Can ‘The Hunger Games’ Prequel Rule The November 2023 Box Office?

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes revives one of the most successful franchises in cinema history this month. But with Marvel’s latest tentpole, two high-profile animated pictures, and an award season heavy hitter lined up to challenge for the crown, can the new The Hunger Games prequel find a path to rule the November box office?

Besides The Marvels getting a head start this weekend, Trolls Band Together releases on November 17th against The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Song Birds and Snakes, followed by Wish and Napoleon on November 22nd.

With five major releases all vying for holiday audience attention, there won’t be enough room at the box office for all comers.

Trolls Band Together has already pocketed a nice $60 million from international markets ahead of its wide global release two weekends from now. So it will enter the race with an edge. And while opening earlier in the month could normally hinder its odds of gaining back a sizable enough audience to benefit from holiday viewership, the franchise branding and status as one of only two all-ages entertainment options in theaters could help it rise back toward the top of the charts.

Then again, the previous series entry Trolls World Tour may have gotten attention for its PVOD numbers, but in the long run its total audience size and box office wound up lower than necessary to sustain a franchise. And while the first Trolls back in 2016 undoubtably performed well with $347 million, that’s also not enough to provide large profit margins after the production budget and marketing, and didn’t set up a bigger performance in the sequel.

So while I think Trolls Band Together will do well for itself, I don’t think it can dominate November.

Wish, the other animated feature opening the week after the Trolls sequel debuts, has the Walt Disney
branding that is normally an instant box office benefit, but Disney-Pixar’s Elemental struggled this summer to reach $494.7 million, not a disaster and in fact a relief after a weak $29.6 million opening followed by months of strong holds internationally, but still well below expectations.

Wish is looking at a $50 million domestic bow this month, on par with Coco’s October debut in 2017. That film went on to $210 million domestic and a huge $814 million worldwide, and Wish is hoping to pull off a similar performance. The numbers and the holiday timing provide lots of room for Wish to build momentum and get its legs under it, and I think it should easily top Elemental and finish north of $600 million at least, and probably much higher.

But this is 2023, so nothing is certain and it’s also possible Wish could suffer if other holiday fare captures audiences’ imaginations.

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Napoleon is the other holiday fare, however, and it’s coming in at about half of the projected box office of Wish, so it’s not looking like another Oppenheimer situation. The award season buzz, lack of other significant viewing options for adult audiences, and the holidays should all combine to help Napoleon earn a respectable performance — I’m betting it finishes higher than Killers of the Flower Moon, for example — but not likely to be November’s top earner and definitely not going to wind up among the year’s biggest grossers.

So it looks like The Marvels and Wish are the top contenders at the November box office, along with The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

The Hunger Games franchise is undoubtably a blockbuster hit series, having grossed $3 billion in global box office and around $1 billion in Blu-ray/DVD/digital sales and rentals worldwide.

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That said, the series of four films saw increased revenue only once, from the first film to the second, and then each film grossed less than the predecessor. The final film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 actually grossed less than the first film. The reviews and audience scoring likewise saw only one upward bump — from the first film to the second, again — and then suffered diminishing returns here as well.

So there’s a big question mark around whether audiences are still eager for more of The Hunger Games franchise, an especially dangerous proposition in 2023’s hostile climate for older returning franchises and attempted cash-ins and nostalgic returns and prequels.

Then there is the question of whether a prequel centering the fascist dictator as the main character is going to attract much interest even from fans of the series. It’s a strange choice, particularly during a real-life rise of authoritarianism and fascism that threatens to upend democracies and incite wider warfare around the world. Do we really need to see the life and romance and ideals of Coriolanus Snow, future murderer and state terrorist?

A prequel establishing the backstory of crises, disasters, and rise of authoritarianism against a desperate resistance that lays the groundwork for the eventual inevitable success of the revolution in the original Hunger Games story would’ve been a great, interesting story with plenty of resonant themes and relevant messages for modern audiences. That’s a story I can imagine attracting an audience among existing fans and newcomers. “The love life and political aspirations of the fascist leader” is a harder sell, I would expect.

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Yet The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is generating fan attention online, good social footprint, rising engagements and audience awareness. So despite what I and others might feel are some questionable choices and taste regarding the framing of the story and centering of the fascist lead as (at least early on) a sympathetic romantic lead character, and whatever obstacles 2023 is throwing in the way, I’m inclined to read the data as pointing to at least a respectable opening (particularly internationally) and solid legs into the rest of the holiday season.

I think The Hunger Games prequel will wind up running close to Wish, with The Marvels a harder call and the one that could determine which of the other two wind up winning November’s box office if the Marvel would-be blockbuster fails to win over audiences for a blockbuster run. Either The Marvels puts up $700-800 million numbers, or it falters at around $500 million while The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and Wish duke it out at the $600-700 million level.

One of the latter films should be able to break out and take the lead in that scenario, and could finish as high as $800 million territory. More likely, I’m guessing, is that all three of these films play in the $500-700 million range, separated from one another by $50-100 million. One could (probably will, since that’s how the year’s been going) wind up tripping hard enough to lose momentum and land at $400 million, and I wouldn’t be surprised.

My call for now is Wish wins November as the animated family holiday release with the legs and enough positive reception to break out, while The Hunger Games and The Marvels are forced to settle for moderate (or potentially even disappointing, for one of them) results.

I’ll be back with updates as the box office situation develops and the holiday season continues, dear readers, including whether Taylor Swift can help boost The Marvels toward a November win.

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