ZAMM.COM: 'Fire' Frenzy

By Martin Grove,

'Fire' frenzy: It's a safe bet that moviegoers' will have a big appetite for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. When Fire kicks off Friday at about 4,100 theaters, Hollywood handicappers anticipate grosses somewhere in the area of $150 million based on through-the-roof double digit tracking scores and online ticket sales that have been soaring since Oct. 1.

If the PG-13-rated Fire does sizzle in the low $150 millions, it could eclipse the $152.5 million The Hunger Games, the first episode in Lionsgate's franchise based on Suzanne Collins' bestselling young adult female appeal novels, opened to Mar. 23, 2012. It went on to gross $408 million domestically.

Fire will face competition from only one new wide opening, the PG-13 comedy Delivery Man from DreamWorks and Touchstone Pictures, which is going into about 2,800 theaters. Even if Fire opens in the very healthy mid-$140 millions, it could set a new record for a November opening. The present record holder is Summit Entertainment's The Twilight Saga: New Moon, which opened Nov. 20, 2009 to $142.8 million and ended up doing $296.6 million domestically.

Like Hunger, the Twilight franchise was driven by a best-selling series of books targeted to young adult females. Stephanie Meyer's four Twilight novels were turned into five films that were released from Nov. 2008 through Nov. 2012. The franchise grossed a total of $1.4 billion in domestic theatres.

Last Friday Fire began its global release by opening in Brazil at 962 screens with a very encouraging estimated weekend gross of $6.3 million.

In Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return home safe after winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games and set out on a Victor's Tour of the District. Katniss senses a rebellion brewing, but the Capitol remains in control as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) prepares for the 75th Games, a competition that could change Panem forever.

Panem's future will be the focus of the franchise's final two chapters. Nov. 21, 2014 is already set as the opening date for the third film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, in which Katniss comes to symbolize mass rebellion against the Capitol's autocratic leaders. One year later the franchise's conclusion, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, arrives Nov. 20, 2015. Its storyline revolves around a civil war with Katniss leading Panem's Districts against the tyrannical Capitol.

Both Mockingjay episodes are to be directed by Fire director Francis Lawrence and are based on the final book in Collins' series. It's the same split-the-last-book-in-two approach that Summit used with its Twilight series (2011's The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and 2012's The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) and that Warner Bros. took with its Harry Potter franchise (2010's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and 2011's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2).

Starring in a new key role in both Mockingjay chapters will be four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore as anti-Capitol President Alma Coin.

Looking at Fire's story compared to the original film, Lionsgate production president Erik Feig explains that Catching Fire is a very different story from The Hunger Games. "Katniss is thrust, literally, into a higher arena, and we see not only pressure mounting on her, but also the scope of her caring for others broadening. We saw it as a wonderful cinematic opportunity to bring her greater inner complexities and an even bigger visual scale to life."

Nina Jacobson, who with Jon Kilik produced both films, observes, "We’re very excited in this film to advance Katniss's evolution as a character. We see her growing into somebody who is much more the master of her own destiny, as opposed to a pawn in the agendas of others. We see an ethical and social consciousness awakened in her, and yet at the same time, we also see the very human resistance that she feels to having to become a hero, when all she really wants to do in her heart is go home."

"Katniss remains a character I adore, but the stakes are different for her this time," Lawrence says about her own character. "In the first movie, she was a hesitant hero who really just wanted to save her family, but now she has a bigger weight on her shoulders. She feels a responsibility to all these people who are depending on her and yet, she is struggling with that, because it isn’t at all what she signed up for."

Lawrence was last seen in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, opposite Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar, best actress – musical or comedy Golden Globe and best lead actress Screen Actors Guild Award. She recently completed production on X-Men: Days of Future Past, reprising her role as Mystique opposite Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy.

After Fire, the very much in demand Lawrence will be seen in David O. Russell’s American Hustle, opposite Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper, opening December 25. She's also signed to star in and produce The Rules of Inheritance, an adaptation of Claire Bidwell Smith's book about a woman who loses both her parents to cancer as a young adult.

Donald Sutherland, who plays Fire's villainous President Snow, says his character intrigues him: "I have affection for Coriolanus Snow. He’s a very skillful politician. Sometimes he might have to kill people, but I’m fascinated by the precision with which he works." Asked what Snow thinks of Katniss, Sutherland replies, "I think he sees her as the very manifestation of a threat--and he loves it. For him, it’s like a magic chess game of trying to defeat this exquisitely instinctive creature battling for freedom. He knows how shaky the framework is of this society he rules, and he knows it’ll fall apart if he allows this one spark to catch fire."

Bringing Fire alive on the screen posed many challenges for director Francis Lawrence and his production team. One of their key visual effects challenges was recreating the book's monkey attack with dozens of brightly colored primates suddenly menacing Peeta.

Supervising that scene was Guy Williams' at WETA Digital, whose credits include work on Avatar, X-Men First Class and The Avengers (for which he was Oscar nominated). The monkeys scene was relatively short with 80 effects shots, but, Williams points out, "Francis wanted it to feel like a very real moment, as Katniss, Peeta and Finnick face an extreme threat to their survival."

"His idea was to build the scene so the audience starts out fascinated by the monkeys, only to get more and more anxious as it becomes clear how dangerous they are. From the beginning, he had it all beautifully choreographed. And from our first conversations, Francis spoke a directorial language of emotion, which made the challenge really fun."

Williams and his team based the creatures on two baboon related species--Drills, an endangered species from African forests with powerful builds and scary fangs; and Mandrills, the largest monkey species, with extremely colorful faces.

"We basically fused the more ferociously primal body of a Drill with the garish coloring of the Mandrill, Williams explains. From there on out it became more of an art--the art of never being content and pushing closer and closer to absolutely naturalistic motion."

Bottom line: Look for Fire to flare up Friday.

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