'Hunger Games' Producer Nina Jacobson on Movie Backstory; Firing from Disney (Q&A)

1:30 PM PST 03/15/2012 by Jay A. Fernandez
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Christopher Patey

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.

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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.    

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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. 

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