In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Americans played Hardball at the box office this weekend, finding some much needed escape from the week's tragic news.
Ticket sales by key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more for the weekend -- were approximately $61.2 million, up about 29 percent from the comparable weekend last year's total of $47.4 million.
Insiders had speculated that ticket sales this weekend would hinge on whether there was any new big breaking news. In the event that there was major breaking news, Americans would almost certainly have remained glued to their television sets as they had been for most of last week. In the happy absence of new big breaking news, it seemed likely the public would turn to movies for some escape.
"There was resilience (in the marketplace) and it was amazing," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman observed Sunday morning. "I think it was great. The American people wanted to get out of the house. We're 26 or 28 percent ahead of last year (based on Warners' early estimates). There was a huge bump between Friday and Saturday (for many films). I think people needed a little relief and they went to the movies."
Asked about ticket sales in the New York area, Fellman said, "New York was exceptionally strong. I looked at (Paramount's) Hardball on Friday night and the screen average in L.A. was $2,000 and the number two market was New York at $1,800 (per theater for Friday). And usually that's the normal pattern. Now, obviously, there are theaters in Manhattan (where business was down). You can take isolated areas and make an argument (that people stayed away). But, in general, Washington (also) was where it should be on the charts. I think people needed a little escapism."
With neither of the weekend's new films -- Paramount's Little League baseball comedy drama Hardball and Columbia's suspense thriller The Glass House -- being big high profile releases, however, the weekend's box office potential was clearly limited no matter what was happening in the world.
Nonetheless, this weekend's total was down by only about 11 percent from the previous weekend this year when key films took in $68.8 million. That suggested to some industry executives that there would have been a lot more moviegoing this weekend if the films Hollywood happened to have scheduled to open now had stronger commercial appeal.
"Unfortunately, there was nothing compelling (for people to see)," another distribution executive, who asked not to be identified, pointed out Sunday morning. "It would have been a great weekend to open a really great comedy where there's real escapism. There are no sporting events (this weekend) and TV is now becoming more depressing. The truth of the matter is that people are looking for something to escape to."
Paramount's opening of its PG-13 rated urban appeal drama-comedy Hardball hit first place with an energetic ESTIMATED $10.1 million at 2,137 theaters ($4,726 per theater).
Hardball's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Brian Robbins, it stars Keanu Reeves.
"I expect a strong Sunday," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "We were hurt on Friday. The big urban theaters didn't kick in until Saturday night. We expect a very strong Sunday with the kind of ethnic appeal we have with the film. But it's also playing very well (in general).
"The exit polls went through the roof. It scored a 91 on the index. It's the overall score for the picture after you compile all the information. Anything over 80 is through the roof and a 90 is basically unheard of."
Lewellen noted that Paramount did its "exit polls yesterday and I haven't seen the (details yet). When we did the sneaks last week, 96 percent were in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good). There's no reason to believe that it would change."
Asked if people looked to movie theaters as a means to escape from reality this weekend, Lewellen replied, "I think so. It seemed that they were somewhat preoccupied on Friday because of the Day of Mourning. There were candlelight vigils Friday night. I think there was a lot of participation in that. Everything in the market had a tremendous bump Saturday from Friday. I think you're going to see a continuation of that today -- obviously, unless (there is) some kind of breaking news activity."
Lewellen pointed out that, "The last time we experienced anything like this was the Kennedy assassination. Really, there aren't any records we can refer to. We simply had conversations with people who were around then (in 1963) and remembered the business. Everybody pulled all the movies out of that weekend except for one film. It was a Jayne Mansfield film called Promises! Promises! (a sex comedy starring Mansfield, who was seen naked on the screen for the first time in this film, which was directed by King Donovan and also starred Marie McDonald, Tommy Noonan and Mickey Hargitay). It was the only film that opened (via NTD, an independent distributor at the time) and it set house records. People were looking for escapism and, obviously, the networks as they did now were only broadcasting newscasts. Of course, it does become redundant when there's no new news and they just say the same thing over and over.
