The saga of Katniss Everdeen will bring the masses into its arena this weekend as "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" arrives in theaters, easily unseating "Thor: The Dark World" for the top box-office spot.
Lionsgate's "Hunger Games" sequel, which will open in 4,100 theaters starting with Thursday night showings, is expected to take in as much as $180 million through Sunday, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. Lower estimates for the Jennifer Lawrence-starring movie put it at between $150 million and $170 million.
The sci-fi action film, which had a budget of about $130 million and was fully financed by Lionsgate, is expected to exceed the $152-million opening weekend of the first "Hunger Games" and might even beat the $174 million made by "Iron Man 3," the biggest opener of 2013 and the second-highest opening of all time. "The Avengers" opened last year with an all-time best of $207 million.
Based on the post-apocalyptic young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, the "Hunger Games" films portray a totalitarian society in which children are selected to fight to the death as entertainment.
In "Catching Fire," protagonists Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are caught up in the social unrest they helped spark after surviving the latest battle royal.
The film has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It has generated a 95% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning the vast majority of critics liked it.
"Catching Fire" is drawing particularly intense interest among young women, though the broadly appealing film is also tracking well with young men.
The non-3-D film is also expected to perform better overseas than its predecessor, which made $283 million in its full run outside the U.S., far below its $408-million domestic gross.
The "Hunger Games" will break the final book of the trilogy, "Mockingjay," into two parts. One will be released in 2014 and the other in 2015.
What is unclear is which movie will come in second place this weekend, as the strong "Best Man Holiday" enters its second week and "Thor: The Dark World" rumbles into its third. "Hunger Games" will cut into "Thor's" audience more than it will affect "Best Man Holiday," meaning the latter could end up the No. 2 movie at the box office.
Last week, "Thor" fell 57% from its opening of nearly $86 million. If it falls by a similar percentage this weekend, the superhero action movie would bring in $15 million, adding to the more-than $150 million it has made domestically. "Best Man Holiday," entering its second weekend after an opening of $30 million, could bring in around $16 million.
Disney is also introducing its computer-animated musical "Frozen" in one location, the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. "Philomena," the Weinstein Co. drama starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, will open in four theaters.
The well-reviewed "Dallas Buyers Club," meanwhile, will expand to about 600 screens and is expected to bring in about $5 million.