Like it or not, there's no denying the folks at Lionsgate (NYSE:LGF) and Summit Entertainment are pretty good at bringing best-selling books to life on the big screen.
Summit's five Twilight films collectively earned a staggering $3.3 billion in gross ticket sales between 2008 and 2012. They were so successful, in fact, Lionsgate opted to acquire Summit the January before Twilight's final installment was released.
More recently, Lionsgate's Hunger Games movie franchise has already proven a massive winner as well. The first Hunger Games, for example, garnered a solid $691 million in box office sales over its 24-week theatrical run last year, making short work of Lionsgate's reasonable $78 million production budget for the book-based film.
And though they upped the ante by forking out $130 million to produce the second film, as of yesterday morning The Hunger Games: Catching Fire had already earned nearly $685 million in global receipts -- all in a mere four weeks since its domestic debut.
Going forward, Lionsgate has also intelligently chosen to split the third book, Mockingjay, into two separate films with planned late-2014 and 2015 launches.
This franchise could be the biggest yet
But don't for a second think Lionsgate is resting on its laurels.
Dystopian future fans, meet Divergent, the best-selling book trilogy for which Lionsgate already has the first film queued for release on March 21, 2014.
As it stands, the only other two wide releases hitting theaters that day will be Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Muppets Most Wanted and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal's low-budget action comedy Stretch -- neither of which should present any significant threat to Divergent's young-adult target audience. The following weekend, however, I'll admit Viacom's (NASDAQ:VIAB) widely anticipated, big-budget biblical drama in Noah could certainly do some damage.
In any case, if you've seen Catching Fire in theaters, you've already been treated to your first glimpse of the up-and-coming film with the following trailer:
So just how popular is the Divergent series right now?
Consider this: When the third book, titled Allegiant, was released on Oct. 22, it promptly demolished HarperCollins' first-day sales record by moving an incredible 455,000 copies.
In fact, according to Amazon.com, Allegiant even outpaced sales for the final Hunger Games book by a five-to-one margin in the month leading up to its release.
That's especially impressive when we remember Amazon also announced last August that, when you account for both physical and digital sales, The Hunger Games trilogy had officially surpassed J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter as its best-selling book series of all time.
But that's not to say every piece of literature Lionsgate tackles is an automatic hit. Remember Ender's Game has largely flopped at the box office this year, pulling in just $87.5 million worldwide going into its seventh week in theaters -- far short of the film's $110 million production budget. But Ender's Game also suffered through boycotts thanks to the outspoken anti-gay views of author Orson Scott Card, and was based on its namesake 1985 novel.
In short, even if Ender's Game did manage to overcome its author-related controversy, it couldn't enjoy the same relative novelty as newer stories like Twilight, Hunger Games, and Divergent. That's also probably why the thinkers at Lionsgate chose to mitigate their risk by not only financing just 20% of Ender's Game's production cost, but also selling the foreign rights to the film.
It doesn't look like such caution will be necessary with Divergent, especially given its comparatively recent popularity and decided lack of abrasive controversy surrounding its 25-year-young author, Veronica Roth.
I will note, however, Roth has taken some flak from fans for the shocking way she chose to conclude her promising new series -- and don't worry, I'm not going to ruin it for you. But suffice it to say I was impressed with the lengthy, eloquent response Roth subsequently supplied on her official blog to explain her thought process to readers.
If anything, at this point Divergent's fan backlash appears more a lively debate surrounding the pros and cons of Roth's ending. Perhaps that's why, when questioned by analysts on the topic last month, Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer responded, "A little controversy in terms of publicity never really hurts."
If he's right and Divergent's popularity continues to grow over the next few months, I see no reason it can't be Lionsgate's greatest box office triumph yet.
Fool contributor Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.