If you've ever doubted the growing influence of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, look no further than the massive weekend box office debut of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire from Lionsgate (NYSE:LGF-A) and Summit Entertainment.
The sequel has already garnered $161.1 million in gross ticket receipts from U.S. audiences alone, easily setting a new record for the highest-ever November weekend launch -- a mark previously held by 2009's The Twilight Saga: New Moon from Summit -- roughly two years prior to its acquisition by Lionsgate, mind you -- which earned $142.8 million during its own first weekend.
What's more, Catching Fire secured its place as the fourth-largest domestic opening in history, trailing only the $207.4 million earned by Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel's The Avengers in 2012, $174.1 million from Iron Man 3 earlier this year, and $169.2 million from Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows Part 2 in 2011.
In addition, and lending credence to the significantly larger role international sales are expected to play this time around, Catching Fire has already earned $146.6 million overseas. That's nearly 150% more than its predecessor had gathered from foreign viewers at this point in 2012. As it stands, I think it's safe to say both the first film and increased interest in its namesake books have sufficiently whetted the worldwide appetite for The Hunger Games franchise.
Catching Fire wasn't alone
Of course, we shouldn't forget to see how everybody else held up at this weekend's box office.
The only other unfortunate newcomer came in the form of Disney's Delivery Man, which earned fourth place with just $8.2 million stateside. Including international sales, Delivery Man's worldwide total came to $9.4 million.
In holdover news, Disney's own $170 million sequel in Thor: The Dark World made another $14.1 million during its third week, bringing its domestic total to $167.8 million. That said, Thor: The Dark World continues to enjoy solid international interest, and has earned over $548.8 million globally so far.
Meanwhile, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal's The Best Man Holiday also continued to ring the register in its second week, earning another $12.5 million in the U.S. for a revised domestic-only total of $50.4 million. But don't let the small numbers fool you; given its tiny $17 million production budget, The Best Man Holiday has proven a runaway financial success for Comcast.
Finally, Relativity Media's animated Thanksgiving effort in Free Birds showed strong box office legs, earning another $5.3 million in its fourth weekend for a total of $48.6 million. That's still not enough to match its lofty $55 million budget, but I wouldn't be surprised if Free Birds managed to gain some ground next week given its timely holiday release.
Coming up next...
Next weekend, Disney's bringing its latest family-friendly animated film to thousands of theaters with Frozen, which is widely expected to do quite well. Still, I wouldn't expect Frozen to have a significant negative effect on the performance of the comparatively thrilling, violent Catching Fire, which is primarily enabled by its largely young-adult target audience.
As a result, the next significant threat lies in the Dec. 13 release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, with which Time Warner's Warner Bros. hopes to repeat the massive $1 billion theatrical run of last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I see no reason Smaug won't bring out fans of The Hobbit franchise en masse, but by then you can bet Catching Fire will have grabbed the lion's share of its already massive run.
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.