Lionsgate seeking helmer to replace Gary Ross for 'Hunger Games' sequel

Lionsgate has offered the “Catching Fire” directing gig to Francis Lawrence, helmer of “I Am Legend” and “Water for Elephants.”

A spokeswoman for Lionsgate confirmed the offer Thursday but added that the studio has not closed the directing deal. Lionsgate is planning to shoot the movie starting in the late summer for a Nov. 22, 2013 release date.

Move comes nine days after “The Hunger Games” director Gary Ross ankled the sequel, citing a “fixed and tight production schedule” as his key reason for exiting.

Fox is planning to start its “X-Men: First Class” sequel in January with “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence — no relation to Francis Lawrence — committed to the superhero pic.

Suzanne Collins’ “Catching Fire” story features a special edition of the Hunger Games every quarter-century in which tributes are “reaped” from the victors of past games. Among the key new characters is Finnick, a combatant in the second book who leads a revolt against the Capitol, and the head Gamemaker in the second book who turns out to be working stealthily for the uprising.

Lionsgate has not set the release dates for the final two films in the franchise, based on the concluding “Mockingjay” tome in Collins’ trilogy.

Lawrence has a clear late-summer schedule and can immediately begin working with “Slumdog Millionaire” screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who’s still crafting the “Fire” script.

Lawrence, a native of Austria, broke into show business as a music video director and landed his first feature gig on 2005″s “Constantine.” “I Am Legend” was a major hit in 2007 for Warner Bros. with domestic grosses topping $250 million.

“The Hunger Games” has been an outsized success for Lionsgate with $341 million in domestic gross and nearly $200 million from international markets.

Summit Entertainment has used four different directors — Catherine Hardwicke, Chris Weitz, David Slade and Bill Condon — for the first four “Twilight” films. Condon also directed “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2,” which opens in November.

Lawrence is repped by CAA and 3 Arts.

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