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Girl power has caught fire at the box office

EntertainmentMoviesMedia IndustryTwilight (movie)Restaurant and Catering IndustryJennifer LawrenceStephenie Meyer

On a Friday a few weeks ago, the "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire's" first full day in theaters, I made my way into the real world — or at least as real as Rick Caruso's Americana at Brand gets — to see what the pre-"Games" party looked like, then take in the show.

Teenage girls were everywhere. Cliques of them expanding, dividing, circling like amoebas in the consumer petri dish of the place. From ripped jeans to designer duds, fresh-faced to pink punk-streaked hair, they crossed stereotypes. And the pitch — fevered but not dog-whistle high, more like a distant rumble — built like a thunderstorm brewing. The phenomenon was underway inside Pacific Theatres as well, where a showing of "Hunger Games" every 20 or so minutes kept things in perpetual motion.

Talking, texting, opinionated, excited, the girls were on fire. I was seeing the concrete embodiment of the abstract idea that there is a young female audience for an action franchise — one big enough and strong enough to support a so-called tent-pole movie long thought to be an exclusive obsession of young males. 

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Until recently, Hollywood either didn't believe it existed — not as a collective force field — or didn't value it. Catering to the young male demographic, specifically those ages 12 to 24, has been the industry's economic raison d'etre for so long it is difficult to say exactly when girls stopped mattering to moviemakers.

Or at least mattering enough to compel studios to actively work at making their day too. There have been the occasional forays into genre projects built around a heroine — from the classic "Wonder Woman" to the more contemporary "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," for example — but these were anomalies.

When I say "young female franchise" I don't mean in the old way, of girls swooning and desperate to make a good love match, knee-deep in self-esteem issues. But confident ones, sure of themselves, more in the mold of the "Hunger Games'" Katniss Everdeen and Jennifer Lawrence, the actress who embodies her so well.

The significance for Hollywood is sweeping. Developing action films specifically for girls has implications for every aspect of moviemaking — storytelling, style, casting. It will not be enough to simply substitute a heroine in for a hero; there are social and cultural differences between genders, nuances in the way battles are fought, relationships are developed. 

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If there was any lingering doubt about how potent the movie-consuming appetites of tween/teen/young-adult girls might be for action fare, you need look no further than the box office. Though the film is also drawing guys and older moviegoers, if what I witnessed that first day is any indication, girls are the ones driving "Hunger Games'" success.

On the financial front, the film is crushing it. By the close of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the film had earned roughly $300 million in the U.S. and $573 million more overseas.

As the final tally was being counted, the holiday take put "The Hunger Games" in contention for the No. 2 spot on best-ever second-weekend take on the money-making charts (the number-crunchers get specific in their slicing and dicing). That puts the film shoulder to shoulder with "Avatar" and "The Dark Knight" and just behind No. 1, "The Avengers."

Katniss is running neck and neck with the big boys — Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and "Avatar's" cyber-soldier. 

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As important is the kind of story the "Hunger Games" represents: Action and adventure drive the film, with romance a distant third. Exactly the kind of story that studios thought girls didn't like. Lions Gate Entertainment now seems prescient for quickly hammering out a deal with producer and former Disney exec Nina Jacobson, who seems more prescient still for snagging the rights to adapt the book series not long after it began in 2008. 

The ascendancy of girl power at the box office began to take shape with the "Twilight" series in 2008. Since both "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" began as young-adult books, it is easy to chalk up the movies' popularity to those earlier on-page successes. While that is certainly a factor — half of Hollywood's hottest properties have their roots in books or comic books — to write it off that way would be to miss the point.

"Twilight" author Stephenie Meyer and "Hunger Games" scribe Suzanne Collins didn't create a market, they just understood it better than most — that girls wanted something they weren't finding elsewhere, stories that spoke to them in different ways, heroines cut from a different cloth.

In "Twilight," Meyer seeded action and girl power around romance, but she took care to ensure that Edward and Bella, boy and girl, vampire and human, were on equal emotional footing. It didn't hurt that the power balance between the stars — Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattison, romantically linked throughout "Twilight's" long run — always put Stewart ahead in the game. 

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"Hunger Games" is arguably the next iteration of the idea — with action and empowerment center stage and in the fine hands of Lawrence, who is showing herself to be a formidable and versatile actor.

Of course, the industry isn't ignoring the big box office. The trailers I saw leading into "Catching Fire" included the coming action-fantasy-drama "Frankenstein," the biblical apocalyptic action of "Noah," and the latest action-fantasy installment of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." The most female-centric of the bunch included "Endless Love," a dark romance, and the action-adventure "Divergent," starring Shailene Woodley, whose breakthrough was as George Clooney's acerbic teenage daughter in "The Descendants."

"Divergent," set for release this spring and the first of Veronica Roth's sci-fi trilogy to be adapted for the big screen, is definitely one to watch. Woodley, like Lawrence, seems cut from tougher stock. The premise of the film is pure futuristic action-adventure, and while Woodley's Beatrice Prior is aided by a young hunk played by Theo James, the fate of the world, or a dystopian Chicago, rests in her — not his — hands.

Also on the horizon are "Wild," starring Reese Witherspoon and "Tracks" starring Mia Wasikowska — both stories of solo wilderness treks by women, extreme survival stories that should stand in league with any tales of this kind.

In the run for the money and the market that "The Hunger Games" is likely to inspire, I wager we will see as much bad as good. A final thought for those intending to enter the arena: They are demanding consumers — check out Twitter, Facebook and even old-school teen magazines, which spend a great deal of time and money catering to their desires. So best get it right or risk getting burned. These girls are on fire.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com 

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EntertainmentMoviesMedia IndustryTwilight (movie)Restaurant and Catering IndustryJennifer LawrenceStephenie Meyer
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