'Hunger Games' Producer Nina Jacobson on Movie Backstory; Firing from Disney (Q&A)
The executive tells THR how she ushered the YA novel to the big screen, picked herself up after Disney let her go, and who helped her along the way.
This story originally appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
Producer Nina Jacobson knows a thing or two about life in the arena. As president of the Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, she helped the first of the $3.7 billion-grossing Pirates of the Caribbean movies set sail in 2003, and soon after launching her own production company, Color Force, five years ago, she turned Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books into two modestly successful family films for Fox, with a third due in August. But with the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' best-selling young-adult novel The Hunger Games, which Lionsgate releases March 23, she has entered the arena quite literally, as Collins' tale involves teams of teenagers who face off in nationally televised life-or-death gladiatorial battles.
With tracking suggesting an opening that could top $100 million, Games is poised to spark Twilight-level frenzy, a huge new franchise and fresh opportunities for the 46-year-old married mother of three and her expanded, six-strong Color Force crew. Surrounded by the bright primary colors of her two-year-old Santa Monica offices, Jacobson spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how she clinched the rights to Collins' book; her mentors as she worked her way up through the executive ranks at Universal, DreamWorks and Disney; and her favorite video games.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: How did The Hunger Games first come to your attention, and what attracted you to it?
Nina Jacobson: Bryan Unkeless, who works for me [as senior vp production], brought the book to me in early 2009. I couldn't put it down. I was completely obsessed with it, and I couldn't bear the idea of someone else producing it. It was an undeniably compelling story with a character, in Katniss, who is realized incredibly well. Sometimes you get a great idea but don't have a great character premise; sometimes you have a great character but not necessarily a great idea. This is the rare book that had both.
THR: How did you go about securing the rights?
Jacobson: A dogged pursuit of Suzanne. I spent a lot of time on the phone with her and with her agent Jason Dravis. [Writer-director] Peter Hedges, who did Dan in Real Life at Touchstone when I was at Disney, had gone with Suzanne to a creative writing program in North Carolina. So I asked Peter, who I had collaborated very closely with, to call Suzanne on my behalf and talk about the experience, so she would know when I told her I wanted to have a collaboration with her, I was being honest and it wasn't just lip service. We also talked about my experience at Disney, where one of my favorite things was having a brand that means something to people. On the one hand, you had to protect it, but you also worked to expand its reach. So maybe that was a factor as well.
THR: Since you don't have an overall studio deal, did you have to option it with your own funds?
Jacobson: No, I became attached to it with a handshake, and then we took it out to the town together.
THR: Why did you decide on Lionsgate?
Jacobson: When we first set it up, it was a promising young-adult book that had sold a hundred and some thousand copies. But it was important to them because they had never really been in this space before. And then the books just continued to sell and sell and sell. Now, of course, it's become a huge priority for them, but I will genuinely credit them with having always considered it to be a priority.
THR: The movie has a budget of about $90 million, which was reduced to $78 million through subsidies. How do you arrive at a number like that?
Jacobson: Director Gary Ross made a presentation to Lionsgate that had a set of budgetary assumptions about what it would take. He's very knowledgeable about the process and came pretty close to being right.
THR: Weren't you looking at a smaller budget initially?
Jacobson: Not really, because it was all theoretical at that point. Without a filmmaker, any budget that you make is really a bit of guesswork. Gary's early assumptions turned out to be pretty realistic, and nobody ever actually figured out a way to make the movie for less in any real way.
THR: Given the violence in the book, were there any concerns about securing a PG-13 rating? Did you have to negotiate with the ratings board?
Jacobson: We shared the book with them before we shot the movie. They understood this was a book aimed at 12 and up, and they gave me some guidance, which we took seriously. The book described conflict in the arena in detail. The movie needed to be more elliptical but still be honest to the subject. You can't gloss over it, and I think Gary found a way.
THR: Has Lionsgate's purchase of Summit, which releases the Twilight movies, affected you or resulted in changes in the movie's rollout?
Jacobson: Not that I know of. It's been beneficial to have the experience and data of the Twilight folks, and they're a part of it. But the plan was already in place before they got there.
THR: Why did you decide to bring Brad Simpson, who produced the Wimpy Kid movies with you, into your company as a partner?
