By Keith Staskiewicz
March 29, 2012 at 11:15 PM EDT

Over the past week, The Hunger Games has racked up so much money — promising a bounty of potential future earnings — that one imagines many Hollywood executives have all but thrown out their backs kicking themselves. That’s because the latest mega-franchise wasn’t brought to us by any of the major studios — not Sony, not Disney, not Paramount — but rather by Lionsgate, the second-tier house whose only other money-making franchise to date, Saw, relies on gratuitous dismemberment for its appeal.

So how did a studio built on torture porn and Jason Statham wind up with the Next Big Thing? 

For one, when presented with the best-selling novel by Suzanne Collins (pictured, with Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, and director Gary Ross), a lot of other people said no. “Everybody who’s ever read the book got excited about the idea of a movie,” says producer Nina Jacobson. “Well, I guess not everybody. Not the people who passed, at least.” That would include most of the major studios, who declined to bite when Jacobson shopped the project around in 2009. “We went out to all the major buyers,” she says. “The people who were in it from the beginning were New Regency, Warner Bros. and Spyglass, who were partnered in a bid, Summit, and then Lionsgate. So that means that pretty much everybody else had passed.”

It makes sense that Summit Entertainment — which was acquired by Lionsgate in January — would be interested. The fledgling studio had already learned from the Twilight franchise that what the big guys leave behind aren’t necessarily scraps. But Lionsgate was determined. “For Lionsgate, it was a big priority for them from the moment they got involved in it,” says Jacobson, who has plenty of experience with the major studios as a former Disney exec. “Lionsgate was a hungry company that was very aggressive and very committed from the beginning. It’s harder to get a bigger studio to look at a project with that kind of commitment at an early stage.”

Part of the studio’s pitch included an already-formulated marketing plan, also rare at such an early point in the process. “Most of it was reassuring Suzanne Collins that we understood the material and that we’d stay as close to the book as possible,” says Lionsgate’s chief marketing executive Tim Palen, who turned a relatively modest $45 million budget into a massively successful campaign that transformed Hunger Games fans’ signal fires into a four-alarm, pop-culture conflagration. “This was also a popular book that had a loyal and rabid fan base that you need to stay true to, but that was a burden that we gratefully and happily bore.”

With a $152.5 million opening weekend and possibly as many as three more films to come, Lionsgate’s gamble has paid off in spades. Jacobson credits the studio not only with the first film’s success, but with getting it out there at all. “At a big studio you would never have that level of anticipation surrounding a project in development,” she says. “There’s a wait-and-see approach. I did that job for a long time and development is all about wait-and-see. So who knows? If another studio got it, we might still be waiting.”

For more on The Hunger Games phenomenon, check out this week’s issue of Entertainment Weeklyon stands Friday.

Read more:

Will ‘The Hunger Games’ be the highest grossing film of 2012?

Updated figures for ‘The Hunger Games’ books: More than 36.5M in print in the U.S. alone

‘The Hunger Games’: The opinions, theories and mild confusion of a moviegoer who never read the book

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