Seldom has a film sequel's title sounded so prescient.
Catching Fire is just the second installment of The Hunger Games franchise and doesn't open wide until this weekend, yet Katniss Everdeen and her cohorts from Suzanne Collins' sci-fi novels already are being enshrined on the movie industry's version of Mount Rushmore.
"James Bond, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Twilight Saga — you can add The Hunger Games to the crown-jewel franchises and brands of the movie world," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for the box office tracking firm Rentrak.
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He and other analysts believe Fire has the potential to eclipse 2012's The Hunger Games, which took in nearly $700 million worldwide. "The appetite is even stronger," says Dergarabedian.
Among the reasons why Fire could burn even brighter than its predecessor:
Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, from left, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.'(Photo: Murray Close, Lionsgate)
• A bigger bandwagon: Collins' best-selling novels, where citizens are forced to battle in annual, televised gladiator games, came with a rabid built-in audience. And the critical and financial success of the 2012 film only added to the still-expanding audience.
"When things catch on, people want to join in and take a look," says Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence.
The first film received an 84% positive critical rating on RottenTomatoes.com, and Fire is hovering at 94% so far.
"This has become its own phenomenon," says the director.
Jennifer Lawrence returns as heroine Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.'(Photo: Murray Close, Lionsgate)
• The Jennifer Lawrence effect. Any doubt that the actress was the right choice to play Katniss (there was significant fan outcry after her casting) has dissipated. She has proven to be a franchise rock with immense likability, box-office muscle and acting chops.
Lawrence accepted the best-actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook in February before joining cast members on the Catching Fire set. "Two days later she was back in the mud of Hawaii shooting," says director Francis Lawrence.
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The villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland) takes a much more active role in 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.'(Photo: Murray Close, Lionsgate)
• A prime opening period. The November release date is a far more advantageous box office window than the original's March opening, especially with box office rival Thor: The Dark World now weakened after two weekends in theaters.
Further, Catching Fire will hit the Thanksgiving holiday for its second release weekend.
"That second weekend will keep the momentum going, with people off and catching up on movies," says Dergarabedian. "It has become this enormous event movie for the holiday season. That ups the ante considerably."
• Bigger special effects. While sets in Hawaii and Atlanta frame much of the movie, promotional trailers show that Catching Fire boasts an even more impressive visual world than in the Gary Ross-directed original.
It was a big reason why Lawrence (I Am Legend) was brought in to direct the final three films in the series (Mockingjay — Part 1 is due next year and Part 2 in 2015). "Visual effects are part of my background and strong points," says Lawrence.
Liam Hemsworth, left, and Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.'
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• Hotter romance. The sparks of a love triangle that started in the original ignite into a fully fledged conflicted love between Katniss, her fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and her hunting buddy Gale (Liam Hemsworth). "Things are heating up," says Hutcherson. "And it's getting really complicated."
In fact, there's even crowd-pleasing wedding planning for Peeta and Katniss, with a wedding dress that would make Us magazine editors salivate.
The question lingers, however: Will moviegoers salivate? Even if Fire falls short of The Hunger Games' gaudy opening weekend numbers of $152.5 million, it has the legs for a long haul.
"Expect big numbers, but whether it's a sprinter or a marathoner remains to be seen," says Dergarabedian. "With the perfect storm of branding, a hot star and a great release date, there are not enough adjectives to describe how well this movie can do."
—By Bryan Alexander, USA Today