What do a wizard-in-training, a teenage royal and a big green ogre have in common? They happen to be the lead characters in three hit feature films—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Princess Diaries and Shrek—that helped make 2001 a banner year for children's/family entertainment. In addition to being box-office champs (the trio of movies earned a combined total of approximately $670 million in U.S. ticket sales last year), these family-friendly flicks provided happy fallout for publishers and booksellers, too, because Harry Potter, Princess Mia Thermopolis and Shrek all originated as the protagonists of popular children's books.
Though a number of movies inspired by children's books have achieved notable success over the years (The Wizard of Oz; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; Babe; Stuart Little), Harry, Princess and Shrek raked in enormous profits during the same year, and both Harry (Warner Bros.) and Shrek (DreamWorks) earned Oscar nominations, the latter taking home the gold statuette in the newly created Best Animated Feature category. In addition, several other films for children not based on books also performed extremely well during 2001 (even as Disney's summer release, Atlantis, did not meet expectations, though it earned $84 million in U.S. ticket sales; comparatively, at press time, this summer's Lilo & Stitch had already made $103 million after just three weeks in release.)
This kind of box-office business and industry recognition has just about everyone in Hollywood taking more notice of the children's/family genre. As a result, this summer 40 films that are rated G or PG will be released, according to a recent USA Today report, compared to 38 in 2001 and 28 in 1999. Miramax Films is one company that has announced a concentrated effort to develop more family fare, a lineup that company insiders refer to as the "Teddy Projects." And since all this film action bodes well for authors, publishers, agents (and booksellers) who have children- and family-focused titles to sell, we take a look at how some children's books are making a name for themselves on the silver screen.
In terms of making the transition from book to film, "There are three things that put a project over the top," says Stephen Moore, a literary agent specializing in film and television rights at the Paul Kohner Agency in Beverly Hills. "First is a very recognizable or beloved title or author, like Dr. Seuss or Tuck Everlasting [by Natalie Babbitt]," he says. "Something that has real name value." Second, Moore says, "projects that have a very strong concept, like [William Steig's] Shrek!, which is a simple, fable-like story, or Fenwick's Suit [by David Small], another simple but really original story [Fox recently dropped an option on this title], will often demand attention." And finally, Moore says, a proposed book-to-film project that has "a meaningful attachment—a big director, a big actor or sometimes even a big screenwriter" is likely to be developed and produced sooner than most.
Such is the case with The Ant Bully by John Nickle, published by Scholastic in 1999. Moore recently sold the property to Universal/Playtone. Actor Tom Hanks and screenwriter/director John Davis (Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius) are already on board to adapt the book as a CGI (computer-generated images) feature.
Manhattan literary agent Ellen Levine, who works as co-agent with Susan Schulman on certain film rights projects, believes that movie producers scouting for books are seeking many of the same qualities Levine looks for when taking on an author's work. "Good characters, a strong plot and something that is in a way unique," are Levine's general guidelines. She believes that these days, Hollywood is especially keen on "children's books that will hold the interest of adults, too." As a case in point, she mentions Louis Sachar's Holes, which Levine and Schulman jointly sold to producer Andrew Davis and his company Chicago Pacific Entertainment. (Davis then brought in Phoenix Pictures to make the film and, soon after, education media and entertainment company Walden Media joined Chicago Pacific and Phoenix, jump-starting the co-production.) Holes, starring Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Patricia Arquette, is currently in post-production (see article). Commenting on the Hollywood appeal of the 1998 novel, Levine notes, "It has a lot of color. It's a complex but easy-to-follow story filled with wonderful, universal themes--friendship, destiny, history--that really work for the big screen."
Children's and young adult books that draw critical raves and/or create strong bookseller support naturally pique the curiosity of filmmakers, according to Maria Kjoller, director of subsidiary rights for Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers. "Anything that has a buzz about it, anything that gets a starred review in PW producers often want to see," she says. "Of course, having a Newbery helps, and producers are always looking for classic titles."
