Hollywood’s feast and famine before Thanksgiving, as ‘Hunger Games’ prequel tops box office

This image released by Lionsgate shows Rachel Zegler, center, in a scene from "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes." (Lionsgate via AP)
The Associated Press

“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” topped the North American box office in its first weekend in theaters with $44 million in ticket sales, according to studio estimates Sunday.

It was a busy weekend at the multiplex, leading into the often lucrative Thanksgiving corridor. And while there was plenty to choose from at the buffet, not everything could be a hit. Audiences had “The Marvels,” which plummeted a record 78% in its second weekend, as well as the nationwide debuts of the family-friendly “Trolls World Tour,” Taika Waititi’s soccer comedy “Next Goal Wins” and the R-rated slasher “Thanksgiving” all in wide release.

“The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is an interesting case study for a franchise that’s been dormant for 8 years and is testing the waters for a new era. Its $44 million from 3,776 locations, including 1,610 premium screens, marks a low for films carrying “The Hunger Games” in the title. The four Jennifer Lawrence films all broke $100 million in their first weekends (the high point was the first with $158 million in 2013, the low was the last one with $102.7 million in 2015).

But it’s a more nuanced story for Lionsgate, which operates differently from legacy studios by licensing its titles to international distributors which helps cover a significant portion of the film’s budget. The filmmakers kept this around $100 million, which was also offset by tax credits for filming in Germany.

With an added $54.5 million from 87 international markets, the film has already earned $98.5 million out of the gates. The studio considers it a strong start for the prequel, set 64 years before Katniss Everdeen entered the picture, with a new cast led by Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler.

“Historically attempting to do prequels, especially with no returning cast, can be a very challenging proposition,” said Adam Fogelson, the vice chair of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “The fact that we’re sitting here at basically $100 million on opening weekend around the world is, I think, a testament to the quality of the movie, the quality of the talent that worked on the movie and a campaign that was both successful and efficient.”

For Fogelson and the filmmakers, “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” represents something completely new, darker and more dramatic that opens up new possibilities, provided author Suzanne Collins wants to tell more stories. To judge it against the Jennifer Lawrence movies at the height of Collins’ books popularity, he said, would be “a complete disservice to this movie as a standalone.”

Also, he noted, “From a pure crass business perspective, it’s going to end up being an incredibly successful proposition for Lionsgate.”

However, critics were mixed on this one, which is an origin story about future Panem President Coriolanus Snow. It currently carries a 61% on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were more positive and moviegoing behavior around holidays can be skewed. Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for Comscore, said that some audiences might also be waiting to watch it with their families during days off around Thanksgiving.

Unlike many of its big-budget peers, “The Hunger Games” prequel also had the benefit of having its stars promote the film in its lead-up, having secured an interim agreement before the SAG-AFTRA strike ended. In the still-fresh aftermath of the strike, other studios had to scramble to get their newly available stars out to promote their films before this weekend.

“Trolls Band Together,” the third in the animated series, opened in second place with an estimated $30.6 million in its North American debut, a total which includes profits from early sneak showings from Nov. 4. “Trolls” opened internationally earlier and is expected to cross $100 million globally this weekend.

The jukebox musical from Universal and DreamWorks Animation brings back Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake in main voice roles and also featured a much-hyped reunion of (asterisk)NSYNC. It also has a mixed 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, but its young audiences were much more positive giving it an A CinemaScore.

And after its rough start last weekend, the outlook for “The Marvels” keeps getting worse. It made only $10.2 million from 4,030 locations in weekend two, to take third place. Its 78% drop is a historic low for Marvel and modern superhero pictures. Internationally it added $19.5 million, bringing its global total to $161.3 million.

“The Marvels” was nearly bested by an R-rated Eli Roth horror, “Thanksgiving,” which made an estimated $10.2 million from 3,204 locations. The movie from TriStar Pictures and Spyglass Media Group takes place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, after a Black Friday tragedy and stars Patrick Dempsey and Addison Rae. The studio hopes it will draw college students to the theaters on their holiday breaks.

The Walt Disney Co. is also struggling with Searchlight Pictures’ “Next Goal Wins,” its underdog soccer movie starring Michael Fassbender, which made $2.5 million from 2,240 locations in its first weekend for a seventh-place spot. Directed by Taika Waititi and based on a true story, the film had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and was not well-received by critics.

With much better reviews and word of mouth, Focus Features’ “The Holdovers,” starring Paul Giamatti, is finding audiences as it continues to expand in its fourth weekend, earning $2.7 million from 1,478 theaters. “Priscilla,” from A24 and Sofia Coppola, is similarly enjoying a steady run with nearly $17 million. It is now Coppola’s second biggest film ever, behind “Lost in Translation.”

This week, the offerings get even more plentiful, with Disney’s “Wish,” Ridley Scott’s historical epic “Napoleon” and the expansion of Emerald Fennell’s provocative “Saltburn” added to the mix.

“It’s traditional for the Thanksgiving frame that people can catch up on movies big and small,” Dergarabedian said. “The issue for moviegoers is how do you choose? And which films are going to be left sitting at the kid’s table?”

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore:

1. “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,” $44 million.

2. “Trolls Band Together,” $30.6 million.

3. “The Marvels,” $10.2 million.

4. “Thanksgiving,” $10.2 million.

5. “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” $3.5 million.

6. “The Holdovers,” $2.7 million.

7. “Next Goal Wins,” $2.5 million.

8. “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” $2.4 million.

9. “Priscilla,” $2.3 million.

10. “Killers of the Flower Moon,” $1.9 million.