If you're a small movie company like Lionsgate looking to break into the big time, The Hunger Games is just about the perfect way to do it.
But nabbing the right property doesn't mean a thing if you can't get a good director to put it all together. Someone who has a vision, but won't cost a whole lot. Someone with a sense of literary style and who knows how to tell a story instead of just drowning you in special effects. Someone, in other words, like Gary Ross.
Ross started out as a screenwriter at Paramount Pictures, which makes sense since he co-wrote the screenplay on this one too. He made a lot of noise early on with smart movies like Big and Dave. His first directing job was 1998's Pleasantville, about a pair of teens who get sucked into a 50s television sitcom and end up sparking a cultural revolution. He followed it up with the horse-racing biopic Seabiscuit, which took a similarly smart approach and let him try his hand at adapting someone else's work to the big screen.
It was an impressive one-two punch, one that got him in to direct The Hunger Games.
He had a distinctive style and the right sense of surreal reality (surreality?) to set up the story. He doesn't go for excess spectacle, which means he can keep the budget down, and he has a knack for literary storytelling that lets him communicate with the author on her terms. In other words, he was a great fit, and the fact that he produced a terrific film here is proof that the studio's instincts were spot-on.
Ross approached The Hunger Games the same way he might film a documentary about the Super Bowl or the World Series. There's a combination of shaky-cam-style shots, mostly handling either Katniss in the arena or Katniss's life before being selected. Contrast that with the camera shots of all the pageantry of the Capitol and its combination fashion party and pre-bloodbath snacking. They look like they come from a TV feed, just like Ross would do if he were a future filmmaker in this universe, shooting a documentary of Katniss's life.
It's a slick move, attempting to connect the film in a visual way to one of its central messages: how the media can manipulate our perception of the world. He wants us to understand that Katniss's universe isn't all that different from ours, and he's using the visual language we already understand from reality TV to get the point across.
Thanks in part to Ross's direction, the film grossed roughly a jillion dollars when it first opened in 2012. Ross bowed out of the saga after that, citing a lack of time to work on other projects and leaving it all in the hands of Austrian director Francis Lawrence to cover the last three films (source).
Kind of shocking to walk away from such a blockbuster franchise, right?
Ross went on to direct 2016's The Free State of Jones, featuring the thousand-yard-stare of Matthew McConaughey to haunt our nightmares, so we can only assume he was happy with his choice (source).