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Behind the Lionsgate/Ross Breakup on the “The Hunger Games” Sequel

Behind the Lionsgate/Ross Breakup on the "The Hunger Games" Sequel

It’s deja vu all over again. The director that established the first installment of a franchise is moving on. On April 6, The Playlist scooped the news that Gary Ross would leave “The Hunger Games” trilogy, and would not direct the “Catching Fire” sequel. On April 8, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Ross was resuming talks with Lionsgate on Monday about directing the sequel; Deadline reported that Ross was still interested.

Tuesday, Lionsgate and Ross released a statement (below) confirming that Ross will will not direct the second film and The Playlist crowed: “Toldyou: Gary Ross is Not Directing ‘The Hunger Games’ Sequel ‘Catching Fire.'”

First, everyone involved is spinning the news so that they all look good. Second, it’s important for Lionsgate to get production on the next installment started sooner rather than later, with Lawrence heading for a January “X-Men: First Class” sequel start date for Fox. (More details on that negotiation here.)

The questions Lionsgate had to answer were these: Who was really responsible for the success of “The Hunger Games?” Who did they have to keep and at what cost? Thus, how much were they willing to spend on the sequel?

So how crucial was it to the future success of the “Hunger Games” franchise to bring Ross back? He contributed a great deal to not messing up the move from page to screen. Like “Harry Potter,” the author, Suzanne Collins, stayed involved and had the smarts to rely on one producer who she trusted–studio veteran Nina Jacobson– to see the project through to completion. They selected Lionsgate as worldwide distributor. And they all chose experienced filmmaker Ross to direct.

On “Twilight,” Summit was eager to move forward quickly and basically made it impossible for Catherine Hardwicke, burned out from the first film, to return for the second on an accelerated production schedule. Summit did not believe that Hardwicke was essential–they thought they could build on what she and writer Melissa Rosenberg had established, keep the writer and move on. The second “Twilight” directed by Chris Weitz was the most rushed and weakest of the series. But it was not a fatal error. They got away with it.

In this case, Ross is a more powerful player, and was making creative and money demands–as anyone would do in his position– that would inflate the cost of the sequel. Again, with Jacobson and Collins and the original creative DNA to build on, Ross had done the heavy lifting and the Lionsgate players felt they could move on without him.

Now the same Summit players–Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger– are at Lionsgate, a few months into the merger. And they are in charge of production. Wil they prove to be as filmmaker-friendly as departing exec Joe Drake? Jacobson and Collins are still on board, with “Slumdog Millionaire” writer Simon Beaufoy, to tell the story of what happens to Katniss and Peeta when they return home. And they have no time to waste.

Ross is a well-regarded director who can ride this win to other plum assignments. He doesn’t need to direct this sequel unless he gets a big payday and can feel confident that he will look good at the end–and what are the odds he will look any better than he does right now? The list of directors who want the job is long. Now the Lionsgate and its “Hunger Games” players will have to pick wisely.

Here’s the statement from Ross and Lionsgate on “Catching Fire.”  Ross said:

Despite recent speculation in the media, and after difficult but sincere consideration, I have decided not to direct “Catching Fire.”  As a writer and a director, I simply don’t have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule.

I loved making “The Hunger Games” – it was the happiest experience of my professional life.  Lionsgate was supportive of me in a manner that few directors ever experience in a franchise: they empowered me to make the film I wanted to make and backed the movie in a way that requires no explanation beyond the remarkable results.  And contrary to what has been reported, negotiations with Lionsgate have not been problematic.  They have also been very understanding of me through this difficult decision.

I also cannot say enough about the people I worked with: Producer Nina Jacobson, a great collaborator and a true friend; the brilliant Suzanne Collins, who entrusted us with her most amazing and important story; the gifted and remarkable Jennifer Lawrence whose performance exceeded my wildest expectations, and the rest of the incredible cast, whom I am proud to call my friends.
To the fans I want to say thank you for your support your faith, your enthusiasm and your trust. Hard as this may be to understand I am trying to keep that trust with you. Thank you all. It’s been a wonderful experience.

Lionsgate continued a statement of goodwill, writing:

We’re very sorry that Gary Ross has chosen not to direct “Catching Fire.”  We were really looking forward to making the movie with him.  He did an incredible job on the first film and we are grateful for his work.  This will not be the end of our relationship, as we consider Ross to be part of the Lionsgate family and look forward to working with him in the future.

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