Like Katniss Everdeen, heroine of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.’s hit “The Hunger Games,” the studio overcame years of hardships to leap suddenly to the front of the pack, beating competitors long trained for victory.

Not, of course, in the film’s fight-to-the-death competition, but on the Business Journal’s list of most profitable public companies in Los Angeles County.

Lions Gate, long near the bottom of the list, jumped into this year’s top 25 with a 104 percent return on equity. That raised the Santa Monica company’s three-year average returns into the black for the first time in six years.

More impressively, it beat out eye-popping returns posted by perennial frontrunner Herbalife Inc., which earned 102 percent on its equity.

Lions Gate’s gains are due not only to the success of “Hunger Games,” but also to acquisition early last year of Summit Entertainment, the studio behind another hit franchise, “Twilight.”

But the good year at the box office is just part of the story. David Miller, an analyst at Westwood brokerage B. Riley & Co. who follows Lions Gate, said Summit specializes in selling film rights overseas. That has increased revenue, helping Lions Gate pay down debt.

As a result, “you have higher net income and higher return on equity,” Miller said. “It becomes a positive virtuous cycle.”

All that pushed the company up 87 spots on the list to No. 24. What’s more, the company could continue to climb. In a research note this month, Miller projected Lions Gate’s return on equity at 41 percent for the rest of this year and 79 percent the year after.

Herbalife and apparel brand Cherokee Inc. still lead the pack, ranked by most recent fiscal year profits, though a few newcomers managed to break into the Top 10. Notable among them: prepaid debit card issuer Green Dot Corp., which went public in 2010 and was first eligible for the list this year. It joins the list at No. 8, higher than any other financial services firm.

The Pasadena company makes money when customers buy cards, deposit cash or make purchases. It collects a bit more than 1 percent of every purchase made with a prepaid card and also collects monthly fees from customers.

For all that, however, it doesn’t have to spend much money or deploy much capital, said Gil Luria, an analyst who follows Green Dot for downtown L.A. brokerage Wedbush Securities Inc. That explains Green Dot’s three-year average returns of nearly 23 percent.

“They’re only focused on the fee-generating aspects of financial services,” Luria said. “And since they’re the biggest (issuer), they have very good scale and high profitability levels. Each incremental customer and transaction is very profitable.”

But while 2012 was a good year for the top companies, others struggled. More than half had lower returns last year than in 2011. And one of last year’s top 10 most profitable companies fell hard.

U.S. China Mining Group Inc., which operates Chinese coal mines, ranked No. 8 on last year’s list but fell to No. 82 this year as coal orders fell and costs rose.

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