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'Catching Fire' Tops Weekend Box Office With $161.1 Million Opening

By Jake Coyle

NEW YORK -- Moviegoers satiated their appetite for the Hunger Games franchise by making the sequel Catching Fire one of the year's biggest hits.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opened with $161.1 million at the domestic weekend box office, according to studio estimates Sunday.

It became the biggest November debut ever, as well as Lionsgate's (LGF) most lucrative opening.

The result fell short of some expectations and failed to dethrone the year's biggest box-office opening, Iron Man 3 with $174 million. But the film took in $307.7 million worldwide.

The marketplace largely ceded the weekend to Catching Fire. The only other new wide release was Disney's (DIS) Vince Vaughn comedy Delivery Man, which sputtered to an $8.2 million opening.

The box-office performance for Catching Fire establishes Hunger Games, starring Jennifer Lawrence as the archer heroine of Suzanne Collins' young adult series, as among the elite franchises in movies. The budget nearly doubled from the original and Francis Lawrence took over directing duties from Gary Ross. Catching Fire received better reviews and drew a broader audience.

"When the first film was released, there was this idea that it was going to appeal largely to young girls," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. "But over time, it's skewing back toward male audiences. There's actually a lot of action, there's violence in the movie. It's crossing over to a much broader base."

The domestic opening for Catching Fire is the fourth best ever, following The Avengers ($207 million), Iron Man 3 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II ($169 million).

Record keeping, though, has become more complicated in recent years at the box office. Higher-priced 3-D or IMAX screenings can boost revenue, as can early screenings. Catching Fire, which earned 8% of its gross from IMAX showings, counted $25 million from Thursday night screenings among its weekend total.

The original Hunger Games earned $152.5 million in its opening weekend in March 2012, but didn't debut until midnight screenings Thursday.

"It's really become a phenomenon," said David Spitz, head of distribution for Lionsgate. "We've established now a better opening than the first, and now we're entering into the Thanksgiving and Christmas period, which is very, very lucrative."

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