"In addition, I think that the fact that the Memorial was held on Friday -- it's not closure, but it sort of said that it's OK to go out (and start trying to get back to normal). And that's why I think we're going to have an extraordinary Sunday (at the box office)."
Columbia's opening of its PG-13 rated suspense thriller The Glass House cracked the chart in second place with a solid ESTIMATED $6.1 million at 1,591 theaters ($3,834 per theater).
Directed by Daniel Sackheim, it stars Leelee Sobieski, Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgard.
"Not an expensive picture -- $22 million," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "We had a rather moderate release (with) pretty focused advertising, a reasonable number of prints and I think our caution was rewarded with a decent start that should get it into the $20 millions (in domestic theaters) and break even or make a little profit."
The studio's marketing efforts, Blake explained, "were focused toward younger females. It's a PG-13 thriller with Leelee Sobieski and I think that certainly the research going in indicated that that was the crowd. And we were specific in our advertising towards them. A focused mid-September release that turned out fine."
Commenting on how this weekend played out, Blake commented, "On the one hand, it looks like the lowest of the year. On the other hand, it's up over last year. It's hard to say, but I'm sure as we all look at our individual figures we all would have liked to have a little more -- but from Day One we thought a $6 million opening on Glass House was a reasonable expectation. It didn't seem like the events (of last week) took us away from that one way or the other."
Universal and Miramax's PG-13 rated action adventure acquisition The Musketeer fell two rungs to third place in its second week with a less dramatic ESTIMATED $5.31 million (-49%) at 2,476 theaters (+38 theaters; $2,145 per theater). Musketeer, which Universal picked up for North America for only about $3.75 million, has a cume of approximately $17.6 million, heading for $25-30 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peter Hyams, it stars Catherine Deneuve, Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Tim Roth and Justin Chambers.
"There was a tremendous jump between Friday and Saturday," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning, referring to the marketplace in general.
Musketeer, for instance, was up about 59 percent on Saturday from Friday. There were similar big increases on Saturday for such films as Hardball (up about 69 percent), The Others (up about 55 percent), Rush Hour 2 (up about 82 percent), Rat Race (up about 70 percent) and American Pie 2 (up about 58 percent).
Asked what accounted for such increases across the board, Rocco replied, "There was nothing else to do. People were home all day. On Friday, people came home from school and from work and wanted to catch up on the (news). But by Saturday, there was nothing else to do. There was no football. There was no baseball."
Focusing on Musketeer, Rocco said, "It's a very successful acquisition for us. We're very happy that we made this deal for domestic rights (for only $3.75 million)."
Dimension Films' PG-13 thriller The Others rose one slot to fourth place in its sixth week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-20%) at 2,843 theaters (+106 theaters; $1,688 per theater). Others, which cost only $17 million to make, has a cume of approximately $73.6 million, heading for $80-85 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, it stars Nicole Kidman.
Asked where Others is heading, David Kaminow, senior vice president, marketing for Dimension's parent company Miramax, replied, "$80 million looks like it's pretty much a sure thing (so probably) $80-85 million. It's a tidy little winner!"
Sony's Screen Gems label's R rated urban appeal romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game slipped three pegs to fifth place in its second week with a still playful ESTIMATED $4.7 million (-39%) at 1,297 theaters (theater count unchanged; $3,624 per theater). Made for only $6 million, its cume is approximately $13.9 million, heading for the mid-$20 millions in domestic theaters.
Written and directed by Mark Brown, it stars Vivica A. Fox and Anthony Anderson.
"Two Can Play That Game continues to be a nice little success story for us," Sony's Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "It's another film headed towards the mid-$20 millions, perhaps. And this one only cost $6 million. Again, a very focused campaign. I feel pretty good about what we had lined up for September and what we're spending (on marketing) to get there."
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated action comedy blockbuster sequel Rush Hour 2 held on to sixth place in its seventh week with an OK ESTIMATED $4.35 million (-24%) at 2,266 theaters (-280 theaters; $1,920 per theater). Its cume is approximately $211.4 million, heading for $220 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Brett Ratner, it stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
MGM's Jeepers Creepers, the R-rated horror film from the studio's United Artists label, fell four slots to seventh place in its third week with a slow ESTIMATED $3.85 million (-38%) at 2,847 theaters (-97 theaters; $1,353 per theater). Its cume is approximately $29.7 million.
