Hollywood expected “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” to deliver huge ticket sales, and it did not disappoint: North American theaters generated $161.1 million in ticket sales between Thursday and Sunday, according to studio estimates.
Many box-office analysts have viewed “The Hunger Games” as a successor to “Twilight” — an extremely popular movie series, but ultimately one with limited appeal to certain demographic categories, particularly men. The first “Hunger Games” film, released last year, drew an opening-weekend audience that was 71 percent female, for instance.
“Catching Fire,” partly because of rigorous marketing, delivered an opening-weekend audience that was more evenly split, boding well for the future of the franchise, which Lionsgate executives have posited could even include theme park attractions. This time, 59 percent of opening-weekend attendees were female.
Lionsgate said “Catching Fire” also drew crowds that were perfectly balanced between what the movie industry considers “old” and “young” — those under and over the age of 25. The first film skewed more toward the older category.
The broader audience helped “Catching Fire” set an industry record for the biggest November domestic opening. The previous record-holder was “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” in 2009, which took in $155.5 million after adjusting for inflation. The opening for “Catching Fire” was very close to the one last year for “The Dark Knight Rises,” which went on to take in more than $1 billion at the global box office.
Lionsgate said “Catching Fire” sold an additional $146.6 million in tickets in a scattered overseas release, with crucial markets reporting an increase in early box-office returns compared with those for the first film. “Catching Fire,” for instance, took in $13 million in Germany, or triple the opening-weekend amount generated by “The Hunger Games.” Britain saw a similar result.
“If the numbers continue to play out, we have really grown the audience exponentially,” Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s chief marketing officer, said on Sunday. Mr. Palen credited the growth overseas in part to a series of star-studded premieres in Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy and France.
Nina Jacobson, who produced “Catching Fire” with Jon Kilik, noted on Sunday that the movie franchise’s source material, three best-selling novels by Suzanne Collins, had become much more popular in Europe since the first film’s release.
Sequels are not automatically bigger at the box office. One example of weaker results for a second installment is the second Harry Potter film. But several factors seemed to combine to push “Catching Fire.”
One had nothing to do with marketing hocus-pocus: “Catching Fire” was simply a very well-made movie, securing reviews that were 89 percent positive, according to RottenTomatoes.com. Multiple critics said the film, which explores themes of social inequality in a story about young people forced to kill one another for a futuristic society’s amusement, deserved a place in pop culture alongside seminal films like “The Empire Strikes Back.”
That was no accident. Lionsgate and Ms. Jacobson brought in a new director for “Catching Fire,” Francis Lawrence, known for “I Am Legend,” and two new screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy, an Oscar winner for “Slumdog Millionaire,” and Michael Arndt (credited as Michael deBruyn), an Oscar winner for “Little Miss Sunshine.” The screenwriter Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”) also did an uncredited final polish, Ms. Jacobson said.
Lionsgate also increased the budget for “Catching Fire” to an estimated $130 million; the first movie cost about $78 million. The sequel’s story line required more expansive filming, but the studio also spent more on visual effects, in particular using Imax cameras for certain battle scenes. Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar-winning actress who stars in the series as Katniss Everdeen, was also paid a reported $10 million for the sequel, up from a base salary of $500,000 for the original.
“One takeaway for us here is that Jennifer Lawrence is not only a giant movie star, but she’s a movie star for everybody,” Ms. Jacobson said.
The Imax affiliation likely raised the appeal of “Catching Fire” among men. Mr. Palen also noted that the studio, in a departure from its marketing strategy for the first film, opted to show battle sequences in advertising. Mr. Palen used the World Series to introduce the film’s final trailer.
“Catching Fire,” which played in 4,163 locations in North America, dominated moviegoing over the weekend. Second place went to “Thor: The Dark World” (Walt Disney Studios), which sold an estimated $14.1 million in tickets, for a three-week total of $167.8 million, according to Rentrak, which compiles box-office data. “The Best Man Holiday” (Universal Pictures) was third, taking in $12.5 million, for a two-week total of about $50.4 million.
The only other new wide-release movie to arrive over the weekend, “Delivery Man” (DreamWorks Studios via Disney), sputtered in fourth place. A comedy starring Vince Vaughn, “Delivery Man” took in about $8.1 million. Also notable: “Captain Phillips” (Sony) crossed the $100 million mark at the domestic box office.