LOS ANGELES — Lionsgate hit a bull’s-eye this weekend with “The Hunger Games,” as the story of expert archer Katniss Everdeen and her battle for survival debuted to a record-breaking $155 million at the box office.
The Jennifer Lawrence-starring adaptation of the best-selling book posted the third-highest domestic debut of all time — not accounting for ticket price inflation — behind only the $169.2 million opening for the final “Harry Potter” installment and the $158.4 million launch of “The Dark Knight.” That means “The Hunger Games’ ” estimated opening-weekend gross was more than that of any other nonsequel.
As a result of the astronomically high weekend ticket sales, receipts were up 76 percent compared with the same three-day period last year. The astonishing weekend performance caps a surprisingly strong first quarter at the box office this year, during which movie theater attendance has grown 22 percent compared with the first three months in 2011.
That’s uplifting news for Hollywood, which was fretting after audience turnout dropped to its lowest level in 16 years in 2011. The turnaround is in part, industry analysts say, because of many distributors’ deciding to release some of their best films in winter — typically seen as a dumping ground for low-grade movies. In addition to a variety of well-reviewed pictures in the marketplace, studios have also been figuring out how to better market their films on social media sites.
And it’s fantastic news for Lionsgate, which has grown from a maker of low-budget genre films such as “Saw” to a major player in Hollywood, thanks in part to its recent acquisition of “Twilight” studio Summit Entertainment.
“The Hunger Games” is already Lionsgate’s highest-grossing film ever and is poised to ultimately deliver more than $300 million in profits to the company’s bottom line from ticket sales, DVDs, television and licensed products, several analysts predicted Sunday. With three sequels to come, the series should ultimately produce more than $1 billion in profits.
“The panacea in the movie business is to find franchises,” Lions Gate Entertainment Vice Chairman Michael Burns said. “The idea that we can create some predictability around the most unpredictable part of our business is fantastic.”
Lions Gate is coming off a 2011 that saw its motion picture division struggle with several flops, including “Abduction” and “Conan the Barbarian,” and the company as a whole lost money. That’s poised to change this year thanks to “Hunger Games,” which cost a little over $80 million to make, including the benefit of tax credits in North Carolina, where it was shot. Given its relatively modest budget and advance money from foreign distributors, the movie needed to reach only about $100 million in domestic box office to break even, according to a person familiar with the picture’s economics who was not authorized to speak publicly — a milestone it reached Saturday.
“The Hunger Games’” money began rolling in after midnight Thursday, when it raked in nearly $20 million on its first night in theaters. Moviegoers immediately responded positively to the film about teenagers in a fight to the death, assigning it an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That means the movie will benefit from strong word of mouth that will likely see it play well in the weeks to come and ultimately gross more than $350 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Roughly 61 percent of the opening weekend audience for “The Hunger Games” were women. By comparison, the most recent “Twilight” film attracted an 80 percent female contingent in November, indicating part of the success of the new film had to do with its appeal to both genders. Both adults and teenagers showed up for the PG-13 picture, with 56 percent of the audience older than 25.
The movie played well across the country, with the most receipts coming in New York City, Boston and Salt Lake City, where one theater had the highest gross in the nation for “The Hunger Games.” On Friday and Saturday, Megaplex Theatre in South Jordan, Utah, collected $276,000 in sales. The location is part of a six-theater circuit that has drummed up interest in the movie through special film-themed events, including a re-enactment of the Hunger Games themselves. Like a number of other theaters nationwide, Megaplex also devoted a handful of its screens to playing the teen epic continuously this weekend.
“With 75 percent of our theaters being digital, it allowed exhibitors to maximize capacity at the push of a button,” said David Spitz, Lionsgate’s executive vice president of distribution.
Overseas, ticket sales for “The Hunger Games” were healthy but not as spectacular as in the United States. Playing in 67 foreign markets, the movie collected $59.3 million, roughly in line with the first installments of other blockbuster series such as “Twilight” and “Harry Potter.” The movie performed best in English-speaking markets such as the United Kingdom and Australia, where author Suzanne Collins’ books have been more widely read.
Because Lionsgate sold distribution rights to the movie in advance in every foreign nation except Britain to limit its risk, the studio won’t benefit as much from international ticket sales as if it had released the movie itself. But with awareness of “The Hunger Games” growing in many parts of the world, the sequels are likely to do even bigger business and Lionsgate will be in a position to negotiate more favorable terms for itself.
“Catching Fire,” the follow-up to “The Hunger Games,” is scheduled to hit theaters in November 2013.