Producer Nina Jacobson Gambles on ‘Hunger Games’

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

She isn’t the fast-talking, expletive-spewing executive one might expect, given her career. Nina Jacobson is the powerhouse producer behind one of this year’s most anticipated films, The Hunger Games, but she chafes at sounding falsely modest when describing how lucky she is to work in films. When recounting how she was unceremoniously fired from her post as head of Disney’s $1 billion–plus movie studio, she pauses before boiling down the ill-timed episode to the G-rated explanation: “Stuff happens.”

The Disney dismissal has been a defining parenthetical in her career since July 2006, when the news was famously delivered over the phone while she awaited the birth of her third child. Though her eight years as studio head were gilded by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and The Sixth Sense, among other hits, Disney fell from the top domestic studio by ticket sales in 2003 to the fifth in 2005. She was a casualty of the company’s attempt to regain share. “If you’re a bullfighter, you expect to get gored periodically,” says Jacobson. “You just hope that you can get up and do it again. I don’t feel sorry for myself.”

Since starting over as a producer in 2007 with her own company, Color Force, she’s notched a few modest successes, though Hunger Games will be her first blockbuster-caliber release. Jacobson saw potential in the series before it was a bestseller, when most studio heads deemed the story too violent for a bankable franchise. When she convinced author Suzanne Collins that she was the best producer to bring Hunger Games to the screen, the young-adult series had sold fewer than 200,000 copies. The trilogy centers on a teenage girl in a dystopian America who must engage in a deadly reality show for the entertainment of a wealthy class. Its ambitious themes—the perils of war, preoccupation with wealth and fame, and our growing fascination with voyeurism—have spurred a cultural fanaticism comparable to that for Twilight, leading the books to sell nearly 24 million copies. Now the movie, which studio Lionsgate made for a reported $78 million after tax credits, is expected to gross as much as $100 million during its March 23 opening weekend. Advance ticket sales have already set a new record, and the trailer was viewed more than 8 million times the day after its release.

Though the transition from buyer to seller is familiar—executives from Fox, Warner Brothers, and Universal did it before she did, and those from News Corp. and New Line have done it since—it wasn’t an easy change for Jacobson, who worked on development and production from the studio side for nearly two decades. But she has demonstrated a unique prescience, assuming that the risk of Hunger Games becomes reward. One of her first moves as a producer was to secure the film rights to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a mildly successful children’s-book series. By the time Wimpy Kid arrived in theaters in 2010, the books had exploded into a phenomenon, selling 30 million copies. The two films in the series have earned $117 million domestically, and a third iteration is slated for release this August. For Color Force, the success of Wimpy Kid brought stability. But Jacobson—who recently added fellow Wimpy Kid producer Brad Simpson as a second Color Force partner, bringing the company’s head count to five—clearly wants to bet big.

If Hunger Games lives up to the hype, it won’t be a comeback for Jacobson as much as it will be proof that her instincts were never lost. It would also mean greater freedom to choose projects and more of Hollywood’s perennial currency—power. She recognizes that moviemaking is a business, and an unnecessary one. But, says Jacobson with her trademark sensitivity, “all you really want is the chance to keep going.”