Penelope Holroyde, subsidiary rights director at Candlewick, agrees that critical acclaim is key. "[Book] reviews are very important to the studios," she says. She mentions Ron Koertge's Stoner and Spaz (May) as a book that didn't generate any rights heat until it received four starred reviews. Though Candlewick doesn't handle the rights, Holroyde confirms that Hollywood has now taken an interest in the property. "Sometimes we think that we have to get a book optioned simultaneously with publication or it loses steam," she says.
At Harcourt, subsidiary rights specialist Brian Keliher says that film and TV rights requests are broken down into animation and live-action categories. He sees a trend toward "quirky, fun characters" when it comes to studios specifically looking for animation projects. "That doesn't mean there is no market for traditional Cinderella-type projects; there are always exceptions," he says. "But when you look at the top animated TV shows today [including SpongeBob SquarePants and Hey Arnold!], quirky is what's working right now."
The live-action arena, Keliher believes, "is so much more subjective. We've been told that producers want a child as the center of the story, but that you need a fairly strong adult character, too. They want something that will appeal to kids and bring in adults as well. Sometimes we get requests for a 'theme-of-the-moment,' but in the end, it's very good writing with strong characters that gets the attention—it doesn't always get the sale, but it gets noticed."
Holroyde sees requests from studios and producers often moving in "trend waves," saying, "Studios tend to follow each other." For example, "Lots of people are looking at fantasy now, where the year before everyone was very anti-fantasy," she says. "They're all looking for the next Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings."
Producer Jane Startz, head of Jane Startz Productions, like most of her colleagues, seeks out books that speak to her in a unique way. "I always look for the same kinds of stories," she says of the titles she and v-p Gillian McKenzie select. "I want to see strong, positive characters, an original voice, someone overcoming adversity and making difficult choices. I'm very much an optimist, and I'm drawn to stories about love, commitment and friendship, in which people band together and find strength in a common purpose. I'm attracted to books that have good values, where problems are resolved in a non-violent way," Startz adds. "And I like to see characters in nontraditional roles—girls having adventures or guys being kind and compassionate to each other."
Startz has applied her criteria to such past features as The Mighty, The Indian in the Cupboard and The Baby-Sitters Club (Startz produced these latter two films as co-founder and executive v-p of Scholastic Productions in the early 1990s). These days, Startz is co-producing Tuck Everlasting with Disney/Beacon Films. The movie, starring Sissy Spacek, Ben Kingsley, William Hurt, Amy Irving, Alex Bledel and Jonathan Jackson, is scheduled for release this October. Startz also has a first-look deal with Miramax, where her co-production of Gail Carson Levine's Newbery Honor— winning Ella Enchanted begins filming in Ireland next month, with Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) in the lead role.
Julie Goldstein, executive v-p of production and development for Miramax Films, oversees Startz's arrangement and speaks highly of the symbiotic relationship. "Jane has great taste," she says. "We worked together on The Mighty. Anything she likes, we usually like."
Properties currently on the fast track at Miramax include a new version of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio by Roberto Benigni, for which the movie studio and McDonald's have agreed to a $20-million worldwide promotional partnership; the big-screen adaptation of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl (published by sister companies Talk Miramax Books/Hyperion Books for Children), which is scheduled to begin filming in October with producers Jane Rosenthal and Robert DeNiro of Tribeca Productions; The Cricket in Times Square, George Selden's classic, which is planned to be a combination of CGI and live action; and the aforementioned Ella Enchanted. In addition to producers' taste, Holroyde mentions that a studio's "sensitivity issues" come into play when selecting books to develop. "There are studios that will not want a book that depicts teens taking drugs or having sex," she says. "Other studios won't have a problem with it." She notes that such issues "are a moving goal post" and very difficult to predict.
Not All Gold
High-profile hits may make the book-into-film process look easy but, like many things in Hollywood, the reality behind the flashy façade is much different. Moore of the Paul Kohner Agency is quick to point out that the original deals for both Shrek! and Tuck Everlasting (both published by FSG) were ironed out back in 1995, and the films took a number of years to be completed. All the key ducks must be in a row for a film project to keep its momentum and move through production to actual release. "The screenplay has to be perfect, no executives attached to the project can get fired, the budget has to be in place. It's a very long process," says Moore.
