How about this for an unexpected hot Hollywood trend: projects about young people afflicted – often terminally – with cancer. ABC Family’s new drama series Chasing Life – about a 24-year-old aspiring journalist who finds out she has leukemia – debuted on June 10. Only two days earlier, cancer teen romance The Fault In Our Stars became one of the sleeper hits of the summer, trouncing Tom Cruise’s big-budget sci-fi thriller Edge Of Tomorrow at the weekend box office. And coming this fall is Fox’s Red Band Society, a drama series about teens with serious illnesses, including cancer, living in a hospital. Given what a sensitive topic cancer is and how tough a sell it is commercially, it is pretty hard for any such project to see green light, so for three to get to the screen at the same time is pretty remarkable.
Neither Chasing Life nor Red Band had an easy road to the small screen. Both took years and went through two incarnations with different writers. Red Band also switched networks, from ABC to Fox. Both were based on formats – the successful Televisa Spanish-language Mexican series Terminales (Chasing Life) and acclaimed Spanish series Polseres Vermelles (Red Band). Not to take away from the U.S. producers who embraced the formats and the network executives who put the adaptations on the air, but it was foreign creators who broke the stigma and defied convention by believing that it’s OK to do a show that tackles cancer in young people. On U.S. television, cancer has usually stricken older patients, like on the Showtime dark comedy The Big C and NBC dramedy Parenthood.
ABC Family brass believe in Chasing Life so strongly, they ordered seven additional episodes in November, months before the series’ debut. The premiere date was set back in March when there was little indication Fault would be the blockbuster it turned out to be. There hasn’t been an immediate halo effect from the movie’s success on Chasing Life, which hasn’t been a breakout success but opened OK, down 16% in total viewers from Twisted, the previous new drama to debut behind ABC Family’s flagship drama Pretty Little Liars, but even in adults 18-34 and up in women 18-49. However, there could be a long-term impact as Fault could help young audience accept cancer as a topic of a piece of entertainment.
That could also boost Red Band, which too is looking to capitalize on the success of Fault, launching a multi-city screening tour on Wednesday. The pilot was a favorite among writers, with the show as one of the most sought after writing jobs this season.
While cancer-themed movies and series are unlikely to build franchises with sequels or spinoffs given the subject matter, it is good for the business when taking risks with projects off the beaten path pays off.