CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A female heroine who wields a mean bow and arrow. A love triangle strong enough to eclipse the vampire-and-werewolf drama of “Twilight.” A page-turning three-book series that has lured the “Harry Potter” fans looking for their next great read. And a view of human nature that’s even darker than anything Potter’s villainous Voldemort ever dreamed up.
That’s the recipe behind “The Hunger Games,” which is set to open in theaters March 23 and has the potential to become the biggest hit movie ever filmed in North Carolina – much of it in and around Charlotte.
The city was abuzz last May through September with sightings of celebrities from the cast, ranging from Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone,” “X-men: First Class”), who plays heroine Katniss Everdeen, to Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and rocker-turned-actor Lenny Kravitz.
“It was just a phenomenal cast,” says Beth Petty, who heads the Charlotte Regional Film Commission and was instrumental in leading the production to the locations needed to establish the sometimes-elaborate settings from the book. “People were calling me and telling me they saw (the actors) everywhere. People get really excited about that.”
A combination of pluck, luck and money lured the production to North Carolina. The state’s much-touted film industry incentives offer big-budget productions rebates of 25 percent of the money they spend on filmmaking in the state, up to $20 million per project. But another factor that helped clinch the deal was related to the state’s history as a former home of Big Tobacco, insiders say.
‘A strong female lead’
“The Hunger Games,” written by Suzanne Collins, is part science fiction, part anti-war novel. It’s set in a future in which the U.S. government has collapsed and been replaced by a brutal dictatorial regime. To keep its poverty-stricken population in line, the government requires each of its districts to send two of its young people – ranging in age from 12 to 17 – to an elaborately designed arena to fight to the death. The multi-day battle is broadcast to the population in a twisted version of reality TV. In the first book, the arena is a wooded tract not unlike the North Carolina mountains – embedded with a series of high-tech booby traps to further endanger the players.
The story is told through the eyes of Katniss, who is 16 when the first novel begins and volunteers to fight in the games in place of her 12-year-old sister. She develops a bond with one of her fellow players, the kind-hearted Peeta, while grappling with emerging romantic feelings for her childhood friend, Gale. But unlike “Twilight” before it, the love triangle takes a backseat to Katniss’ harrowing battle for survival.
Like “Harry Potter,” the series’ fan base soon transcended its young-adult target. Aaron Syrett, who heads the N.C. Film Office, first learned about “The Hunger Games” in 2010. “I started hearing rumblings from my nephews about these books they were reading,” he says. Knowing they would likely become films, he jumped in and read them. “I thought they were pretty gruesome, especially for young readers. (But) it has a strong female lead, which is always good.”
Once the books had been optioned for moviemaking, the production became one of the biggest “gets” in the film industry. State insiders eagerly showed production scouts around the rich variety of available settings, from Charlotte’s urban streets to nearby rural stand-ins for the book’s small towns, and of course the pivotal wooded tracts that almost become a character in themselves.
A snowy winter in early 2011 didn’t help the recruitment, Syrett recalls. “Trees play such an important part in the story, and it was hard to imagine (while scouting in winter).” It was initially a challenge to tell producers: “This is the forest you need for your story," he adds.
But a stroke of luck came when local leaders learned the production would also need huge interior spaces for soundstage work. A board member of the Charlotte Regional Partnership worked for Philip Morris USA, which had shuttered a giant cigarette-making plant in Concord a few years back – and offered up the space. “That was really an important, huge step in getting the film here,” says Petty.
The Philip Morris property will be heavily represented in the film – both soundstage interiors reconstructing the book’s high-tech Capitol city and exteriors from the wooded property, Petty says.
Other spots to look out for include Charlotte’s Knight Theatre, the lobby of the Bank of America headquarters and the Charlotte Convention Center.
The North Carolina towns of Hildebran, Asheville, Black Mountain, Cedar Mountain, Barnardsville and Shelby also saw filming (the secretive production was closed to visitors and press, and adopted the code name “Artemis” when the first calls went out for casting extras). If you want to go hiking in the woods that evoke the deadly arena, head for the Coleman Boundary forest in northern Buncombe County, says Syrett.
The state drew rave reviews from the film’s production company, Lionsgate. “It has been an absolute thrill watching ‘The Hunger Games’… come to life,” Joe Drake, Lionsgate’s co-COO and motion picture group president, said in a statement. “What I observed on set was impressive on every level, and reinforced my confidence that we have assembled precisely the right team to bring Suzanne Collins’ brilliant novel to the big screen.”
A runaway success
While some have questioned the wisdom of cash giveaways to filmmakers, industry insiders consider “The Hunger Games” a runaway success for the state. The film brought over $60 million in spending to the state last year, and employed 600 crew members and over 4,000 extras, Syrett says. It contributed toward a record year for North Carolina, which claimed more than $220 million in film industry spending in 2011.
Assuming the film meets its blockbuster expectations, it may spawn three sequels instead of just two – the meaty third book, “Mockingjay,” may generate enough material to become two movies, a tactic already employed with success by the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” franchises. While North Carolina is likely to keep big chunks of the sequels, the production will likely have to look elsewhere for the tropical settings of much of the second installment, “Catching Fire.”
But it has already succeeded in helping to put the state on the short list for other big-budget productions – the state will host the filming of “Iron Man 3,” the latest sequel in the comic-book-based series starring Robert Downey, Jr., later this year.
“I know this will help us tremendously to recruit other projects in the future,” says Petty. “North Carolina is definitely on the radar screen.”
Meet the cast
Among the familiar faces who will hit the screen when “The Hunger Games” opens March 23 (advance tickets go on sale February 22):
Jennifer Lawrence: Katniss Everdeen, who must rely on her skills as a bow-and-arrow marksman to survive an arena filled with 24 teens fighting to the death – only one can survive.
Liam Hemsworth (“The Last Song”): Gale, Katniss’ childhood friend, hunting buddy and potential romantic interest.
Josh Hutcherson (“The Kids are All Right”): Peeta, the kind-hearted teen sent to fight alongside (and eventually against) Katniss in the games.
Woody Harrelson: Haymitch, the drunken mentor and victor of an earlier games who tries to train Katniss and Peeta on survival strategies.
Lenny Kravitz: Cinna, the stylist and ally who prepares Katniss for her reality television debut.
Donald Sutherland: The evil President Snow, who presides over the games.