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.
"Exit Wounds" entered theaters in first place despite industry research suggesting more moviegoers wanted to see "Enemy at the Gates."
"Exit," from Warner Bros. in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment, is a Silver Pictures production teaming up Steven Seagal and DMX. The R-rated action film topped the chart with a record-setting estimated $19.03 million at 2,830 theaters ($6,723 per theater).
Directed by Andrez Bartkowiak, "Exit" was produced by Joel Silver and Dan Cracchiolo. It stars Steven Seagal and DMX and was executive produced by Bruce Berman.
"It's the biggest March opening in Warner history, which is very exciting," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "It's the biggest movie Steven Seagal has ever opened and the same with DMX, who was in 'Romeo Must Die.' And it's the sixth Number One movie in a row that Joel Silver has opened for us. That's a record I don't know who has. We're very excited about this. It's certainly a great way to end the first quarter.
"The exits were great. People really liked it. We had 88% in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) and a 75% Definite Recommend. So this picture should be around for a while."
Asked where it could wind up, Fellman replied, "I think this picture could be $60-75 million."
DMX's previous film, "Romeo Must Die," opened via Warner Bros. March 24, 2000, in second place to $18.5 million. It went on to gross about $56 million in domestic theaters.
Seagal's last starring role was in "Fire Down Below," which opened Sept. 5, 1997, to $6.1 million and went on to gross $16.1 million in domestic theaters.
Prior to that, Seagal starred in "The Glimmer Man," opening Oct. 4, 1996, to $7.6 million and winding up with $20.4 million domestically. "Executive Decision" opened March 15, 1996, to $12.1 million and got to $56.7 million domestically. "On Deadly Ground" opened Feb. 18, 1994, to $12.7 million and reached $38.6 million. "Hard To Kill" kicked off Feb. 9, 1990, to $9.2 million and ended up with $47.4 million domestically.
Paramount's R-rated World War II drama "Enemy at the Gates" from Mandalay Pictures opened a solid Number Two, although it had been flying higher than "Exit" on Hollywood's advance radar screens.
"Enemy" invaded second place with a friendly estimated $13.6 million at 1,509 theaters ($9,013 per theater).
"Enemy" had the highest per-theater average for any film playing in wide release last weekend.
Produced and directed by Jean-Jacques Annuad, "Enemy" stars Joseph Fiennes, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins and Ed Harris.
"It's on the high side of where we thought it was going to get," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "I had it (projected at) $10-12 million going into the weekend. Obviously, this is beyond what we were looking for."
Asked about reports that research scores had been showing "Enemy" looking bigger than "Exit," Lewellen replied, "I think it probably was, but we're only (about) 1,500 runs versus their 2,800 or so."
Why didn't Paramount go wider with "Enemy?" "The (marketing) campaign really made the film look like an action movie more so than, in fact, it is," Lewellen explained. "It's really a love story, character development and so forth. It's a really upscale movie for the most part. The problem is, if you go that wide with it, you get out there and before people figure out what it is -- particularly for the older audience -- it can be out of some of these smaller markets before they ever find the film.
"We will expand it to some extent -- maybe 100 or 200 runs -- this week (moving up to) 1,600 or 1,700."
DreamWorks' R-rated drama "The Mexican" added theaters but still fell two slots to third place in its third week with a less spicy estimated $8.1 million (-34%) at 3,162 theaters (+203 theaters; $2,571 per theater). Its cume is approximately $50.9 million.
"Mexican" should wind up being nicely profitable for DreamWorks since it reportedly only cost about $40 million and its two superstars took much lower salaries than usual.
Directed by Gore Verbinski, "Mexican" stars Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.
Warner Bros.' G-rated family appeal comedy "See Spot Run" from Village Roadshow Pictures continued to show strong legs, dropping one peg to fourth place in its third week with an estimated $5.21 million (-21%) at 2,656 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,962 per theater). Its cume is approximately $25.0 million.
"Spot" reportedly cost only about $15 million to produce and should be very profitable for Warners both in theaters and home video.
Directed by John Whitesel, "Run" stars David Arquette.
"It's great. This picture's headed for $40 million-plus," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning.
New Line's R-rated drama "15 Minutes" plunged three rungs to fifth place in its second week with a slow estimated $4.35 million (-59%) at 2,337 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,861 per theater). Its cume is approximately $17.9 million.
Written and directed by John Herzfeld, "Minutes" stars Robert De Niro and Edward Burns.
Sony Pictures Classics' Oscar-contending, PG-13-rated action adventure "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" held on to sixth place in its 15th week, still showing great legs thanks to its Oscar nominations with an estimated $4.12 million (-3%) at 1,860 theaters (+104 theaters; $2,214 per theater). Its cume is approximately $100.3 million.
"Tiger" is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director. Director Ang Lee, having won the Directors Guild of America's feature directing award, is the favorite to win the Best Director Oscar.
Directed by Ang Lee, "Dragon" stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat.
"Elated! We're very proud and happy -- and on to the Oscars," Sony Pictures Classics sales vice president Tom Prassis said Sunday morning.
"I don't want to speculate (about where it winds up if it wins or doesn't win). I think the film's already accomplished much more than we'd hoped. Anything from now is going to be gravy."
