By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 19, 2012 at 9:46PM
If Lionsgate goes with Francis Lawrence to replace Gary Ross for 'Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" (November 22, 2013) it's because he was the best they could get.
The reason why Ross left "The Hunger Games" is that any director wants to know going into a movie that they will come out ahead. That was impossible, he figured, due to a combinaton of factors: the tight time constraints created by Fox's January start date for Jennifer Lawrence on the "X-Men: First Class" sequel and the fact that "Slumdog Millionaire" scribe Simon Beaufoy has not finished the script. "Catching Fire" returns Katniss and Peeta to another survival arena that brings back victors of past games. Katniss also becomes more political in her leanings against the Capitol.
This makes it very tough for any director to feel confident about taking on this project, even if a franchise-level gross is virtually guaranteed. An intense summer shooting schedule will be a high-pressure nightmare.
Besides, no director with anything to lose would be willing to put their good reputation on the line for a "Hunger Games" sequel. While some major names thrown up as possibilities would have been dream catches indeed, there was no way that any self-respecting director would compromise themselves this much going in--not David Cronenberg, Julie Taymor, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu or Alfonso Cuaron--even if he did direct the best "Harry Potter" installment. Cuaron knew he had extraordinary studio support on what could be a gorgeously mounted creative effort. He came out looking great--and has nothing to prove now.
It was not in Lionsgate's interest to lose stewardship of the series. These franchises are bread-and-butter and the studio wants to bring on talent that they can control--usually a director who still has something to prove and could use a guaranteed commercial hit in his/her back pocket (see Chris Weitz, Bill Condon).
So what does the studio need? Someone who is hungry and willing to 1) fulfill the prior director's establishing vision 2) allow the studio to control their version of the story and 3) not mess it up. Also, the project is on such a fast track into production that an experienced video director like Francis Lawrence who is willing to move swiftly through pre-production is an asset.
Bennett Miller ("Moneyball") also met with Lionsgate, but he has his long-in-the-works "Foxcatcher" coming up, a real passion project for him. And Miller is the soul of deliberation and caution; he's not one to compromise. That must have become apparent. Other directors on the Lionsgate short list, according to various reports, were Tomas Alfredson ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), Joe Cornish ("Attack The Block"), Duncan Jones ("Moon"), Cary Fukunaga ("Jane Eyre") and Juan Antonio Bayona ("The Orphanage").
Why did Lawrence land the gig? Like many video directors, and judging from "I Am Legend," "Constantine" and "Water for Elephants," Lawrence has visual chops and can handle VFX. As for telling a strong story with dimensional characters--on that front Lionsgate and producer Nina Jacobson will be all over him. What they are losing with Ross is a gifted writer-director. Someone like Lawrence has nowhere to go but up.