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Box-Office Spotlight: The Hunger Games

Hello dear WOKJ-readers,

Welcome to the new WOKJ series of articles – Box-Office Spotlight. The purpose of this new series is to take a closer look at the box-office potential of a certain heavily anticipated movie. The idea is go into depth about the movie’s potential box-office performance, discussing factors going in its favour and against it and, at the end, giving a rough prediction of how it will most likely perform. Each year, there will be around 6-8 of these articles usually focussing on major studio tentpoles. There seems to be no more fitting movie to start off the series this year than the upcoming adaptation of the bestselling novel The Hunger Games that will hit the screens nationwide this Friday.

Obviously there will be several major box-office hits this year and their runs will be fun to watch. I am talking about movies like The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers and The Hobbit. All these movies will be tremendous box-office success stories and while they will almost certainly deliver terrific (and maybe record-breaking) numbers, their runs are still, in a certain way, predictable. Ever since the announcement of these three films, it has been known that it’s extremely unlikely for any of those to end up with less than $300 million. Huge openings are guaranteed too (each potentially setting a new record for the month they will be released in). At the same time, there is also a certain limit as to how they will open and where they will end up; there is a certain fixed range.

The Hunger Games is a different beast. When the movie has first been announced over a year ago with a release date set for March and the studio being the relatively small Lionsgate Films there have been voices about this being yet another of those failed attempts to start a fantasy franchise akin to I Am Number Four or Jumper. Many expected a typical February/March young adult fantasy flick performance leading to a $70-90 million total. The studios have been quite desperate to find a new major fantasy franchise now that Harry Potter has finally come to an end and the Twilight series ending this year as well. Most of these attempts, however, ended in mediocre returns, thus putting a stop on the franchise after the first instalment. A small exception seems to be Percy Jackson and the Olympians which will surprisingly see a second film next year, even though the first one didn’t break out big time.

Initially nothing suggested that it’d be any different for The Hunger Games. The books were successful with the final of the three books simultaneously topping all bestseller lists in the US and selling over 450,000 copies in its first week of publication. Still, it wasn’t on the same level as Harry Potter or Twilight. However, once the director, Gary Ross, who hasn’t directed a film since his Best Picture nominated Seabiscuit was announced, it started to become clear that there will be more pedigree behind this film than behind the usual franchise starter wannabes. The following announcements of the cast which included the Oscar-nominated breakout star Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role of Katniss Everdeen as well as established actors like Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson have proven that Lionsgate is trying to make more than just a cash grab attempt.

Lionsgate played it well too. The announcement of each new cast member was quite hyped up and made an event. There have been daily announcements of the actors to play the tributes of each district (for those who are not in the know: The movie’s plot is about a dystopian future in which a girl and a boy between 12-18 from each of the 12 districts of Panem – former USA – have to participate in the yearly Hunger Games, a Battle Royale-like competition at the end of which only one will survive). Even though some of those characters barely have an appearance in the book, it was still made out to be quite a big thing. Lionsgate has started a viral marketing campaign much bigger than anything the studio has ever done in the past. They knew that if they play it right, they will have a winner on their hands.

At the same time, Lionsgate Films being the studio was what still held a lot of people back from predicting huge numbers for The Hunger Games. Despite the studio’s mostly successful existence ever since its founding in 1997, they have delivered only two $100+ million films. The first was Michael Moore’s controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 which made over $119 million domestically and to date stands as LGF’s most successful film to date. Their second $100 million grosser arrived in 2010 with the release of The Expendables ($103.1 million) which will see a sequel this year. Other than those, Lionsgate’s major cash cows have always been the Saw franchise (seven movies between 2004 and 2010) and the Tyler Perry brand. In fact, seven spots out of LGF’s all-time Top 10 are taken up by Saw films or Tyler Perry’s films. The studio never seemed like a likely candidate to release a major fantasy flick that will turn into a huge franchise. Many of the studio’s attempts to venture away from their usual horror output resulted in box-office failures (see Warrior, Conan the Barbarian and Killers). Then again, Summit Entertainment had only five movies under their belt before they release the first Twilight film and none of those was particularly successful. The difference is that Summit had a cleaner slate, whereas Lionsgate’s track record made is harder to believe that they could have a huge franchise on their hands.

However, as the release date is getting closer, a major breakout starts to seem more and more likely. The Hunger Games trilogy currently occupies the top three spots on Amazon’s bestsellers list with the boxed trilogy settling for #5. The thing about The Hunger Games’ success is that the upcoming movie actually created a whole lot more interest in the books. Whereas in the case of Harry Potter and the Twilight sequels the pre-existing fanbase remains mostly stable, the book sales for The Hunger Games jumped after the hyped debut of the first trailer. In fact, the sales have reached the high point of their sales in the third quarter of the last year, according to Scholastic. Speaking of the trailer – it has received around 8 million views within just 24 hours of its release. Carefully planned out marketing led to an ever-increasing hype and a huge expansion of the fanbase. The books have been successful before the movie’s announcement, but the approaching adaptation made them huge. The whole thing is working in a terrific synergy rarely witnessed – the hype for the film is boosting the book sales and expanding the fanbase which, in turn, will lead to a higher turnout for the movie itself. A similar phenomenon has happened to Twilight which performed well with its first outing and exploded with its second film as the fanbase grew immensely. In The Hunger Games’ case, however, the effect seems to be arriving earlier as the first movie is now set to open to tremendous numbers.