Jacobson: I am happy to keep working on books because I'm always reading, and I'm always trying to fall in love. But there are also filmmakers out there whose work I admire, whether it's Chris Nolan or Neill Blomkamp. There's as much great authorship in the filmmaker community as in the literary community, and I'd love to welcome more filmmakers into the fold. What we've tried to do is put a lot of time into a few things. And yet if you use that model, you end up not able to do very many movies at a time. I'm not looking to suddenly quadruple our output, but I would like us to be able to make two to three movies a year. We've made five movies in the last three years, but that's been made possible by the fact that Brad was with me on Wimpy.
THR: The third Wimpy Kid is coming out Aug. 3. Are you going to keep making them?
Jacobson: I think that's it for now. It's about kids in middle school, and our cast -- which is great -- they've grown up. So I think this third one will be it.
THR: You were famously fired from Disney while still in the hospital after giving birth. How did you rally back?
Jacobson: It's definitely a tough blow to your morale to get fired. People were pretty nice to me and rooting for me to dust myself off and assume a new role. I had people in my corner, but it still was scary. I had never produced before, and I was a little bit intimidated. It's a different feeling, being a producer. You have to be proactive and intelligently reactive. I made sure to surround myself with people who had done it a lot more than I had.
THR: You have a 13-year-old son, an 11-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. What's your favorite thing to do together as a family?
Jacobson: It's not easy to find things for everybody. My daughter plays soccer -- she plays on a club team and on an all-star team. So we spend a lot of time going to different soccer things. And then there's playing the Just Dance video games on Wii. That's popular right now at our house. I hold my own. When it comes to the game my son likes, Modern Warfare -- I'm terrible at that. I find all of that really stressful. They keep killing me over and over again. The 5-year-old, he's not on any of the consoles. We listen to a lot of books on tape. That's a big activity with all three of my kids. I'm mostly Words With Friends, the word games. I'm actually on a losing streak to [Lionsgate's Jon] Feltheimer, which is a real sore spot for me.
SIX MENTORS: Some were advisers, others were bosses -- all taught Jacobson important lessons.
CEO, DreamWorks Animation
"When I worked for him at DreamWorks, I had never worked on a family movie before, and he gave me a piece of advice that was unbelievably helpful. When we were working on Antz, I was expressing my concerns that I had never worked on a family movie of any kind and I didn't know animation and I didn't know how to do it. And he said: "Don't think about kids. Do it for yourself. We'll animate it. Kids will go." The idea that when doing family entertainment, you don't actually worry about kids. You know what you can't do. But in terms of sensibility and sophistication and wit and ambition, aim for your own taste level, and kids will -- if they're interested in the subject matter -- be glad that you did. And the parents will be glad that you did. It really formed the backbone of my approach to family movies."
Principal, Montecito Picture Co.
"He was really influential for me. [As chairman of MCA/Universal Motion Picture Group,] he was my boss when I was at Universal, and he was a very smart guy, a very strategic guy. And he had a lot of confidence in me that helped me have confidence in myself."
Former chairman, Walt Disney Studios
Founder, The Tornante Co.
"Dick is a big believer -- and Michael [former CEO of Disney], too -- in your gut instinct, that you just have to listen to your gut and that it's OK to fail. They were similar in that regard, that you're going to take your shots, not every single one of them is going to work, and to not let failure deter you from listening to your gut and to not let success deter you, either. They both were big believers in that, and it's something that I always really appreciated when I was at Disney: that there was never the expectation that every movie was going to work, ever. They knew that it's a tough business -- win some, lose some -- you just have to be smart on the risks that you take. But there was never the expectation that you would always get it right."
Skip Paul Bond
Senior Adviser, Centerview Partners
"He's an interesting fellow I met when I was at MCA and Universal. He is an adviser to heads of companies and he is just a very thoughtful, insightful strategic guy whom I've maintained a friendship with for years and whom I always turn to for advice as a mentor. He is somebody who has had an amazing career betting on himself and betting on his own instincts and has always helped to give me confidence in betting on myself."
Partner, Ziffren Brittenham
"He thinks outside of the box. He's a role model because he's such a straightforward, honest, honorable guy, and he's been able to have great success by being honest with people. I met him when I was at Disney. He's been a great confidant and an adviser -- and my attorney."