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‘Hunger Games’ Box Office: Why ‘Mockingjay – Part 1’ Fell Short of Expectations

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” earned a massive $123 million this weekend, but its opening trailed the debuts of the previous two films in the young adult franchise, inspiring questions about the health of the series.

By any measure, “The Hunger Games” has been a moneymaking powerhouse with few equals. It has earned north of $1.5 billion and is a major reason that Lionsgate, the studio behind the films, has seen its stock price more than double in two years.

Going into this weekend, box office prognosticators were expecting the film to be the year’s biggest debut, on par with the $150 million-plus openings of the first and second chapters.

But as Rentrak senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian puts it, “Expectations can bite you in the butt.”

Indeed, it is the year’s biggest opening, but that didn’t matter to Wall Street. Lionsgate’s stock dived 5% on Friday after it became clear “Mockingjay – Part 1” wouldn’t hit projections. It could take another hit on Monday now that the film has fallen short of expectations.

The key for Lionsgate will be to keep touting its foreign grosses. Overseas the film improved on its predecessor, “Catching Fire,” by 4%, earning $152 million.

“This is a worldwide phenomenon,” said Dergarabedian. “The global picture goes beyond theatrical results to VOD, home entertainment and just about every kind of product.”

Of course, Lionsgate licenses foreign rights to other companies, so its unclear what percentage of those earnings it will receive.

The results for “Mockingjay -Part 1” mirror the financial state of the movie business. The industry is fueled by foreign growth, while domestic attendance remains flat or dips slightly.

Stateside, the picture should brighten for the latest “Hunger Games.” “Mockingjay – Part 1” will likely perform well during the Thanksgiving holiday next week, with new releases such as “Horrible Bosses 2” and “Penguins of Madagascar” pitched to different audiences than the teenagers and twenty-somethings who embrace “The Hunger Games.”

“When you look at this play time we selected and the period we opened in, we’re going to benefit from next Wednesday — everyone will be out and enjoying the holiday weekend,” said David Spitz, executive vice president of distribution at Lionsgate. “‘Catching Fire’ played all through the New Year, so we feel we have a lot of room ahead of us in terms of playability.”

But there’s still the nagging question of why the film fell so far below estimates and failed to keep pace with other installments. Has “The Hunger Games” peaked?

“Franchises don’t just keep increasing,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com “There is a dipping point.”

He noted that other films such as Harry Potter and James Bond lagged at various points in their histories, particularly when adjusted for inflation.

There’s also the fact that Lionsgate decided to split the final “Hunger Games” in two, just as “Twilight” and the Harry Potter series did. That resulted in a sequel that was heavy on exposition and political maneuvering and light on fight sequences. “Catching Fire” benefited from a great deal more action.

With fewer explosions and less gladiatorial combat, casual fans may have stayed away, and with the promise of another chapter to come, some moviegoers may have decided to wait for the last installment to hit theaters in 2015 before checking in again with Katniss Everdeen and crew.

“There was a lot of filler leading up to what everybody knows is the real conclusion,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “People are getting more savvy about these split final films. Not a majority of fans, but a slice can wait.”

There are other reasons beyond a talky and truncated plot. Imax did not screen “Mockingjay – Part 1” because it has committed its theaters to “Interstellar” into December. The two previous installments earned more than $10 million from the format during their openings, a boost the latest film didn’t enjoy.

But the biggest obstacle that “Mockingjay – Part 1” had to overcome was “The Hunger Games'” legacy of success. For a certain level of film franchise, no number seems too high, no opening too stratospheric…at least until reality sets in.

“If $123 million isn’t a good number, I don’t know what is,” said Dergarabedian. “These franchises raise the bar so high that suddenly we have a situation where if they don’t exceed the previous installments, the sky is falling.”

So far the only thing falling has been Lionsgate’s stock and, if history is any judge, “The Hunger Games” could just as easily lift that back up again.

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