Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.’s $152.5 million opening-weekend haul for “The Hunger Games” proved female action heroes can attract big audiences, and may inspire Hollywood to make more films with female leads.
The movie, made for about $80 million, generated the third-biggest opening weekend ever, researcher Box Office Mojo said. That puts it ahead of such venerable fan-boy material as “Spider-Man 3,” which went on to gross $336.5 million in the U.S. and Canada, both “Iron Man” pictures and every other film but “The Dark Knight” and the last “Harry Potter.”
“The Hunger Games,” which set a record as the biggest opening ever for a non-sequel, illustrates how Hollywood under-appreciates audiences’ acceptance of female action heroes, according to Phil Contrino, editor of researcher Boxoffice.com.
“People were hungry for something like this,” Contrino said in an interview. “Now everyone will be looking for the next ‘Hunger Games’ instead of every male-driven, Will Smith action film,” he said, referring to the star of “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.”
“The Hunger Games” may go on to capture $400 million domestically, according to Contrino.
The movie, which stars 21-year-old Jennifer Lawrence as an arrow-slinging killing machine, sold $59 million of tickets outside the U.S. and Canada, and was first in almost all of its 67 markets, Vancouver-based Lions Gate said yesterday in a statement.
Lions Gate’s shares rose 4.5 percent to $15.18 at the close in New York, bringing the year-to-date gain to 82 percent.
The film is based on the 2008 young-adult novel with 11 million copies in print, according to its publisher, Scholastic Corp.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America and revolves around children who are forced to fight to the death on live television for the benefit of a wealthy ruling class. The author, Suzanne Collins, said she sought to write a book that both sexes would want to read.
“Whenever I write a story, I hope it appeals to both boys and girls,” Collins said in an interview published on Scholastic’s website. “But maybe in its simplest form, it’s having a female protagonist in a gladiator story, which traditionally features a male. It’s an unexpected choice.”
In marketing the movie, Lions Gate sought to draw in a broad audience, according to David Spitz, executive vice president of distribution for Lions Gate.
“This is a huge number,” Spitz said in an interview. “You don’t get to $155 million without solid support from everybody,” he said, referring to a preliminary estimate of opening weekend sales.
The company, run from Santa Monica, California, didn’t market the film as a romance, even though two male characters are attracted to the film’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen.
A film poster, for example, features a gender-neutral image of a burning pin worn by Everdeen. The movie’s trailer focuses on a scene in which she steps up to replace her younger sister in the deadly combat.
Commercials for the picture aired on programs popular with men, such as college basketball tournaments, as well as with young women, such as CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc.’s CW network, Spitz said.
Over the first weekend, theatergoers were 61 percent female and 56 percent over age 25, Lions Gate said a statement. That compares with an audience for “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1,” from Summit Entertainment, that was 80 percent female and 60 percent older than 21, according to Spitz.
Spitz said he expects the distribution of male-female viewers for “The Hunger Games” will even out as word-of-mouth spreads that the movie isn’t just for women.
Summit, purchased in January, brought Lions Gate the final installment of “Twilight,” an additional draw for female audiences. The four teen-vampire movies to date have generated more than $2.5 billion in worldwide ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
The company plans as many as three sequels to “The Hunger Games.” The first one, “Catching Fire,” is slated for a November 2013 release. It’s possible each installment may generate as much as $400 million at the box office, estimates Matthew Harrigan, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities in Denver.
‘Alien’ to ‘Salt’
Hollywood has also found that female stars can reach wide audiences in comedy. “Bridesmaids,” the raunchy romp starring Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, was a surprise hit for Universal Pictures in May 2011, taking in $169 million in the U.S. and Canada.
While Wiig has said there won’t be a sequel, Universal’s television network, NBC, has followed suit with shows such as NBC’s “Up All Night,” co-starring Rudolph. Wiig and Rudolph reunited for “Friends With Kids,” which has taken in $5.57 million for Lions Gate and its partner, Roadside Attractions, since March 9.
For female action heroes, the hits have been sporadic since Sigourney Weaver lit up the screen in the first “Alien” in 1979 -- showing how tricky it is to tune both the production and the marketing just right.
Angelina Jolie’s “Salt,” made for an estimated $100 million, took in $118 million in the U.S. for Sony Corp. in 2010. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” from Sony and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., generated $102.5 million on a $90 million budget. MGM executives told investors on a conference call that the film lost money, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Walt Disney Co.’s Pixar unit will put out its first animated feature with a female hero in June. “Brave” is the story of a Scottish princess who also excels at archery.
“There’s always been a lack of strong female leads,” said Boxoffice.com’s Contrino. “Hollywood’s waking up to that.”