‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire': What’s Better for Lionsgate Than Box-Office Records? A Whole Lot

At $158 million, the biggest November opening ever — and near-best non-3D debut — is not what it’s all about for the studio

It’s impressive enough that Jennifer Lawrence and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” posted the best November domestic opening of all time this weekend, and fell barely short of the biggest non-3D debut of all time.

The $158 million “Catching Fire” took in over the three days is just slightly below the $160.9 million that last summer’s “The Dark Knight Rises” managed. Christopher Nolan’s epic was shot in the same combination of 2D and Imax as “Catching Fire” was, and that lack of 3D price premiums may well have kept them from the record heights of “Iron Man 3,” 2013’s top opener at $174 million, and “Marvel’s The Avengers,” which exploded for the all-time best box-office debut of $207 million last year.

Some preliminary calculations suggest “Catching Fire” may even have outsold “Iron Man 3″ in terms of admissions by nearly a million.

But the filmmakers, producers Nina Jacobson and John Kilik and Lionsgate never seriously considered the format for “Catching Fire,” and made the decision that 2D and Imax better served this series.  The studio wasn’t talking Monday, and whether they’ll consider converting to 3D for the next two films remains to be seen — but it seems highly unlikely.

The records aren’t what it’s all about, though. It’s bigger than that, and the effects of what was accomplished this weekend will reverberate for years, starting next Thanksgiving with “Mockingjay Part 1″ and a year after that with “Mockingjay Part 2.”

Here’s what happened:

They’re conquering the world
After taking in $146 million from overseas on its opening weekend, “Catching Fire” is already more than halfway to the $286 million that “Hunger Games” made internationally. This is where the franchise has the most room to grow, because the first film didn’t take off overseas, and that has been the focus of the strategy. With “Thor: The Dark World” essentially played out and “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” two weeks away, we’ll know relatively soon how much hotter than the first film “Catching Fire” will burn overseas. Lionsgate has licensed out the rights to local distributors in many markets, but the performance of the film still makes a bottom line difference.

The base has broadened
The first “Hunger Games” was a bigger hit than “Twilight” because it attracted more than young girls to the theaters. “Catching Fire” improved on that trend. The studio’s exit numbers showed it skewed female at 59 percent; on the first film, that number was 71 percent. We’ll see more over the holidays, but guys seem way more inclined to come along for Katniss than they were Bella.

They managed the marketing
Like the box office, the merchandising had to get bigger to be a success. But not overdoing it and turning off fans was critical for the long-term success of the series. The marketers of “Catching Fire” stopped strategically short of saturation bombing consumers – sriracha at Subway notwithstanding — and avoided a box-office backlash.

Also read: Why ‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ Merchandising Is Tricky as Katniss’ Fight for Her Life

They launched a franchise
The success of the first film made it seem that “Catching Fire” was a sure-fire blockbuster. But even with a built-in following as large as that of Suzanne Collins, upon whose novels the books are based, there’s no such thing, as this year string of young-adult misfires attests. It’s hard to imagine a studio that has benefited more from the success of a single franchise than Lionsgate has from “The Hunger Games,” and the potential is huge. But without delivering at the box office, there are no theme parks and the District 12 makeup-looks become passé quickly. “Catching Fire” and Lionsgate delivered this weekend.