‘Hunger Games’ Prequel ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ Debuts Grim, Sweeping First Trailer at CinemaCon

Lionsgate is officially inviting audiences back to Panem for “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” a prequel set in the “Hunger Games” universe.

At long last, the odds were ever in CinemaCon-goers favor on Thursday as attendees of the annual trade show for theater owners were treated to the first teaser for the spinoff story. At last year’s convention, the studio only brought a short clip (sans movie footage or even a cast list) of “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” which left much to be desired.

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The much-anticipated trailer begins with Viola Davis, who plays the head gamemaker Volumnia Gaul, introducing “the creators of the Hunger Games themselves.” But there’s a change in this year’s dystopian event, warns Academy dean Casca Highbottom.

“As a mentor,” Highbottom says, “Your job is to turn these people into spectacles, not survivors.”

Based on the most recent novel by “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” takes place decades — 64 years, to be precise — before the adventures of Katniss Everdeen, which were immortalized on screen by Jennifer Lawrence.

In the new film, a young Coriolanus Snow (who eventually becomes the tyrannical president of Panem) takes the spotlight as he is chosen to mentor an impoverished tribute named Lucy Gray Baird during the 10th Hunger Games. For anyone who needs a refresher, the Hunger Games are a televised event in which teenagers are chosen via lottery to fight to the death.

In the novel, the unassuming Lucy Gray sparks everyone’s attention by singing during the reaping ceremony. With her talent and charm, Snow believes he may be able to turn the odds in their favor to win the games. But in the early footage of the movie, Baird is not yet encouraged that her mentor has faith in her ability to survive the dangerous arena.

“You really want to take care of me in that area? Start believing I can actually win,” Lucy tells her mentor.

The trailer doesn’t include any footage of Lucy’s singing talent, but offers a grim look at the familiar canon as the tributes find themselves in possibly the worst version of hunt or be hunted.

“What happens in there…” warns Volumnia Gaul, “see how quickly civilization disappears?”

The film stars “The Gilded Age” actor Tom Blyth, who plays Snow, and “West Side Story” star Rachel Zegler, who plays Baird. Other cast members include Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage and Davis.

Francis Lawrence returned to direct “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” having previously helmed three of franchise’s prior installments, “Catching Fire,” “Mockingjay — Part 1” and “Mockingjay — Part 2.” Michael Lesslie wrote the screenplay. The prequel story debuts in theaters on Nov. 17.

Lionsgate executive Adam Fogelson introduced the clip at CinemaCon and talked up the film’s “massive fan base,” which he says “could not be more engaged or enthusiastic for this next chapter.”

“We talk about this a little bit like the way ‘Wicked’ sits in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ universe or ‘Episode One’ in fits in the ‘Star Wars’ universe,” he said. “Fans want to know the origin of this beloved story.”

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