By John Young
Updated March 28, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT

The Hunger Games

  • Movie

Okay, Katniss, that was one heck of a start, but let’s see if you have any long-distance stamina.

With The Hunger Games scoring the third-highest opening weekend ever with $152.5 million, Lionsgate will now turn its attention to stretching that awesome debut into an equally awesome final gross. How much will The Hunger Games ultimately earn, and how will it stack up compared to 2012’s other blockbusters? The answer to that first question requires using a skill that’s of little use in the actual Hunger Games: multiplication.

In order to figure out what The Hunger Games‘ final gross will be, we need to make an educated guess regarding what its multiplier will be. A movie’s “multiplier” is its final gross divided by its opening weekend, and is thus an indicator of that particular movie’s box-office legs. For example, a film that finished its theatrical run with $300 million after opening to $100 million has a multiplier of 3.

Before the introduction of the home video market, movies frequently had multipliers of more than 10. For instance, Jaws, which ushered in the era of summer blockbusters, had a multiplier of 37. These days, it’s all about the opening weekend. Films now have multipliers that usually fall somewhere in between 2 and 6, with the vast majority finishing closer to 2 or 3 than to 6. If you don’t open big, it’s unlikely your movie is going to stick around for very long, especially when there are dozens of upcoming pictures more than willing to snatch up your theaters.

But The Hunger Games did open big — so big, in fact, that the difference between a 2.5 multiplier ($381.3 million) and a 3.0 multiplier ($457.5 million) is roughly $76 million. According to Vincent Bruzzese, the president of Ipsos Media CT’s Worldwide Motion Picture Group, the average multiplier for movies opening to at least $100 million since 2005 is 2.78. That’s a good starting point.

We should also compare The Hunger Games to similar blockbusters, and one that makes for an especially appropriate comparison is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Like The Hunger Games, that movie was based on the first entry in a young-adult book phenomenon. Sorcerer’s Stone wound up with an impressive 3.5 multiplier. However, it opened in mid-November and benefited immensely from the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks. Also, the theatrical landscape has shifted considerably since 2001. Opening weekends have swollen due to such factors as midnight screenings (The Hunger Games earned $19.7 million from Thursday midnight showings alone) and surcharges for 3-D and IMAX showings (a movie will have its largest number of premium screens during its debut weekend).

A more recent comparison point would be the first Twilight, which had a multiplier of 2.77. The Twilight sequels were more front-loaded, with last year’s Breaking Dawn — Part 1 finishing with a multiplier of 2.04. The Hunger Games should hold up better than Breaking Dawn — Part 1, especially considering that the former’s appeal extends beyond teenage fangirls. Whereas Breaking Dawn — Part 1 fell 44 percent from Friday to Saturday, The Hunger Games dropped only 25 percent. And Katniss earned $10.8 million and $10.3 million on Monday and Tuesday — huge grosses for a workweek when most kids are in school.

But can The Hunger Games replicate the original Twilight‘s longevity? “The movie is soon going to run into a fairly competitive environment out there with the summer months approaching,” says Bruzzese. “In order to do a big multiplier, you need to play in theaters for quite some time.” There’s also the matter of whether The Hunger Games‘ opening weekend was an abnormality. “That was a special situation where the social-media buzz kept building and building,” says Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research. “It was almost like a positive spiral that surrounded the film.” As a result, there’s a chance the film might descend from its current box-office stratosphere and perform a bit more like a standard blockbuster from here on out.

If it follows the first Twilight‘s trajectory, The Hunger Games will finish with $422 million. However, I’m going with a slightly lower multiplier of 2.7, resulting in a final tally of $412 million. How much the movie drops this weekend will be very telling. If it manages to collect at least $60 million its second weekend — or about a 60 percent decline from its opening — then it should be in good shape. If it drops more than that, then $400 million is likely out of the question.

Let’s say The Hunger Games does wind up with $412 million. That would put it at No. 11 on the all-time domestic chart, but what about for 2012? In my mind, there are only three other movies this year that could potentially reach the same amount: The Avengers, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and The Dark Knight Rises.

The Avengers could very well debut to more than The Hunger Games‘ $152.5 million, and Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Iron Man 2 have earned an average multiplier of 2.6. If The Avengers opens to, say, $155 million, a 2.6 multiplier would put it at $403 million.

The Hobbit, on the other hand, debuts on Dec. 14. December releases tend to open lower than summer blockbusters, but have much stronger legs. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King opened to $72.6 million, or $94.3 million when adjusted for ticket-price inflation. Let’s bump The Hobbit up to a $100 million debut (it will benefit from 3-D surcharges, after all). And let’s be generous and say it winds up with a 4.5 multiplier, which is feasible considering the three Lord of the Rings movies had, in order of release, multipliers of 6.7, 5.5, and 5.2. In this scenario, The Hobbit ends its run with $450 million.

But the 2012 crown is really The Dark Knight Rises‘ to lose. The Dark Knight debuted to $158.4 million in 2008 — a record at the time — and finished with $533.3 million for a 3.37 multiplier. “It would be wholly unfair to expect The Dark Knight Rises to do anywhere near what The Dark Knight did, without precluding the possibility of it,” says Bruzzese. “The Dark Knight had a lot of things, both amazing and tragic [like Heath Ledger’s death], going into that opening weekend. And it played through the roof. It’s very difficult to replicate any of those things.”

I agree to an extent. I’m not ready to predict that The Dark Knight Rises will top The Dark Knight‘s $533.3 million haul, even though it’s certainly a possibility. But unless if the movie is a severe disappointment, a $400 million gross seems pretty much assured. And it’s still my odds-on favorite to lead this year’s box office when all is said and done.

So I’m thinking the year’s top four will be, in order, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, and The Avengers. But who knows? All I can say at this point is that 2012 looks like it’s going to be a mighty year at the box office, and that Katniss will be sitting somewhere near the top of it. A year ago, if you had predicted The Hunger Games would finish among 2012’s top pictures, few would have believed you (myself included). And yet here we are.

Read more:

Box office report: ‘The Hunger Games’ posts third-best opening weekend ever with $155 mil

‘The Hunger Games’: Can Jennifer Lawrence score a second Oscar nomination?

Movie Talk: Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum on ‘The Hunger Games’ — VIDEO

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The Hunger Games

  • Movie
  • PG-13