Can ‘Hunger Games’ survive as Gary Ross officially jumps from sequel?

Last week, I drove to Santa Monica to sit for interviews that may or may not be used on the DVD/Blu-ray release of “The Hunger Games,” and part of the interview dealt with the contributions that Gary Ross made to the film.

One of the things that people overlook when talking about Ross leaving the film is that he didn’t just direct it.  Billy Ray was the first screenwriter on the film, and then Suzanne Collins sat down with Ross and the two of them did the final passes together.  Ross has his fingerprints all over that first film, and in addition to helping decide what sort of choices they had to make in adapting it from page to screen, he also put together the cast.  As much as anyone, he’s got to be credited with helping Jennifer Lawrence define her interpretation of Katniss Everdeen, which seems to be the one thing even the film’s strongest detractors agree works in this first film.

Now there’s the official word that Gary Ross is off of “Catching Fire,” and so the first topic of conversation becomes “Who do you hire to direct it?”  More than that, though, I think there’s an important question here for filmmakers who might get into the franchise business with Lionsgate/Summit in the future.  Based on the way they’ve handled business on the “Twilight” series and the decision they’ve made to move forward without Ross on this series, why would anyone ever expect to direct more than one film in a  successful franchise for them again?

To be fair, the statement that Ross released seems to me to be incredibly warm and points out how important Nina Jacobson was as producer, and how much he enjoyed the experience on the film, and he talks about having a great deal of freedom on it.  And I buy that.  That film does not feel like it was stamped out of a cookie cutter mold.  There are choices he made that I think almost no one else would have done the same way.  Not better.  Not worse.  Just different than choices any typical pick for the film might have been.  Sometimes it’s great to bring in someone who isn’t the immediate choice.  Of course, with your release date coming a year from November, and with the expectations that are going to rest on the second film, that’s a pressure cooker.

And we talked to Ross before the film opened, and he certainly seemed invested:

It’s one thing when you create a property like “Star Wars” and you know you’re going to be calling the shots.  Nobody was replacing Jo Rowling on “Harry Potter,” and you can be damn sure no one’s replacing Suzanne Collins on “Hunger Games.”  One word from her in public and the fanbase would take to the streets.  If Ross is leaving, Collins is going to have to find someone she can work with in the same way, so my guess is they’ll have to bring in either a writer/director or a very writer-friendly director, someone who Collins will have some common language with.

When people throw around names like Kathryn Bigelow, that sounds great, and I’m sure she’d crush it, but I doubt she’s stepping into a situation where she gives up as much control as anyone would have to in this case.  After all, most of the key roles are already cast, so you aren’t really putting your people together.  And the look of the world and the Games is already established, so you can’t just reinvent it wholesale. And the script is in progress now, so choices are being made that you’re not part of.  It’s a tough gig to step into.

I’m guessing a few points on the box-office gross and home video will more than make up for that sting, though, the same way it has for everyone on the “Twilight” series.  I think Summit showed exceptional taste in the filmmakers they hired for that series of films, and there’s nothing sarcastic or less than sincere about that statement.  Catherine Hardwicke?  David Slade?  Chris Weitz?  Bill Condon?  That’s a damn fine list of people whose work I enjoy, and who I think will all go on to do more interesting work in the future, using the financial security they’ve earned as freedom to develop things they care about.  We saw Weitz cash in his commercial success on the deeply personal “A Better Life,” and Slade’s used his new-found buzz to jump into the big studio movies he’s absolutely suited to make.  Condon’s still got one more to deliver, but I’m guessing whatever he does after “Breaking Dawn” is all wrapped up is going to be something that speaks to him as an artist again, and for that reason alone, I’m glad “Twilight” exists.

But on this one, it’s the timing and the circumstance that is tough for whoever follows Ross.  This story has played out in a semi-public way, with a fair amount of contradictory reporting going on in various places, some people claiming things were happening, other people disputing it.  Typical negotiation in public, and I think the majority of the film’s fans seem to want Ross to return.  There’s some anxiety already expressing itself, and there’s a potential fan-trum brewing.

It’s up to Lionsgate/Summit to figure this out and make the right next move.  They’ve got to land the right person.  They’ve got to bring someone in who can hit the ground running, who has relationships already in place that might serve them well here.  Since Simon Beaufoy is writing the script, why not bring on Danny Boyle?  He’s a great visual storyteller, an impressive stylist, and a bit of a chameleon.  He’s good with actors, and he’s certainly got more than enough pedigree to keep fans calm.

That’s just one possibility, of course, and we’ve got more names to consider that will be up in the morning.  Of course we’ll be watching this story closely and doing our own legwork to see what perspective we can add to it.

For now, I’m sorry to see Ross go, but I don’t think it’s the end of the franchise.  I think he did exactly what Chris Columbus did for Harry Potter, and it’s something they deserve huge respect for.  They set the template.  They cast the right combination of people.  They established that it COULD work.  Even if they don’t end up having made the best of the series (and who knows what the next films will end up being), they made the most important ones, and they pulled off what many, many other very good filmmakers have not been able to do.  There are far more failed series than successful ones, and it’s more than just luck.

“Catching Fire” is still currently scheduled to be released November 22, 2013.