Fans Devour The Hunger Games for a $155 Million Feast

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Murray Close

“You really want to know how to stay alive?” Haymitch Abernathy tells Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games. “Get people to like you.” Well, Katniss not only survived, she thrived. The movie based on Suzanne Collins’ teen-fave best seller smashed nearly every record in the box-office annals with $155 million in its first three days of release in North American theaters, according to Lionsgate, its delirious distributor. That number is the third highest ever for an opening weekend, behind the $169.2 million for the Harry Potter finale and $158.4 million for The Dark Knight and ahead of Spider-Man 3. It is the all-time tops for a nonsequel and the best for a film released between December and April. As Haymitch or Sally Field might say about Katniss, they like her, they really like her!

[UPDATE: The movie’s “actual” weekend figure, reported Monday, was $152,535,747, about 1.6% below the Sunday estimate but still the third best three-day opening, ahead of the $151.1 million for Spider-Man 3 in May 2007.]

Invading 4,237 theaters and occupying nearly 10,000 screens, including 268 Imax venues, The Hunger Games played to sold-out crowds and enthralled fans across the country. Audiences surveyed by the CinemaScore polling company awarded the film a straight A, reflecting the indulgent 86% approval grade on the critics’ aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. (Among the few negative voices were reviews from the New York Times, the Financial Times and TIME. The few, the proud, the utterly ignored.) The weekend’s humongous crowd skewed slightly older than the audience for a typical blockbuster: 54% were 25 or older.

(MORE: Is The Hunger Games Too Dark for Kids?)

The movie’s record-smashing success also attested to Girl Power. Fully 61% of the attendees were women — now the largest, most reliable filmgoing audience. And it proves that women will see stories created by women. With two Twilight Saga episodes (New Moon and Breaking Dawn, Part 1) in fifth and sixth places, four of the top six all-time opening weekends are now held by films based on children’s and young-adult novels written by women.

Credit much of the wow status of The Hunger Games to Lionsgate’s a wizardly digital campaign, whose aim was unerring as Katniss’s archery. Essentially, the Lionsgate marketers convinced kids that they were discovering the film on Internet sites, rather than being cunningly led to them. Last month Lionsgate bought Summit, the producers of the Twilight franchise, just in time to exceed the megagrosses of New Moon and Breaking Dawn 1. The indie company, which geared up for film production in 2006, can now boast three of the top six openings of all time. Because of the merger, the marketing geniuses who made The Hunger Games work may soon lose their jobs. In Hollywood, thanks is a four-letter word.

With nearly 20 million tickets sold for Collins’ survival fantasy, the weekend’s other movies were left to forage for scraps. The jokey action picture 21 Jump Street, in its second week, still managed a sturdy $21.3 million — nearly as much as the $23.7 million earned by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, which finished first at the box office this weekend last year. (The earnings have been way up nearly every 2012 weekend over 2011.) Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, in its fourth week, has amassed $177.3 million at North American theaters, a year’s-best total that will be eclipsed by The Hunger Games in a few days.

(REVIEW: The Hunger Games: The Odds are Not in Your Favor)

Disney’s John Carter, a conspicuous underachiever at home ($62.3 million in 17 days), is performing robustly abroad ($172.1 million) for a global gross of $234.4 million. Soon its worldwide take will match its quarter-billion-dollar budget. And not long after that, The Hunger Games, which was made for a relatively thrifty $78 million, will become the year’s top-grossing movie worldwide. It has already garnered $59.25 million abroad for a three-day international total of $214.25 million. It could become only the third nonsequel — after Avatar, Titanic and Alice in Wonderland — to gross more than a billion dollars. Move over, James Cameron and Johnny Depp, Suzanne Collins is on your tail.

In indie action, October Baby, a “Christian”-themed drama about a teenager who refuses to abort a difficult pregnancy, earned $1.7 million at just 390 theaters. Promoted by families and politicians who support the Personhood amendment, the movie transformed the ballot box to the box office, luring enough of the pro-life faithful to register an eighth-place finish. Another indie, Welsh director Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption, could be called pro-death: it’s a samurai bloody video game at feature length. Mixing Mortal Kombat with Akira Kurosawa’s classic Yojimbo — and, why not, The Hunger Games — the movie took in $220,000 at 14 venues for a carnographic $15,786 per-screen average.

With a lower body count but a higher passion threshold, Terence Davies’ swoony adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea, which boasts an award-worthy performance by Rachel Weisz as a barrister’s wife fallen into adultery, earned $120,000 on 29 screens. Box-office grosses don’t come much more mini than that, or much more maxi than the sumptuous swag tallied by The Hunger Games. And for the Collins’ fight fest, as the rest of the world catches North America’s fever for her film, the games have just begun.

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, $155 million, first weekend

2.  21 Jump Street, $21.3 million; $71.1 million, second week

3.  Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, $13.1 million; $177.3 million, fourth week

4.  John Carter, $5 million; $62.3 million, third week

5.  Act of Valor, $2.1 million; $65.9 million, fifth week

6. Project X, $1.95 million; $51.8 million, fourth week

7. A Thousand Words, $1.925 million; $14.9 million, third week

8. October Baby, $1.7 million, first weekend

9. Safe House, $1.4 million; $122 million, seventh week

10. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, $1.4 million; $97.2 million, seventh week

MORE: Why I’m NOT Taking My 8-Year Old to The Hunger Games