Written and directed by Victor Salva, it stars Gina Phillips, Justin Long, Jonathan Breck and Eileen Brennan.
Paramount's PG-13 comedy Rat Race held on to eighth place in its fifth week, still holding nicely with an ESTIMATED $3.63 million (-19%) at 2,495 theaters (-56 theaters; $1,453 per theater). Its cume is approximately $47.8 million, heading for $55-60 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Jerry Zucker, it stars Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart.
Universal's R-rated youth appeal comedy hit sequel American Pie 2 slid two pegs to ninth place in its sixth week with a less sexy ESTIMATED $3.56 million (-25%) at 2,339 theaters (-438 theaters; $1,520 per theater). Pie 2, which cost about $30 million to make, has a cume of approximately $135.9 million, heading for $140 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by J.B. Rogers, it stars Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tara Reid, Seann William Scott, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Eugene Levy.
Rounding out the Top Ten (and virtually tied for ninth place) was Bel-Air Entertainment's R-rated drama Rock Star, distributed by Warner Bros., down six slots in its second week with a dull ESTIMATED $3.53 million (-41%) at 2,525 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,396 per theater). Its cume is approximately $11.2 million.
Directed by Stephen Herek, it stars Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston.
This weekend did not see the arrival of any other high profile or wide openings.
This weekend saw no national sneak previews.
On the expansion front, this weekend saw Fox Searchlight Pictures R-rated hit thriller The Deep End go wider in its sixth week with an OK ESTIMATED $0.75 million (-22%) at 412 theaters (+11 theaters; $1,823 per theater). Its cume is approximately $6.9 million.
Written produced and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, it stars Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic and Jonathan Tucker.
MGM's release of United Artists' R-rated youth appeal comedy Ghost World continued to widen in its ninth week, holding well with an ESTIMATED $0.37 million (even) at 104 theaters (+13 theaters; $3,667 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.2 million.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff, it stars Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas and Steve Buscemi.
Miramax's R-rated Apocalypse Now Redux widened in its seventh week with an OK ESTIMATED $0.2 million (-30%) at 105 theaters (+13 theaters; $1,904 per theater). Its cume is approximately $3.5 million.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford.
Paramount Classics' R-rated drama Our Lady of the Assassins went wider in its second week with a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.055 million (-2%) at 12 theaters (+8 theaters; $4,595 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.1 million.
Directed by Barbet Schroeder, it stars German Jaramillo and Anderson Ballesteros.
On the international front, Universal reported that it opened The Fast and the Furious in the U.K. this weekend to a solid $1.7 million on 400 screens for Friday and Saturday. That total does not include the 63 screens where the film is playing in Ireland, where theaters were closed Friday as a national day of mourning for the U.S.
Universal said Fast's two-day U.K. gross was 20 percent higher than the $2 million that Scary Movie 2 kicked off to in the U.K. a week ago.
Universal also reported that its international release of Bridget Jones's Diary (co-financed with Miramax, which distributed it domestically) is now up to $130 million, making it this year's seventh biggest grossing film internationally. It still has 14 countries in which it will be opening -- including Japan on Sept. 22.
Universal said that Jurassic Park III's international cume is now at $165 million, making it the fifth highest grossing film of the year internationally. There still are eight countries in which JP III will be opening.
Universal's American Pie 2 had its first international opening this weekend in Israel, kicking off to a strong $217,000 on 30 screens ($7,200 per screen) and capturing first place. The studio will be releasing Pie 2 over the next four months. Its next openings are slated for Sept. 27 in Germany and Austria.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $61.23 million, up about 29.29 per cent from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $47.36 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 11.05 percent from last weekend of this year, when key films took in approximately $68.82 million.
Last year, Universal's second week of The Watcher was first with $5.81 million at 2,745 theaters ($2,115 per theater); and Warner Bros.' opening week of Bait was second with $5.49 million at 2,352 theaters ($2,332 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $11.3 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $16.2 million.