Cue the cannon—Catching Fire has its first casualty. Lionsgate released a statement last night announcing that Gary Ross, who directed and co-wrote the record-breaking first installment of the planned Hunger Games tetralogy to much acclaim, will not be returning for the sequel, currently set for release in November 2013. The report confirmed a week of back-and-forth rumors about Ross’ next moves and came as little surprise to many in the industry. Core cast members Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth remain in place.
Ross wrote in the statement, “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.” Ross, who added that the decision to part ways was mutual and amicable, had not directed a film since 2003’s Seabiscuit before taking charge of The Hunger Games. Many critics noted that Ross’ unifying vision was one of the film’s strongest aspects, along with Lawrence’s performance, which was largely credited as well to Ross’ direction.
As sequels and prequels have proliferated over the past decade, these sorts of games of musical director’s chairs have become increasingly common, with few talents willing, able, or interested to sign up for multi-movie projects that can last for years. The X-Men series, for example, has run through four directors in five films since 2000, while the eight Harry Potter films came to vastly different results from four different brand-name talents. And if the saga of the boy wizard has demonstrated how crucial a director can be to a film’s critical success—most point to Prisoner of Azkaban as the series’ high point, thanks to Alfonso Cuarón’s abilities—it has also proved that for audiences, the differences are essentially those of semantics. All eight films have been huge box-office successes (it should be noted that Cuarón’s engagingly dark effort performed the worst), as have the four uneven films to-date of the Twilight series, which means that from the studios’ perspectives, directors can come to seem somewhat interchangeable as long as the brand remains strong. Whomever Lionsgate ends up picking will have big shoes to fill in terms of critical acclaim, but can rest assured that Catching Fire is as close to a surefire hit as you can get.