Forecast: 'Hunger Games' Targets Record Books
Happy Hunger Games, indeed.

The big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins' international best-seller finally hits theater on Friday, and it's riding a wave of anticipation unheard of for the first movie in a prospective series. The Hunger Games is set to play on at least 10,000 screens at 4,137 locations, which is the widest release ever for a non-sequel and for a movie released by a non-major studio (in this case, it's from mid-major studio Lionsgate). With pre-sales at nearly-unprecedented levels, it now looks like a foregone conclusion that The Hunger Games will score one of the top openings in movie history.

With over 24 million copies in worldwide circulation, The Hunger Games has drawn abundant comparisons to the Twilight series: both The Hunger Games and Twilight are extremely popular genre-oriented young adult franchises that feature a love triangle between a female protagonist and two hunky suitors. That's about the extent of the association, though. While romance is the main focus in Twilight, in The Hunger Games it takes a backseat to an action-packed survival story set in a dystopian future. Thanks to these sci-fi elements, The Hunger Games has appealed to young men in a way that Twilight never really could.

Without mincing words, this is by far Lionsgate's biggest release ever—their current highest-grossing movie is Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 at $119.2 million, which is a figure that The Hunger Games could legitimately eclipse within its first three days in theaters. Largely due to expectations that The Hunger Games will be a massive hit, Lionsgate's stock price has risen 75 percent so far this year, which indicates just how much the company has riding on this title.

Considering what's at stake, Lionsgate has executed about as well as one could expect here. They hired a reputable director (Gary Ross of Seabiscuit and Pleasantville) and an Oscar-nominated up-and-coming star (Jennifer Lawrence), and shot a reportedly faithful adaptation on a budget under $80 million after tax rebates. Lionsgate then spent a light $45 million on prints and advertising that focused almost exclusively on the events that occur prior to the games in order to set up the high stakes without revealing too much. The icing on the cake is the surprisingly strong reviews—as of Thursday afternoon, it's at 87 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes—which should help generate additional ticket sales from more discerning adult audiences.

So, how high can The Hunger Games open? Industry tracking is showing incredibly high levels of interest across all ages and both genders, with the greatest interest obviously coming from younger women (though young men aren't really far behind). According to Fandango, it has sold out over 2,500 showtimes and currently ranks as the third-highest advanced ticket seller ever behind The Twilight Saga: New Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Those movies opened to $142.8 million and $169.2 million, respectively, and were both highly-anticipated sequels.

Based on the information available, The Hunger Games should open higher than 2010's Alice in Wonderland ($116.1 million), which will give it the top opening ever for a January-April release and also the best debut for a non-sequel. The big question is whether it can pass The Twilight Saga: New Moon's $142.8 million opening (best in the Twilight franchise)—while that is entirely possible, I'm going to play it a little safer with a forecast below $140 million.

The Hunger Games is also opening in at least two-thirds of the international marketplace, and should wind up scoring over $200 million worldwide (domestic plus foreign) this weekend.

Even though all of the attention is going to be on The Hunger Games this weekend, Toronto International Film Festival sensation The Raid: Redemption also opens in at least 13 locations in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington D.C. Sony Pictures Classics has an extensive roll-out planned for the action-packed martial arts movie over the next few weeks, and with strong word-of-mouth it could wind up becoming one of the bigger foreign language movies of the past few years.

Weekend Forecast (March 23-25)

1. The Hunger Games - $135 million

2. 21 Jump Street - $23 million (-41%)

3. The Lorax - $12.7 million (-44%)

4. John Carter - $7.3 million (-46%)

Bar for Success

Based on the aggressive forecast inflation that's taken place in the past week (and I'm not exempt from this), if The Hunger Games makes less than $100 million this weekend it may be perceived as a disappointment. That would be unfair, though, since it's a non-sequel opening outside of the more traditionally lucrative Summer months. Realistically, The Hunger Games should be viewed as an unqualified success if it debuts to over $80 million, which is the plateau at which it indisputably sells more opening weekend tickets than the first Twilight movie.

Related Stories:

Last Weekend's Forecast: '21 Jump Street' Guns for Box Office Glory

Last Weekend Report: Audiences Report to '21 Jump Street'

March Preview (Part 2): 'Hunger Games,' 'Wrath of the Titans,' 'Mirror Mirror' & More