Making a hit movie on a budget is as hard as Hollywood makes it look. "We're in a business where the solution is almost always to write a check," said Joe Drake, the departing co-chief operating officer of Lionsgate, the studio behind "The Hunger Games."
"The Hunger Games" opens Friday, tracking toward an opening weekend ticket take of perhaps more than $100 million. The movie, about a future dystopia that pits teens in televised fights to the death, cost around $80 million to make. That amount probably wouldn't cover the loin-cloth budget alone of the recent $250 million flop "John Carter."
So how did "The Hunger Games" fool the movie gods of profligacy? The Huffington Post chatted with Drake last week to recount the beans and shed light on a little-known fact -- that movies the masses want to see can be made for less than the GNP of a small nation.
"The absolute last resort is solving something with money," Drake said. "Very often, that turns out to be the best creative solution. It requires you to deal with it in the storytelling."
It should be pointed out that Lionsgate, home to the "Saw" horror franchise, has seen rough times lately. It weathered a takeover bid by Carl Icahn and its stock price dropped 45 percent in a four-year period, according to Bloomberg. But it recently gained muscle when it bought Summit, the studio mother of the "Twilight" movies. Those films, based, like "The Hunger Games, on a popular series of books, earned $2.3 billion, a figure "Games" hopes to match or even surpass.
Financial burdens never stopped a studio from ripping open its wallet, but Lionsgate resisted.
Here are the steps that paved the film's road to profit.
The Source Material: Lionsgate secured the rights to Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" in 2009 before it became a household name. At that point, Drake said the studio determined it would work in part to increase book sales, thereby raising the visibility of the movie.
"The Hunger Games," the first of a trilogy, had sold about 250,000 copies when Lionsgate acquired it, Drake said. By the time the film went into production last May, the three novels had sold a combined 8 million. When production wrapped in September, the total had climbed to 12 million. The New York Times reported Sunday that there are now 24 million copies in print. "The velocity of sales is exponential," Drake said.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Collins received hundreds of thousands of dollars for the option on her three books, but will make millions if the movie and at least one planned sequel strike gold. For comparison's sake, Warner Bros. paid "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling $1 million in 1999 for the first four of her novels, and the first film, released in 2001, cost $125 million to make.
The Location: Shooting in North Carolina gave "The Hunger Games" a 25 percent rebate on salaries for resident cast and crew and what the film spent on taxable items in the state, according to the Charlotte Observer. Drake said the film was finished for under the widely reported $80 million; $12 million in subsidies helped get it there, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The final tally didn't beat the $35 million that Summit spent to make the first "Twilight" film, but still provided a post-meltdown lesson on doing more with less.
Hildebran, N.C., and other nearby locales provided the Appalachian scenery for the fictional District 12 of "The Hunger Games." The crew also made use of a 2.4 million-square foot abandoned factory and part of a national forest. "It offered extraordinary locations, organically fit into the budget and offered great tax credits," Drake said. "It was the perfect marriage of creativity that [director-writer Gary Ross] was looking for and it allowed for perfect business."
The Talent: The studio reportedly locked up lead actress Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone," "X-Men: First Class"), who plays the heroine Katniss Everdeen, for $500,000 for the first film, according to the Hollywood Reporter. That's in the neighborhood of what Kristen Stewart got for the first "Twilight." Lawrence and her costars, Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) and Liam Hemsworth (Gale), signed on the dotted line for the film adaptations of all three books before production began on the first. Of course there are financial incentives based on each film's success. Drake wouldn't comment on cast paydays, but did say, "They will all experience an extraordinary ride in terms of exposure in this movie. They will all be big stars."
The Script And Beyond: Director Gary Ross, who wrote the film with Billy Ray and Collins, took the studio's streamlined mission to heart. "Cost and value have no real correlation in the business," said Drake, who executive-produced the indie hit "Juno." "Great storytelling is great storytelling." Months on the set and a reported 1,200 separate computer-generated special effects could also have led to cost overruns. While Drake didn't go into details, he said, "Whenever a problem arose, there were an infinite number of moments where we could have fallen prey to increasing the budget, but instead of doing that, the team always looked for a creative solution and found one."
Even the marketing campaign -- which cost a mere $45 million, The New York Times reported -- cost less than half of what most high-profile blockbusters chew up. With an eye on the bottom line and expectations sky-high, "The Hunger Games" appears headed for franchise nirvana. The film had already sold out more than 1,000 screenings by Monday. Drake will likely walk away on a high note. But first, let "The Games" begin.
"Nobody's counting their chickens," he said.
What are critics and celebrities saying about Hunger Games? Check it out below: