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'Hunger' strikes!

After a $152.5 million opening weekend, ”The Hunger Games” is poised to become one of the most successful films of all time. Inside the making of an entirely new franchise, and what its fans can look forward to next

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”Don’t worry, guys, this isn’t the reaping,” jokes the black-T-shirt-clad young woman as she holds her hand over a bag of raffle tickets. It’s opening night of The Hunger Games, and a nervous electricity runs through the crowd of fans packed into a Manhattan movie theater. This particular midnight screening has been arranged by the Hob, a popular fansite, and before the film begins, they’re raffling off a rare copy of the best-selling book, signed by Suzanne Collins herself. The emcee reaches in, pulls out a ticket, and reads the winning numbers solemnly into the microphone. The entire theater is silent until a man’s voice suddenly rings out: ”I volunteer!” Everyone dissolves into hoots of laughter.

Midnight showings like this one took in nearly $20 million on opening night, the most ever for a nonsequel, as devotees turned out in droves to see their favorite series come to life on screen. Many even showed up in costume, evoking the garishly colorful regalia of the Capitol. ”It’s amazing to think that it’s actually finally here!” said 21-year-old Sophie Cheetham, her tiny pink hat askew atop even pinker hair. ”It’s fantastic being able to see something you love with all the people who love the exact same thing.”

It wasn’t just fans of the books who crammed into multiplex seats last weekend to watch Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss — the film’s headstrong, self-sacrificing heroine — fight for her life. Over its first three days, the PG-13-rated Hunger Games pulled in an astonishing $152.5 million ($212 million worldwide), giving it the third-biggest opening weekend in cinema history, following the final Harry Potter film and The Dark Knight. Any lingering doubts as to how a film about teenage blood sport could reach a wide audience have officially been incinerated. ”This has exploded beyond anything we could have imagined,” director Gary Ross said over coffee the morning before the movie opened. ”There are days where it feels like we’re in the middle of some national media event that has nothing to do with entertainment. We keep looking around trying to figure out how this could have actually happened.”

How This Actually Happened
Like plenty of other films — not to mention religious fervors — it all started with a book. In 2008, Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games, a propulsive blast of young-adult fiction set in a grim authoritarian future that turns its young into gladiators for televised battles to the death. It was a breakout hit, and Collins quickly followed up with two planned sequels. YA-obsessed Hollywood executives weren’t far behind.

”Everybody who’s ever read the book got excited about the idea of a movie,” says producer Nina Jacobson, before correcting herself. ”Well, I guess not everybody. Not the people who passed, at least.” That would include most of the major studios, which likely spent the past week wearing black and mourning the One That Got Away.

To be fair, brutal kid-on-kid violence doesn’t scream ”tentpole movie.” And The Hunger Games was never going to be your typical mindless, noisy chock-a-blockbuster anyway. For one, there’s almost no element of escapism. Everyone who saw the Harry Potter films dreamed of going to Hogwarts, and the Twilight franchise offered its besotted female fan base a sparkly array of male eye candy. But the uncompromising universe of The Hunger Games, where children as young as 12 are sacrificed for entertainment, isn’t exactly one you’d want to imagine your way into. ”It’s a very intense book,” says Jacobson. ”It’s not the kind of thing that ordinarily gives rise to this kind of frenzy, but I think it speaks well of readers and of moviegoers that they are up for something this challenging.”

Lionsgate stepped up to the plate, eager to make its debut in the big leagues. ”This was a big purchase for them,” says Jacobson of the $78 million production. ”But even back then, when there were only 100,000 copies of the book out there, they looked at it as a crown jewel.” The studio moved quickly. After a closely followed casting process, they shot the film in only 84 days, mostly in the mossy timberland of North Carolina. (Like the Twilight mecca of Forks, Wash., North Carolina’s DuPont State Forest is already bracing for a surge in fan-based tourism.) Time was so crunched that Ross spent the days after the world premiere in Los Angeles tweaking the film, remixing sequences only two weeks before the movie opened wide. Meanwhile, the studio’s marketing squadron used all the arrows in its quiver to drum up excitement among fans and not-yet-fans.

”We’re always a bit of an underdog,” says Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s chief marketing officer. He and his team were armed with a $45 million budget, less than half of what bigger studios often expend on a major title. ”We were sandwiched between John Carter and The Avengers, so I knew we weren’t going to be the most important action movie of the year. So we focused on what we had: heart. That, and making sure we appealed to the broadest possible audience.”

The Cult of Katniss
As with the Games themselves, the film has proved to be an equal-opportunity event. For the many men who queued up to see the film, The Hunger Games represents a gender-neutral space to geek out. ”I don’t think it’s a question of if you’re a guy or a girl,” says Christian Havers, 24, who waited in line for four hours to get into a midnight screening in New York’s Union Square. ”Or even if you’re young or old. Katniss is pretty universally relatable.”

Collins’ protagonist is a bit of a rara avis: a fiercely strong female character who isn’t defined by her femaleness. One almost has to go back to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien series to find an antecedent. Lawrence traces it even further, all the way back to the original girl on fire: ”She’s like Joan of Arc for a new generation.”

For Kimmy West, who created the community site Mockingjay.net three years ago when she was only 17, she’s also a great role model. ”Katniss is a character young girls can aspire to,” West says. ”The story is about who she is and not just about who she’s in love with.” Of course, that won’t stop a whole lot of girls from obsessing over who she might be in love with.

Peeta-philes
”I asked him to marry me!” a young girl squeals to her friends, bounding away from the Barnes & Noble signing table where Josh Hutcherson is seated, her expression as ecstatic as if he’d actually accepted. It’s just days before the movie is scheduled to open, and this isn’t the first time the actor has received an impromptu (and age-inappropriate) proposal. In the film, Hutcherson plays Peeta, the lovably ordinary boy who fights — both inside and outside the arena — for Katniss’ heart, but it seems he’s inadvertently captured a few more. ”I think I have, like, 80 wives right now,” the 19-year-old actor joked at the Los Angeles premiere. An understandable number, since the success of the film has thrust him and Lawrence, 21, far out into the spotlight and turned them into living representations of characters millions of readers hold dear. ”He’s become a sex symbol,” says Ross. ”And it doesn’t amaze anyone more than it amazes Josh.”

Fangirl frenzy tends to be fueled by romantic intrigue, but while The Hunger Games does contain a love triangle — Liam Hemsworth provides the third vertex as Katniss’ childhood friend Gale — it’s far less vital to the story than the pyramid of pouty longing that propped up the Twilight series. At this point, members of Team Gale and Team Peeta aren’t nearly as concerned with total victory as their Team Edward and Team Jacob counterparts. It’s almost as if Collins’ books have bred a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful superfan. ”Everybody is really open and considerate and friendly,” says the Hob’s Amanda Belcher. ”I’m also a big Twilight fan, and the difference in behavior is huge. We love it just as intensely, but there’s a lot less fighting.”

The Next Battle
Fans who waited patiently for the movie’s release might find it hard to believe it’s actually here, but really, this is only the beginning for the franchise. Catching Fire will begin filming this fall, and Lionsgate is aiming for a Thanksgiving 2013 release date. The sequel picks up where the first film leaves off, with Peeta and Katniss touring the country as victors until they get thrust back into an all-star edition of the Games. (Readers are already speculating about who will play the cocksure ex-tribute Finnick Odair.) The nation of Panem, meanwhile, edges toward the all-out war that dominates the third book. The studio promises that the next film will span the entire second novel, but rumors have circulated that the filmmakers might split the finale, Mockingjay, into two movies. Jacobson admits that the fate of the third book is still ”to be determined.” As to whether there is any chance that Collins will extend her literary series, that’s much less up in the air. ”I won’t tell you how many people were upset with me when we decided to put the words ‘the final book of The Hunger Games‘ on the cover,” says David Levithan, Scholastic’s publisher and one of the series’ editors, ”because there’s a wonderful tradition of YA trilogies having four books. I’ve talked to Suzanne a lot about this, and as extraordinary as this movie experience has been and will be, there is nothing that will revoke that word ‘final.”’

Still, he suspects that all this success can only mean more people will be reading the books that do exist. The number of copies of The Hunger Games has ballooned from the original run of 50,000 to more than 11 million, and the year and a half between now and Catching Fire will just fan the flames. For the filmmakers, that’s awfully soon. ”We have about a half second to enjoy the present before we have to start at it again,” says Ross. Lawrence and Hutcherson are equally busy: She will appear in two more films this year, the thriller House at the End of the Street and David O. Russell’s The Silver Linings Playbook, opposite Bradley Cooper. Hutcherson will be in the art-forgery indie Carmel and the long-shelved remake of Red Dawn.

Even Jacobson, who has been working toward this moment since 2009, doesn’t expect to savor it for too long. ”I don’t really have any big celebration plans other than to just hunker down and get to work,” she says. ”It’s fantastic to finally have the movie out in the world and to see all of these people who love it, but at the end of the day we’ll roll up our sleeves and it’s on to the next one.” Where there will be new characters, a whole new arena, and a lot of new fans to please.

Who’s your favorite Hunger Games character?
Here’s who EW.com readers would most want to break burnt bread with

Katniss — 35.73%
Peeta — 27.77%
Cinna — 12.8%
Haymitch — 11.05%
Rue — 4.39%
Effie — 3.51%
Gale — 1.96%
The Rest — 2.79%

(Additional reporting by Carrie Bell)