‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ Ready to Blaze Into Box-Office Record Book

Tracking, advance sales and social media point to huge opening for Lionsgate’s Jennifer Lawrence sequel, but lack of 3D could keep it from heights

It’s clear that “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” will be one of the year’s biggest movies. But just how high it will fly in its box-office opening this weekend isn’t so clear.

Pre-release tracking has Lionsgate’s sequel, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, taking in between $160 million and $172 million. The higher tracking numbers go, however, the less reliable they become — and most analysts believe that if it’s off, “Catching Fire” will land above those estimates.

Part of that is based on the performance of the last two films that tracked this high.

Disney’s Marvel superhero sequel “Iron Man 3” posted the year’s biggest opening with $174 million in May, and “Marvel’s The Avengers” set the all-time mark for a three-day debut with $207 million in 2012. Tracking had both landing between $160 million and $165 million before they opened.

Also read: ‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ Review: Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen Burns Brighter Than Ever (Video)

“Catching Fire” will be in more than 4,100 theaters nationwide, with early screenings beginning at 8 p.m. Thursday. More than 300 of those screens will be in Imax, but none will be in 3D, and the lack of the premium price boost could keep “Catching Fire” from those historic heights. Fifty-two percent of “The Avengers” grosses came from 3D, 45 percent for “Iron Man 3.”

“That will be a factor,” said Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock, “and if it winds up anywhere near those films it will be a real achievement, because it will mean it will have sold a lot more tickets.”

He thought its shot at the all-time marks could hinge on a far more low-tech consideration.

“We know the fan base will be there for the opening weekend, but I think whether older moviegoers are willing to brave the hordes of the teenage girls could have a lot do with how high it goes,” he said.

“Catching Fire” seems a lock to break the record for a November opening, which is the $142 million rung up in 2009 by “Twilight: The New Moon,” another young-adult hit from Summit.

Looking to manage expectations, Lionsgate hasn’t publicly addressed its box-office prospects since the first tracking numbers came out last month. At that time it said it was projecting an opening between $140 million and $150 million, citing strong competition.

Also read: Jennifer Lawrence: 5 Lessons From ‘The Hunger Games’ Star’s Career

That would be Disney’s Marvel superhero sequel “Thor: The Dark World,” which has topped the U.S. box office the past two weekends and is on its way to $500 million worldwide, and the weekend’s only other wide opener, “Delivery Man,” the PG-13-rated Vince Vaughn comedy from DreamWorks and Disney. If “Thor” falls another 57 percent, as it did last week, it will wind up at around $16 million, just above what Disney projects for “Delivery Man.”

Records aside, however, “Catching Fire” should be a huge financial win for Lionsgate.

It was produced for $130 million (the first film cost $78 million) and most analysts believe it has a good shot at ultimately hitting $400 million domestically, since the original film did $408 million last year after opening to $152 million in May of 2012.

Also read: ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ Will Crush Overseas Box Office – Unlike the Original

Its foreign haul – it opens this weekend in 65 foreign markets including China and Russia as well — is expected to spike from the $283 million “Hunger Games” grossed abroad, and a worldwide total of $900 million is within range, most analysts believe.

Lionsgate has positioned “Catching Fire” for event-scale debuts in several key foreign markets. Lawrence, co-stars Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth and director Francis Lawrence have barnstormed their way through buzz-building red-carpet premieres in Rome, London, Berlin and Paris over the past few weeks, ahead of Monday’s U.S. premiere in Los Angeles.

“Catching Fire” also will serve as a critical building block for the franchise. The next installments of the series based on author Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy- “Mockingjay Part 1” and “Mockingjay Part 2” – are set for release in November of 2014 and 2015. Looking to cash in, the studio has launched a massive global merchandising campaign around Katniss and Co., and has even talked “Hunger Games” theme parks.

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

Every indicator is pointing up for “Catching Fire.”

Online ticket broker Fandango said that it is the hottest-selling movie of the year in terms of advance business, accounting for 85 percent of its sales on Wednesday.

“Catching Fire” is sizzling on social media, pacing well ahead of “The Hunger Games.” Three days from its debut, it was ahead of the original on both Twitter (162,000-125,000) and Facebook (11.6 million to 3 million), according to BoxOffice.com.

The early reviews (93 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes, 78 on Metacritic) have been better than the original film’s.

The performance of “Catching Fire” will have a lot to do with whether it will be a record year for the 2013 box office, which is currently running about even with last year. Strong performances from the “Hunger Games” sequel and Warner Bros.’ “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” could help put the year over the top.

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