The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is going to be criticized plenty for only making $101 million at the domestic box office this weekend. It is easily the weakest debut in franchise history, well behind the prior low water mark, Mockingjay – Part 1 ($121 million). However, before we give into that can we just take a moment to remember that a $100 million opening weekend is still impressive? Only 32 other movies have done it before, and only 19 had done it before the first Hunger Games stunned everyone by debuting to $152 million in 2012, the third biggest opening weekend of all time to that point. On the other hand, that also means that 12 movie openings, including Mockingjay 2, have cracked $100 million since the first Hunger Games. So, clearly, it’s not quite the achievement it used to be, not in the age of 3D/IMAX-inflation. Still, let’s not lose sight of the fact that with a domestic debut of $101 million Mockingjay 2 is well on its way to easily eclipsing its budget (thought to be around $160 million), and Thanksgiving, a holiday the franchise has historically dominated, is right around the corner.
That all being said, as recently as this past Wednesday the box office analysts were projecting Mockingjay 2 to open with $120 million. Flashback to a year ago when the assumption was that Mockingjay 1’s surprising financial downturn for the franchsise was but a blip on the radar and Mockingjay 2 would surely get a “final film in the franchise” boost. A year later and the experts were downplaying any kind of “final film” boost, instead saying Mockingjay 2 would merely keep pace with its disappointing predecessor, yet it didn’t even do that. Based on domestic box office performance, this is now a franchise going out with something closer to a whimper than a bang, fate not quite forever in its favor.
Now is the time when I am obligated to stop and point out that Mockingjay 2 opened pretty much everywhere around the world, including China, and grossed $146m internationally thus giving it a worldwide debut of $247m. That’s a crapton of money, easily tops at the worldwide box office this weekend, yet even it is viewed as a disappointment. Over the same exact weekend last year, Mockingjay 1 debuted to $274.9m worldwide, and that was without the benefit of China.
So, what the heck happened here? As per usual, it wasn’t any one thing.
1. Not Everything Can Be The Deathly Hallows Part 2
Well, first of all, we need to realize that the “final film boost” idea is mostly a post-Harry Potter myth. Because The Deathly Hallows Part 2 broke so many box office records, we now expect all cinematic finales to receive some kind of boost, but that’s not necessarily been the case historically. Forbes’ Scott Mendelson walked through the fates of 14 different cinematic series finales, from Return of the Jedi to The Battle of Five Armies, and concluded, “In terms of sagas coming to an end, we’re just as likely to see a bump due to casual fans taking one more trip to the theater as we are to see something of a comedown due to only the die-hards caring about how it wraps up.” Those to see a boost included Return of the Jedi (+20%) , Return of the King (+11%) and Revenge of the Sith (+22%), and those to see a comedown included Back to the Future III (-26%), The Matrix Revolutions (-51%) and The Dark Knight Rises (-16%).
We can now add Mockingjay 2 to that list. As THR summarized, “In North America, Mockingjay 2‘s debut was down 17 percent from the $121.9 million opening of Mockingjay — Part 1, and 36 percent from the massive $158 million launch of sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire two years ago. Globally, the tentpole was off 10 percent from the last title.”
2. People Clearly Weren’t Too Crazy About Mockingjay Part 1
We need to remember that sequels typically open on the merits of their predecessor. Mockingjay 2’s low opening is not a commentary on its actual quality as a film. In fact, those who went to see it graded it as an A- on CinemaScore. No, it’s a consequence of how disappointment everyone seemed to be in Mockingjay 1 last year. It received the weakest critical reviews in franchise history (65% on RottenTomatoes) and the weakest level of fan support (only 73% of RT readers liked it). Then again, by that logic Mockingjay 1 should have still had a huge opening weekend because everyone, critics and fans alike, adored Catching Fire (89% from both RT critics and readers). If they liked that one, why didn’t they rush out to see its sequel? Well…
3. Splitting the Last Book Into Two Movies Was a Bad Idea …Kind Of
From what I gather, the final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is very divisive among fans, particularly its ending. So, Lionsgate was already in tricky territory, and then it decided to split it into two movies. That strategy both has and has not paid off for them. Actually, it quite literally has “paid off.” As a box office analyst told THR, “If we take the ultimate measure of Mockingjay‘s success — the global combined box office of the two installments — then this final film will be seen as the cherry on the top of a very lucrative box office cake with a combined gross that is already over $1 billion globally (Part 1, with $755.3 million, plus Part 2 with $247 million). This is once again a case of overblown expectations creating an emotional response and a perception of failure that is simply not backed up by the facts.”
