Random House has Random House Films. Macmillan has Macmillan Films. And Penguin? Although the house has been low-key about the ways it has begun to dip its corporate toes into film production, and Hollywood, it, too, is making inroads there. One way is with Penguin Development Group.
PDG is less a group and more, as its sole member and founder put it, “an army of one.” That description comes from Peter Harris, a former producer based in Los Angeles who has been working at the book publisher since mid-2009. Harris is not the only person working on film development at Penguin, but he is the only one working, formally, in a Hollywood-focused unit.
According to Harris, the group started after he began having conversations with Penguin CEO David Shanks. Before joining Penguin, Harris was a v-p with Temple Hill Entertainment, a production company that specializes in developing projects based on books (ranging from the Twilight Saga to Dear John), with lots of contacts in publishing. Shanks, Harris elaborated, conceived the division. “In our conversations [Shanks] said he wanted to explore new ways... that film development could work for book publishers.”
Harris is not the only executive trying to take advantage of publishers’ intellectual property in a more encompassing and aggressive way. At Penguin, Ben Schrank (who works at Razorbill) is active in this area, as is Eric Huang, who has the title of publishing director for media and entertainment at Penguin UK. But Harris, at least at Penguin USA, is the only with a “division” behind him.
Like the film units at other houses, the goal of PDG is to position Penguin to benefit more directly from media projects derived from content that begins as their books. With content flowing to other media platforms beyond the old Hollywood tropes (of film and TV)—like streaming video on the Web and video games—Harris said there are even more opportunities for publishers to develop their own projects across mediums.
At PDG Harris said he is focused on “generating original ideas for books and series” that can then be turned around and adapted into other forms of entertainment. While Harris said he’s interested in concepts that have appeal as “books first,” the caveat is that he would not likely “pursue something that didn’t also have a real shot at becoming great in other media.” Thus far, Harris has roughly six projects that he is working on. When asked about the relatively small figure, he pointed out that it can take “years” to set up a project in Hollywood.
Harris estimated that 80% of the projects he does start from brainstorming sessions with Penguin editors, while the other 20% grow out of ideas he is pitched. One example that highlights how Harris works is a book called The Code. A hockey thriller, the title grew out of a desire at Penguin to create “a Canadian Robert Parker.” With that template in mind, Harris worked with editors at Penguin Canada to craft a potential series, in the mold of work by the aforementioned author, that would have particular local appeal. After the series was conceived, Harris and the Penguin Canada editors found a writer—G.B. Joyce—and the book was published in January 2012. (In the U.S., the title was released in September by Penguin’s Pintail imprint.) The book has been optioned by Entertainment One (known as eOne), one of Canada’s major production companies.
Two recent projects Harris has in the pipeline include one coming out of Dutton with the pulp author Christa Faust, and a series called The Rescuer, which is at Putnam. The Faust project, which Harris worked on with Jill Schwartzman, is about “Gillian Flynn-izing Fifty Shades of Grey,” Harris said. Faust (Chokehold and Moneyshot) is set to write an e-book original for Dutton’s Gilt Edge imprint called Bad Romance. The goal with Faust is to “thriller-ize what’s going on in erotica,” Harris noted, and he is currently shopping the concept, like all PDG projects. The Rescuer, which Harris described as “Batman meets The Wire,” is about a former crooked cop who returns to his beat to, as they say, right the wrongs of his past—and save a crumbling metropolis. The first book in that series, developed with Ivan Held, is set to debut in summer 2014.