Now that The Hunger Games is a hit with more than $363 million in the till, the question is whether writer-director Gary Ross will return for the next installment in the lucrative Lionsgate franchise.
Unlike stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, Ross is not signed for a sequel. And negotiations for him to do the first movie were “a terrible experience,” says a source with knowledge of the discussions, because Ross is a seasoned filmmaker (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) and Lionsgate isn’t accustomed to paying seasoned-filmmaker fees. He ended up taking a relatively low $3 million to write (with Billy Ray and novelist Suzanne Collins) and direct. But he will collect a very remunerative 5 percent of backend.
Sources say Ross, 55, would like a significant raise for a second Hunger Games, but Lionsgate didn’t kick off negotiations with him until about three weeks before the first film’s March 23 opening. By then, with tracking suggesting a huge opening weekend, Ross and his CAA reps were in no hurry to bargain.
Lionsgate has a script from Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) that Ross has yet to revise. The studio is in a rush to start the next film in the fall, though Fox might upset Lionsgate’s plan by exercising its option on Lawrence to start another X-Men movie first. (Fox’s option would trump Lionsgate’s hold on Lawrence, say sources.) Adding urgency: Lionsgate already has booked a November 2013 release for Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
With other big literary properties, directors have been seen as fungible. Warner Bros. entrusted the first two Harry Potter films to Chris Columbus before employing a host of other filmmakers, and Summit memorably did not invite Catherine Hardwicke back to direct the second Twilight, despite the success of the first installment. (And Summit’s Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger now run Lionsgate’s film division.)
But Ross will argue that his film was much better received than any in the Twilight series, with an A CinemaScore and an 85 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes in addition to huge worldwide box office. He’ll contend that the movie will play longer and stronger in theaters and that he could direct his pick of other movies should Lionsgate refuse to pony up. (But to state the obvious, Hunger Games‘ bi-gender story line appeals to a wider audience than Twilight.)
It’s always striking when a giant hit leads to anger and hurt feelings in Hollywood, but that seems to be the case here. Nonetheless, sources involved with the franchise are betting that Ross will return. “Ultimately, it will be difficult, and yet everybody will do the sane thing, which is to work it out,” says one. “Everybody will end up unhappy in their own way. It’s just the nature of the beast.”