It's also off from the first Hunger Games movie, which took in $19.7 million from midnight-only showings back in 2012. This is a concerning statistic—with showtimes starting at 8 p.m., Mockingjay absolutely should have earned more than this.
Overall, the $17 million debut ranks 13th all-time for Thursday/midnight launches.
If Mockingjay follows Catching Fire's pattern from here, it will end the weekend with $106 million. That would be a stunning drop; for now, let's assume that fans simply decided to wait to see the movie on Friday or Saturday. Even with that assumption, though, this late night debut essentially rules out a $150 million weekend.
Forecast: In what's rightly being called the movie event of the year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is poised to take over the box office this weekend.
The third entry in the massively successful Hunger Games franchise opens at 4,151 theaters, and should score the best debut since its predecessor, Catching Fire, debuted to $158 million on this same weekend last year.
Fandango is reporting that Mockingjay is the biggest advanced ticket seller of the year so far, which isn't surprising or particularly noteworthy. The biggest opening of the year so far is Transformers: Age of Extinction's $100 million; if Mockingjay fell short of that number, it would be a massive disappointment.
It's also not going to happen. The previous two Hunger Games movies each opened over $150 million, and were each well received by critics and audiences. The sequel, Catching Fire, ended with the type of cliffhanger that leaves an audience eager to see what's next for Katniss Everdeen. Dating back to 2009, a young-adult adaptation has opened to at least $125 million on the weekend before Thanksgiving, and there's absolutely no reason to expect Mockingjay to put an end to that streak.
While Mockingjay is guaranteed to have the biggest opening of the year, it still may not be able to join its predecessors in the $150-million-plus club. The movie is based on the first half of what's widely regarded as the worst entry in Suzanne Collins' trilogy; this isn't going to mean a thing for the overwhelming majority of fans, but there's a chance that it does slightly reduce overall excitement.
It's also the first Hunger Games movie in which there aren't any games, which is something that the marketing campaign seems eager to point out ("The Games Are Over"). While the shift out of the arena helps differentiate this outing, it also takes some of the urgency away. Specifically, the marketing effort for the first two movies took viewers up to the start of the games, and then cut away: if you want to see what happens next, you'll need to buy a ticket. That was a highly effective strategy that the Mockingjay campaign can't replicate (to be fair, it hasn't tried to).
This is also the first of the Hunger Games movies that isn't showing in IMAX; in contrast, all of the arena scenes in Catching Fire were shot using IMAX cameras. Instead, those premium-priced screens are reserved for Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, which is moving in to its third week of release.
IMAX doesn't directly add a ton of revenue: assuming premiums of around 25 percent, Catching Fire only received around a $3 million boost from IMAX on opening weekend. Still, IMAX helps reinforce a movie's status as an "event" that needs to be seen on the big screen. Going in to this weekend, the biggest opening ever for a movie with no IMAX showings belongs to 2009's The Twilight Saga: New Moon ($142.8 million).
Mockingjay is also the first entry in the franchise to receive less-than-enthusiastic reviews: as of Thursday afternoon, it was at a so-so 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of these reviews touch on the fact that, by its very nature as a "Part 1," it doesn't tell a complete story.
Inevitably, some portion of the audience—however small it may be—is going to take this as a signal that they can wait to watch this one at home before checking out the finale on the big screen next year. This seemed to happen with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, which both earned less than their predecessor (though in Potter's case, it was a miniscule drop).
All of these factors—the book's comparatively poor reputation, the lack of IMAX, the "Part 1" effect, etc.—are very tiny issues on their own. Add them all up, though, and it's entirely feasible that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 falls short of $150 million this weekend.
While it's unlikely that the domestic audience will expand for Mockingjay, there does seem to be an opportunity to grow overseas, where the movie is opening day-and-date in most markets this weekend (with the notable exception of China and Japan).
The first installment earned $283 million overseas, or just 41 percent of its worldwide total. The sequel improved substantially on that, gaining 55 percent to around $440 million. While it's unreasonable to expect another giant leap like that, it still seems like a safe bet that Mockingjay winds up with at least $500 million overseas.
Forecast (November 21-23):
1. Mockingjay - $148 million
2. Big Hero 6 - $19.4 million (-44%)
3. Interstellar - $16.1 million (-43%)
4. Dumb and Dumber To - $14.8 million (-59%)
Bar for Success
Each of the Hunger Games movies opened north of $150 million, though Mockingjay doesn't need to open that high to be considered a success. At a minimum, Mockingjay needs to match The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, which debuted to $138.1 million on the same weekend in 2011.
Discuss this story with fellow Box Office Mojo fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @boxofficemojo, and follow author Ray Subers at @raysubers.
• Last Weekend's Report: 'Dumb' Sequel Takes First Ahead of 'Big Hero 6,' 'Interstellar'
• Last Weekend's Forecast: Moviegoers to Get 'Dumber' Again This Weekend