Lionsgate's blockbuster "Hunger Games" series is launching its final assault at the box office this weekend, marking an end of an era for the Santa Monica studio.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2" is expected to gross $120 million in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to audience tracking surveys, a tally that would make it one of the biggest openings of the year so far. But that would be the smallest debut yet for the "Hunger Games" films, about a young woman's rebellion against a tyrannical dystopian regime.
Some analysts still say it could do slightly more business than last year's "Mockingjay — Part 1" because of the wide anticipation among the fan base for the story of Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Young adult-skewing movie series such as "The Twilight Saga" and "Harry Potter" tend to tick up in their finales.
Lionsgate's first "Hunger Games" film, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, surprised the movie business when it opened to a staggering $152.5 million domestically in 2012. Its sequel "Catching Fire" opened even higher. But the studio split the third book in the Collins trilogy, "Mockingjay," into two movies, and the first part opened with a comparatively low $122 million.
The new "Mockingjay" should also stack up robust ticket sales over the weeks after its opening, benefiting from strong reviews and Lawrence's continued star power, said Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at BoxOffice.com.
"It's a natural balancing out. Once you've dug so far deep into a franchise, you can only max out so much," Robbins said. "It might have a nice little bump, and it'll have good legs to carry it through."
Even with the slip in ticket sales from the earlier "Hunger Games" movies, "Mockingjay — Part 2" is still expected to be the fourth highest-opening film of the year thus far, coming in behind only "Jurassic World," "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Furious 7."
It's also undertaking an aggressive international rollout, with the film opening in 86 countries this week including China, where it's likely to post huge numbers. On a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts, Lionsgate Chief Executive Jon Feltheimer called it "the biggest simultaneous global launch in the company's history and a fitting grand finale for the current story arc."
Analysts and investors have been asking what Lionsgate plans to do after the publicly traded company's key franchise reaches its conclusion. So far, "Hunger Games" movies have grossed more than $2.31 billion worldwide.
But Eric Wold, an entertainment analyst at B. Riley & Co., said the company's profits probably won't take much of a hit. Lionsgate still has the "Divergent" series, and it has potential franchises in properties like "Power Rangers."
"There's not a huge cliff that has to be overcome," Wold said.
Plus, it might not be the end of the "Hunger Games" after all. Feltheimer has said the studio is "thinking about" possible prequels and sequels. Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. shares are up nearly 18% so far this year, according to FactSet. The shares rose 27 cents Tuesday to $37.80.
"Mockingjay — Part 2" cost $160 million to produce, plus millions more in marketing.
FOR THE RECORD:
A previous version of this article estimated the "Mockingjay — Part 2" production budget at $125 million. The film cost $160 million to make.
It has a clear path to victory this weekend because it faces light competition from other major movies. Sony Pictures is releasing the R-rated holiday comedy "The Night Before," starring Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while fledgling studio STX Entertainment is debuting "The Secret in Their Eyes," a thriller featuring Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Next week will see added rivals at the multiplex, with Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur" and "Warner Bros.' "Rocky" spinoff "Creed."