Paramount's PG-13-rated comedy "Down to Earth" dropped two pegs to seventh place in its fifth week with a less funny estimated $4.0 million (-28%) at 2,425 theaters (-96 theaters; $1,649 per theater). Its cume is approximately $56.8 million.
Directed by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz, "Earth" stars Chris Rock.
MGM and Universal's R-rated thriller 'Hannibal" finished eighth, down four rungs in its sixth week with a calm estimated $3.7 million (-38%) at 2,433 theaters (-514 theaters; $1,535 per theater). Its cume is approximately $157.0 million, heading for $175 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Ridley Scott and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis and Ridley Scott, "Hannibal" stars Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore.
Miramax's PG-13-rated, Oscar-contending romantic comedy drama "Chocolat," which was ninth last week, tied for ninth place in its 14th week, still holding very well thanks to its Oscar momentum with an estimated $3.4 million (-12%) at 1,901 theaters (-27 theaters; $1,788 per theater). Its cume is approximately $55.8 million.
"Chocolat" is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture.
"I think we'll be at $60 million through next Sunday, by the Oscar ceremonies," Miramax senior vice president, marketing David Kaminow said Sunday morning. "And, hopefully, we'll get it to $70 million."
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, "Chocolat" stars Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin and Johnny Depp.
USA Films' R-rated, Oscar-contending drama "Traffic," which was eighth last week, tied for ninth place in its 12th week, still benefiting from b ing in the Oscar nominations spotlight with an estimated $3.4 million (-12%) at 1,682 theaters (+4 theaters; $2,027 per theater). Its cume is approximately $102.5 million.
"Traffic" is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, "Traffic" stars Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
"We can pretty much estimate that it will come in at $115 million total without winning (Best Picture)," USA distribution president Jack Foley said Sunday morning. "This is one that if it wins, it's a story. You know, this whole thing with 'Nightline' doing (a five-part show later this month dealing with drug issues addressed in the movie) is going to be like infomercials. Frankly, it could go to $125 million and (thanks to the TV exposure) despite the competition in the market, it could go further than that. Now can you imagine if it wins? It could go into the stratosphere. That's what film's all about when it takes over popular culture."
OTHER OPENINGS Newmarket's R-rated film noir thriller "Memento" opened to a promising estimated $0.23 million at 11 theaters ($20,971 per theater).
Directed by Christopher Nolan, it stars Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano.
Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated comedy "The Dish " opened to an encouraging estimated $0.072 million at 6 theaters ($12,000 per theater). Its cume after five days is approximately $0.088 million.
Directed by Rob Sitch, "Dish" stars Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington, Tom Long, Patrick Warburton, Genevieve Moody, Tayler Kane.
"We're very pleased with that," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "Friday night we did $17,754. Then Saturday we went up 75% and did $31,184. While it's not record breaking, it's substantial, and every day we've had strong increases. So I think word of mouth is kicking in on this movie."
SNEAK PREVIEWS MGM held a second round of about 1,000 sneak previews Saturday night of its PG-13-rated comedy "Heartbreakers" from Davis Entertainment. The film opens March 23 at about 2,500 theaters.
"They were 75% full. We were 50% full last week (when 627 sneaks were held), so we went up," MGM marketing executive Amanda Lundberg said Sunday morning. "Our audience was 56% female, 44% male. 25-and-over is 58%. Under-25 is 42%. And in our exit polls we were 94% in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) with a Definite Recommend of 68%."
Directed by David Mirkin and produced by John Davis and Irving Ong, "Heartbreakers" stars Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ray Liotta, Jason Lee, Jeffrey Jones and Gene Hackman.
EXPANSIONS On the expansion front, this weekend saw Sony Pictures Classics go wider with its R-rated drama "Pollock" in its sixth week, grossing a solid estimated $0.73 million (-5%) at 218 theaters (+63 theaters; $3,355 per theater). Its cume is approximately $3.8 million.
"Pollock" received Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Ed Harris) and Best Supporting Actress (Marcia Gay Harden).
Directed by Ed Harris, "Pollock" stars Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden.
USA Films' PG-rated drama "In the Mood For Love" added a theater in its seventh week with an okay estimated $0.18 million (-29%) at 74 theaters (+1 theater; $2,477 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.9 million.
Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, "Love" stars Tony Leung and Maggie Chung.
"I'm delighted about that," USA distribution president Jack Foley said Sunday morning. "This is such a small film. If it keeps the momentum going, (it should wind up with) $2.75-3 million."
USA Films' R-rated reality TV satire "Series 7" added theaters in its third week with an okay estimated $0.037 million at 10 theaters (+3 theaters; $3,705 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.11 million.
Written and directed by Daniel Minahan, "Series" stars Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mary Louise Burke, Richard Venture, Michael Kaycheck and Merrit Wever.
WEEKEND COMPARISONS Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $79.46 million, down about 8.05% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $86.42 million.
This weekend's key film gross was up about 16.41% from last weekend this year when key films did $68.26 million.
Last year, Universal's opening week of "Erin Brockovich" was first with $28.14 million at 2,848 theaters ($9,880 per theater); and Buena Vista's second week of "Mission To Mars" was second with $11.39 million at 3,060 theaters ($3,721 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $39.5 million. This year, the top two films grossed an estimated $32.6 million.