'Hunger Games' leads Hollywood's dramatic turnaround

'The Hunger Games' posted the third-best opening in US history, adding to Hollywood's surge after a poor 2011, which saw the worst ticket sales in 16 years.

Max Faulkner/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP
Hunger Game fans line up to see the midnight shows of 'The Hunger Games' in Hurst, Texas on Thursday.

The $155 million opening-weekend haul for “The Hunger Games” continues Hollywood's strong rebound from 2011, its worst year for ticket sales since 1995. 

On one hand, the movie is offering confirmation that the "Harry Potter" model – building blockbusters from teen bestsellers – is perhaps the surest bet in the industry today.

Yet perhaps even more than the average blockbuster, the success of "The Hunger Games" is giving some film buffs pause. The studio behind the film, Lionsgate, has been a maker of more artistic fare, and cultural critics wonder if the studio's ideals will be swayed by such a flood of cash. 

"The Hunger Games" posted the No. 3 opening weekend in US history, behind only "Harry Potter and the Dealthly Hallows, Part 2" ($169 million) and "The Dark Knight" ($158 million).

Even without “The Hunger Games,” box office is up 16 percent over the same period last year, thanks to a string of pleasant surprises, including "The Vow" and "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax." With "The Hunger Games," box office is up 22 percent. 

The reversal is “the most dynamic turnaround I’ve ever seen," says Paul Degarabedian, president of Hollywood.com’s box office division.

And it points to a strong summer. “Blockbusters get people to the theatres where they see more ads and trailers for what’s coming up, and they get excited again,” he says. “Last year was the quintessential opposite of that. Momentum was lost completely.”

The slate of films beginning May 1 includes “The Amazing Spiderman,” "The Dark Knight Rises,” “Men in Black 3,” and “The Avengers.”

Moreover, "The Hunger Games" is showing, once again, that young-adult bestsellers like "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" are at this moment something of a fail-safe for the film industry. 

The US film industry is facing a perfect storm for declining box-office revenues – some of it self-inflicted, says Susan Mackey-Kallis, professor of communication at Villanova University, in an e-mail.  

  • An aging, baby-boomer movie audience less inclined to go out because films are rarely aimed at them.
  • An increasing number of blockbusters that cost $50 million or more, meaning they must open big to quickly pay for their high price tag. (The longer a film runs, the greater the share of its proceeds goes to the theater and not to the studio.)
  • Media technologies that make it easier to stay home and wait for the streamed release of films, as well as to have a better viewing experience on high-definition flat-screen TVs.
  • A splintered market share of adolescents with diverse tastes, along with multiple media platforms to meet their entertainment needs.

“So the only thing that sells these days is the sequel film or a film based on a hugely popular bestseller like 'The Hunger Games,' " she says. “With high production price tags driven by opening-weekend pressure, these are the only types of films that can succeed....”

After three days in theaters, "The Hunger Games" is already the most successful film ever made by Lionsgate – and by some margin. It easily tops the $119 million final haul for "Fahrenheit 9/11."

The concern among some critics is that the success will push Lionsgate into a new league, and might make the studio less inclined to make films that connoisseurs value.

“One of the leading studios in doing the kind of independent and creative films was Lionsgate,” says Douglas Gomery, author of “Hollywood Studio System: a History.”

"Now this week they’ve finally had their first big blockbuster,” he adds. “Whether they use that to seed smaller creative films or invest in another big blockbuster is anyone’s guess. That’s the question to ask.”

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