How the Newest Hunger Games Movie Scared Off the Box Office Competition

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Photograph by Murray Close/Lionsgate/Everett Collection

There’s a simple way for a movie studio to win a box-office battle: Make sure the competition is weak. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 is expected to garner somewhere around $150 million in movie ticket sales this weekend—far more than any other film this year—largely because no one in Hollywood was brave enough to take it on.

Although a number of movies will make their debuts today, the Hunger Games installment is the only wide release, an industry term for when a film blankets thousands of U.S. theaters, rather than only showing only in certain cities or regions. Typically, two or three movies open wide in any given weekend.

“When a film comes into the marketplace and faces zero competition, there’s always a reason for that,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “It’s going to put up box-office numbers that tracking services can’t even predict.”

It’s not easy, however, to clear the industry’s calendar of releases. For Lions Gate Entertainment, the Hunger Games series producer, this weekend’s coup took years of strategy. In 2012, it slated its first entry in the franchise for mid-March, a relative wasteland in the cinema schedule. Studios hoping for an Oscar had rushed their films out weeks earlier, and those angling for fans of action were waiting for the summer.

“They kicked the door open for spring releases,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Rentrak. “Nobody really knew what they had, but they were confident.” The movie drew $153 million in U.S. theaters that weekend, making it the third-largest debut of the year and outdoing James Bond, the Hobbit, and even the Twilight vampires.

With such a solid first chapter, Lions Gate could be proceed confidently with a sequel. The company scheduled the second Hunger Games film for November 2013, the heart of movie season. This time, competition paid attention and stayed clear. Katniss’s biggest competition was Vince Vaughn’s Delivery Man, a film that probably would have bombed no matter when it hit screens. Not surprisingly, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire earned $158 million in its opening weekend, second only to Iron Man 3 last year.

In addition to a really good attack, the Hunger Games franchise has a solid defense. In Hollywood, the antidote to a surefire blockbuster is counter-programming, which is roughly the strategy of scheduling a vastly different movie—ideally from a separate genre—to launch at the same time. When a Transformers entry is coming, for example, a competing studio might offer a romantic comedy. A hotly anticipated drama might be matched with a animated film for kids.

The Hunger Games series, however, has few weak spots. The books were classified as young-adult fiction, but the films have drawn men and women of all ages. “People figured out this is not just a book adaptation for kids but an epic movie with some very heavy subject matter,” Dergarabedian said. “In Hollywood, it’s the type of film people fear.”

Bock at Exhibitor Relations expects The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 to dominate the U.S. box office for at least three weeks. Counter-programming won’t kick in until its second weekend, when the movie will face a comedy, Horrible Bosses 2, and an offering in the dancing-critter canon, Penguins of Madagascar.

“With a film this big, a lot of times the hope is just that some of the theaters are going to sell out,” Bock said. “They think: ‘If there’s going to be some overflow, we might as well catch it.’”

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