Get ready movie-goers -- the biggest film of the year may be about to hit theaters.
And no, I'm not referring to Time Warner's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; hardcore J.R.R. Tolkien fans still have a few more tantalizing weeks until that one arrives.
This weekend, it's Lionsgate's (NYSE:LGF-A) turn to launch a big-budget sequel in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which hits U.S. theaters today.
So how much money can Catching Fire possibly entice audiences to spend? Early estimates from entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations peg its opening weekend gross at an incredible $175 million.
For reference, Marvel's Iron Man 3 earned just over $174 million for parent company Disney (NYSE:DIS) in its own stellar debut earlier this year, which was good enough to secure the second-highest debut of all-time behind only Marvel's The Avengers. When all was said and done after its 19-week theatrical run, the comic book-derived threequel had brought in more than $1.2 billion of their hard earned entertainment budgets.
Here's why Catching Fire could be even bigger
So why all the optimism surrounding The Hunger Games: Catching Fire? After all, while the first Hunger Games enjoyed a solid $152.5 million opening weekend, it "only" ended up tallying $691.2 million in global ticket sales after 24 weeks in theaters. Respectable? Sure. But it's a far cry from a billion.
But when you dig deeper into the numbers for other similar franchises, I think a $1 billion-plus take for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn't just possible, but highly probable.
Specifically looking at Iron Man 3, note the key to Disney's runaway success was its ability to garner additional appeal with international audiences. Nearly two-thirds of Iron Man 3's total, or more than $806 million, came from overseas viewers. For perspective, Iron Man 2 gathered less than half its $624 million worldwide haul overseas.
By contrast, international viewers accounted for just 41% of The Hunger Games' total sales last time around, which leaves plenty of room for improvement from Lionsgate and Summit.
In addition, it helps to consider Lionsgate and Summit have already proven their collective ability to boost international sales with the Twilight Saga. The first Twilight film, for instance, earned 50.9% of its $392.6 million from foreign viewers. The second, New Moon, earned 58.2% of its $709 million total overseas. By the end of the Twilight franchise -- at which point Lionsgate had acquired Summit for its success -- the international slice from Breaking Dawn Part 2 was up to 64.8% of its $829.7 million worldwide gross.
But apart from the strength of its parent studios, what else does The Hunger Games: Catching Fire have this time that could ultimately drive it into the record books?
First, not unlike the Katniss Everdeen persona she portrays on screen, the ever-likable Jennifer Lawrence has fostered a massive fan following, thanks not only to winning an Oscar earlier this year for her performance in The Silver Linings Playbook, but also to her quirky, down-to-earth personality which, among other things, has helped her absolutely dominate the talk show circuit.
In case you're not familiar, here's a quick snippet from her appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman a few days ago:
That's also not to say the rest of the cast is full of slouches, either. Once again, Lawrence will be supported by some other massively popular names including Liam Hemsworth (and yes, he's related to this guy), Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
What's more, Catching Fire should also benefit from record interest in its namesake books written by author Suzanne Collins. By August of last year, just five months after the release of the the first film and only four years after the books' debut, the Hunger Games trilogy passed J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter to become the world's best-selling book series of all-time. Whether you love it or hate it, that's impressive.
All things considered, if that's not enough to push The Hunger Games: Catching Fire over the $1 billion mark, I don't know what is.
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.