Lionsgate just announced that Rachel Zegler, she of West Side Story, Walt Disney’s
Snow, played in the four Hunger Games movies by Donald Sutherland, will be played this time out by Tom Blyth. Zegler will play Lucy Gray Baird, who is 12th district competitor during the 10th annual Hunger Games whom Snow is tasked with mentoring. So, technically speaking, Zegler is playing the film’s proverbial Katniss Everdeen.
The big question is whether audiences will show up for another Hunger Games movie eight years (!) after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part II and sans Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. A huge part of the franchise’s appeal was the star+marquee character pull of Katniss, who was essentially sold as a weapon-wielding, ass-kicking alternative to The Twilight Saga’s Bella Swann.
Ironically, The Hunger Games had a genuine love triangle between Katniss, Peta and Gale while Twilight’s love triangle was mostly a marketing concoction. Bella only had eyes for Edward, no matter how munch Summit’s #TeamEdward and #TeamJacob promotional campaign for New Moon (two years before Lionsgate bought Summit) tried to convince us otherwise.
Hunger Games became less popular (relatively speaking) as the films became less about the glamour and carnage of the games themselves and (like Suzzane Collins’ novels) more explicitly about the politics. And frankly, I’ll argue the shocking results of the 2016 presidential election discolored the franchise’s legacy, as it’s clear that copious audience members showed up and either didn’t care about the politics or deluded themselves into voting for a proverbial Snow anyway.
Without arguing direct causation, the wave of YA fantasy franchises positioning a female (often blonde) politician as the real baddie (Patricia Clarkson in The Maze Runner, Meryl Streep in The Giver, Kate Winslet in Divergent and eventually Julianne Moore in The Hunger Games) didn’t help.
The Hunger Games films are still the last live-action “new to cinema” franchises to reach top-tier global box office ($2.96 billion on a combined $495 million budget), as pretty much everything else above a certain global gross point ($600 million worldwide) was either A) a reboot or a continuation of an already existing cinematic property or B) a new franchise within the DC/Marvel brands.
Lionsgate has had terrific success in the last decade or so with temporarily successful “new to cinema” franchises (John Wick, Expendables, Wonder, Knives Out, Now You See Me and Hitman’s Bodyguard) that exist between “successful” and “mega-blockbuster.” They lost Knives Out to Netflix
As for Hunger Games: Origins, Lionsgate is hoping that Rachel Zegler “as” the past-tense incarnation of Katiness Everdeen is a star+character+IP victory. No, Lucy isn’t quite the same character as Katniss, and it’s arguably not her story (no spoilers, but it is very much about how Snow commercializes the Hunger Games and comes to terms with thriving in an evil system), but that shouldn’t stop Lionsgate’s marketing departments.
Besides, assuming the studio(s) don’t spend more than $90 million (the budget of the first film, because they smartly didn’t spend Return of the King money on Fellowship of the Ring), there’s no harm if the film is only a modest hit and doesn’t signal a desire for more. This isn’t the first in an already-announced trilogy or prequel franchise. This is, on the surface, a one-and-done.
As for Zegler, this will be her fourth straight big-deal role (she’s a supporting player in the Shazam sequel) in an IP-specific movie as something qualifying as a marquee character (who someone whom the studios would like to see become such a thing). It is an example of the “new stardom” that Zegler may yet go for a while without playing a relatively normal person in a non-IP studio programmer. Whether intentional or not, this is incredibly smart thinking on the part of Zegler or her handlers.
She can raise her profile and create the illusion of stardom while starring in films where she’ll bear no real blame if they underperform. If Shazam: Fury of the Gods gets steamrolled by Avatar: The Way of Water, if Snow White performs closer (budget notwithstanding) to Dumbo than Maleficent and/or if nobody cares about a Hunger Games prequel, that’ll be blamed on the IP, correctly so, and not on the leading lady. And if these films hit paydirt, well, nobody’s career was ever hurt by starring in a successful IP exploitation.
Anyway, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will be directed by Francis Lawrence and arrives on November 17, 2023. As always, may the odds be ever in its favor.