By Lisa Richwine and Chris Michaud
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK, Nov 24 (Reuters) - "The Hunger Games:Catching Fire" blazed straight to the top of weekend moviecharts, setting a U.S. and Canadian record for November ticketsales and hauling in a huge $307.7 million around the world.
Fans poured into theaters for the second installment in theseries starring Jennifer Lawrence as scrappy heroine KatnissEverdeen, the skilled archer who becomes a beacon of hope forthe oppressed residents of the fictional nation of Panem.
"Catching Fire" collected an estimated $161.1 million fromThursday night through Sunday in the United States and Canada, arecord domestic debut for the month of November. It topped the$152.5 million opening for "Hunger Games" in March 2012 thatestablished the series as a blockbuster franchise.
The new film scored 2013's second-biggest debut, behind theMay opening for superhero sequel "Iron Man 3" of $174.1 million,and also marked the fourth-biggest domestic film opening inhistory.
Playing in 65 markets around the world, "Catching Fire" alsograbbed $146.6 million in foreign sales through Sunday,according to distributor Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
Domestic IMAX screenings accounted for $12.6 million of theticket sales, a November record opening for the big-screenformat.
The sequel also attracted a broader audience than theoriginal "Hunger Games," Lions Gate said, with age groups overand under age 25 each comprising half of ticket buyers and an audience 12 percent more male than that of "The Hunger Games."
The original film earned $691.2 million worldwide.
"The strength of the 'Hunger Games' franchise is not to beunderestimated," said Phil Contrino, chief analyst atBoxoffice.com.
"This property has clearly expanded its fan base in a bigway both at home and overseas," Contrino noted, adding there waslittle doubt the new film would shatter the first film's globalhaul.
The second film follows Katniss on a victory tour with PeetaMellark (Josh Hutcherson) after their win in the annual teendeath match staged by the government to keep order. As theirheroic actions set off an underground movement for revolution,the two are forced back to the arena to again fight for theirlives.
Critics applauded "Catching Fire," which earned an 89percent positive rating among reviews compiled by the RottenTomatoes website and praise for Lawrence, who won a best actressOscar for last year's "Silver Linings Playbook." Audiencesawarded an "A" grade in polling by CinemaScore, an endorsementthat should help propel sales in the coming weeks.
Lions Gate spent about $130 million to make "Catching Fire,"plus about $55 million on a broadly aimed marketing campaignthat included Facebook promotions, ads during NFL footballgames, and fashion and makeup lines.
The studio took steps to increase overseas sales, which madeup about 41 percent of the first film's grosses, a modestforeign take by blockbuster standards. Industry analysts projectbigger international sales for "Catching Fire."
Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor RelationsCo., said the film is now projected to total close to $500million overseas.
The "Hunger Games" film series is based on best-sellingnovels by Suzanne Collins. Her third book in the trilogy willreach the big screen in two installments - "Mockingjay - Part1" and "Mockingjay - Part 2" scheduled for release in November2014 and November 2015.
"It's very possible that the next entry could hit $1 billionglobally," Contrino said.
Filling out the rest of the charts, Marvel superhero sequel "Thor: The Dark World" finished in second place, according tostudio estimates provided by Rentrak. The movie starring ChrisHemsworth pulled in $14.1 million at domestic theaters thisweekend and brought its worldwide total to nearly $550 million,according to distributor Walt Disney Co.
In third place, romantic comedy "The Best Man Holiday"earned $12.5 million. The movie stars Taye Diggs, Terence Howardand others as friends who reunite at Christmas.
The new Vince Vaughn comedy, "Delivery Man," finished infourth place with $8.2 million. Vaughn plays a sperm donor whodiscovers he has fathered more than 500 children.
Animated movie "Free Birds," about a pair of time-travelingturkeys, finished fifth with $5.3 million.
"Delivery Man" and "Thor" were released by Disney. "Best ManHoliday" was distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit ofComcast Corp. Privately held Relativity Media released"Free Birds."
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