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The High Stakes Behind 'Hunger Games'

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Joe Pugliese

Director Gary Ross and the cast on the behind-the-scenes drama of the $90 million Lionsgate epic that should bring young people back to the movies, propel Jennifer Lawrence into the stratosphere and launch another (fingers crossed) "Twilight"-sized franchise.

On Sept. 6, 2010, Gary Ross boarded a plane from Los Angeles for New York, carrying art boards and a seven-minute film he'd made with thousands of dollars of his own money.

Ross was nervous: He was about to meet with the top brass at Lionsgate and pitch himself as director of their most high-profile project, The Hunger Games. The then-53-year-old hadn't made a film since Seabiscuit seven years earlier, and even though he was a four-time Oscar nominee, he was an unlikely candidate for what the independent studio hoped to be a major franchise.

"You wouldn't look at a premise like Hunger Games and think Gary Ross," he admits of the venture, based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling young-adult novel set in a futuristic America where a bright 16-year-old girl is forced to take part in gladiator-like combat -- kill or be killed.

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So Ross came prepared. "I had seven or eight concept artists put boards together," he recalls, "and I interviewed my kids and a lot of their friends to hear what they thought about the book."

For two hours, he laid out his vision, helped by stacks of images from artists including Max Beckmann that he'd lined around the walls and by the short film featuring his teenage twins, Claudia and Jack, explaining why the book meant so much to them.

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"You could really feel his passion," says producer Nina Jacobson, "and it was channeled through the young people in his life."

One week after the Toronto film festival, Ross learned he had the job. He knew it was a plum gig but didn't realize what a phenomenon Games would become -- and how much his film, the first of a planned four movies based on Collins' trilogy (including sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay), meant to the studio releasing it.

The first book, published in 2008, was just beginning its vertiginous ascent of the best-seller list (with some 23.5 million copies of the trilogy sold as of late January). There had been no event like it in the white-hot young-adult genre since Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Unlike her novels, the Games books appeal to male as well as female readers, further upping the potential for a blockbuster, four-quadrant series -- which may bring back young audiences who've been fleeing the multiplex in droves.

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"After the trailer launched Nov. 14, we had 8 million views in the first 24 hours," says Lionsgate Films president Joe Drake. "We were the No. 1 Twitter trend on the planet. Since then, the book sales have jumped 7.5 million copies. That kind of data gives us enormous confidence."

Hollywood is expecting the PG-13 Games to be the dominant picture of the spring when it opens March 23 on more than 4,000 screens. Its reception could determine whether its stars -- Jennifer Lawrence, 21; Josh Hutcherson, 19; and Liam Hemsworth, 22 -- ascend to Stewart-Pattinson-Lautner superstardom and fill the gap as Twilight heads toward its final chapter.

For Lionsgate, which has struggled recently at the box office, Games is its first major test since acquiring Summit Entertainment, the studio behind Twilight, in January -- a move that yokes together execs responsible for the most recent youth phenomenon with those hoping to launch the next. Games' success could impact the future of many at Lionsgate, all eager to claim credit for the Collins adaptation, now that Summit's Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger have been tapped to run the film division.