EXCLUSIVE: Two weeks ago when I broke the story that Imagine, Universal, Gary Ross and Jennifer Lawrence teaming on a two-part feature adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East Of Eden, I reported that The Hunger Games trio of Ross, Lawrence …
‘Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence, Gary Ross To Re-Team On Steinbeck’s ‘East Of Eden’ For Universal And Brian Grazer
EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer have closed a deal with the John Steinbeck estate for a new version of his seminal novel East Of Eden that will be developed as a re-team for The Hunger Games director Gary Ross and Jennifer Lawrence.
I’m told that the book is Ross’ favorite American novel and that the director plans to tell the generational story in two films. The novel previously was adapted into one picture, the 1955 Elia Kazan-directed film that starred James Dean and Richard Davalos as sons who compete for the attention of their farmer father in Salinas, CA. Ross wants Lawrence to play Cathy Ames, the cold and cruel mother of the boys and estranged wife of the farmer. The films will tell their stories, leading into the rivalry between their sons.
The studio and Imagine first acquired the 1952 novel back in 2004. This was after Steinbeck’s modern retelling of the Cain and Abel story shot back up the best-seller lists when Oprah Winfrey made it the first selection of the revived book club on her daytime talk show. I’m told that the original option lapsed, but then the studio and Grazer put together a new deal in a competitive situation, this one built around Ross and Lawrence, the latter of whom won the Academy Award in February for Silver Linings Playbook. Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley was very involved, as was Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, Uni’s co-president of production.
BREAKING… 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:
Despite 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:
UPDATE EXCLUSIVE: Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard have reached a milestone unusual in Hollywood: partners for 25 years. When they first got together, Grazer was a TV producer. Howard, after growing up on the small screen in The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, had only directed a couple of TV movies and the low budget Roger Corman-produced Grand Theft Auto. Grazer and Howard have been at it together ever since, building a company that over 25 years has been one of the most consistent generators of content. Their TV series output includes 24, Parenthood, Arrested Development and Friday Night Lights; their movies have grossed $13.5 billion worldwide. That includes A Beautiful Mind, which won Howard the Academy Award for Best Director. Grazer and Howard shared Best Picture Oscars that night as well. Not everything they’ve done has succeeded, of course. They they took their company public and repurchased the shares; they helped launched and fold the online venture Pop.com; their most recent film together, the adult comedy The Dilemma, was a misfire that created controversy over the inclusion of the word “gay” in a trailer. They’ve had way more hits than misses.
In honor of Imagine’s Silver Anniversary, Deadline invited Howard and Grazer to look back over their quarter century together, and into a future that includes something never tried before by anyone in Hollywood. They’re adapting Stephen King’s 7-novel series The Dark Tower into a film trilogy, and a limited run TV series in between. It has pushed the envelope enough that their longtime home studio, Universal Pictures, postponed a planned late summer start until next year and asked the filmmakers to cut the budget. Some question the studio’s resolve on such a massive undertaking. The studio has to green light the film by next month or the rights revert to Imagine, Akiva Goldsman and King, who are determined to make it regardless.
DEADLINE: Not many marriages of any kind last 25 years in Hollywood. What is most important about the anniversary?
HOWARD: It’s such a challenging time to get movies made. And yet, look at all we have coming out. Tower Heist, the Gus Van Sant movie Restless, J Edgar with Clint Eastwood and Leo DiCaprio, Cowboys & Aliens, this big broad appeal four quadrant fantasy adventure story with Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. With The Playboy Club getting on the air, and Parenthood getting picked up, I’m proud we’re doing what we’ve always done. A wide variety of projects that got made because we care and put in the energy to get them done in light of how difficult it is these days.
DEADLINE: Simple as that?
HOWARD: Because I’m in New York, we’re not forced to stare at each other’s faces 24/7. But I think that’s not really it. We love what we’re doing, we have fun doing it and our sensibilities are in sync. In a business that can create so many feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, I learned to trust in that. Brian is smart and cares about me doing well and feeling good about what I’m doing. It’s a partnership built on support. It has been that way since the beginning.
GRAZER: It works because we have similar tastes and not only gravitate toward the same material but also what lives inside the core of the movie it becomes. We’ve done, and Ron has directed, all kinds of genres. We have a common interest in the humanity aspect of a movie, regardless if it’s a comedy or a drama. We also share a similar work ethic.
