Entertainment Copycats Can Be Overachievers

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- In Robert Altman's 1992 film The Player, Hollywood executives spend much of their time recycling.

Buck Henry earnestly pitches The Graduate 2, and others with the power to greenlight projects are inclined to do so for one described as being like "Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman."

Everything old is new again in all corners of the media world. Get a vampire and score a hit. Zombies? Bring 'em on. Britney begat Christina begat Ke$ha, and on and on it goes.

We took a look at five arenas where many have found it can pay off to ride on someone else's coattails:

Books

In auto racing, there is a strategy called "drafting" -- tailgating close to a leading car to reduce drag, letting them block wind resistance. In other words: Stick to the leader, imitate their every move, and you too can be a winner.

That, metaphorically, is the strategy book publishers have employed since the global phenomenon of Harry Potter.

The seven books about a boy wizard by J.K. Rowling have sold nearly 480 million copies and counting (and that doesn't even include e-books, a format Rowling only recently acquiesced to). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the conclusion to the series, rang up more than 11 million copies on its first day of release and was the fastest-selling book in history. Potter-related book, theater, DVD and toy sales have pulled in nearly $25 billion in sales.

The series itself is an homage of sorts, drawing thematic inspiration from everything from The Bible to Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Its phenomenal success has, in turn, led to a whole lot of wannabes jumping on the young adult fiction train.

In many cases these "copycats" are hardly total ripoffs, but they nevertheless benefit from the demand for similar themes, such as Rick Riordan's books of Percy Jackson and the Olympian, which substitute budding Greek gods for wizards in training.

Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, another must-read for tweeners, mixes the supernatural with post-pubescent angst and has a lot to thank Rowling's creation for (almost 30 million copies and a movie franchise, to start with). There are no dragons, house elves or flying broomsticks, but it might be safe to assume that without Harry there would be no Bella, at least not books with such marketing muscle and pop culture infiltration.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (think of it as The Running Man meets The Road, but for teens) also has benefited from the rush for the next big thing in young adult literature, as have The Vampire Diaries (now a hit on TV as well) and Cirque du Freak (made into a movie) and many others.

According to the Association of American Publishers, 2010 book sales for children's book categories (which include "picture books" merged with the sort of novels similar to Harry Potter and its peers), when compared with the previous year, were up 4.5% ($48.9 million in sales) for paperbacks and, despite a 9.5% drop-off in hardcover books (no new Harry to be had, perhaps?), those sales still reached $694.3 million.

Crunching numbers from from R.R. Bowker's Publishers Weekly, a recent article on the literary Web site McSweeney's reported that, between 1995 and 1997, the number of young adult titles published was a mere 3,000; by 2009, it had spiked to more than 30,000 (although, once again, figures tend to blur categories for kids' books and those for young adults).

Further evidence: Despite a 20% decline in "literature" reading by young adults from 1982 to 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts found rates swing to a 21% increase from the initial point of decline from 2002-08 -- a period right in the wheelhouse of Pottermania (although the NEA drew no specific correlation).

The young adult is so hot that even established "adult" writers such as John Grisham and Carl Hiaasen are taking a stab at it.

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