Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Ice Age was Hollywood's hottest film with a titanic $47.9 million, setting records as the year's biggest opening by far and the best ever for March.
Also generating plenty of St. Patrick's weekend box office green were the openings of Resident Evil with $18.2 million and Showtime with $15.4 million. The three new powerhouse films sent The Time Machine traveling to fourth place with $10.9 million and forced We Were Soldiers to regroup in fifth place with $8.8 million.
Driven by Ice, Evil and Showtime, key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- enjoyed summer sized ticket sales of over $137 million, a level distributors said had never before been achieved in the month of March. Business was up an astounding 75 percent from last year's $78 million and was up about 39 percent from nearly $99 million the previous weekend this year.
THE TOP TEN
20th Century Fox's PG rated animated feature Ice Age opened atop the chart with an astonishing ESTIMATED $47.85 million at 3,316 theaters ($14,430 per theater).
Directed by Chris Wedge, it features the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary.
Ice's average per theater was the highest for any film playing this weekend.
"The March record was $32.2 million for Liar, Liar so there's a new king of March by a long shot," a very happy Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning.
Ice ranks as the year's biggest opening, easily beating the three-day weekend record set last week by DreamWorks' opening of The Time Machine with $22.6 million and the four-day weekend record set Feb. 15-18 by New Line's opening of John Q. with $23.6 million.
"It obviously became an event," Snyder pointed out. "I don't think anybody could have projected (over) $47 million. You'd look and you were optimistic (saying it would do) low-$30 millions. This is beyond anything (anticipated)."
Focusing on who was on hand, Snyder noted, "It did become an event. We had a lot of teenagers. We had a lot of non-family members. We got everybody. From Friday evening (exit polls we had) 70 percent family audience members -- parents and children -- and 30 percent non-family audience members. Of that 30 percent non-family, 60 percent were under 25. That's a big number. To be drawing teenagers in to an animated feature on the first weekend on their own is pretty terrific. So it bodes well."
Did they like it? "They loved it," Snyder replied. "The highest rating group were the young males, oddly enough. I don't have (the details yet this early Sunday morning). It played ethnically. It played every which way."
Asked what accounts for the film's titanic success, Snyder commented, "The movie is wonderful, but I think first and foremost the (marketing) campaign said, 'Come. This is a lot of fun. It's cool and it's hip and you're going to love it.'"
Looking ahead, what is Ice likely to wind up grossing domestically? "I have no idea yet," Snyder said, laughing. "Let's wait for that second weekend. But, boy oh boy, what a way to go!"
Clearly, Fox chose the best possible time to release the picture. "I think it helped certainly to be the first of the kid pictures of the next few weeks to hit the screens," Snyder said. "That didn't hurt."
Sony's Screen Gems label launched its R rated thriller Resident Evil from Constantin Film, New Legacy Film and Davis Films in second place to a killer ESTIMATED $18.2 million at 2,528 theaters ($7,200 per theater).
Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, it stars Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez and Eric Mabius.
"What a weekend," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning, referring to both Evil's strong opening and the overall strength of the marketplace. "I looked back five years and I can't find a $100 million weekend in March -- much less a $135-140 million weekend."
Blake observed, "It's a $30 million negative film and we'll be in profit by about 2 o'clock this afternoon. I think it exceeded everyone's expectations. It really is a case of (getting) our audience -- males -- but also very strong young female (attendance). So we really got both the older teenagers and the young adults, both male and female, which I think you can credit (to) the casting of Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez that really expanded the normal horror or video game young male skew.
"Basically, what we ended up with in our exit polls was 85 percent in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) from young males and 77 percent definite recommend. But we had 82 percent in the Top Two Boxes and 70 percent definite recommend from young females. We believe that's expanding your normal audience, which tends to be loyal but contained, and we got it a little broader than that even on a pretty tough weekend (in terms of competition)."
Blake clearly was pleased with Screen Gems' marketing of the picture: "Again, Screen Gems and (marketing head) Valerie Van Galder really, as usual, did their terrific marketing job."
Evil, Blake said, is being released through Sony in "domestic and certain international territories, including all of Latin America."
"It's very exciting for Constantin," Mitch Horwits, president of Constantin, which financed the film's production. Constantin, which is owned by Bernd Eichinger, is based in Munich.
Horwits, who is based in Los Angeles, observed, "We're extremely excited. It's probably an understatement, but I don't know what else to say. Screen Gems and Sony did a fantastic job. They had a terrific campaign. They hit the core audience and they really helped expand the core."
Evil was, Horwits said, "the first picture we had done with Screen Gems and we're certainly hoping to do more business (with Sony and Screen Gems)."
