The producers of Wrath of the Titans and Mirror Mirror must have thought the odds were in their favor when, months ago, they planned to open their movies this weekend. The Greek-myth action sequel would attract young males; the revisionist fairy tale, starring Julia Roberts as Snow White’s wicked Queen, would lure women and kids. And the only holdover film that might dilute their success was some grim Survivor-style fantasy about an endangered teenage girl with a bow and arrow.
Oops. The Hunger Games — which last weekend blitzed the box office with $152.5 million, for the third highest all-time opening at North American theaters — picked off the two big contenders and won this weekend with $61.1 million, according to the preliminary estimates of its distributor, Lionsgate. Though this represented a 60 percent drop from the debut frame of the adaptation of Suzanne Collins novel, the three-day total was still the year’s third highest weekend gross, behind its own opening and the $70.2 million for the first three days of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. The Hunger Games synergy spread like wildfire: it is now the No. 1 movie, book and CD in America. The only bigger winners this weekend were the folks in Illinois, Maryland and Kansas who held the three lucky Mega Millions tickets.
[UPDATE: According to the final weekend tabulations released Monday, The Hunger Games actually earned $58.55 million — a hefty number, but more than 4% below its Sunday estimate. Wrath of the Titans finished at $33.5 million, about 2% less than its predicted total; and Mirror Mirror took in $18.1 million, or nearly 5% under its studio's preliminary guess. Everyone involved needs to take a class in Data Extrapolation.]
That left the Titans of Olympus looking like midgets. Wrath’s predecessor, Clash of the Titans — a retelling of the Perseus myth starring burly Aussie ingenue Sam Worthington — opened two years ago this weekend to a borderline-heroic $61.2 million, on its way to a $163.2-million total in North America and $493.2 million worldwide. Clash may have lucked into two historical moments: audience fervor for 3-D movies (Clash, shot in 2-D, had been hurriedly retrofitted in the stereoptic process) and spillover love for the all-time hit Avatar (which had opened three months before, and in which Worthington was also top-billed). By now, though, moviegoers are used to seeing spears and thunderbolts hurled into their laps; and Worthington, with starring roles in four more films that grossed a domestic total of only $50 million, has proved to be something short of a marquee name.
Wrath hit its target demographic — 66% of attendees were male — but not enough other viewers: the $34.2 million it earned this weekend was just 56% of the opening number for Clash, and this time the man-god Perseus proved a lowly mortal. The closest box-office analogy to Wrath would be the Greek epic Immortals, which traded in Perseus for Theseus and took in $32.2 million when it opened last November. On the plus side, the early customers gave Wrath a decent B-plus rating on CinemaScore; and the movie performed much better abroad: $78 million, or fully 70% of its gross thus far. Keep that percentage in mind, students; we’ll get back to it.
(READ: TIME’s review of Wrath of the Titans)
Mirror Mirror made the same mistake the Queen did with Snow White: the movie thought all female eyes would be on it, not on a rebellious teen who’s exiled into the forest. This time it was The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, not Snow White, who humiliated the haughty monarch. Directed by Immortals’ Tarsem Singh, Mirror Mirror cost about $90 million to produce, similar to the budget for The Hunger Games, but earned only $19 million this weekend, less than a third of Hunger’s second-weekend take. Managing a B-plus grade from CinemaScore, the movie lured the right audience (60% kids and their parents) but again in depleted amounts. Mirror Mirror also finished below the $23.1 million tallied last summer by another Roberts vehicle Eat Pray Love. The star’s game parody of her patented sunny screen persona — as the malicious Queen she was more Cheat Prey Loathe — was more or less ignored in the trample of females still catching up with Katniss.
(READ: TIME’s review of Mirror Mirror)
Among indie films, the ballyhooed Bully — the child-torment documentary that received a slew of free publicity in the battle over its MPAA R rating — opened to a less-than-smash $115,000 in five theaters. Bully’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, finally released it without a rating, which meant that some theater chains forbade anyone under 17 from seeing it. As industry-stats sage Tom Brueggemann notes in his Thompson on Hollywood column: “Issue docs, particularly those about important but unsettling topics, often disappoint. The docs that are doing well these days tend to focus on creative personalities involved with activities covered in arts and style sections.” Also, the young might be tempted to sneak into a scary movie forbidden to them, but not if the horrifying subject is kids hurting kids. Unless, of course, if it’s in The Hunger Games.
(READ: TIME’s review of Bully)
If The Hunger Games has any hurdles to navigate on its run to true blockbuster status, it could be the relative indifference of moviegoers abroad. It’s still early days in the film’s global release, but so far the take in foreign countries has been “only” $113.9 million, or 31% of the 10-day gross. Most movies that are gigantic hits in North America are even bigger in the rest of the world; on average, the top 10 all-time worldwide winners earned two-thirds of their money abroad. If The Hunger Games were following that trend, it would already have grossed $750 million worldwide, instead of the $365 million it’s banked this far.
(READ: TIME’s insufficiently adoring review of The Hunger Games movie)
Collins novel, whose popularity stoked so much of the Internet furor here, has been a breakout sensation mainly in English-speaking lands. Not surprisingly, the movie has been strongest in Australia ($9.5 million) and the United Kingdom ($7.8 million). The franchise that The Hunger Games most strongly resembles is The Twilight Saga, another young-adult series of best-sellers turned into films that took their time attracting a huge international audience. The first Twilight film, in 2008, earned about $400 million worldwide, the figure split almost equally between domestic and foreign grosses. The three sequels have cadged about $700 million each, with nearly 60% of the revenue coming from abroad. Eventually, filmgoers everywhere warmed up to the Bella-and-Edward vampire love story, but not enough to lift the franchise to the upper echelon of megamovirs: the Twilight sequels rank 44th, 46th and 47th among all-time worldwide hits.
(READ: Lev Grossman’s consideration of the Hunger Games books)
The Hunger Games and its three planned sequels may well top The Twilight Saga. We wouldn’t put it past Katniss; she’s a most determined young heroine. For now, though, she might be a Bella Swan, but she’s no Harry Potter.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. The Hunger Games, $61.1 million; $251 million, second week
2. Wrath of the Titans, $34.2 million, first weekend
3. Mirror Mirror, $19 million, first weekend
4. 21 Jump Street, $15 million; $93.1 million, third week
5. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, $8 million; $189.6 million, fifth week
6. John Carter, $2 million; $66.2 million, fourth week
7. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, $1.3 million; $3.2 million, fourth week
8. Act of Valor, $1 million; $67.8 million, sixth week
9. A Thousand Words, $915,000; $16.5 million, fourth week
10. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, $835,000; $98.5 million, eighth week