For Shrek, the obstacles were many, beginning with the time- and labor-intensive process of computer animation. Then, after production had begun with comedian Chris Farley as the voice of Shrek, Farley died and was eventually replaced by fellow Saturday Night Live alum Mike Myers, who started the role back at square one.
According to Kjoller at FSG, "It's more the norm than the exception for a film not to get made." A typical film-rights option on a book has three renewable periods of six, 12 or 18 months apiece, with three years being an average length of time for the period before the option is exercised or dropped. "Over the last two years, I think things are being optioned more cautiously," she says. "We work so hard to get the deals hashed out up front that producers are more careful."
Whether an optioned book becomes a film or not, the attention from Hollywood is still desirable. "I'm estimating that maybe 10% of the books optioned actually go on to become films," says Keliher. But, he notes, "An option is an important step. It means people are pushing the book and trying to make it happen. We know that most of the books will come back to us, but that first step is always a good thing."
Kjoller speculates that many times for producers, "Visualizing a children's book for the screen is much more difficult than they think. In adult films, a straightforward story about a couple can easily kill an hour and a half onscreen, but in children's books there is usually much more going on—there are elements of fantasy or different subplots. And when you have a protagonist who is 11 or 12 years old, producers suddenly realize, 'We have to find a really good 11- or 12-year-old actor now.' "
Holroyde believes that the inherent differences between books and movies sometimes make it tough to get producers interested. "When I'm pitching titles, producers are looking for a text that eight-year-olds will enjoy and 14-year-olds won't find too babyish," she says. "That's very difficult. They want something with very broad appeal, and we publish books much more specifically than that." And when a book fails to move beyond the option stage, Holroyde says that more often than not, it's due to a lack of backing. "A producer is sometimes unable to convince the powers that be that it's a viable project," she says.
Speaking from her extensive experience in shepherding children's-book projects, Startz comments, "You have to have determination and passion if you want to see it through. You have to be creative about finding ways to make it work." She notes that, all told, she labored for more than 10 years to steer the film version of Tuck Everlasting to fruition. "It's a very arduous process to get a good script that's true to the material."
But one source of input that literary agents (and a number of producers) aggressively try to secure is that of the author. "Creative control is always an issue in a negotiation," Moore says. "Different authors will be involved to a varying degree, but if a publisher controls the rights, the author may not be involved at all."
Moore points again to Tuck Everlasting as an exception. Though FSG held the film rights, "Natalie Babbitt had a great deal of control," Moore says. "She was allowed creative restrictions. For instance, the character of Winnie Foster must die at the end of the film, as she does in the book, and certain scenes from the book were required to be included in the film."
Startz emphasizes, "My real allegiance is always to the author. They offer a unique perspective on the material even if they don't agree with my vision for it. I wouldn't want to do something that an author really didn't like."
Despite the uncertainty and enormous effort involved in adapting children's books for film, no one seems to be shying away from the genre. "The appetite only seems to be growing with major studios and smaller producers alike," says Moore. Goldstein of Miramax has only enthusiastic words about her company's new and widening family-friendly umbrella. "Ella Enchanted will be our first big-budget kids' film," she says. "In the past, we didn't look at animated projects or big Harry Potter—type fantasies, but now we are looking at everything," she says. "We're doing a whole range of things, from small- to big-budget. We've always had this interest, but it's even stronger now, I think, because we have a book division that's providing us with some great material, and lots of our executives now have families of their own and want to make movies that their kids can see."
For Keliher at Harcourt, rights interest sometimes "gets hot and cold" but is mostly steady, especially for works of fantasy. "We routinely get several calls a week about Edward Eager's Half Magic series," he comments [Sony has optioned one of the books; see listing]. Audiences "will always want to see quality family films," he adds. "People are longing for the good old days—whether they are fictional or not. I don't think the genre will ever go away."
And as long as children's book-inspired projects continue to fill seats at the multiplex, it seems there will be room for as many players who want to get in the game. As Startz says, "The growth has been exponential. Success breeds success. People are realizing that this is a viable commercial enterprise." Publishers and booksellers, who stand to benefit not only from the rights sales but opportunities for tie-ins and cross-promotional efforts, can only hope that Startz is right and that Hollywood keeps calling.
