The term “high concept” may not be dropped from movie studio lingo anytime soon, but filmic story lines aren't the only things being discussed in Los Angeles pitches. With more studios willing to put money behind the appeal of a brand, classic picture books are seeing broader interest in film circles.
Hollywood chasing after bestsellers is nothing new, but picture books, which are historically light on plot (and structure), have never gotten the widespread traction they're now seeing in Hollywood. And with the recent box office success of Where the Wild Things Are and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, more L.A. executives are realizing just how viable picture books are as source material.
For the most part the studios are optioning picture book properties that have expanded into franchise territory. Where's Waldo? has been set up at Illumination (the CGI unit of Paramount), slated for 2010; Harry Potter producer David Heyman is developing a live-action Paddington Bear film for Warner Bros., also set for 2010; The Lorax is in development, also at Illumination; and we hear that CAA is trying to package the Fancy Nancy series from HarperCollins and that Dutton's Skippyjon Jones series is being produced independently.
Jason Dravis, an agent at the Studio City-based Monteiro Rose Dravis Agency who has set up a number of children's titles in Hollywood, said that picture books, particularly backlist titles with proven sales records, can offer the allure of “pre-existing material.” Studios are also hungry for family films that can fit the elusive bill of four-quadrant entertainment—studio-speak for material that appeals to every segment of the viewing audience, i.e., men and women both younger and older than 25.
Eddie Gamarra at the Gotham Group—which packaged Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs—said he's gotten more calls lately from independent producers about picture books. But many of those producers, he noted, erroneously thought that, because picture books are usually short, they would be cheaper to option. Gamarra said picture books aren't suddenly gaining traction in Hollywood so much as people may be noticing them for the first time. To that end, he pointed to past box office hits like Night at the Museum and Shrek, saying most people might not have known (or may have forgotten) that both of those films were based on picture books.
Riley Ellis, an executive at Fox who focuses on children's book properties, said that while the success of Cloudy and Wild Things will help convince more producers that picture books can be viable source material for films, these titles are far from an easy sell. “Any title can be a movie if a producer or filmmaker can convince an executive that there is a bigger story to be told,” she said, “more than what is in a 32-page book. But the blanks need to be filled in.”
Agent Liza Wachter at Rabineau Wachter Sanford & Harris, who's currently shopping film rights to Farrar, Straus & Giroux's Starlight Goes to Town and the backlist classic Miss Rumphius (Viking), said she's not “seeing a huge effect” from the success of Wild Things and Cloudy, but that executives and others in Hollywood do now seem more open to picture book material.
For picture books like Starlight and Miss Rumphius, which don't offer the immediate brand appeal of a Where's Waldo? (which, since its original publication in the U.K. in 1987, has spun off into board/video games, T-shirts, and countless other products), the need to get talent with a creative vision attached becomes more essential. This is where the art comes in.
Since picture books are largely made up of, well, pictures, getting talent to focus on the potential look of a film—instead of how it will unfold—can be key to placing these properties. For Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius, a beloved title about a retired librarian trying to make the world a more beautiful place, Wachter is starting with the “visual element.”
Art will only take you so far, however. Ellis, who set up at different Fox divisions both My Travels with Clara (a 2007 promotional title from Getty Publications about a rhinoceros at the center of one of its exhibits) and the 1957 Edward Gorey fable, The Doubtful Guest, said the characters and plot needed to be laid out in both situations. Ellis said Gorey's “name and style were vital to the pre-awareness value,” and that, ultimately, the art will inspire the look of the film more than anything else, since the movie will be live action.
Stephen Moore at the Paul Kohner Agency, who regularly packages children's titles for film, said that, despite the attention the category is getting because of Cloudy and Wild Things, there's been a general lament, heard repeatedly at the Bologna Book Fair over the past five years, about the “lack of good picture books.” There are excellent properties out there, he said, but you still need the kernel of a big idea. Although Moore set up David Small's Fenwick's Suit, from FSG, at ImageMovers, he's had a hard time selling the film rights to Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick's “tremendously well-selling” The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins from Scholastic.
What about the classics? Will there be a run on Goodnight Moon and The Snowy Day in the wake of the hipster-friendly and box office—pleasing spin Spike Jonze put on Maurice Sendak? Possibly. Although some agents said there is still hesitation about mucking up a beloved tale—more than a few people interviewed cited the fear executives have of repeating the 2003 live-action adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, which was uniformly panned and flopped at the box office—classics do have name recognition. And if you can tease a story out of it, nothing may be off limits. As one film scout put it, referring to Where the Wild Things Are, “There's a book with plot and conflict, even if it is only 300 words.”