LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Post-apocalyptic action movie "The Hunger Games" opened with a staggering $155 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices, the highest domestic opening for a movie that isn't a sequel, and established what may become one of Hollywood's biggest blockbuster franchises.
Internationally, the Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF.N) drama about an oppressive society's teen death match added $59.3 million from 67 markets for a global haul of $214.3 million.
The massive U.S. and Canadian debut for the film ranked as the third-highest domestic opening weekend in history behind only last summer's "Harry Potter" finale and 2008 Batman movie "The Dark Knight," Lions Gate said on Sun day.
The movie's success brings the first blockbuster franchise to Lions Gate, a smaller Hollywood studio best-known previously for the "Saw" horror series and comedian Tyler Perry's films.
"Hunger Games" set records for highest opening of a non-sequel film and biggest debut outside the summer blockbuster season.
"The first movie in a franchise, to post a number like this, is really insane. There is no other word for it," said Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com.
"'Harry Potter' had seven movies before it got to that point, and 'Dark Knight' had years and years of building the Batman brand. This movie comes and hangs with them in the same league," Contrino said.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" opened with $169.2 million domestically over its opening weekend, while "Dark Knight" took in $158.4 million, according to Hollywood.com.
"Hunger Games" is an action-filled survival drama based on the first of three best-selling young adult novels by Suzanne Collins. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen, a teen girl who fights in a televised battle-to-the-death ordered by her society's rulers. Everdeen becomes a beacon of hope for freedom against the totalitarian government.
Lions Gate executives got a sense of the huge appetite for "Hunger Games" when they ventured with director Gary Ross and producer Nina Jacobson to the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood late Thursday ahead of the first screenings just after midnight.
Fans packed the lobby for showings on multiple screens, with many of the book's devotees dressed as characters. Similar scenes occurred across the country. By Saturday evening, executives went to bed thinking the film would finish the weekend with about $140 million domestically. But sales held up stronger than expected from Friday night to Saturday night, dropping just 25 percent instead of the typical 40 percent or more.
"To launch a franchise like this is incredible. It's above and beyond our expectations," David Spitz, executive vice president of domestic distribution for Lions Gate, said on Sunday. "We're just going to enjoy the ride."
Going into the weekend, industry forecasters projected about $125 million in domestic receipts from Friday through Sunday. Box-office watchers compared the movie's drawing power to the "Twilight" vampire romance films, another franchise based on popular young adult books.
The "Hunger Games" blew past the domestic debuts for each of the first four "Twilight" films, which Lions Gate now owns after buying Summit Entertainment in January.
"Hunger Games" rung up an average of $37,467 at 4,137 domestic locations over the weekend.
Audiences applauded the film adaptation of the book, giving the movie an "A" grade on average in polling by survey firm CinemaScore.
"Hunger Games" appealed to more adults and more males than "Twilight," which banked a large chunk of its receipts from teenage girls, Contrino said. Fifty-six percent of the "Hunger Games" audience was over age 25, and 39 percent was male.
The movie cost about $80 million to produce after tax credits. The studio pre-sold distribution rights in foreign markets other than Britain to cut its cost to about $30 million. That reduced the risk but also limited the money Lions Gate will get from overseas sales.
SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING DRIVE
To reach the film's core audience of younger viewers, the movie's $45 million marketing budget made aggressive use of the Internet, including a game on Facebook, YouTube videos and a blog on the site Tumblr dedicated to the film's fashion.
Anticipation built among fans and on Wall Street, where Lions Gate shares jumped nearly 33 percent in the six weeks leading up to the film's Friday opening. Shares rose from $10.95 on February 8 to $14.53 on March 23.
The company's stock likely will see another boost on Monday following the "Hunger Games" performance, Piper Jaffray analyst James Marsh said. "Clearly it's much better than people thought" and bodes well for future films in the series, said Marsh, who has a $20 12-month price target on Lions Gate shares.
"Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" is set to reach theaters in November 2013.
Toy companies also are trying to score big off the movie. Teen retailer Hot Topic Inc HOTT.O said last week it had sold out some "Hunger Games" merchandise. Hasbro Inc (HAS.O) and Mattel Inc (MAT.O) also have licenses to market toys based on "Hunger Games."
To win the rights to make the film, Lions Gate beat out bigger and better funded rivals with personal appeals to Collins beginning in 2009.
At the same time, Lions Gate was simultaneously fending off investor Carl Icahn, who took a 33 percent stake in Lions Gate and launched an unsuccessful proxy fight to elect five board members to the studio's board of directors.
Icahn bailed out on Lions Gate in August 2011, selling his 44 million shares for $7 apiece and losing out on a $331 million profit based on Lions Gate's closing stock price on Friday.
Elsewhere this weekend, "Hunger Games" had little competition at the domestic box office. No other new movies were released nationwide.
Comedy "21 Jump Street" took second place for the weekend with $21.3 million, and animated "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" finished third with $13.1 million.
Rounding out the top five, Disney sci-fi adventure "John Carter" pulled in $5.0 million, and military drama "Act of Valor" grossed $2.1 million.
The movie division of Sony Corp (6758.T) (SNE.N) released "21 Jump Street." Comcast Corp's (CMCSA.O) Universal Pictures distributed "The Lorax." "John Carter" was released by Walt Disney Co (DIS.N). Privately held Relativity Media distributed "Act of Valor" in the United States, and Alliance Films released the movie in Canada.
(Editing by Eric Walsh, Stacey Joyce and Ronald Grover)
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