In the Works
What follows is a list of some of the children's books that have recently been optioned or are in production or development for film or television.
1-800-WHERE-R-U series by Jenny Carroll (Simon Pulse), optioned by Lions Gate TV and producer Debra Martin Chase.
Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz (Philomel), optioned by Samuelson Productions.
America by E.R.Frank (Atheneum/Jackson), film rights purchased by Rosie O'Donnell, who has written a preliminary screen adaptation.
The Ant Bully by John Nickle (Scholastic), sold to Universal/Playtone for adaptation as a CGI feature.
Aquamarine by Alice Hoffman (Scholastic), optioned by Fox 2000.
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (Talk Miramax/Hyperion Books for Children), rights sold to Miramax Films.
Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera (Harcourt/Silver Whistle), film rights sold to Nickelodeon Films.
A Band of Angels by Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Raúl Colón (Atheneum/Schwartz), optioned by City Entertainment.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick), optioned for development as a feature film by producer Joan Singleton.
Belle Prater's Boy by Ruth White (FSG), optioned by Angel Brown Productions.
Berenstain Bears series (Random House), developed as an animated series by Nelvana; set to debut on PBS in January 2003.
Bear at the Beach , Used-Up Bear and Lonesome Bear by Clay Carmichael (North-South), optioned by Warner Bros.
Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick), Jane Startz Productions feature film project currently in turnaround at New Line Cinema.
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (Random House), feature film currently in preproduction for Imagine Entertainment/Alphaville Films/Universal Pictures, set to star Mike Myers as the Cat, with filming to begin fall 2002.
Chet Gecko series by Bruce Hale (Harcourt), optioned by Vanguard Animation.
Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen by Dyan Sheldon (Candlewick), optioned by New Line Cinema.
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden (FSG), rights sold to Miramax for development as a feature film.
Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey (Houghton), film rights sold to Imagine Entertainment/Universal for development as an animated feature.
Dial-a-Ghost by Eva Ibbotson (Dutton), optioned by David Heyman of Heyday Productions for development as a Warner Bros. feature film.
Dragon series by Dav Pilkey (Orchard), sold to Cité Amérique for development as a series of Claymation shorts to air on Nick Jr. beginning in late 2003.
The Dream Factory: Starring Anna and Henry by Bjorn Sortland, illus. by Lars Elling (Lerner/Carolrhoda), rights sold to Miramax Films.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins), scheduled for production as a feature film by Jane Startz Productions/Miramax.
The Engineer of Beasts by Scott Russell Sanders (Orchard; o.p.), in development for Jane Startz Productions, adapted for film by Stu Kreiger.
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath (FSG), optioned by Radical Media.
The Firework-Maker's Daughter by Philip Pullman (Knopf), optioned by Miramax Films.
Frindle by Andrew Clements (S&S), optioned by Screaming Mama Productions for development as a feature film.
The Giver by Lois Lowry (Houghton), optioned by Walden Media.
The Goats by Brock Cole (FSG), optioned by Humble Journey Films.
Goody Hall by Natalie Babbitt (FSG), optioned by Tim Podell.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine), Warner Bros. feature film is currently in post-production. Release date is November 15.
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (Knopf), film rights purchased by New Line Cinema.
Holes by Louis Sachar (FSG/Foster), currently shooting as a feature film by Walden Media.
In a Dark Wood by Michael Cadnum (Orchard), sold to Beacon Films for development as a feature film.
In the Company of Men: A Woman at the Citadel by Nancy Mace (S&S), sold to Artisan Entertainment for USA Network.
The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by Jon Agee (FSG), optioned by Cielo Cerezo.
Interstellar Pig by William Sleator (Dutton), being produced as a feature film for Nickelodeon Films/Paramount Pictures.
Jasper the Terror by John Rowe (North-South), optioned by San Francisco production company Wild Brain.
Jumping the Nail by Eve Bunting (Harcourt), optioned by William McCutcheon Productions.
Knight's Castle by Edward Eager (Harcourt), optioned by Sony/John Boorman.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins), being developed as a live-action feature by Walden Media and the C.S. Lewis Company.
Little Polar Bear by Hans de Beer (North-South), Warner Germany (division of Warner Bros.) feature film was released in Germany in 2001; potential theatrical release in U.S. later this year.
Little Robots by Mike Brownlow (Ragged Bears), film and television rights sold to Lego Media. Currently in production for BBC; U.S. rights in negotiation.
Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence (Delacorte), in development as co-production of Jane Startz Productions/Turtleback Productions.
The Loudness of Sam by James Proimos (Harcourt), optioned by Nelvana.
The Many Adventures of Johnny Mutton by James Proimos (Harcourt), optioned by Sunbow Entertainment.
Max and Ruby books by Rosemary Wells (Viking), Max & Ruby animated television show debuts on Nick Jr. this fall.
Mean Margaret by Tor Seidler, illus. by Jon Agee (HarperCollins/di Capua), in development as an animated feature for Jane Startz Productions.
Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng (HarperCollins, May 2003), film rights to David Heyman/Heyday Productions.
My Guy by Sarah Weeks (HarperCollins/Geringer), sold to Disney Feature Films.
Nancy Drew mysteries by Carolyn Keene (S&S), sold to Kevin Brown Productions/Touchstone Television for development as a Disney movie-of-the-week due to air this fall.
The Night Room by E.M. Goldman (Viking), being developed as a feature film by Paramount Pictures/Jane Startz Productions/Icon Productions.
The Night I Followed the Dog by Nina Laden (Chronicle), in production as a feature film for Columbia Pictures.
The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill (Dell/ Yearling), in development for Jane Startz Productions; Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein) is attached to direct.
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, being produced by Miramax as a feature film.
The Polar Express (Houghton), rights sold to Playtone for development as a feature film with Castle Rock; dist. by Warner Bros.
Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Scholastic), sold to East of Doheny, a relatively new, privately funded company founded to develop family fare.
Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest by Nancy Springer (Philomel), in development for Jane Startz Productions.
The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson (Dutton), sold to Nelvana for development as a feature film.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (HarperCollins), sold to Nickelodeon Films/Paramount; first three books adapted by author for a feature film due holiday 2003.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares (Delacorte), sold to Warner Bros.
Someone Like You and That Summer by Sarah Dessen (Viking), books inspired a New Line Cinema feature film tentatively titled How to Deal, currently filming in Ontario, Canada, and starring Mandy Moore and Allison Janney; due out in summer 2003.
Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman (Hyperion), co-production in development for Jane Startz Productions/Miramax.
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (Knopf), optioned by Nickelodeon Films/Paramount.
Stuart Little by E.B. White (HarperCollins). Stuart Little 2, the second feature film based on this book, was released by Sony/ Columbia Pictures on July 19.
Teen Angst? Naaah: A Quasi-Autobiography by Ned Vizzini (Free Spirit), being adapted as a TV series, a co-production between Jane Startz Productions and Miramax Television.
Ted by Tony DiTerlizzi (S&S), optioned by John Williams/Vanguard Films.
Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements (Philomel), optioned by Jane Startz Productions.
The Three Pigs by David Wiesner (Clarion), Caldecott Medal winner optioned to Disney Feature Animation.
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (FSG), sold to Disney by FSG. A Disney/ Beacon Films/Jane Startz Production; slated for October 11 release.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins), Miramax/ Jane Startz co-production in development.
When the Circus Came to Town by Polly Horvath (FSG), optioned by Jim Henson Productions.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins), currently in production as a CGI feature from Playtone and Universal Pictures; potential Thanksgiving 2004 or summer 2005 release.
The World of Judy Blume. Jane Startz Productions is partnering with the author to produce film and TV properties based on her novels, including Blubber; Iggie's House; Then Again, Maybe I Won't; and Just As Long As We're Together.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (FSG), filmed as a television miniseries for Miramax Television, set to air on ABC.
Yolanda's Genius by Carol Fenner (S&S/ McElderry), optioned by Alliance Atlantis.
Zathura by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton, Oct.), optioned by Columbia Pictures/ Radar Pictures for adaptation as a feature film.