DEADLINE: When you cover all genres, does Imagine have a wheelhouse? For a company looking to last, is it advisable to have one?
HOWARD: The process is what gets Brian and me excited, whatever the genre. Not specializing has given our company a sense of flexibility and adaptability to whatever the market or the zeitgeist is suggesting. We’ve always respected each other as creative people. If Brian loves something and I don’t quite get it, I’ll tell him that but I’ll never try to impede the progress. He’s the same with me. With Apollo 13, I wasn’t sure the genre would work, because space films hadn’t done that well. Brian was instantly so excited about it, and made me realize we were onto something. 8 Mile, I don’t know anything about rap. This was something he understood. I didn’t know how to make that movie, but I recognized a great idea. Whenever the two of us get excited, on films like Splash, Night Shift and Parenthood, those have resulted in the building blocks of the company. I’ve always liked TV but I phased it out for awhile and it was Brian’s perseverance that has made us strong in both TV and films. Independent companies are rarely strong in both.
GRAZER: What we’ve do is agree on the moral center of a project, but nobody’s better at finding the language of a particular movie than Ron. He’s got a grasp of understanding new vocabularies, whether it’s the The Da Vinci Code, fantasy like Cocoon or Splash, or Backdraft and The Grinch. He is great at inhabiting a world and completely understanding and expressing its language. In A Beautiful Mind, he entered that world and understood the medical science of mental illness. So there have been times where he led the charge, and I was drawn in by his excitement.
DEADLINE: What was the last hard conversation or professional disagreement you can remember?
HOWARD: I can’t think of one offhand, but even when we have disagreements, I can’t think of a case where one of us ever said, ‘Oh, please don’t do this.’ If there’s a lot of passion from one or the other, then the support of the company is going to be there.
As my colleague David Lieberman pointed out this morning, Lionsgate brass crowed to Wall Street analysts about their high expectations for the four movies that will be made from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games novels. Wait a minute, four movies? Lionsgate toppers inadvertently dropped a bit of a bombshell, because everybody thought there would be three movies, one for each book in the series. Right now, the notion of making four movies isn’t set in stone, but apparently, Lionsgate has been carefully observing predecessors who squeezed an extra film out of a book franchise. Namely Warner Bros on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Summit on Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. Unlike those two examples, Lionsgate has covered itself by signing the cast to option deals that encompass all four films. By contrast, the Harry Potter kids made set-for-life fortunes when their contracts had to be changed to add another film, and so did the Twilight Saga stars. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars here in the monies paid to Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson and the other cast members. Lionsgate will likely have to sweeten the cast deals if the films hit as big as everybody expects them to, but the indie studio will have the leverage. As for how the trilogy will be turned into four films, it’ll go much the way that Harry Potter and Twilight Saga did. The first two books will be the first two films. The last book will be split in half. The final installment, Mockingjay, is logistically ambitious and can be scaled up comfortably to cover two films. I believe that Gary Ross and Collins have done rewrites and already figured out how to create a satisfying ending to the third film.
EXCLUSIVE: Gary Ross is in early talks to direct The Hunger Games, the first installment of the novel trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The film is a joint production between Lionsgate and Color Force’s Nina Jacobson. Filming will start next year with a script by Billy Ray, who rewrote a draft by the author. The huge sales of the trilogy make the film adaptations a potential game-changer for Lionsgate, the way that Twilight was for Summit Entertainment. It has been a coveted job among directors (Three More Directors Circle ‘The Hunger Games’), and Lionsgate picture chief Joe Drake and Jacobson spent the past two weeks meeting candidates that included Sam Mendes, David Slade (also a contender for the X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2 job), Andrew Adamson, Rupert Sanders, and Nanny McPhee Returns helmer Susanna White. There was also talk about Francis Lawrence. It’s unclear who stayed in or out as Lionsgate focused on Ross, who directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. He isn’t set yet, but he is the choice. Let the negotiating games begin. Mendes, for instance, bowed out of contention last Friday, and I’m told it was because the MGM picture is clearing up and it looks like production on 007 could begin by late summer or early fall, 2011 with Mendes at the helm and Daniel Craig back in the Aston Martin.