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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 movie charts, setting a U.S. and Canadian record for November ticket sales and hauling in a huge $307.7 million around the world.
Fans poured into theaters for the second installment in the series starring Jennifer Lawrence as scrappy heroine Katniss Everdeen, the skilled archer who becomes a beacon of hope for the oppressed residents of the fictional nation of Panem.
"Catching Fire" collected an estimated $161.1 million from Thursday night through Sunday in the United States and Canada, a record domestic debut for the month of November. It topped the $152.5 million opening for "Hunger Games" in March 2012 that established the series as a blockbuster franchise.
The new film scored 2013's second-biggest debut, behind the May opening for superhero sequel "Iron Man 3" of $174.1 million, and also marked the fourth-biggest domestic film opening in history.
Playing in 65 markets around the world, "Catching Fire" also grabbed $146.6 million in foreign sales through Sunday, according to distributor Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
Domestic IMAX screenings accounted for $12.6 million of the ticket sales, a November record opening for the big-screen format.
The sequel also attracted a broader audience than the original "Hunger Games," Lions Gate said, with age groups over and 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 be underestimated," said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com.
"This property has clearly expanded its fan base in a big way both at home and overseas," Contrino noted, adding there was little doubt the new film would shatter the first film's global haul.
The second film follows Katniss on a victory tour with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) after their win in the annual teen death match staged by the government to keep order. As their heroic actions set off an underground movement for revolution, the two are forced back to the arena to again fight for their lives.
Critics applauded "Catching Fire," which earned an 89 percent positive rating among reviews compiled by the Rotten Tomatoes website and praise for Lawrence, who won a best actress Oscar for last year's "Silver Linings Playbook." Audiences awarded an "A" grade in polling by CinemaScore, an endorsement that 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 campaign that included Facebook promotions, ads during NFL football games, and fashion and makeup lines.
The studio took steps to increase overseas sales, which made up about 41 percent of the first film's grosses, a modest foreign take by blockbuster standards. Industry analysts project bigger international sales for "Catching Fire."
Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co., said the film is now projected to total close to $500 million overseas.
The "Hunger Games" film series is based on best-selling novels by Suzanne Collins. Her third book in the trilogy will reach the big screen in two installments - "Mockingjay - Part 1" and "Mockingjay - Part 2" scheduled for release in November 2014 and November 2015.
"It's very possible that the next entry could hit $1 billion globally," Contrino said.
Filling out the rest of the charts, Marvel superhero sequel "Thor: The Dark World" finished in second place, according to studio estimates provided by Rentrak. The movie starring Chris Hemsworth pulled in $14.1 million at domestic theaters this weekend 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 Howard and others as friends who reunite at Christmas.
The new Vince Vaughn comedy, "Delivery Man," finished in fourth place with $8.2 million. Vaughn plays a sperm donor who discovers he has fathered more than 500 children.
Animated movie "Free Birds," about a pair of time-traveling turkeys, finished fifth with $5.3 million.
"Delivery Man" and "Thor" were released by Disney. "Best Man Holiday" was distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp. Privately held Relativity Media released "Free Birds."