradoxical is that for all intents and purposes, Hollywood is spending good money on an original concept. Sure, it’s “based on a book,” but it’s not a book anyone has read. It’s not really a brand. It doesn’t fit that paradigm that we all like to bitch about, and that Hollywood has put on its tombstone. Yet they clearly think they are buying into a brand, or that they will be able to produce a fervent fanbase in time. Maybe they’ll even point to I Am Number Four’s box office spot as proof of that. Fuzzy accounting and false positives are nothing new in big business, but surely someone thinks “We could have made so much more money if this actually had fans. Maybe this wasn’t worth doing.”
And it wasn’t. It really wasn’t. Not because the book wasn’t worthy, or the movie wasn’t any good, because that’s not really my point. Plenty of bestsellers aren’t very good, but I understand the financial appeal of making Dan Brown’s stuff into movies. He has a fanbase. Brown truly is a brand. But I don’t understand buying up I Am Number Four because it’s a theoretical brand. From a purely business standpoint, why does a studio chose to spend money optioning an incomplete book and churning out a movie (even if it was a relatively cheap one) that had no more name recognition to its title, its characters, or its cast than a number of original and solid sci-fi screenplays that are undoubtedly floating around out there? Hell, some of those unproduced scripts probably even have roles for chiseled young things, and could do just as good a job of luring in the lusty tweens and teens as this did.
I have no conclusion to this. I wrote it simply as a rant. Maybe it’s a prediction, though. Perhaps the final straw to break the current system might be this very thing –studios dumping money on counterfeit brands (possibly a step even lower than actually optioning Viewmaster: The Movie) that no one knows or cares about in a desperation to cook up the magic formula of PotterTwiMarDCTrueHunger mania, unaware they’re spending just as much as if they’d bought an original designer.