The most comparable franchise openers, of course, are Twilight ($69.6 million opening leading to a $192.8 million total) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ($90.3 million opening on its way to a $317.6 million finish). What is remarkable about those films is that unlike their follow-ups, they not only opened very well, but also managed to maintain solid legs throughout their late runs as the fanbase kept expanding. One would usually expect a sharp decline after a huge opening, but it is usually not the case for the first movie in a major franchise. The frontloading only comes at a later point in the series. Now this is a great sign for The Hunger Games as its opening is already set to be higher than the unadjusted numbers of the aforementioned flicks.

Once the tickets for The Hunger Games went on sale, the dedicated fanbase stormed out and the movie set presales records, selling more tickets on Fandango during the first 24 hours than the previous record-holder The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. This is simply astounding for a movie without a pre-existing fanbase for the movies themselves. As of March 15th, the movie has sold over 1,000 showings nationwide, clearly outpacing the debut of the first Twilight film. Recently, it has been announced that The Hunger Games will receive a one-week-only IMAX engagement at over 250 IMAX theatres nationwide too, a factor that will surely boost its opening as well. Apparently the demand for IMAX midnight showings is high too as the IMAX theatres are now adding 3 a.m. showings to accommodate the demand. 

So what are the numbers to beat? The highest March opening weekend to date goes to Alice in Wonderland which bowed to $116.1 million in 2010 on its way to a $334.2 million. That movie was of course also helped by 3D which, coming off Avatar’s outworldly success, was a he thing back then. The Hunger Games doesn’t have that going for it. What it does have going for it, though is the bad scheduling of most studios during the first couple of months of this year. The studios have overcrowded the market with R-rated movies (most of which turned out successful, yet still cannibalized each other to a certain degree), leaving very little for the families or the teen audiences. The Hunger Games is the first major PG-13 flick to hit the screens since Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol last December as Disney’s John Carter recently disappointed big time. That alone should make it a major choice for large chunks of the audience, not just the fans of the books. There is not much competition. Another number to beat would be those of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ($90.3 million) and Spider-Man ($114.8 million), two of the biggest franchise starters ever and the last non-sequels to take the opening weekend record. Obviously, it is not an easy feat as The Hunger Games had less time to build its fanbase than Spider-Man and its appeal is not as broad as that of Harry Potter. However, unadjusted, it should be able to make it and that alone is already a great achievement. Beating Alice in Wonderland would also give it the highest opening weekend ever for a movie that is not a sequel.

What makes this film different from Twilight is that while the success of the books is not yet on the same level, it does not scare off certain segments of the audiences. There is no denying that Twilight’s romantic angle heavily targets girls and by that turns off the male demographics from this film. Most men who do end up seeing Twilight, do so with a female companion. Initially it seemed like The Hunger Games might play up the romantic triangle of the book series as well. However, Lionsgate was smarter than that. They knew that there is already a huge female fanbase of the books that will go out and see the film either way. The trailers, in turn, emphasized the action part and the tough heroine, trying to appeal to male audiences as well. That will make it a four quadrants movie. What will help its long-term prospects even more is that the movie is apparently very good too with the first 15 reviews on (including those by Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) being all positive. All this taken together gives us a great combination of elements all going in this film’s favour. With The Hunger Games set to hit over 4,000 theatres on Friday (giving Lionsgate Films by far its widest release to date), a per-theatre-average below $25,000 and thus a $100 million opening seems unlikely. What will be far more interesting watch, however, will be the longevity of the franchise. As mentioned before, being the first film in the series will help as will the good reviews. The first Twilight film managed an opening-to-total multiplier of over 2.75. I don’t think it will be as good for The Hunger Games simply because the books are far hotter than they Twilight books have been around the first film’s release. That will ensure a far bigger opening, but also, inevitably at least somewhat bigger frontloading. However, anything over 2.5 would be amazing for a hyped up release like this one. Taken all that into account, this is what I see happening:

Opening Weekend - $120-130 million

Total Gross - $320-340 million

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Total Comments: 6
David    Mar 18 2012 8:35pm
It will open below 100 mil.
Karl Schneider
Karl Schneider    Mar 18 2012 9:34pm
Someone drank his hater-aid today!
Rev    Mar 19 2012 12:06am
Nice article DL :)
I agree on all but your prediction.
This will open a bit higher (139m) and end up with a 3 multiplier.
Yeah it'll do over 400m lol
Crux    Mar 22 2012 12:25pm
The pre-sale numbers and the overall hype about this movie is insane. I could see a $150 OW happening. Never would have thought that a couple weeks ago though.
Arthur A.
Arthur A.    Mar 22 2012 1:50pm
The sequel will be humongous. I see no less than $170+ million for its opening.
Arthur A.
Arthur A.    Mar 25 2012 4:49pm
I thought my prediction was already at a bit of a high end...but apparently not.