However, by the time Mockingjay 1 has arrived we’ve already seen the final films in the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises split in half and marveled at Peter Jackson’s determination to somehow turn The Hobbit into three full movies. It has morphed from “I totally get it. I can’t see how you’d stuff everything from Deathly Hallows into one movie!” to looking far more like an obvious cash grab. It plays to your core and gives them another movie to enjoy but annoys the more casual viewer who might prefer movies to actually tell complete stories, not abruptly stop halfway through.
4. It’s Not the Only Dystopia In Town Anymore
Box office wise, Insurgent and The Maze Runner are not on the same level as The Hunger Games. They never have been and never will be. However, they’re not completely insignificant either. Each franchise has a released a film a year since 2014, clearly mimicking Hunger Games’ release strategy, and they’ve done well enough to earn the opportunity to finish out their stories in future sequels. However, at the box office Insurgent was down from Divergent as was The Scorch Trials from The Maze Runner. That boom and bust cycle has coincided with Mockingjay 1 and 2, suggesting that for all three franchises we’ve seen the inevitable whittling down process whereby you lose the more casual viewer but maintain the hardcore fans. I read more than a couple of Mockingjay 2 reviews which joked about struggling to tell it apart from Insurgent or The Scorch Trials, which I personally find to be a rather lazy and inaccurate reaction. However, it might be reflective of the way the less movie-obsessed feel.
5. Maybe We’re Too Dumb to Totally Enjoy The More Serious Tone of Mockingjay 1 and 2?
There is an emerging line of thought which argues that the financial downturn for Mockingjay 1 and 2 means that maybe the average moviegoer never truly understood the first two Hunger Games movies to begin with. As Forbes put it, “The first two films are of course a blistering satire of infotainment and character-centric propaganda. We see how the contestants are dissected and analyzed on national state-sponsored television as if they were modern day glitz-and-glamour celebrities and/or reality show contestants. We see Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss winning over the audience via a variety of showy outfits, a few flashy moments of battle readiness, and a wholly manufactured romantic subplot with Peeta (Josh Hutchinson).”
However, much of the reaction was to focus on the love triangle and the glitz and glamour of the Capitol (so many people adore Elizabeth Banks’ various insane outfits). That was never the point! We’re supposed to find the latter horrifying and realize how little the former truly matters. We are meant to realize that The Hunger Games movies are actually satirizing and commenting upon the real world. Instead, maybe the real world just actively turned into The Capitol and got off on the extravagance of the movies and oddly enjoyed the carnage of the actual Hunger Games.
When Mockingjay 1 took a sharp left turn and suddenly the franchise is all about propaganda and PTSD it seemed less fun so we turned away. Well, some of us. Again, the two movies have already made $1 billion together.
Forbes continued: “What if large chunks of the fanbase only showed up the first two times to see Katniss’s gorgeous dresses, to gaze upon the Capitol, to laugh with the pre-games pageantry, to swoon over which of the two handsome young men Katniss should end up with, and to cheer and hiss at the climactic Hunger Games? What if much of the appeal of this politically angry and unconventionally cynical fantasy franchise was merely embraced as a crowd-pleasing example of the things it most detested? What if much of America only embraced The Hunger Games when it was giving them the easily digestible “Katniss is the savior” narrative and fled when the films started to poke holes in that arc?”
Then again, it need not be as severe as all that. There is also the possibility that some people reacted against the way the first two films followed a familiar structure whereas the third and fourth do not thus feeling like the franchise completely changed mid-story.
6. Damn you, Netflix and Amazon!
This is one of those things we’ll never be able to actually prove, unless Netflix and Amazon starts releasing viewing figures, but there is the chance that the full series debuts of Jessica Jones and The Man in High Castle on Friday had something to do with Mockingjay 2‘s underperformance. Why not simply stay home and binge-watch those incredibly buzzy shows, especially since you know you have time off to see movies coming up thanks to Thanksgiving? I know that’s exactly what I did. What about you?
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