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‘Hunger Games’ search heats up with Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin vie for lead

With the Oscars over, two of this year’s up-and-coming nominees are being considered for the hottest female role available at the moment: the lead in “Hunger Games.”

Sources tell Variety that 2010 Academy Award nominees Jennifer Lawrence and Hailee Steinfeld — as well as Abigail Breslin, nominated for “Little Miss Sunshine” — are all vying for the Liongate tentpole, due next March 23.

While no offer has been made, insiders say that Lawrence has generated the most interest.

Studio has Gary Ross directing and Billy Ray set to pen the script that Lionsgate hopes will be the next “Twilight”-like franchise. Source material is the hit book series by Suzanne Collins, which takes place in a dystopian future where a young girl joins a survival contest to save her community.

While “Games” is still a couple months from production, the lead role has become an important piece in what direction the film takes. The most significant is whether Ross wants his lead to play older or younger.

The character is described as a woman between 15 and 20, and that’s key — sources tell Variety that age is a big factor in Ross’ decision, as it will impact the audience demographic and other casting.

Lawrence, 20, who was nominated for a best actress Oscar for her role in “Winter’s Bone,” would make the part more of a young adult than Steinfeld or Breslin, who are both 14.

The choice will have a domino effect on the casting of other roles, such as who plays Peeta, Katniss’ love interest. Casting that role younger would be more of a challenge, with less names available in that range.

Another factor is time: the mini-major needs to act fast on either Lawrence or Steinfeld, as both are on the lookout for their next big projects to capitalize on their Oscar exposure.

In a pre-Oscars red carpet interview, Steinfeld not only mentioned meeting with Ross, but the “True Grit” star and supporting-actress nominee also said her team was weighing options — a hint that she’s considering other projects.

Lawrence has been linked to several high-profile pics including Oliver Stone’s “Savages.”

A decision may be weeks away. Lionsgate is still working out pic’s budget, which could delay the decision.

Breslin and Steinfeld are repped by ICM. Lawrence is repped by CAA.

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