Updated 8 a.m. March 24, 2012
"The Hunger Games" took $68.25 million on Friday, setting the movie up to break records with more than $132 million for the weekend.
Lionsgate's film had the highest Friday gross for a non-sequel ever, and the fifth-highest Friday opening of all time. It grossed $19.7 million in midnight showings alone.
And the audience polling firm Cinemascore scored the movie an "A," which gives the studio reason to believe it will continue to play well past this weekend.
If, as tracking suggests, "The Hunger Games" exceeds $132 million this weekend, it will be among the top-seven openers ever -- and the biggest non-sequel.
This opening compares extremely well to the 2008 debut of "Twilight." That movie, also the first of a franchise based on a series of young adult novels, opened to $69.6 million -- for the entire weekend. "Hunger Games" took nearly that much in its first day.
Lionsgate plans four "Hunger Games" movies based on Suzanne Collins' three young adult novels.
This much is fact: “The Hunger Games” will open bigger than any movie so far this year. The question is, will it set a record?
Some box-office watchers say it's the $125 million question.
John Fithian, president of The National Association of Theater Owners, said Thursday that he expects the picture to open to between $115 million and $120 million.
That would make it the biggest March opening ever, surpassing “Alice in Wonderland,” which opened to more than $116 million in 2010.
It would also put it in the company of just 19 movies that have opened to more than $100 million
“Alice” is the 10th-biggest opening ever, and “Shrek the Third,” which opened to $121.6 million in 2007, is No. 9 – a distinction both pictures could well lose this weekend.
The industry water-cooler game of "how huge" being played this week is a stark contrast to the one played two weeks ago, when Hollywood was placing bets on how badly “John Carter” would flop.
Lionsgate, which is releasing the PG-13 movie, is trying to manage expectations. An individual close to the studio told TheWrap that the studio is a little trapped: If the studio predicts $115 million and it “only” takes $110 million, it's a disappointment.
The studio spent about $100 million to make the movie, which became $80 million after tax incentives.
This much is clear: Opening weekend is going to be huge.
The audience survey firm NRG shows that overall awareness of the movie is an astonishing 92 percent. Among females younger than 25, overall awareness is an almost-impossible 96 percent.
Equally impressive: 66 percent of those surveyed report “definite” interest in seeing the movie and 43 percent say it's their “first choice.” Among the target audience of females younger than 25, 76 percent say they have “definite” interest and 59 percent call it their “first choice” for the weekend.
Critics like it, too. Metacritic gives it a 69, Movie Review Intelligence rates it a 72.1 and Rotten Tomatoes scored it an 88.
To accommodate the predicted flood of moviegoers, Lionsgate is releasing the movie at 4,137 locations and, Fithian said, on more than 10,000 screens.
The movie that opened in the most number of locations was the 2010 "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," which opened at 4,468 locations to "only" $64.8 million.
“We're adding screens every minute,” Fithian said. “We're adding shows at 3 o'clock in the morning.”
The 2-hour, 22-minute movie, based on Suzanne Collins' trilogy of young adult novels, has generated the sort of interest reserved for mega-blockbusters like “Harry Potter,” “Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man” and “Twilight Saga” films.
Because “Hunger Games” looks to be such a juggernaut, no other movie is opening in wide release this weekend.
The movie is about a dystopian future in which the government of the North American nation of Panem, punishes its citizenry for a years-ago revolt by forcing two children from each of its 12 districts to compete in annual “Hunger Games” – televised death matches in which the only way to win is to kill all the other children.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen. Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta Mellark and Liam Hemsworth stars as Gale Hawthorne. Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland and Stanley Tucci also star.
Billy Ray, author Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross adapted Collins' best-selling novel.
If you don't want to face the crowds or can't get in to see "The Hunger Games" this weekend, don't despair. The studio has the rights to three more films, and the critical reaction and fan support suggest it will stay in movie theaters for quite some time.