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How 'Divergent' Became a Franchise Before It Opened and Lost Its Director

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 27, 2014 at 7:46PM

"Divergent" will prove itself at the box office on its second weekend--but the sequel is on its way no matter what. Producer Lucy Fisher reveals how they made the movie, found their romantic leads, lost the director for the sequels, and why this represents a new filmmaking paradigm.
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Shailene Woodley and Theo James in 'Divergent'
Shailene Woodley and Theo James in 'Divergent'
'Divergent'
'Divergent'

Producing the movie adaptation of Veronica Roth's YA novel "Divergent" was something different for husband-and-wife producers Lucy Fisher and Doug Wick. One of many young adult would-be franchises these days, $85-million "Divergent," which opened to $56-million last weekend, started out its life in development with Wick and Fisher's Red Wagon shingle. They brought it to Summit Entertainment, which was later bought by Lionsgate. 

With that merger Summit brought the last "Twilight" installments to Lionsgate, which was already producing and releasing the blockbuster "Hunger Games" franchise. But unlike most franchises, in this case the studio decided that the dystopian romance starring Shailene Woodley ("The Spectacular Now") and hunk-on-the-rise Theo James ("Golden Boy") was such a strong bet that they greenlit the sequel before the first film came out. So Wick and Fisher, producers responsible for such high-end fare as "Lawless," "The Great Gatsby," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Stuart Little" and "Gladiator," did what they had to: they pushed full steam ahead with both. 

Cover detail from Entertainment Weekly's June 28, 2013, issue
Cover detail from Entertainment Weekly's June 28, 2013, issue

But they lost their director Neil Burger (interview here) once Lionsgate/Summit chose the sequel dates, which was not the producers' decision. Burger had to complete some reshoots on "Divergent," which would take his full attention. "There wasn't really a way," says Fisher in a telephone interview. "It was incredibly difficult to finish one in the middle of full-blown production and prep another. We barely had enough time to do it."

So now instead of biting their nails over word-of-mouth, poor reviews and weekend box office numbers, Wick and Fisher are fretting about getting the next script into shape and working with a new director, Robert Schwentke ("Red"), on "Insurgent," which starts in May.

I talked to Fisher about how they turned the first movie into an inevitable franchise.

Anne Thompson: What's different about this movie from the others you've made? 

Lucy Fisher: We've never worked on a movie where the sequel was greenlit before the first one came out. We're already dealing with both. Usually you're living to get through the opening of that first movie and take a breath, with a job well done or whatever. With a franchise, that mentality is very different, as was the press junket. It's a different feeling in terms of an ongoing process.

Do you still feel pressure for the movie to perform? 

The pressure is to be compared to "Twilight" and "Hunger Games," which were huge gigantic phenomena. We don't need to come close to them and we'd still be doing well. Those movies are held up as a beacon on the hill. Because the book is so successful we already have an audience for the movie, which is a wonderful feeling. We know people want to see it. 

It's a surprise how much some of the reviewers don't seem to appreciate it. It's well-made and beautifully acted, the cast is fantastic. It's a happy situation to know for certain that people will want to see movie no matter what, that fans are happy with the movie.  We had people who didn't like the color of Shai's hair, "more tawny, more honey." There are no eggs being thrown at us from the people we made it for.

Who are they? 

They're the people who read the books basically: primarily female, male also, primarily under 25, but not all. 

How did you land the property?

Red Wagon got sent the manuscript by the agent before it was published. We read it and saw a phenomenally interesting voice and premise, with rich veins of identity and conformity. Veronica Roth was still a senior at Northwestern. She was a kid herself, everyone was growing up on this movie. Shailene was 20 years old. 

This article is related to: Divergent, Box Office, Box Office, Box Office, Franchises, Books, Theo James, Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.