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Lionsgate betting on ‘Hunger Games’

Minimajor dividing futuristic trilogy into four films

In a vote of confidence for “The Hunger Games” as a potential franchise, Lionsgate revealed plans to make Suzanne Collins’ futuristic trilogy into four films — and investors took a shine to the company’s recent positive earnings outlook with a 4% uptick in its stock.

Lionsgate execs made the ambitious disclosure Wednesday during a conference call for Wall Street analysts with studio motion picture group prexy Joe Drake, asserting that “Games” drew strong interest when it was offered for international sales at the recent Cannes Film Market.

The minimajor, which had not previously said how many “Games” films it would make, gave no indication Wednesday as to how it would divide the stories. But the approach echoes decisions on other franchise properties — Warner Bros.’ split of the seventh and final Harry Potter book into two movies, Summit’s decision to make two films from the fourth and final “Twilight” book, and New Line/MGM’s splicing of “Lord of the Rings” prequel “The Hobbit.”

The Lionsgate announcement came a day after it reported better than expected earnings for the fourth quarter ended March 31. The minimajor’s stock gained 26¢ to $6.19 in trading Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange. That’s still well off company’s 52-week high of $7.65, which it hit in October.

Lionsgate acquired feature rights to the trilogy in March 2009, with Nina Jacobson producing at her Color Force banner with Jon Kilik. Story is set in a bleak future where North America has been divided into a dozen districts — with each forced to send a boy and a girl to compete in a televised battle to the death once a year.

“Lionsgate’s showing a lot of confidence in the property,” said Matthew Harrigan, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities. “They’ve said they negotiated a good deal for the rights because they acquired it before it got wildly popular.”

First part of the novel was published in 2008 and the second installment, “Catching Fire,” followed in 2009. The third, “Mockingjay,” was released last August.

Lionsgate has set a March 23, 2012, release date for the first “Hunger Games.” Gary Ross is directing, with Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth starring.

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