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How getting fired led Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson to success

Nina Jacobson (right) with 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1' director Francis Lawrence Nina Jacobson (right) with 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1' director Francis Lawrence
Nina Jacobson (right) with 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1' director Francis Lawrence Murray Close

There’s an old joke that helps The Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson survive hard times. You know the one: A kid wakes up on Christmas morning to a pile of manure under the tree—only to excitedly claim that there must be a pony in there somewhere. “I always try to find the pony,” says Jacobson.

Like that time she was unexpectedly let go from her gig as president of Walt Disney’s (DIS) Buena Vista Motion Picture Group in 2006. Though Jacobson oversaw the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, Remember the Titans, and the first The Chronicles of Narnia film, among other blockbuster hits, she was one of the casualties in a management shake-up. But the firing pushed her to start her own production company.

Jacobson launched Color Force in 2007. The company quickly secured the rights to Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. The three subsequent films in the series grossed more than $310 million on a total budget of $55 million, according to the movie finance site The Numbers. The first two The Hunger Games films have done even better, pulling in $1.85 billion on a total budget of $210 million. The next installment in the series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, will likely reap a similar windfall when it’s released on November 21. Given that track record, Jacobson hasn’t just found a pony—she’s ridden a unicorn through Hollywood, developing stories that she genuinely loves and turning them into commercial hits.

Despite the large box office numbers, Color Force purposely remains a relatively small operation. It has just seven employees focusing on one to two movies a year. “That gives us the ability to tell someone that they will be one of five projects we have, not one of 50,” says Jacobson.

The low headcount keeps Jacobson busy. On any given day, she will pursue rights to material, find financiers to back projects, meet with studio heads, hire screenwriters and directors, be on a location shoot, assist in film editing or map out a film’s distribution strategy. Her ground-level involvement means that she is fully invested in each project.

“I know that everything Nina submits is something that she knows how to make, who the audience is and how she would ask us to market and sell it,” says Fox 2000 Pictures president Elizabeth Gabler, who worked with Jacobson on Diary of a Wimpy Kid and signed Color Force to a first-look deal this summer. “Everything is completely thought out before she makes a move.”

From a business standpoint, everything has to be. With only a few films in development, Color Force can’t afford to have any bombs. And while it likely earns a handsome payday from The Hunger Games—Color Force has been paid an undisclosed fee for its services and given a share of the profits—those funds don’t last forever for an ambitious, growing company in the fickle film industry.

That unpredictability means attention to detail is crucial. Jacobson’s managerial style has transformed from top-line decision-making on projects already in good shape to sweating projects’ details. “As a studio executive, I took the approach that people are competent until proven otherwise. But when you make a movie, because there is so little time to fix things when they break, you have to almost come to it with the mindset that everyone is incompetent until proven otherwise,” she says. “They usually aren’t, but you have to think, What if this goes wrong? What if that goes wrong?”

“A producer having her level of love of story is pretty rare, “says The Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence. “I think a lot of producers sit in story meetings and have ideas, but I don’t think they are quite as good as Nina’s.”

Jacobson acts as the conduit between the storytellers and the studio, managing costs and editorial concerns and advocating on behalf of what she thinks the film needs. Her background gives her the ability to harmonize the business and the creative sides. “A lot of times people are only able to see one or the other,” says Lionsgate co-president Erik Feig, who oversees The Hunger Games for the studio. “She is one of the rare individuals who has the ability to focus on the forest and the trees.”

Besides The Hunger Games, Color Force has acquired the rights to Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. But first up is a series for FX called “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson,” based on The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin; it’s slated for 2015.

Jacobson’s media diet is voracious and varied. She reads The New Yorker, New York, Texas Monthly and She listens to “This American Life,” “Radiolab,” UnFictional.” She’s currently watching Orphan Black, Sherlock, Transparent, The Affair, The Leftovers and The Honourable Woman. Her favorite journalists are some of the best out there—Lawrence Wright, Jon Krakauer, David Kushner and Patrick Keefe, the 2014 winner of the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.

Jacobson’s strong understanding of what makes a compelling narrative resonates with the authors and directors she teams up with on films. “She made me feel very safe [creatively],” says Lawrence, mentioning that even Jacobson’s critiques were welcome. “When she says something about the film, it’s coming from a genuine, smart and tasteful place, and she’s usually right.” (The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins trusted Jacobson so much that their initial deal was struck verbally over the phone before any formal contracts were written up. “I had such a strong emotional reaction to the book that there was no way she could see that she didn’t have a fan,” says Jacobson.)

As Color Force branches out into TV shows, Jacobson envisions controlled expansion. She’ll add another member or two to the company’s staff and do two to three movies a year. At this size, Color Force can remain nimble—and Jacobson can continue to make project decisions based on her own interests.

“We will always be more of a boutique rather than a factory, but we would like to be a slightly bigger boutique,” she says. “When I became a producer, I told myself I will finally be able to bring my dog to work,” she says of implementing the company’s first (and favorite) perk. “Dogs in the office are very important.”