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Debut of ‘The Hunger Games’ caps a stellar quarter for Hollywood

Box-office receipts are about to shoot into the stratosphere this weekend thanks to"The Hunger Games,"putting a phenomenal finish on what has been a surprisingly strong first quarter of moviegoing.

The adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young-adult book is expected to have a blockbuster opening of $125 million to $150 million, according to pre-release audience surveys. That would not only make it the highest-ever debut for a non-sequel (not accounting for ticket price inflation), but a hugely profitable success for independent studio Lionsgate, which financed the movie for a little more than $80 million after tax credits.

It would also be a coup for Hollywood at large because movie theater attendance has already grown 19% compared with the same period in 2011, according to Hollywood.com. If “The Hunger Games” lives up to industry expectations, that figure could jump to 22%.

That would make it the biggest first-quarter increase for domestic box-office receipts in recent memory. The surge comes after a dismal 2011, during which attendance dropped 4% to the lowest level in 16 years.

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Many in the film industry are pleased that fears of an unstoppable decline in moviegoing fueled by digital distribution alternatives and changing consumption habits have been at least temporarily halted.

But executives also point out that the wide range of hits, from teen-oriented love stories like"The Vow"and adult thrillers like"Safe House"to family movies like “Dr. Seuss’ the Lorax,” have challenged the conventional wisdom that winter is a time for the studios to dump their least attractive pictures.

“Everybody is going to be referring to this year in the future,” Sony Pictures Vice Chairman Jeff Blake said. “People used to think the first weekend in January was too soon to release a movie and Super Bowl weekend was no good, but we’ve learned that smart scheduling can overcome all of that.”

Indeed, 2012 kicked off with Paramount Pictures’ low-budget horror hit “The Devil Inside,"which opened to a surprisingly strong $33.7 million on the first weekend of the year. Studios often avoid that date because of the large number of holiday releases that are still playing. The biggest previous debut on the first weekend of January was $24 million for the horror movie “White Noise” in 2005.

Despite the distraction of the biggest sports event of the year, two other low-cost movies —"Chronicle"and"The Woman in Black"— each opened to more than $20 million over Super Bowl weekend.

“All distributors are looking at this now as a 52-week business,” said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of distribution forWarner Bros.

Film industry professionals point to a variety of explanations for this year’s boom.

There’s one variable that’s difficult to quantify, but some say is the simplest explanation: a more diverse and appealing mix of movies. Though not all were well reviewed, films including"Act of Valor,""Contraband"and"The Grey"seemed to thoroughly satisfy their audiences.

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“It’s the oldest rule in the book: If the movies are more interesting, people will go,” said Kevin Goetz, chief executive of consulting firm Screen Engine.

And if people like the movies more, social media connections on Twitter and Facebook are helping the good buzz spread quickly.

“Word of mouth goes viral today,” said veteran movie producer Sean Daniel, adding that the prevalence of trailers on the Internet helps build excitement for upcoming movies. Keeping audiences in “a moviegoing frame of mind” is essential, he said.

The simplest explanation for the quarter’s uptick in movie ticket sales and attendance is that more movies have come out — 35 nationwide releases so far this year compared with 30 in 2011, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

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But more movie choices don’t necessarily mean more moviegoers, who perhaps thanks to an improving economy have been turning out in greater numbers than expected. In a particularly notable event, three high-profile films that opened on the same weekend — “The Vow,""Journey 2: The Mysterious Island"and “Safe House” — all turned out to be hits.

“I’ve been really surprised by the elasticity of the marketplace,” said Steven Friedlander, executive vice president of distribution for “Woman in Black” studio CBS Films. “A bunch of films deserved to do business, and they all did.”

Friedlander, a 28-year distribution veteran, said new marketing techniques have helped make that possible. Social media websites and targeted cable channels allow studios to more cost-effectively advertise films opening against one another to entirely different audiences. In the past, studios were limited to mass-appeal platforms like prime-time broadcast television.

“It’s much easier for movies to not cannibalize each other,” Friedlander noted.

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He and many other executives have been surprised at how consistently movies over the last few months have outperformed expectations based on tracking, the research polls used to measure audience awareness of and interest in upcoming films.

“We’re really feeling that tracking is having problems, especially in the final 10 days [before a movie opens] when so much viral communication online is happening,” Blake of Sony Pictures said.

Many in the industry are expecting the good box-office news to continue, thanks to a slew of highly anticipated tentpole movies hitting theaters in the summer season like"The Avengers,""Men in Black 3" and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

But others note that during an uncertain time for Hollywood, caution may be wise.

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“This increase is delicate,” producer Daniel said. “It’s still a really tough economy, and the 3-D price point and cost of concessions makes going out to the movies an expensive proposition.”

ben.fritz@latimes.com

amy.kaufman@latimes.com


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