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Moviegoers feast on 'The Hunger Games' prequel, the weekend's big winner: No. 1 and $44M

Lindsey Bahr
The Associated Press

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” topped the North American box office in its first weekend in theaters with $44 million in ticket sales, according to studio estimates Sunday.

It was a busy weekend at the multiplex, leading into the often-lucrative Thanksgiving corridor. And while there was plenty to choose from at the buffet, not everything could be a hit. Audiences had “The Marvels,” which plummeted a record 78% in its second weekend, as well as the nationwide debuts of the family-friendly “Trolls World Tour,” Taika Waititi’s soccer comedy “Next Goal Wins” and the R-rated slasher “Thanksgiving,” all in wide release.

“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is an interesting case study for a franchise that’s been dormant for eight years and is testing the waters for a new era. The film's $44 million earnings from 3,776 locations, including 1,610 premium screens, marks a series low. The four Jennifer Lawrence films all broke $100 million in their first weekends: The high point was the first with $158 million in 2013, the low was the last one with $102.7 million in 2015.

Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) and Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) have a doomed romance in "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes."

With an added $54.5 million from 87 international markets, the film has already earned $98.5 million out of the gates against a more modest $100 million budget. The studio considers it a strong start for the prequel, set 64 years before Katniss Everdeen entered the picture, with a new cast led by Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler.

“Historically, attempting to do prequels, especially with no returning cast, can be a very challenging proposition,” says Adam Fogelson, vice chair of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “The fact that we’re sitting here at basically $100 million on opening weekend around the world is, I think, a testament to the quality of the movie, the quality of the talent that worked on the movie and a campaign that was both successful and efficient.”

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“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” represents something darker and more dramatic that opens up new possibilities, provided author Suzanne Collins wants to tell more stories. To judge it against Lawrence's movies at the height of Collins’ books popularity, Fogelson says, would be “a complete disservice to this movie as a standalone.”

Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) offers a rose and advice to District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) in "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes."

Critics were mixed on the film, an origin story about future Panem President Coriolanus Snow, which has on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were more positive and moviegoing behavior around holidays can be skewed. Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, says some audiences might be waiting to watch it with their families during days off around Thanksgiving.

Unlike many of its big-budget peers, “The Hunger Games” prequel also had the benefit of having its stars promote the film, having secured an interim agreement before the SAG-AFTRA strike ended. Other studios had to scramble to get their newly available stars out to promote their films before this weekend.

“Trolls Band Together,” the third in the animated series, opened in second place with an estimated $30.6 million in its North American debut, including profits from early showings. “Trolls” opened internationally earlier and is expected to cross $100 million globally this weekend.

The jukebox musical brings back Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake in main voice roles and also featured a much-hyped reunion of NSYNC. It has , but its young audiences were much more positive, .

“The Marvels” made only $10.2 million from 4,030 locations in the film's second weekend, to take third place. Internationally, it added $19.5 million, bringing its global total to $161.3 million.

Iman Vellani (far left), Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris play the female heroes of "The Marvels."

“The Marvels” was nearly bested by an R-rated horror movie, “Thanksgiving,” which made an estimated $10.2 million from 3,204 locations. The movie takes place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, after a Black Friday tragedy and stars Patrick Dempsey and Addison Rae. The studio hopes it will draw college students to the theaters on their holiday breaks.

Disney is also struggling with “Next Goal Wins,” its underdog soccer movie starring Michael Fassbender, which made $2.5 million from 2,240 locations in its first weekend for a seventh-place spot. Directed by Taika Waititi and based on a true story, the film had its premiere at Toronto Film Festival and was not received well by critics.

With much better reviews and word of mouth, “The Holdovers,” starring Paul Giamatti, is finding audiences as it continues to expand in its fourth weekend, earning $2.7 million from 1,478 theaters. “P,” from Sofia Coppola, is similarly enjoying a steady run with nearly $17 million. It is now Coppola’s second biggest film ever, behind “Lost in Translation.”

How Tom Blyth and Rachel Zeglertell 'Hunger Games' origin tale without Katniss Everdeen

This week, the offerings get even more plentiful, with Disney’s “Wish,” Ridley Scott’s historical epic “Napoleon” and the expansion of Emerald Fennell’s provocative “Saltburn.”

“It’s traditional for the Thanksgiving frame that people can catch up on movies big and small,” Dergarabedian says. “The issue for moviegoers is how do you choose? And which films are going to be left sitting at the kid’s table?”

Final figures will be released Monday.

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