Nina Jacobson is waiting to exhale.
Rebounding from her 2006 firing as boss of the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group, Jacobson ’87 is back in business and holding her breath as producer of The Hunger Games, which opens in late March. Adapted from Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young-adult novel about teenagers who kill each other as part of a reality TV series, the movie is sparking Twilight–level anticipation among tweens.
“It’s exciting but also terrifying because I know how fiercely I feel about this book, and I want to make sure every fan who sees the film goes home feeling satiated,” she says. “I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Am I doing everything I possibly can to make the movie great?’ You sort of never feel like you can exhale again.” Jacobson pauses. “Or it could just be that I’m really neurotic, so there’s that too.”
Jacobson, who has an eleven-year-old daughter and two sons, fourteen and five, packaged the edgy source material as PG-13 fare despite the storyline’s carnage. “This was always going to be a PG-13 movie,” she says. “The Hunger Games does not glamorize violence. In fact, by putting young people in the middle of it, I would argue it actually takes violence much more seriously than a lot of other properties.”
A former semiotics concentrator, Jacobson sees the connections between her new film and her days in class. “Hunger Games is so much about the consumption of media,” she says, “that I find myself thinking back to ideas that were introduced to me at Brown. I fell in love with film through film theory. To look at movies critically and see all the invisible messaging that we gloss over as we consume our stories—I got very caught up in that.”
Having dissected Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ingmar Berman films under the tutelage of modern culture and media professors Leslie Thornton, Mary Ann Doane, and Michael Silverman, Jacobson moved back to Los Angeles, her hometown, after graduation. There she found work as a script analyst at Disney, where her shrewd story critiques led to work as a development executive charged with nurturing feature projects.
“The backbone of my career,” she notes, “has always been about reading the material: having a point of view about it and being able to talk to the creator in a way that resonates with his or her intentions. Even though you’re not applying theoretical constructs to screenplays, you are always looking to understand the layers of meaning and help communicate the ideas that you think make that particular script powerful.”
Jacobson became copresident of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group in 1999, and during her seven-year tenure the studio turned out such hits as The Sixth Sense, The Princess Diaries, and Remember the Titans. Jacobson also launched the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean and Chronicles of Narnia franchises.
Despite that winning streak, five years ago Jacobson was dismissed in a phone call after a Disney corporate shakeup. Her partner was in labor at the time. Jacobson views the dismissal philosophically: “I remain sort of willfully naïve about these things: If you assume that people share the same goals—to make as good a movie as you can and get as many people as you can to go see it—then a lot of the politics can fall by the wayside, until they don’t, and you get fired, and that’s life in the big city!”
Jacobson then formed her own production company, Color Force. She now works only on movies she loves, including two Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies based on Jeff Kinney’s graphic novel series and last year’s Anne Hathaway relationship drama, One Day.
“As a studio executive,” Jacobson says, “you had all these sellers coming to you with things they love, so sometimes you could borrow the passion from the people who worked for you. As a producer, you really can’t borrow the passion. It has to be yours: ‘I need to go make this movie, and I’ll be away from my family, and this is going to consume me entirely for two years. Do I love it that much?’ As a producer, that’s the question you have to ask yourself.”