Box Office: 'Catching Fire' Huge, But Friday Matinees Pacing Behind First Film

The big question is whether it can catch up as the weekend progresses and match the $152.5 million opening of the original movie, which debuted in March 2012.

Lionsgate's sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is off to a strong start at the North American box office, although much of Hollywood is confounded over the fact that Friday matinee grosses are trailing behind the first film.

Based on early returns, box office observers are divided as to whether Catching Fire can match the $152.5 million debut of The Hunger Games in March 2012 as had been widely expected. Observers caution that the sequel could play differently than the first film, and make up ground as the weekend progresses.

In its November slot, Catching Fire faces far more competition than Hunger Games did, including Thor: The Dark World, which is heading into its third weekend. The first Hunger Games also had the advantage of opening during the spring break corridor when teenagers and college kids were out of school on Friday.

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Either way, Catching Fire is a monster and could score the top November opening of all time at the domestic box office, beating current record-holder The Twilight Saga: New Moon ($142.8 million).

On Thursday night, the sequel took in an eye-popping $25.3 million as it began rolling out in theaters, 128 percent ahead of Hunger Games. Catching Fire's stellar Thursday performance represents one of the best numbers of all time. The top midnight earner remains Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($43.5 million).

Overseas -- where it is expected to do far bigger business than the first film -- Catching Fire opens in 65 markets, including China. Major territories where it isn't debuting immediately include France, Italy and Japan. The movie, drawing rave reviews, should be boosted by its run in Imax theaters, both internationally and in North America. The sequel has already made an estimated $32 million overseas, with most major markets pacing 50 percent ahead of Hunger Games.

In 2012, Hunger Games topped out at $408 million domestically and $283.2 million internationally for a global total of $691.2 million; Catching Fire is expected to do substantially more. By Sunday alone, the movie could cross $300 million in global ticket sales.

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Catching Fire accounts for 92 percent of all weekend ticket sales on Fandango, making it the site's top advance-ticket seller of the year, beating Iron Man 3.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, the sequel returns Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth in the lead roles. Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin and Jena Malone also star.

Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn wrote the screenplay, adapting it from the Suzanne Collins best-seller.

The weekend's only other new nationwide entry is Delivery Man, starring Vince Vaughn, the $22 million DreamWorks dramedy is expected to open in the $10 million range, one of the softest openings for a Vaughn film.