Putting the film's cost in the very modest area of $30 million, Horwits said it should be profitable for all concerned. In terms of international distribution, Constantin sells its product territory by territory. "We utilize sales agents," he explained. "In this case, Intermedia acted as Constantin's sales agent and licensed the picture outside of Germany and France. We have a French partner, who was involved in the production, called Davis Films. We basically hire (Intermedia) as our agent. They have no financial interest in the picture. They act as our sales agent and weren't involved in the domestic deal. That's something that we did."
Warner Bros.' PG-13 rated action comedy Showtime from Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment third with a solid ESTIMATED $15.36 million at 2,917 theaters ($5,266 per theater).
Directed by Tom Dey, it stars Robert De Niro, Eddie Murphy and Rene Russo.
"We're right on track and, hopefully, we'll hang in there for a while," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning.
DreamWorks and Warner Bros.' PG-13 rated time travel fantasy drama The Time Machine fell three pegs to fourth place in its second week with a less timely ESTIMATED $10.9 million (-52%) at 2,958 theaters (+14 theaters; $3,698 per theater). Its cume is approximately $40.1 million.
The film is being released domestically by DreamWorks and internationally by Warner Bros., which co-financed its production.
Directed by Simon Wells, it stars Guy Pearce.
Paramount and Icon Productions' R rated Vietnam war drama We Were Soldiers slipped three rungs to fifth place in its third week with a calmer ESTIMATED $8.8 million (-38%) at 3,143 theaters (theater count unchanged; ($2,800 per theater). Its cume is approximately $53.6 million, heading for $80-90 million in domestic theaters.
Written and directed by Randall Wallace, it stars Mel Gibson.
"In light of the competition, I think it's a good hold," Paramount Distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning, adding that besides being up against Ice's record setting launch Soldiers also had to contend with the fact that "Showtime was certainly directed toward our audience, as well."
Asked what summer box office business would be like if we're already seeing $137 million-plus weekends in mid-March, Lewellen replied, "I don't know that that necessarily bodes anything for the summer. It goes back to (the concept that) if you put the product in that so-called off-time or those weaker times when the market is not as broad, if the right product is there the market will expand to accommodate it. It's been proven over and over and over.
"I think (Fox) had a really great campaign on the picture. It really appealed to the family audience, but it seemed to be hip enough to get younger people, too. It goes back to the R rating hurts you on movies more so than it did a year or two years ago. There's no question about it (that PG and PG-13 films now have an advantage)."
New Line's R rated urban appeal buddy comedy All About the Benjamins dropped three notches to sixth place in its second week with a slower ESTIMATED $4.85 million (-52%) at 1,519 theaters (+14 theaters; $3,193 per theater). Its cume is approximately $17.4 million.
Directed by Kevin Bray, it stars Ice Cube and Mike Epps.
Miramax and Universal's R rated romantic comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights fell three slots in its third week to seventh place with a dull ESTIMATED $4.6 million (-35%) at 2,312 theaters (-87 theaters; $1,989 per theater). Its cume is approximately $30.1 million.
Directed by Michael Lehmann, it stars Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
New Line's PG-13 rated man-against-the-system drama John Q dropped three rungs to eighth place in its fifth week with an okay ESTIMATED $3.73 million (-37%) at 2,019 theaters (-363 theaters; $1,845 per theater). Its cume is approximately $64.5 million, heading for $70 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Nick Cassavetes, it stars Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Kimberly Elise and Ray Liotta.
Universal, DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment's PG-13 rated drama A Beautiful Mind -- which has eight Oscar nominations including best picture and saw director Ron Howard win the Directors Guild of America's award Saturday night -- slid one notch to ninth place in its 13th week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $3.41 million (-12%) at 1,533 theaters (-260 theaters; $2,225 per theater). Its cume is approximately $149.2 million. How far it goes past $150 million will depend on how well it does Oscar night.
Directed by Ron Howard, the Brian Grazer production stars Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Buena Vista/Disney's G rated animated Return to Never Land, down four notches place in its fifth week with a quieter ESTIMATED $2.3 million (-49%) at 1,895 theaters (-603 theaters; $1,197 per theater). Its cume is approximately $45.3 million.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Universal's R rated drama Harrison's Flowers to a quiet ESTIMATED $0.84 million at 390 theaters ($2,120 per theater).
Produced and directed by Elie Chouraqui, it stars Andie MacDowell, Elias Koteas, Brendan Gleeson, Adrien Brody and David Strathairn.
IFC Films' unrated erotic drama Y Tu Mama Tambien opened to an encouraging ESTIMATED $0.43 million at 42 theaters ($10,170 per theater).
