By BROOKS BARNES
LOS ANGELES — “The Hunger Games” hit the box-office bull’s-eye over the weekend, taking in a record $155 million in North America and setting up what promises to be one of the biggest film franchises of this decade.
Backed by a meticulously executed marketing campaign from Lionsgate, “The Hunger Games” was a gigantic No. 1 and set multiple sales records, including the strongest opening weekend total for a spring release, not accounting for inflation. The previous record holder, “Alice in Wonderland,” directed by Tim Burton, took in $116.1 million over its first three days in March 2010 and went on to surpass $1 billion in ticket sales at the global box office.
Nobody is predicting that kind of worldwide total for “The Hunger Games,” partly because, unlike “Alice in Wonderland,” it was not made available in 3-D, which costs $3 to $5 more per ticket to see. But “The Hunger Games” could easily take in $500 million to $700 million, depending on overseas interest, box-office analysts said. Lionsgate said international ticket sales for the weekend were estimated at $59.3 million.
“It proves that distributors don’t have to wait until the summer or the holiday season to release tent poles,” said Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, using Hollywood slang for broad event films. “If a movie looks intriguing, customers will show up, no matter what the calendar reads.”
He added: “This opening is a passing of the baton. The end of ‘Harry Potter’ and the impending ‘Twilight’ finale resulted in a marketplace that was hungry for a new, popular franchise to cling to.” The roughly $155 million for “The Hunger Games” opening weekend is the third biggest in Hollywood history, not accounting for inflation, behind only “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” and “The Dark Knight,” according to Hollywood.com, which compiles box-office data.
“The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”), stars Jennifer Lawrence as a 16-year-old who is forced to battle other children to the death for a futuristic society’s televised amusement. Lionsgate and Nina Jacobson’s Color Force Productions adapted the movie from Suzanne Collins’s best-selling novel of the same name for about $80 million.
Three more films, based on the remaining two books in Ms. Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy, are planned. More than 24 million copies of the trilogy are in print in the United States alone, according to Scholastic, the books’ publisher.
“The Hunger Games,” rated PG-13, represents the kind of out-of-the-park successes that can transform a studio. The release represents a stunning reversal for Lionsgate, which has been struggling mightily of late, with flops over the last two years like “Killers,” “Conan the Barbarian” and “Warrior.”
Lionsgate, until now mostly known for the defunct “Saw” franchise and for distributing Tyler Perry’s movies, pursued “The Hunger Games” as part of a strategy — set by its former movie chief, Joe Drake — of taking on more ambitious films for bigger box-office payoffs. Mr. Drake, who was replaced at the studio in January but has remained to see “The Hunger Games” to fruition, was understandably ebullient over the weekend as ticket results trickled in.
He wrote of the Lionsgate team in an e-mail: “I’m watching the looks on their faces as the numbers come in and they realize what they’ve accomplished — the greatest joy in the business!!!”
Another Lionsgate executive who was crucial to “The Hunger Games,” Alli Shearmur, was also replaced in recent months, a result of the studio’s acquisition of Summit Entertainment. The runaway success of “The Hunger Games” puts pressure on Jon Feltheimer, Lionsgate’s chief executive, to prevent even more of the people responsible for the biggest success in his company’s history from leaving.
Hollywood and some Wall Street investors are closely watching to see if Lionsgate can retain its chief marketing officer, Tim Palen. Mr. Palen, whose departure could prompt others to leave, has formed close ties to Ms. Collins.
“The Hunger Games” received strong critical reaction, and audiences in exit polls gave it an A score, which means the movie will probably play well in the weekends ahead. Lionsgate said the audience was 39 percent male, which is another sign of a cultural juggernaut. In comparison, the “Twilight” movies have been mostly a female phenomenon; the audience for “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part I” was only 20 percent male, for instance.
People interested in going to the movies over the weekend would have had a hard time escaping “The Hunger Games,” which played in 4,137 locations, including 268 Imax theaters. Greg Foster, president of Imax Filmed Entertainment, credited a “flawless” marketing campaign by Mr. Palen and “an incredibly satisfying film.”
The second-biggest film in North America was “21 Jump Street,” which took in about $21.3 million for Sony and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, lifting its two-week total to a robust $71.1 million. “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” (Universal) was third, selling about $13.1 million in tickets for a four-week total of $177.3 million. “John Carter” was fourth, taking in $5 million (for a four-week total of $62.3 million), while Relativity Media’s “Act of Valor” was fifth, taking in $2.1 million (for a five-week total of $65.9 million).
Despite experiencing one of the biggest flops in memory, “John Carter,” which forced Disney to take a $200 million write down, Hollywood has sharply improved its performance over last year. Even before “The Hunger Games” arrived, attendance for the year was 18 percent higher than the same period in 2011, fueled by hits like “The Lorax” and “The Vow.” Now attendance is now up 22 percent.