‘Hunger Games’ Prequel Trailer Revives the Franchise With Rachel Zegler (Video)

CinemaCon audiences got an early look at “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”

"The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" (Credit: Lionsgate)

Lionsgate’s brief CinemaCon presentation (90 minutes of the two hours allotted was used for a screening of “Joy Ride”) was highlighted by the first look at “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songburds and Snakes,” the first trailer for which is now online.

The trailer, which will debut in theaters with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” next week, introduces viewers to the tenth annual Hunger Games competition, telling a story of how the future President Snow (played in the four “Hunger Games” movies by Donald Sutherland) mentored a promising 12th district competitor and, well, if you’ve seen the movies or read the books you can presume it doesn’t end well for the good guys. Snow will be played by Tom Blyth while Rachel Zegler (“West Side Story”) will play Lucy Gray Baird.

“It’s the ones we love the most that destroy us,” bellows Donald Sutherland reminding us of the previous films.

Francis Lawrence, who directed “Catching Fire” and the two “Mockingjay” films after Gary Ross got the franchise up and running, is back in the director’s chair for “Songbirds” with a screenplay by Michael Lesslie (“Thirteen Lives”) and Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”). Arndt co-wrote “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” adaptation under his pseudonym Michael deBruyn.

The film is based on the prequel book by Suzanne Collins, who’s once again involved as an executive producer. Producers are Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson and Francis Lawrence.

The big question between now and Nov. 17 is whether audiences will show up for another “Hunger Games” movie nearly a decade after “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II” and sans Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. A huge part of the franchise’s appeal was the star+marquee character pull of Katniss, who was essentially sold as a weapon-wielding, ass-kicking alternative to Kristen Stewart in the “Twilight” films.

That audiences weren’t as enthralled with the dark, brutal and frankly uncompromising series finale doesn’t help matters, as going back to the well usually requires a certain amount of lingering appreciation. Relative quality notwithstanding, “The Hunger Games” franchise became less popular as the movies became, like Suzanne Collins’ books, less about pretty people slaughtering each other amid fantastical locales and more about the inherent anti-fascism politics.

Lionsgate is hoping that Rachel Zegler starring as a metaphorical past-tense incarnation of Katiness Everdeen is a star+character+IP victory. No, Lucy isn’t quite the same character as Katniss, and it’s arguably not her story (no spoilers), but that shouldn’t stop Lionsgate’s marketing departments.

Most importantly, the smartest thing Lionsgate has done thus far is not positioning this flick as the start of a trilogy or a new franchise. It’s being positioned as another “Hunger Games” movie, with the literary source material to justify it, so there is less harm if the film is a modest hit or an outright miss. If audiences show up, we might get another one. If not, we won’t. How quaint and old-fashioned!

“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” opens exclusively in theaters on Nov. 17, and the cast also includes Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis.