Hunger Games 2 Catching FireBREAKING… Lionsgate executives and reps around Gary Ross for weeks have expressed confidence that The Hunger Games director would helm the second installment of the book trilogy, Catching Fire. They expected the deal to go down right after Easter weekend. And they even went so far as to privately deny an Internet report that Ross had told the studio at the start of last week that he would not helm the sequel because he didn’t want to repeat himself. Instead, as a Lionsgate exec now tells me, “I am in shock.” Ross lobbied hard to get The Hunger Games and turned it into the biggest hit of his directing career. (Before that, he developed several serious historical dramatic projects under his deal at Universal that didn’t get off the ground.) Staying for a sure-fire hit and a sequel that audiences actually want to see made a lot of sense for Ross, particularly given how active he’d been already on Catching Fire. He and The Hunger Games trilogy author Suzanne Collins had been working on this sequel since last November. They drafted Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy when The Hunger Games post-production schedule became too arduous for Ross to carry through with a plan to write the sequel outline and then pen the script with Collins. As for the notion that Ross would simply toss away the opportunity to direct Catching Fire because of a salary squabble, the logic seems flawed. The Seabiscuit director knows the benefit of riding a winner and not switching horses midstream. I understand the negotiations were handled by Lionsgate toppers Jon Feltheimer, Michael Burns, and movie chief Rob Friedman, newly arrived from Summit. That studio also changed up directors after its massive hit Twilight debuted — and the franchise not only wasn’t hurt but thrived at the box office. So let the speculation begin about Ross’s replacement. Here is the statement by Gary Ross just released by the studio:

Hunger Games Gary RossDespite recent speculation in the media, and after difficult but sincere consideration, I have decided not to direct Catching Fire. As a writer and a director, I simply don’t have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule.

I loved making The Hunger Games – it was the happiest experience of my professional life. Lionsgate was supportive of me in a manner that few directors ever experience in a franchise: they empowered me to make the film I wanted to make and backed the movie in a way that requires no explanation beyond the remarkable results. And contrary to what has been reported, negotiations with Lionsgate have not been problematic. They have also been very understanding of me through this difficult decision.

I also cannot say enough about the people I worked with: Producer Nina Jacobson, a great collaborator and a true friend; the brilliant Suzanne Collins, who entrusted us with her most amazing and important story; the gifted and remarkable Jennifer Lawrence whose performance exceeded my wildest expectations, and the rest of the incredible cast, whom I am proud to call my friends.

To the fans I want to say thank you for your support your faith, your enthusiasm and your trust. Hard as this may be to understand I am trying to keep that trust with you. Thank you all. It’s been a wonderful experience.

Here is Lionsgate’s statement:

We’re very sorry that Gary Ross has chosen not to direct Catching Fire. We were really looking forward to making the movie with him. He did an incredible job on the first film and we are grateful for his work. This will not be the end of our relationship, as we consider Ross to be part of the Lionsgate family and look forward to working with him in the future.

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.

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