The powerhouse behind The Hunger Games

March 23, 2012, 9:01 PM UTC

Credit: Gregory Zabilski

Sometimes bad things happen for good reason. So it goes with Nina Jacobson, the producer of The Hunger Games.

Jacobson was in the hospital, with her partner in labor and her father in intensive care, six years ago when her boss at Disney fired her over the phone. “Can you come in?” Dick Cook asked Jacobson, then president of the company’s Buena Vista movie studio. “No, I really can’t,” Jacobson remembers telling Cook on that fateful day, July 17, 2006.

She had read the rumors in the trade press: Management changes at Disney are afoot, they said. “Am I getting fired?” Jacobson asked Cook, point-blank. Yes, he replied. She recalls telling herself: “Well, I’m just going to ignore that for the rest of the day and pretend it didn’t happen.”

A few hours later, her third child, William, was born.

William, now five, isn’t quite old enough to appreciate that the The Hunger Games, opening today, is a very big deal. (He no doubt wishes his mom were still producing Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney.) But Jacobson’s other two kids–daughter Josie, 11, and son Noah, 13—are among the youthful millions who are supposed to make The Hunger Games the next book-to-film phenom a la Harry Potter and Twilight.

Jacobson discovered The Hunger Games in 2009, a year after the first book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy was released. Brian Unkeless, a colleague at Color Force, Jacobson’s production company that she set up post-Disney, read it and passed on high praise. “I couldn’t put it down,” Jacobson says. Negotiating with author Collins and her agent to make The Hunger Games into a movie, Jacobson convinced them that she would not just create something great for the screen but build and protect The Hunger Games “brand” as well.

So her brand-building background from Disney pays dividends today. No matter what the box office receipts turn out to be, Jacobson, 46, is happy in her new career. “As an executive,” she says, about her eight years at Disney, “you can borrow somebody else’s passion until you find your own. But as a producer, you can’t borrow anyone’s passion. You have to feel it. You have to care deeply enough to have the energy and inspiration to make the movie–and to make it worthwhile to be away from your family.”

She has no regrets—except one about that day she was fired. “If I had it to do over again, I would definitely choose a different day. [Getting fired] certainly gives you perspective that a job is just a job. But on a day like that, the only story should be the birth of your child.”