Eddie Gamarra is a literary manager/producer at the Gotham Group, a multi-faceted management and production company representing screenwriters, directors, animators, authors, illustrators, publishers, and animation studios. A former college professor, Gamarra focuses primarily on children’s and family entertainment, and works with numerous bestselling authors and illustrators as well as Oscar, Emmy, Caldecott, and Newbery Award winners. In addition to his role at the Gotham Group, Gamarra has served as a consultant for Teen Magazine, the National Geographic TV series Hollywood Science, and is the executive producer of the Maze Runner trilogy from 20th Century Fox.
In anticipation of the Global Kids Connect Session “Adaptation: Navigating the New Hollywood” on May 31 at the inaugural New York Rights Fair, PW spoke with Gamarra about Hollywood myths, bringing projects from book to screen, and the potential for “lost in translation” moments between publishers and Hollywood.
Let’s get right to it: is there a Hollywood myth you’d like to debunk?
People joke around that Hollywood doesn’t read. The reality is that Hollywood deeply values stories told well in various forms: memoir, magazine article, novel. We do read! We read a ton.
But I think both [the book and film] industries would commiserate over how to handle the volume of incoming submissions. So it is sometimes untenable that every single person involved in the very collaborative process of literary adaptation can read every word of the source material. Since publishers almost always make what they acquire, they tend to need to know what they are buying. And since Hollywood tends to be far more developmental, we tend to traffic a bit more in terms of concept, marketability, casting, and budget.
Can you give us a peek into the Hollywood decision-making process? What is going through the minds of producers and executives when looking at books for possible adaptation?
We start by asking the big questions: Is it a movie or is it a television series—and now, with streaming, is it that? Is it live-action, is it animation, or a mix of both?
For feature films, we’re looking for big landscapes or spectacular special effects. For television or streaming, we want to know if it is taking place in a real world, or perhaps a sci-fi setting. But it really boils down to three key aspects: concept, casting, and story world.
When Hollywood talks “concept” or “concept-driven,” the question is really, “What’s the big idea?” Will someone get it in 30 seconds? Take one look at the cover of The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee (which was also a 2018 Oscar-nominated animated feature film), and you immediately know exactly what the story is. Sometimes all you need is a great title to sell a book project. I once sold a book that had not been written yet, on the title alone—it was a fantastic title that made everyone laugh: Imperial Death Monkeys.
Another consideration is what we call the “cast-ability” of the project: Can I get an actor attached? Does this story have a hook that makes it “director bait”? In other words, is this a literary adaptation to which we can attach an actor, director, screenwriter?
Last but not least, is this a world we haven’t seen before? Is it a fresh take on a universally known genre? What new world are we exploring?
A few years ago YA seemed to be all the rage in both the publishing world and in Hollywood. What is happening in Hollywood today? Is it still YA? Is there any interest in producing fare for the whole family?
Over the last 15 years, most entertainment executives have said something along the lines of, “We would love to do our Goonies,” the types of teen-led movies Amblin Entertainment used to make, the type of films Hollywood largely stopped making.
In terms of the YA surge a few years ago, what happened on the publishing side was that adult readers turned their attention to a publishing category and discovered compelling stories. In Hollywood, executives first learned about YA books from their kids. These executives saw that there was money in the book sales, and therefore saw potential for audiences—and money—in adaptations. The strong book sales afforded studios a little bit of mitigated risk. But how many teen-led films actually made it through the Hollywood system? A handful, like Twilight, Maze Runner, Hunger Games, Divergent, two John Green novels. And the box office performance of these films was not consistent.
In terms of family fare, we’ve seen the strong performance of Paddington, and movies like Peter Rabbit, classics that have historic brand value and appeal to multiple generations. These are movies that can be made in a way where the parents can watch it, too. Or think about the box office success of a contemporary classic like Jumanji, which appeals to audiences ages 8–88.
For the most part, though, the traditional family movies have been replaced with Marvel and Star Wars franchises. Fans of the originals have grown up, and are introducing their own kids to these properties. But these are movies without kid leads. The reboot of Jurassic Park features kids, but it is not told through their eyes. In these films, we’re not seeing the relationship between Elliott and E.T.
That’s an interesting observation about the eyes through which the story is told. Children’s literature is rich with young protagonists who resonate. How do these voices translate to screens?
This is one of the trickiest parts of selling children’s book properties in Hollywood.
There are currently a limited number of buyers for screen-based entertainment featuring young people: Nickelodeon, Disney, Amazon, and Netflix. Each of which are tonally very different!
As recently as a few years ago, there were more options. The CW Network was the outlet for edgy book-based teen fare—like the long-running Gossip Girl—and now its programming slate is all superheroes. Freeform, which was once ABC Family, was also teen-focused—think Pretty Little Liars—but they’ve aged up the protagonists of recent book series adaptations like Shadow Hunters. And feature films are no different. For example, the Percy Jackson book series opens with a lead character who is 12 years old; in the film he’s 16.
There are a number of reasons for this. Part of it has to do with child labor laws, part of it is pushback from marketing departments, and part of it is out of a desire not to be perceived as creating “kiddie” programming.
We’re all looking forward to Disney Streaming, as it will be another much-needed outlet acquiring children’s projects. [Editor’s note: according to press reports, the adaptation of Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, with the Gotham Group attached as producer, is one of the feature-length projects on the Disney Streaming slate. Disney Streaming is expected to debut in 2019.] This is good news for children’s publishers.
Bonus Question: You are in a unique position, working with both the publishing and Hollywood communities. Are there “lost in translation” moments as you navigate between these two industries?
What I tell authors, agents, editors, subsidiary rights professionals, literary agents, and all my publishing friends, is that the Hollywood way is all-inclusive. When they acquire a book property to develop for screen, they want to own it all!
Which means there are implications for authors and publishers who are creating book franchises with interwoven worlds, or publishing connected series in which characters from one series make cameo appearances in others. For publishers who are developing their own internal IP, there is much to be learned from film and television in terms of the legal framework. The way a feature film studio or a broadcaster looks at character rights is very different than how a publisher traditionally looks at character rights. It may be nuanced, but it has big ramifications for dealmaking.
Speaking of dealmaking, we’re now seeing new categories of rights, such as “narrative podcasting,” and emerging definitions of “multimedia.” The negotiations are increasingly complex.
There is also the matter of something as seemingly simple as language. Sometimes, Hollywood uses a term commonly used in publishing for something entirely different, and sometimes both Hollywood and publishing use the exact same term for two entirely different things. I relish my role as a translator and an ambassador between both worlds!
Global Kids Connect is an annual conference and professional learning event series produced by Publishers Weekly in association with the Bologna Book Fair. “Adaptation: Navigating the New Hollywood” takes place on May 31 at New York Rights Fair, the International Adult and Children’s Book Rights & Licensing Marketplace, in New York City.