‘Hunger Games’ Marks Comeback for Former Disney Exec Jacobson

Nina Jacobson, who brought “The Hunger Games” to Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. and produced that studio’s biggest hit ever, knows what it’s like to be on top in Hollywood. She also knows something about the bottom.

While her partner was giving birth to their third child six years ago, Jacobson took a phone call from her boss, Walt Disney Co. film chief Dick Cook, to learn she was fired. After overseeing hits including “The Sixth Sense” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean” as head of Buena Vista Motion Pictures, Jacobson was let go in a round of cutbacks.

“It’s a pretty big blow to your confidence,” Jacobson said in an interview at Color Force, her Santa Monica, California, production company. “Especially if you have a big corporate job, you know that you’re a buyer in a town of sellers. When you don’t have that anymore it’s a very different world.”

Jacobson still had a sense of what plays with fans. She started Color Force in 2007 and gained rights to Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” children’s books. The first two films, made for $15 million and $21 million, grossed $148.1 million, according researcher Box Office Mojo. The final picture will be released in August by News Corp.’s Fox. In 2009, she secured rights to “The Hunger Games,” a dystopian teen-survival tale.

“It’s a relief to go out and be able to make something, to start over again and have two franchises,” Jacobson said.

The year’s top-grossing movie so far, “The Hunger Games” opened on March 23, tallying $153 million in domestic sales over three days to mark the third-biggest weekend of all time behind the final “Harry Potter” movie and “The Dark Knight.” As of April 2, the film had collected $253 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales.

Transforming Lions Gate

The film is transforming Lions Gate, the Vancouver-based studio best known for “Saw” horror films and Tyler Perry comedies. With more “Hunger Games” films in the pipeline and the potential franchises “Ender’s Game” and “Chaos Walking” in development, the studio is in a position compete with top Hollywood distributors.

Including home-video sales, television revenue and merchandise, the first “Hunger Games” may generate as much as $310 million in profit, according to Monica Dicenso, a JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst with an overweight or buy recommendation on the stock. That would erase most of the losses accumulated over a dozen years at the studio, which is run from Santa Monica.

Cast of Characters

Jacobson saw “The Hunger Games” twice on its opening weekend, including a midnight screening, to see how the audiences reacted. She received box-office updates every three hours by e-mail.

“I’m very superstitious so I worried that it was going to be jinxed,” Jacobson said. “I saw the expectations growing and growing to a point where it would be almost impossible to exceed them. The fact that it did manage to really was thrilling.”

“The Hunger Games” is the first Color Force project to approach the scale of films that Jacobson worked on at Disney. Jacobson, who controls film rights to the three Suzanne Collins novels, and Lions Gate plan as many as four films. The second is scheduled for release in November 2013.

Lions Gate put up the movie’s $80 million budget, and defrayed much of the cost by selling most foreign distribution rights for about $50 million, Jacobson said. Color Force, which provided the film rights and helped run the production, was paid a fee and will receive a share of the profit, Jacobson said, without offering specifics.

Creatively Intact

The creative team for “The Hunger Games” is staying together for the second movie. Director Gary Ross has agreed to make the film, and the principal cast, including Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, have signed to complete the series of three or four movies, Jacobson said.

It’s less clear who Jacobson will be working with at Lions Gate. Two months before “The Hunger Games” opened, Lions Gate bought “Twilight” producer Summit Entertainment for $412.5 million and named that studio’s top executives to lead the film division.

“You hope the collaboration will be a good one, and I’m optimistic that it will be,” Jacobson said. “The folks at Lions Gate have been very supportive, and the team at Summit are people I’ve known for a long time. They’re smart folks.”

Joe Drake, the head of Lions Gate’s film unit and an early champion of “The Hunger Games,” resigned last month as co-chief operating officer and was replaced as head of motion pictures by Summit’s Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger.

Other executive changes are still being worked out, Jacobson said.

Jacobson worked with several Summit executives during her career, an experience that has left her upbeat. In the meantime, “The Hunger Games” will give Color Force financial stability while Jacobson looks for new properties.

“There is so much money involved, just to keep doing it is, in its own way, a goal,” Jacobson said. “You can’t take that for granted.”