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Will popularity of violent 'Hunger Games' surpass 'Twilight'?

Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in
Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in "The Hunger Games."
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Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in
Mckenzie Mora (L), Emma Obergon (C) and Mikayla Minnig (R), 8th graders at the Westfield Century City Mall for a Q and A session with the stars of the movie. They all think Josh Hutcherson is smoking hot.
Sanden Totten/KPCC
Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, left), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, center) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, right) in "The Hunger Games."
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Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in
Jennifer Lawrence stars as 'Katniss Everdeen' in "Hunger Games"
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Next week, the much-hyped movie “The Hunger Games” hits theaters.

It’s based on the popular book series and pre-sale for opening night tickets have sold out faster than any other film in history. Lions Gate, who owns the movie, is hoping this series will be the next “Harry Potter or “Twilight,” but with a story involving teens killing other teens, some critics say “the Hunger Games” may be too dark to be a financial hit.

The world of the Hunger Games is one where America has fallen apart. People are poor and hungry. They’re ruled by a rich elite who watch a yearly sporting event where children are forced to fight to the death. It’s a pretty intense story for a ‘tween flick. But it helps that there’s a love triangle in the movie … and that the cast is really hot.

“Oh my gosh, yes! They’re so hot. So hot,” gushed 8th graders Emma Obergon, Mckenzie Mora and Mikayla Minnig. The trio is at the Westfield Mall in Century City, where hundreds of fans have turned out for a Q and A with the heart-throbs of “The Hunger Games.”

Obergon, Mora and Minnig have read all three novels in the series, after it went viral at their school.

“Our friend at school started reading it and then she read it, and then she read it and then I read it,” Obergon recalled.

When the three heard a feature film was in the works, they started trolling the web for details. Lions Gate, the studio behind the movie, was careful not to give away too much. It leaked photos, secret websites and it offered a quick clip at the MTV Video Music Awards:

By the time the studio posted complete trailers online, Obergon said she and her friends were hooked.

“And they are like ‘Oh, watch the new 'Hunger Games' trailer.’ And I was like click, click, click and I watched it like a billion times. We’re addicted, we’re obsessed,” Obergon said.

If all this ‘tween fanaticism sounds familiar – that’s because it is, according to Susan Gunelius, marketing expert and chief executive of Key Splash Creative.

“Showing the first trailer at the MTV awards, exactly what 'Twilight' did in 2008. The mall tours – exactly what they did with 'Twilight.' They are leveraging what clearly worked,” she said.

Lions Gate recently acquired Summit Entertainment, the studio with the rights to the $2.5 billion “Twilight” series. But with only one film left in that vampire love saga, Lions Gate is looking for its next big franchise. The studio’s betting on "The Hunger Games,” and it spent $80 million on the first of four films. Gunelius said that the books have sold well, they appeal to both girls and boys, and the movie has plenty of buzz.

“So I think it has a really, really good chance,” she continued. “But 'The Hunger Games' is really dangerous territory because this is a violent book, this is a violent series. And it involves children.”

Movies need product tie-ins to maximize profits. “Twilight” was able to plaster its characters all over Burger King packaging and makeup aimed at teens. But “The Hunger Games” is steeped in poverty and death. Some fans have already taken offense to a proposed “Hunger Games” Barbie doll and nail polish line.

In other words, marketing-pro Susan Guneleius said selling this series will be tricky.

Wade Major, senior critic for Box Office Magazine, says a lot hinges on whether or not the film is good. But he thinks if it strikes just the right tone, the dark story could be an asset.

“We live in fairly dark times and there is a lot of anxiety and fear out there. So I think a film that uses darkness to tell its story in a meaningful way rather than an exploitive way probably has a good shot at resonating with audiences,” he said.

Superfan Emma Obergon doesn’t need convincing, “because it’s just a great book, and the movies have to be great and the cast is just amazing,” she said.

If enough of the 12- to 18-year-old crowd feels the same after the movie premieres next week, expect “Hunger Games” hype to rage on for years.