The Hunger Games Math
By David Mumpower
March 26, 2012

So. Who wants to smoke some pot?

Box office actuals are in and I am certain that you have heard by now that The Hunger Games was overestimated a bit. The third best opening weekend of all time is officially $152.5 million. This is roughly 1% better than Spider-Man 3 as well as 6.8% better than any Twilight movie has managed. Yes, $155 million was a better number, but The Hunger Games maintains the third largest opening of all time and appears to be a mortal lock as the biggest non-sequel for years to come. That massive $152.5 million is 31.3% better than previous record holder Alice in Wonderland's $116.1 million.

We have reached the point of diminishing returns in terms of complimenting Lionsgate's triumph with this unprecedented franchise launch. What I wanted to do instead is compare The Hunger Games to the other seven films with the largest openings of all time. I believe that this will give you a better understanding of how staggering a box office accomplishment this is.

Attached to this column is a chart that includes box office categories for midnight sneaks, daily performances for each title's weekend, their weekend totals and their final domestic takes. There is one other category that isn't often discussed each weekend for various administrative reasons that paints a fascinating picture. It is the Saturday + Sunday total.

Since box office tallies include estimates for Sunday, the story for a release is oftentimes written before its numbers are official. In the case of The Hunger Games, the original presumption that the Lionsgate release had out-performed the eighth and concluding Harry Potter film on Saturday and Sunday proved to be premature and incorrect. In evaluating the numbers, however, you will appreciate just how well The Hunger Games held up.

In recent years, midnight sneaks have become a seminal portion of opening weekend revenue for sequels. You will notice that the "oldest" title on the list, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, has one of the lowest midnight totals and this is the reason why. Studios and publicity firms attempt to create a must-watch passion for projects. Plus, midnight screenings are a fun evening for diehards to get together in celebration of their shared love for the subject matter. The Dark Knight is the title that made midnight sneaks fashionable, as it delivered a splashy $18.5 million. This was a "take notice" type of performance that altered fundamental behavior for four-quadrant tentpole releases. You will note that the titles listed below that have the most ardent supporters, Twilight and Harry Potter, deliver the strongest midnight numbers. Why wait? That is the philosophy shared by Twihards and would-be wizards.

The Hunger Games delivered a strong $19.8 million from the Thursday midnight showings. This is a number that pales in comparison to Twilight's $26.2/$30.3 million and certainly cannot hold a torch to the final Potter's almost incomprehensible $43.5 million. Tim Briody and John Hamann each commented that the $23.7 million in midnight showings is the primary reason why The Hunger Games could not usurp Potter for best opening weekend ever. That is simply too much revenue to overcome in two days.

What is noteworthy, something else Tim and John pointed out, is that The Hunger Games did something almost as impressive on Saturday and Sunday. Its tally on those two days is $85.3 million, over 9% more than Potter 8. A portion of this behavior is the frontloaded revenue from midnight sneaks and Friday proper. With $91.1 million worth of potential customers satisfied in 24 hours, there was slightly less demand for Potter the rest of the weekend. The Hunger Games behaved differently in that it wasn't enough of a known quantity for people to go to midnight sneaks. This time. The release of Catching Fire, the second title in the franchise, will almost certainly play out differently.

This led to a unique weekend in recent box office history. $132.7 million of the $152.5 million The Hunger Games earned was accrued on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That total in and of itself beats Iron Man 2 and almost matches Dead Man's Chest. When we factor out sneaks, it DOES beat Dead Man's Chest. The difference becomes $132.7 million vs. $126.5 million (not adjusting for inflation).

The staggering difference is with the two largest Twilight movies. Without midnight sneaks included, New Moon drops from $142.8 million to $116.6 million aka Alice in Wonderland territory. Breaking Dawn takes an even bigger hit, falling from $138.1 million to $107.8 million. 18.2% of New Moon's business and 21.9% of Breaking Dawn Part I's business occurred before people had their coffee on Friday morning those weekends.

Unsurprisingly, the final Potter film is the most frontloaded in this regard. 25.7% of its revenue came from the midnight crowd. Conversely, The Hunger Games earned a modest 13.0% from midnight exhibitions. This is only slightly more than The Dark Knight's 11.7% in 2008. The other examples indicate that basic consumer behavior has changed yet The Hunger Games behaved differently than its peers.

Take another look at the Saturday + Sunday column. Note that the only two titles that earned more on Saturday + Sunday are The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 3, movies released in 2007 and 2008, respectively. As strange as this sounds (well, reads), that is an eternity ago in box office. Behavior has already had a fundamental jump forward with regards to frontloading. Titles now accumulate much more business prior to the weekend.

What does all of this mean for The Hunger Games? The fact that it was overestimated is a bit troubling. If we ignore that one (key) aspect of its behavior for a moment, what we can conclude is that the demand for this new franchise existed much more on Friday, Saturday and Sunday than it did on Thursday evening. A lot of this is because the movie is skewing much older than anticipated. While movie exit polls are notoriously unreliable in general, the data we have is that 56% of consumers who attended opening weekend were over the age of 25. And 61% of them were women. I question the veracity of the latter a great deal but suspect that age aspect is valid. The behavior supports this.

What do we know about older movie goers? They are not as driven to see movies as soon as possible. And this means The Hunger Games should not flame out the way that Twilight films ordinarily do. Instead, its box office behavior should be similar to Spider-Man 3 as a worst case scenario and Dead Man's Chest as a best case scenario. It is my expectation based upon the data at hand that the next couple of weekends for The Hunger Games are quite good as this continues to be the buzz story of the moment.

The problem The Hunger Games faces is the same challenge Alice in Wonderland overcame two years ago. With school in session, younger consumers will not be able to drive up revenue the way that they could in summer. After the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton Disney flick opened to a dazzling $116.1 million, its first four weekdays were "only" $9.0 million, $8.0 million, $6.8 million and $6.8 million respectively, a total of $30.6 million. That total represents 26.4% of its opening weekend.

For comparison, the heavily frontloaded Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 still earned a solid $56.9 million or 33.6% of its $169.2 million opening. The hope for The Hunger Games would be Monday-Thursday totals of $40 million or so, which would be a match percentage wise with Alice in Wonderland. That total would also place The Hunger Games at $200 million after Friday. That statement alone drives home how remarkable this is. A non-sequel adaptation of a three-year old book will probably reach $200 million in eight days. $300 million is a mortal lock. The primary question is how much higher it can go from there.