box office hunger games mockingjayIt seems weird to call a movie that premiered with an estimated $123 million weekend, the biggest box office opening of the year, a disappointment. And yet, by the lofty standards of the "Hunger Games" franchise, the "Mockingjay – Part 1" debut is surprisingly weak.

After all, the first "Hunger Games" opened two years ago with $152.5 million, and last year's "Catching Fire" did even better, premiering with $158.1 million. Plus, no other new wide release dared to compete against it, so the dystopian drama should have monopolized the attention of moviegoers at the multiplex. Even with some anticipated market softness, pundits still expected the third installment to open between $140 and $160 million. No one guessed that it wouldn't even reach $125 million.

What was missing? Here are some reasons behind the panic in Panem.

The Penultimate Movie Curse
The recent trend of breaking up the final book in a series into two films is supposed help studios' bottom lines by roughly doubling the finale's box office impact, but the truth is, the "Part 1" installments of these finales tend not to do as well as their predecessors. "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1" opened $5 million below "New Moon" and $20 million below its predecessor, "Eclipse." And while "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1" enjoyed a record debut for the franchise ($125 million), it ultimately fell $6 million short of the $302 million total gross of the previous movie, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." So it shouldn't have been a surprise that "Mockingjay – Part 1" didn't open as big as "Catching Fire."

Transitional Movie Syndrome
Why don't these penultimate movies do as well? Largely because they're transitional films, a plot bridge between the third-to-last film and the final installment. They're often movies where characters gather to do battle but don't actually fight -- yet. They naturally end with cliffhangers, forcing viewers to wait up to a year for resolution. So, as movies, they're often unsatisfying; many fans may prefer to wait until the last movie comes out, watch the penultimate movie on video first, and see them essentially back-to-back, almost as the single movie they ought to be.

No Games
This is the first "Hunger Games" movie without any actual, y'know, Hunger Games. Admittedly, the marketing has acknowledged this ("The Games Are Over," goes the slogan), so no one should have gone in expecting a retread of the earlier films. On the other hand, those fans who prefer fighting to speechmaking, actual combat to political maneuvering, may have felt little urgency to see the film in theaters.

Weak Reviews
The first two "Hunger Games" were the rare blockbuster action films that were critic-pleasers as well as crowd-pleasers. The new "Mockingjay" hasn't been so lucky, with a number of critics complaining about the film's transitional nature and relative lack of action. Those elements don't seem to have bothered fans who went to see it; "Mockingjay – Part 1" earned an A- at CinemaScore, indicating strong word-of-mouth. Nonetheless, grumbling critics may have dissuaded a few fans from seeing it opening weekend.

Strong Competition
True, no other movie opened wide this weekend to compete against "Mockingjay," but the holdover movies from recent weekends are proving especially resilient. Three-week-old adventures "Big Hero 6" and "Interstellar" held on to their silver and bronze slots, with "Hero" earning another $20.1 million and "Interstellar" another $15.1 million, according to estimates. Last week's champ, "Dumb and Dumber To," was close behind with an estimated $13.8 million. Even "Gone Girl," in its eighth weekend, is still in the top five, with an estimated $2.8 million. So that's $51.8 million worth of formidable competition from four other hit movies. By contrast, "Catching Fire," opening on the same weekend a year ago, was followed by four films that grossed a combined $40.0 million -- the three-week-old hit "Thor: The Dark World," hit dramedy "The Best Man Holiday," comedy flop "Delivery Man," and animated flop "Free Birds." That difference of nearly $12 million between the earning power of "Mockingjay's" top-five rivals and those of "Catching Fire" is almost enough to account for the new movie's failure to reach the low-end projections of $140 million.

"Interstellar was hogging all the giant screens this weekend, and that makes "Mockingjay – Part 1" the first "Hunger Games" movie not to be released in IMAX. Now, IMAX may not help the bottom line that much; the increased ticket price for the huge screens may add only a few million to a film's total debut. Still, the biggest movie opening ever that didn't feature an IMAX component was 2009's "Twilight" installment "New Moon," with $142.8 million, and "Mockingjay" didn't even rise to that level. It's not that IMAX makes a huge impact on sales by itself, but a film with an IMAX release is perceived to be a major event movie. That "Mockingjay" didn't have one no doubt contributed to fans' impression that this was not a movie they had to see on a big screen as soon as it opened.

Again, the disappointment here is all relative; it's hard to cry for Lionsgate because "Mockingjay - Part 1" is likely to gross only $350 million instead of the $400 million-plus of its predecessors. And the franchise will surely get its mojo back with the final installment.

Still, when the four films are compared, "Mockingjay - Part 1" will probably look less like a peak achievement and more like a speed bump.

categories Movies, Box Office