Box office preview: 'The Hunger Games' is ready to fight its way into the records book

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Image Credit: Murray Close

After consulting a number of industry insiders — in addition to the office Magic 8-Ball, a group of visiting sixth-grade students, my Chinese lunch fortune cookie, and Siri — I now know for a fact that The Hunger Games will debut to exactly… a LOT of money. We’re talking triple-digit millions here, and once you approach box-office numbers that ginormous, it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint a precise figure. $120 million? $130 million? More? Who knows?

I’ve landed on a number — a number that Lionsgate is going to be thrilled with if it comes true. But Lionsgate has already won. No one doubts that The Hunger Games is going to be a box-office behemoth. The question now is simply: How big?

Here are my weekend predictions:

1. The Hunger Games: $130 million

As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from Fandango claiming that The Hunger Games is currently selling 10 tickets per second on the ticketing website. Fandango also said that The Hunger Games represents 96 percent of all its sales today, and that more than 2,500 showtimes have already sold out. (That number grew to more than 3,000 showtimes by the time this story was published.) The film is now the site’s third-biggest advance ticket-seller ever, behind only The Twilight Saga: New Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2.

Those two movies are good starting points for determining how much moola The Hunger Games will stash away this weekend. New Moon debuted to $142.8 million in November 2009, while Deathly Hallows — Part 2 had the largest opening ever with $169.2 million last July. I think the latter number is out of reach for Hunger Games, as Deathly Hallows — Part 2 was the final movie in the wizarding franchise. It also benefited from 3-D surcharges and opening in the summer, when students are out of school. Many kids and young adults may still be on Spring Break right now, but just as many are likely back in school.

New Moon‘s debut of $142.8 million, however, could be obtainable. But let’s back up for a moment and consider all the things The Hunger Games has going for and against it. First, as if you didn’t know, it’s based on the first in a trilogy of sci-fi novels by Suzanne Collins. There are currently more than 24 million copies of the trilogy in print domestically. Second, the buzz for the movie has been building and building over the course of a year, fueled by Lionsgate’s adroit marketing campaign, which includes websites that allows fans to be assigned to a Panem district or take a virtual tour of the Capitol.

Third, young men have been showing much more of an interest in The Hunger Games than the romance-driven Twilight movies. The only quadrant that’s a little weak is older men, and they might come around due to sheer curiosity. Also, the generally positive reviews will certainly help persuade anyone who’s on the fence.

There are really only two considerable factors working against The Hunger Games. The first is that it’s not a sequel. Astronomical debuts are typically reserved for sequels, which account for nine of the 10 biggest openings ever. The top debut for a non-sequel was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland ($116.1 million), which, in a way, could also be considered a sequel. The first Harry Potter and Twilight movies opened to $90.3 million and $69.6 million, respectively. When adjusted for ticket-price inflation, those figures become $124.9 million and $75.9 million. The pre-release fervor for The Hunger Games feels like it’s around the same level as when the first Potter was released, with more excitement overall than when the first Twilight premiered.

The other consideration is that the film’s plot, about a futuristic society in which kids battle other kids to the death, might be deemed too intense by some parents of younger children. The first three Potter movies were PG, whereas The Hunger Games is PG-13 (and some would say it’s a hard PG-13). Then again, as you’ve no doubt witnessed with your own eyes, parents often take their children to age-inappropriate flicks. So maybe the picture’s violent plot and rating won’t be that much of a drawback.

The Hunger Games will certainly be front-loaded this weekend due to midnight screenings tonight and fans rushing out to see it Friday night. The movie’s midnight gross will be the first indication of how big its opening will really be. Theaters are opting to play the film on as many of their screens as possible. For instance, the Regal L.A. Live theater in downtown Los Angeles is showing the movie on all 14 of its screens at midnight. The top midnight debut belongs to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, which tallied $43.5 million. The Hunger Games will likely earn $20 million to $25 million from midnight shows. If that figure passes $30 million, then watch out.

Now I’ve written more than 800 words, hoping I’d make up my mind along the way. But we’re left with a movie that could theoretically open anywhere from $100 million to $160 million. I believe The Hunger Games will play very similarly to the first Harry Potter film, which I previously mentioned debuted to $124.9 million when adjusted for inflation. But Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone played at 3,672 theaters, whereas The Hunger Games is starting out at 4,137 locations. Also, 270 of The Hunger Games‘ theaters will be IMAX screens, giving it a slight surplus-charge advantage.

Thus, I’m adding $5 million to the Potter number, pushing The Hunger Games to a nice, round $130 million — and the biggest debut ever for a non-sequel. The final result could be considerably less or considerably more. Either way, this sci-fi action film, which cost Lionsgate around $80 million to produce, is going to rake in some serious dough this weekend. Just imagine what the sequels will do.

2. 21 Jump Street: $20 million

3. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax: $13 million

4. John Carter: $7 million

5. A Thousand Words: $2 million

Read more:
Movie Talk: Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum on ‘The Hunger Games’ — VIDEO
‘The Hunger Games’ has sold more advance tickets than any other non-sequel, says Fandango
‘The Hunger Games’ too violent for some preteens, says Common Sense Media

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