The final film in the “Hunger Games” series debuted to numbers that few pictures in history have ever enjoyed, but not everyone seems impressed.
Indeed, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” is a victim of the franchise’s success. The film’s $101 million bow ranks as the lowest of the four installments and is off 17% from the previous film in the series. Globally, the picture also struggled to attract as big crowds. The $247 million it made worldwide fell short of the roughly $300 million that many analysts expected the picture would generate.
Outwardly, Lionsgate, the studio that nurtured the futuristic series and than saw its share price climb on the films’ success, said it was pleased with the results.
“Any time we can have a conversation about a movie grossing over $100 million in its opening weekend, that’s an unbelievable result,” said David Spitz, Lionsgate’s domestic distribution chief.
Others were less sanguine. The media was particularly hard-hitting in its assessment, with many outlets arguing that the series’ popularity has waned. The Wall Street Journal said the film “didn’t hit a bullseye,” and Forbes suggested the opening “may be cause for despair.”
Lionsgate’s shares dropped on Friday and could continue to fall in trading Monday on news that the picture had missed estimates that had it opening to $120 million or better. Analysts were split, recognizing that the film fell short commercially, while acknowledging that it seemed untoward to grouse about an opening that dwarfed that of other major releases like “Spectre” or “Inside Out.”
“Who has ever had to defend an $100 million opening before?” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They do because of how big a success the first two films were and how big a drop the last two had. That quick a fall off shows that you can’t churn these movies out. It’s a learning point for the industry.”
In retrospect, there were signs that the franchise was losing steam. The opening weekend for “Mockingjay – Part 1” fell more than 20% from its predecessor, “Catching Fire,” and critics have grown less kind as the series progressed. The fourth and final picture had a Rotten Tomatoes score of 70% “fresh” compared to a 89% “fresh” rating for “Catching Fire.”
The diminished enthusiasm was reflected in social media. Facebook and Twitter mentions for “Mockingjay – Part 2” were off substantially from the first installment in the two-part sendoff.
Compounding issues, “Mockingjay – Part 2” ends on a relatively downbeat note. Although a series built around children fighting to the death always had dark undercurrents, the film ended with political maneuvering and betrayals that prevented it from concluding on a triumphal note. Moreover, some of the novelty of the concept had worn off by the fourth and final installment.
“Sometimes with the first installments there’s a lightheartedness that’s not there at the end,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “Because of their newness, it’s exciting, and it’s fun to be at the forefront and the beginning of a new franchise before the fatigue sets in.”
Bock blames the drop in popularity on Lionsgate’s decision to spread “Mockingjay” over two pictures, which he argues there wasn’t enough story to justify. Dramatically, that had its problems, but investors are unlikely to argue with the over $1 billion in box office the two films have already racked up. Business usually trumps art and Wall Street isn’t overflowing with cinephiles.
“Lionsgate makes a lot more money by splitting it up,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “From a consumer perspective, it’s questionable, but financially it was the right thing to do.”
The films may have suffered from an accelerated cultural metabolism. The “Harry Potter” pictures were able to stretch out their story lines for more than a decade, but in today’s streaming, sharable, clickable, 24/7, hyper-stimulated media landscape, films and television shows are lucky to capture the zeitgeist for more than a millisecond. Some audience members may have aged out of the world of Panem or moved on to other diversions in the relatively swift four years that it took for the stories to unfold. It’s a signal, perhaps, that “Fifty Shades of Grey” and other hot, wouldbe franchises are wise not to wait too long between installments.
But it was a reboot of another venerated film series that overshadowed and dampened excitement for the final “Hunger Games.” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” doesn’t hit theaters for another month, but the return to the galaxy far, far away, snatched headlines from “Mockingjay – Part 2” this week when news broke that the film had shattered pre-sales records.
“It hurt it,” said Bock. “There was not one story about ‘Hunger Games’ pre-sales hype. The coverage was all about ‘Star Wars.'”
Despite falling short of out-sized expectations, “Hunger Games” remains a Tiffany franchise. A series that has upended old rules of what makes movies successful and will influence a rising generation of filmmakers, just as “Star Wars” once did. It dispelled the old myths that audiences wouldn’t accept action films with female leads. It proved that pictures without superheroes can inspire fan bases that are as fervent and devoted as those of “The Avengers” or “The Dark Knight.” And it cemented Jennifer Lawrence’s status as the most bankable actress of her generation at a time when star power is at its nadir.
The problem is that after four years and countless copycat series, from “Maze Runner” to “Divergent,” some of the novelty wore off. A franchise that once seemed fresh and hot and new, is showing signs of age.