The Hunger Games rocked the box office with a $152.5 million opening and now some are predicting that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will kick off its run with an opening weekend gross of $150 million-plus. (I think it’ll come closer to the $160 million mark.) These aren’t “normal” numbers and neither is the first film’s $691.2 million worldwide total. Not only does that intake suggest an especially enormous amount of people caught the film in theaters, but it also means a lot of those people probably did so more than once.
Success like that begs the question, what is it about The Hunger Games? Why this young adult-to-film franchise and not Percy Jackson, I Am Number Four, Beautiful Creatures, The Host or one of the many other attempts to follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga?
There are some very obvious answers to that question, but you can’t just credit this kind of success to the quality of the film, the size of the source material’s fan base or a certain big-name star. The Hunger Games is the 14th highest grossing film at the domestic box office and Catching Fire is poised to follow suit for many reasons, but it’s the combination of four elements in particular that turned the series into the perfect storm.
Color Force and Lionsgate teamed up to bring The Hunger Games to the big screen back in March of 2009, right in the middle of the Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga craze. Then, just as those two megafranchises started to round third and moviegoers began to relentlessly wonder, what’s the next Harry Potter and Twilight, Hunger Games made its first public announcement, revealing that the search for a director was on. The project stepped into and consumed the spotlight, and then the obsessive coverage began.
While Harry Potter and Twilight wrapped up, Hunger Games continued to ride their wave. If the topic of conversation revolved around the fact that those two series were coming to a close, odds are Hunger Games was suggested as a worthy replacement. And then, sure enough, after Harry Potter was long gone and just before Breaking Dawn – Part 2 dropped, Hunger Games proved its worth.
The Hunger Games is an undeniably strong adaptation, stronger than most, but it also helped that it beat a lot of Harry Potter and Twilight wannabes out of the gate. The Chronicles of Narnia, Percy Jackson and more were around, but the YA-to-film craze didn’t become “a thing” until 2012 and Hunger Games not only beat the rush, but then it set an extremely high bar, essentially leaving all of its competition with a particularly challenging uphill battle.
The Lionsgate marketing and publicity teamed realized what they had early on and seized that opportunity. After a relentless amount of dream cast lists and speculation, Lionsgate didn’t just cast its leads and make a B-line towards production; it worked that rumor mill to the bone. The company oh-so slowly revealed every major, somewhat major, and minor role of that film and fans ate it all up. Scoff at the marketing ploy all you want; it worked – and not once, but twice! And even after three full months of casting, Lionsgate hadn’t even scratched the surface of its thoughtful, thorough and highly impressive promotional effort.
Whereas many campaigns take a breather after casting as the projects prepare for production, Lionsgate kept things moving with early promotional posters, additional crew announcements and the oh-so perfectly timed release of the motion poster followed by the first looks at Katniss, Peeta and Gale, teasers, trailers, posters, film stills and loads more. It sounds excessive, but it was appropriately excessive. Lionsgate built a fire and didn’t smother it in information overload; rather it just maintained that fire all the way up to the film’s release in March 2012.
From there, it was obvious that all Lionsgate had to do was rinse, wash and repeat and it would find the same level of success all over again. Sure enough, it did and, odds are, it will do it again.
Really, every cast member of The Hunger Games is a quality performer, but even if they were all replaced with subpar stars and the direction was a mess, Jennifer Lawrence could probably still manage to churn out a watchable film all on her own. You see it in The Hunger Games and you’ll see it even more so in Catching Fire – Lawrence is capable of anything. In the opening sequence of Catching Fire, Katniss is just hunting in the woods outside District 12. She’s crouched down, preparing to launch an arrow through her target and she gets this look in her eyes. She’s aiming her weapon and nothing more, but Lawrence’s natural on-screen presence and tenacity turns one simple look into total access to the character and moment.
The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are what they are in large part due to Lawrence’s ability as an actress, but the franchise is so deeply adored in large part due to her personality. The Twilight Saga was a hit – there’s no denying that – but had the cast been more appealing in real life, each installment could have opened even bigger. Twihards will always come back for more, but when a good chunk of moviegoers are busy rolling their eyes at Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s behavior off camera, they’re going to do the same when a new Twilight movie comes to theaters.
With The Hunger Games, however, not only is each and every cast member wildly charming, personable and humble offscreen, but Lawrence in particular rocks so much charisma, she truly starts to make herself feel like a friend. She never delivers a stock answer or looks as though she’s got somewhere else she’d rather be. She’s totally present, passionate and honest (often to amusing effect), and that makes her feel like she’s talking to you, not a room full of press and when you can connect to someone on that level, it adds another dimension to a moviegoer’s excitement about the film’s success.
Twilight is entertaining; it’s not a good movie. Had The Hunger Games just been an entertaining movie, it likely still would have drawn quite the crowd due to the other three factors listed here, but because it’s a riveting and moving adaptation, not only is it more likely that moviegoers will come back for more, but they’ll probably tell their friends and family to do so as well, and then the whole lot could wind up picking up a copy of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, too. You know what that means? A guaranteed audience for Catching Fire.
Even though The Hunger Games had March 23, 2012 all to itself whereas Catching Fire is up against Delivery Man and what’s left of Thor, Catching Fire has the built-in viewership, should get a boost from the impending holiday and, most importantly, it’s the better movie and, so far, many are very vocal about that.
The Hunger Games is a solid franchise starter, but Catching Fire is essentially all of those assets amplified. Lionsgate funneled a lot more money into the sequel and it shows in the best ways possible. The costumes have more detail, the effects are above and beyond, the sets are more expansive, the combat is even more visceral and, to top it all off, Catching Fire has more heart than the large majority of films that hit theaters this year. It’s an extremely impressive blockbuster and people will be talking about it. Catching Fire’s success won’t come from just being “the next big thing,” it’ll also come from being the next big cinematic achievement.
Congratulations Suzanne Collins, Lionsgate, Jennifer Lawrence and the rest of team THG. You nailed it and deserve what you’ve earned.
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