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Huge appetite for “The Hunger Games” breaks box-office records

In this image released by Lionsgate Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen scene from 'The Hunger Games.' (AP Photo/Lionsgate Murray Close)

In this image released by Lionsgate, Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games." (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close)

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box office

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. theaters (in millions):

1. The Hunger Games $155

2. 21 Jump Street $21.3

3. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax $13.1

4. John Carter $5

5. Act of Valor $2.1

6. Project X $2

7. A Thousand Words $1.9

8. October Baby $1.7

9. Safe House $1.39

10. Journey 2 $1.37

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Updated: April 27, 2012 8:16AM

“The Hunger Games” thundered to the third best North American debut in history this weekend, with $155 million, charging the box office and launching a franchise that could challenge the “Twilight” series.

“Hunger’s” haul exceeded most analysts’ highest expectations and marked a huge opening for a first-time film. Of the two films with bigger debuts, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” ($169.1 million) and “The Dark Knight” ($158 million), both are sequels.

The film, based on Suzanne Collins’ popular trilogy and starring Jennifer Lawrence, broke from the gate at midnight Friday, earning $19.7 million and seventh place in the all-time midnight screening record books. “Hallows” remains the runaway champ, collecting $43.5 million in its midnight shows last year.

Still, “Hunger” mustered plenty to score the highest debut on record for March, besting “Alice in Wonderland’s” $116.1 million.

Gitesh Pandya of says that teen fans of the 2008 novel propelled the hit. “A massive built-in audience has been hungry for this movie,” he says.

In the long run, Pandya says, the “Hunger” trilogy could challenge the “Twilight” series by appealing to both genders.

“One major difference is that (‘Hunger’) has more male appeal,” he says, adding that distributor Lionsgate “has been emphasizing the action in its male-skewing TV spots, and the romance is a minor part of the story, anyway.”

Males and females responded strongly to the film, promising a healthy run through March and much of April. A whopping 95 percent of moviegoers recommended the movie, according to survey site Critics weren’t far behind; 86 percent of reviewers gave it a thumbs-up, the site says.

While details of future “Hunger” installments haven’t been finalized, analysts say a franchise is inevitable.

“This is largely unprecedented for any franchise, much less a new one,” says Tim Briody of “It’s the sort of behavior you’d expect from a sequel, not the first entry in an unproven series.”

“Hunger’s” numbers came despite the Sweet 16 tournament games of the NCAA basketball championship.

No studio challenged “Hunger” this weekend, leaving the top of the box office to holdovers.

The remake comedy “21 Jump Street” took second with $21.3 million, followed by “The Lorax” with $13.1 million.

“John Carter,” the $250 million sci-fi flop, was fourth with $5 million. The fantasy film has done $62.3 million in three weeks.

The action film “Act of Valor” rounded out the top five with $2.1 million.

“Hunger” helped propel movie attendance to 22 percent over the same period last year.

Final figures are due Monday.

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