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, it stars Maribel Verdu, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.
Fox Searchlight Pictures' R rated romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein arrived to a very sexy ESTIMATED $0.36 million at 26 theaters ($13,650 per theater). Its cume after five days is approximately $0.4 million.
Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, it stars Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen.
"It's a tiny independent film with complete unknowns and we're thrilled," Fox Searchlight distribution president Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "It's just working really well everywhere. The screen average is a little misleading (and would be a lot higher except) that we took some suburban and outlying theaters in Chicago and San Francisco. The New York numbers are very, very big and the central runs are quite big everywhere. The New York numbers (have) quite a few theaters in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. Friday and Saturday the Sunset (in Los Angeles) had over $13,000, so they'll be close to $20,000 (for the weekend). I felt that this film had such strong playability that we opened it a little wider and it's working really nicely."
Asked about plans to expand Jessica, Gilula replied, "This week we add 14 cities with 37 screens. We'll be at 65 theaters this Friday. The following week we add another 19 cities and we'll be over 100 screens. In the fourth week, which will be the week of Apr. 5, we expect to be national in all the major and some key cities with 400-500 theaters."
It also helps that Jessica has earned favorable reviews from most critics. "I would say that 80-90 percent are three to four stars," Gilula said. "There's only a couple that didn't care for it. We had a negative New York Times review and were able to survive that because everything else in New York was extremely positive. We're off and running.
"It's one of those Cinderella stories. You know, for every Jessica there's probably a thousand independent films that never see the light of day. For everyone involved in this film, it's like winning the lottery. They had such a tough time. It was turned down by a lot of distributors. It was turned down by Sundance. The conventional wisdom is you can't launch a romantic comedy with unknown stars in it. Where do you go with that? How do you get people to go see it? As you know, we did a word of mouth screening program and the reviewers embraced it. Our gang (at Fox Searchlight) really liked the movie, so we went out and worked it."
Buena Vista/Disney held 1,151 sneak previews Saturday night of its G rated drama The Rookie and said the picture was well attended and played very well.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, it stars Dennis Quaid.
A BV spokeswoman said the sneaks played to 80 percent capacity with a 90 percent exit poll score. "The demographics were 53 percent male and 47 percent female," she added. "As far as age, I don't have specifics yet, but it's across the board. It did excellently."
Rookie opens wide Mar. 29.
On the expansion front this weekend USA Films' R rated romantic comedy Monsoon Wedding added theaters in its fourth week with a still attractive ESTIMATED $0.81 million (+5%) at 98 theaters (+22 theaters; $8,210 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.2 million.
Directed by Mira Nair, it was produced by Nair and Caroline Baron.
Miramax's R rated romantic comedy Italian For Beginners added a few theaters in its ninth week with a quiet ESTIMATED $0.28 million (-21%) at 81 theaters (+2 theaters; $3,395 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.5 million.
Directed by Lone Scherfig, it stars Anders Berthelsen.
Universal's international division reported Sunday that Spy Game opened in first place in Germany to $1.3 million on 607 playdates in its first 3 days (Thurs. - Sat.).
A Beautiful Mind, which DreamWorks is releasing internationally and Universal distributed domestically, continued to perform strongly in territories throughout the world. The picture placed fourth in Germany with $765,000 on 365 playdates. Its 17-day cume there is $4.6 million.
In Austria, Spy was number one with $140,000 on 63 playdates. Mind ranked third with $76,000 on 47
Mind topped the chart in Australia for the third consecutive week, grossing $1.1 million on 220 playdates. It has 28% market share Down Under with an 11-day cume of $4.5 million.
In the U.K., Mind grossed $685,000 on 378 playdates and ranked fifth in its fourth week.
In Spain, Mind was third in its fourth week with $400,000 on 206 playdates and a 22-day cume of $5.1 million.
In Argentina, Mind is in its fourth week and is No. 3. So far this weekend, it has grossed $104k on 46 playdates, down only 10%.
In Brazil, Mind is in its fifth weekend and moved up to second place from third with $236,000 on 153 playdates, level with the previous week. Its 30-day cume is $3.2 million.
Mind was second in Mexico in its third week with $375,000 on 170 playdates and a cume of $3.2 million.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $137.15 million, up about 75.08 percent from last year when they totaled $78.34 million.
Key films for this three day weekend were up about 38.76% from the previous weekend of this year's total of $98.84 million.
Last year, Warner Bros.' opening week of Exit Wounds was first with $18.49 million at 2,830 theaters ($6,532 per theater); and Paramount's opening week of Enemy At The Gates was second with $13.81 million at 1,509 theaters ($9,152 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $32.3 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $66.1 million.