Hunger Games Director Gary Ross Won't Return for Sequel
04/11/2012 AT 03:00 PM EDT
On Monday, director Gary Ross shocked insiders and fans alike when he announced that he would be stepping down for the second Hunger Games film, Catching Fire.
Calling the blockbuster first film – which has broken box-office records with a domestic take of $302 million and counting – "the happiest experience of my professional life," Ross stated that "as a writer and a director, I simply don't have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule."
Lionsgate, the studio behind the series, released a statement of their own, saying they were "very sorry" that Ross chose not to direct Catching Fire.
The parting of ways is especially surprising because Ross had often spoken of his passion for the Hunger Games book trilogy and his desire to continue on with the story given what he called Katniss's "wonderful, graceful arc."
As fans of Suzanne Collins's trilogy know, the budding rebel leader is just getting warmed up. Spoiler Alert!
In Catching Fire, the action shifts to a special "all-star" edition of the Games, in which reigning winners Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) must compete in a beach and jungle-type setting.
Hawaii and the original North Carolina sets have been rumored as possible shooting locales, but Lionsgate tells PEOPLE that nothing has been decided. Meanwhile, the abandoned North Carolina mill where the impoverished District 12 was set has been put up for sale by its owner – for $1.4 million.
Will all the changes push back the film's scheduled release in November 2013? Lionsgate is sticking by the date, but acknowledges that the exact production schedule is now in flux as the studio searches for a replacement director.
And the film will need more than just a new director: Catching Fire also introduces several key new characters, including handsome previous Games winner Finnick Odair, an expert fisherman who becomes an important ally for Katniss.
Armie Hammer, Taylor Kitsch, Ryan Kwanten and Chris Hemsworth have all been batted around in the blogosphere as candidates to wield Finnick's trident.
With so much in the air, fans can at least breathe easy on one crucial subject: stars Lawrence, Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are signed on for the entire series.