First Quarter 2012: The Hunger Games Leads a Winning Winter

After a chilly 2011, Katniss and the Lorax have lured audiences back to theaters. Even the super-flop John Carter did better than you might think.

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Murray Close/Lionsgate

Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence

Hooray for Hollywood! The American movie industry, in the mopes for most of last year, rebounded vibrantly in the first three months of 2012. Blessed with a breakout smash in The Hunger Games and a tree-hugging toon in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, the quarter also boasted strong showings from old stars (Denzel Washington, Dwayne Johnson) and newish ones (Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill). The Jan.-Mar. box office at North American theaters accounted for nearly $2.6 billion, up about $50 million, or 23%, from the same period last year.

To recall the moguls’ frowny faces that the new year has replaced with smiles, consider that until late last April, when Fast Five kicked off the early summer season with an $86.2-million first weekend, no movie had earned as much as $40 million in its opening three days. (Rio came closest, with $39.2 million in mid-April.) This time, two films — the spy-chase drama Safe House, starring Washington and Ryan Reynolds, and the weepie The Vow, pairing Tatum with Rachel McAdams — broke the $40-million barrier on the same February weekend. Three weeks later, The Lorax huffed and gruffed its way to a $70.1-million opening; and three weeks after that, The Hunger Games shot to a $152.5-million debut, the third highest in domestic history.

(READ: TIME’s review of The Hunger Games)

Everything about early 2012 was bigger, better, more than the year before. Twelve of the first 13 weekend grosses of 2012 have been higher, often far higher, than those of the same weeks last year. In Jan.-Mar. 2011, six films that opened at the top of their respective weekend box-office lists earned less than $20 million; this year, only one did — Liam Neeson’s frostbite thriller The Grey, at $19.7 million. In last year’s first quarter, only two films had managed to earn $100 million in North America, and those just barely: the Johnny Depp cartoon Western Rango at $109.2 million and Adam Sandler’s Just Go With It at $100.8 million. This year, four movies have earned well over $100 million domestic, and another hit, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, with Johnson and Josh Hutcherson (who also plays Peeta in The Hunger Games), will reach $100 million this weekend.

The Lorax, in its first weekend, secured the biggest opening for any movie based on a Seuss book, for any nonsequel since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland exactly two years before (a record that was soon obliterated by The Hunger Games) and for any animated feature since Toy Story 3 in June 2010. Still percolating, The Lorax is certain to pass $200 million, becoming the first animated feature to exceed that mark since Tangled, released in Nov. 2010. The Hunger Games, of course, is its own phenomenon. The adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best seller could come near $350 million by the time its North American run has ended. It might even beat the $381 million earned by last year’s champ, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 — and that film opened in mid-summer, when most blockbuster earn their fattest bucks.

(READ: TIME’s review of The Lorax)

The quarter did finish about 2% behind the same period two years ago, but early 2010 was a fluke, or maybe a freak. Alice in Wonderland, another fantasy film with Depp as its star, was a startling smasheroo, earning $116.1 million the first weekend of March and nearly $300 million that month; it accounted for one of every six tickets bought in the first quarter of that year. Even bigger was Avatar, which had opened in Dec. 2009 but kept on soaring for months; in Jan.-Mar. 2010 it grossed $457.5 million, or about 23% of the box-office revenue in the period. So two films earned almost 40% of the money spent on movies that quarter. By contrast, the mammoth grosses for The Hunger Games and The Lorax together represent less than 17% of this quarter’s total take. That means that audiences have found plenty of other movies to whet their fancy.

Let’s look at the 10 top-grossing pictures of the quarter in North American theaters, with totals through Apr. 1, day of release and production budget, all as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. The Hunger Games, $248.5 million, 3/23, $78 million

2. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, $189.3 million, 3/2, $70 million

3. Safe House, $123.9 million, 2/10, $85 million

4. The Vow, $123.5 million, 2/10, $30 million

5. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, $98.5 million, 2/10, $79 million

6. 21 Jump Street, $92.9 million, 3/16, $42 million

7. Act of Valor, $67.7 million, 2/24, $12 million

8. Contraband, $66.5 million, 1/13, $25 million

9. John Carter, $66.2 million, 3/2, $250 million

10. Chronicle, $63.8 million, 2/3, $12 million.

(READ: TIME’s review of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island)

We’re not saying this is a list of masterpieces, but consider the breadth of genres: dramas, love stories, thrillers, fantasies, an action comedy, a horror movie, all appealing to a wide range of audiences. More than three-fifths of the Hunger Games crowd was female, certifying women as the most reliable box-office demographic. Young women also made The Vow a hit: 72% were females, and 55% under 25. Act of Valor, the gung-ho Navy SEALs simulated-war film, pulled in the guys (71%), but the other action movies weren’t overwhelming boys’-club: women comprised 50% of the ticket buyers for Safe House and 47% of the audience for 21 Jump Street, the rowdy comedy pairing Hill and Tatum. Safe House did attract a more diverse ethnic crowd: African-Americans and Latinos accounted for more than 60% of attendees. Families flocked to The Lorax — children under 12 and their parents constituted 68% of the customers — while Journey 2 played well across all demographics but skewed younger.

Note that four of the top five first-quarter hits were mid-budget projects, costing between $70 million and $85 million to produce. The Vow made back four times its production cost in North America; Act of Valor and the found-footage horror movie Chronicle recouped more than five times their budgets. The average cost of the top 10 movies would be a reasonable $48 million — if it weren’t for that maxi-budget, mega-flop blight on the season known as John Carter.

(READ: TIME’s review of John Carter)

Eons in the making and budgeted at $250 million, Disney’s Martian epic opened at domestic theaters to a relatively soft $30.2 million. Reviewers were of two minds about the picture: its so-so 50% score on the critics’ aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes was higher than those for Journey 2 (42%), The Vow (28%) and Act of Valor (25%). But on the second weekend, the Carter gross dropped a steep 55%, and the studio announced that it was taking a $200-million write-down on the movie.

Essentially, Disney had turned the Carter failure into the movie’s marketing campaign, as well as a news story for late-night comics to pounce on. “Disney will lose $200 million on its new movie, John Carter, about a Civil War soldier on Mars,” Jimmy Fallon noted. “Disney could tell they were going to lose lots of money when they realized they made a movie about” — and here he shouts — “a Civil War soldier on Mars!” Conan O’Brien observed that the movie’s flop status “doesn’t bode well for Disney’s upcoming $250 million epic, Jimmy Carter.” News organizations began referring to the movie as the all-time top flop.

(SEE: Top 10 Biggest Money-Losing Movies of All Time)

It’s true that, on our quarterly top 10 of domestic movie grosses, John Carter languishes in ninth place, below movies that cost a tenth or a twentieth as much to make. But there’s a little thing called The Rest of the World: movie houses outside the U.S. and Canada, which bring in well over half of the total theatrical gross. And there Carter is doing OK. As of Apr. 1, it had earned $188.3 million abroad — the second best foreign take for a 2012 Hollywood film, behind only Journey 2 and ahead of The Hunger Games and The Lorax.

Here are the quarter’s quintet of global winners — each with domestic gross, foreign gross and worldwide total, respectively, through Apr. 1 — in millions (m) of dollars, again compiled from Box Office Mojo:

1. The Hunger Games, $248.5m + $115m = $363.3m

2. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, $98.5m + $214m = $312.5m

3. John Carter, $66.2m + $188.3m = $254.5m

4. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, $189.3m + $37.7m = $227m

5. Safe House, $123.9 m + $71.1m = $195m

All kinds of qualifiers must be applied here. Not every movie opens simultaneously worldwide; The Lorax has yet to play in France, Germany, Italy or the United Kingdom. And The Hunger Games may yet become as sensational abroad as it has been at home. But it has some catching-up to do. So far, the film’s foreign income is only about 31% of domestic revenue. That’s way below the norm for a worldwide blockbuster. On average, the top 10 all-time worldwide champions 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 banked in its first 10 days of release.

(READ: Why The Hunger Games Might Not Become an All-Time Hit)

Meanwhile, in its first 30 days of worldwide release, John Carter has grossed $253.9 million — more than its lofty budget. That won’t make the movie profitable, since only about half of the box-office revenue is returned to studios. But it should be enough to keep the film off the all-time flops list, in the abashed company of the 1995 pirate epic Cutthroat Island ($98-million budget, $18.5-million global gross) or Disney’s own motion-capture comedy Mars Needs Moms, which cost between $150 million and $250 million and, when released last March, earned only $39 million worldwide. (Note to the Mouse House: Call a moratorium on Mars movies.)

Maybe the foreign markets will save John Carter’s bacon. They’ve done crazier things. One of the biggest global hits of the last few months, earning more than $300 million since its Nov. 2011 release, is a French comedy called Intouchables (The Untouchables), about a stuffy aristocrat who becomes paralyzed and hires a Franco-African innocent to care for him. The film has amassed about half its money in its home country and in French-speaking territories, but also $69 million in Germany and $14 million in Italy.

The Weinstein Company will release Intouchables in the States in May, hoping that the very local humor can somehow translate into American. That’s a long shot — but then who’d have thought that the girl with the bow and arrow would become a 10-day, $350-million heroine in one of Hollywood’s warmest winters?