Random House Improvises with Pixar’s 'Soul'
Pixar’s next feature film, Soul, focuses on a jazz musician, which is apropos given that Random House Children’s Books improvised on the publishing program, due to both the film’s themes and the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19.
The list is narrower than is the norm for a Pixar release, with four titles: Soul: The Deluxe Junior Novelization, a digest novelization, a Little Golden Book, and Journey to You, a Step into Reading title (which is Level 3, versus Level 1 or 2 for most tie-ins). “We scaled the publishing program back a tad, but it was nothing to do with our support for the film,” said Chris Angelilli, v-p, editor-in-chief, and executive director of licensed publishing. “It’s a sophisticated film about existential questions and is slightly older than our usual program. There are no talking cars, dinosaurs, or sharks. It’s more cerebral.” In fact, before his colleagues got a chance to view the film, it was a hard sell internally. “When you say, ‘It’s about a middle-aged protagonist who loves jazz, and he dies,’ it’s a hard pitch,” he noted. “But Pixar always says its films are for kids from ages 2 to 200, and that certainly applies to this film.”
Another complication was the timing. The film was originally scheduled for June 19, 2020, but is now set—at the moment—for November 20. “You can certainly understand why, with the pandemic,” Angelilli said. He points out that pivoting is the name of the game these days, with all of Random House’s spring and summer tie-in programs affected in some way, and fall up in the air. Dreamworks’ sequel Trolls World Tour went from theatrical to streaming, and book sales were less than anticipated, with the distribution change, furloughs, and the closure of major retailers all likely contributing to that. Scoob also went all-digital, while The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run was moved to an August theatrical release. “And that might not stick,” Angelilli said. “These changes all happened after we shipped, so that will have a big impact on returns.”
The pandemic has accelerated a move to streaming that was already happening. “The movie landscape is changing,” Angelilli said. “Will theaters reopen? Will moviegoers flock back or will it take time? Will it be a VOD model instead of theatrical? It will be interesting to see what happens, but film releases will be different going forward, and you have to be ready to pivot quickly. There is not only one way to publish or only one way to market.” When releases started moving to streaming this spring, RH’s marketing department quickly switched to an “in-home premiere” message, with a focus on “turning screen time into story time,” Angelilli said. The theme carried through licensor cross-promotions, targeted social media, newsletters, and other tactics.
Meanwhile, on July 28, Random House is releasing a Little Golden Book tied to Bao, a Pixar short that was initially released with The Incredibles 2 in June 2018 and is now streaming on Disney+. “Every now and then I get a sudden flood of calls telling me that I need to publish against something, and this was one of those cases. It was so well-received, and the animation style is so unique and special, that it just really belonged in a Little Golden Book.” The company has taken this step for short films occasionally in the past. “It’s usually because of an emotional reaction to the content, and Bao has that.”
Soul is Pixar’s first film to feature a Black protagonist, while Bao’s lead is a Chinese-Canadian woman. “Obviously we want to add diversity to our publishing program whenever possible,” Angelilli said. “We’re happy our licensors are giving us more diverse properties to work with.”
Insight Kids Surprises with L.O.L. License
Insight Editions’ Insight Kids imprint has secured North American licensing rights for the L.O.L. Surprise! collectible toy brand from MGA Entertainment. The toy line launched in 2016 and remains the number-one toy brand in the U.S. and several other countries. It generates millions of views around the world for its branded content along with fan-made unboxing videos featuring the toys.
Insight Kids thought of L.O.L. Surprise! in conjunction with a new format. “We had developed a line of make-your-own pop-up books, with pieces to color and put together, and the different elements and the playability went so well with L.O.L. Surprise!, the largest and most popular toy in the world,” said senior editor Paul Ruditis. “Toy properties tend to come and go, but this one continues to reinvent itself. It’s proven to me that it has staying power where other toys don’t.”
MGA wanted a full publishing program, which led to the development of four Officially Blinged-Out interactive books to debut in September 2020. “The hook is the unboxing experience,” Ruditis said. “L.O.L. didn’t create unboxing, but it certainly made it popular in the toy industry. We wanted to encapsulate that experience in the books.”
Insight Kids’ previous licensing deals have been geared toward reaching parents who wanted to share nostalgic favorite properties such as E.T., Back to the Future, and Dark Crystal with their kids by way of board books. But the publisher was looking to expand into child-focused licenses. At the same time, MGA was expanding its publishing program in North America, recently signing BuzzPop to join its longtime licensee Bendon. “It was kismet,” Ruditis said.
One of the initial titles for fall is L.O.L. Surprise! Book of Surprises. “I like to say it’s a 40-page book with over 100 pages of content,” Ruditis said. It has tear-out pages, can be read upside down and backwards, has lift-the-flaps for reveals and surprises, and includes the most text content of any of the four, he reported. L.O.L. Surprise! Photo Studio is an interactive carousel book, which is “like a pop-up Instagram museum for your L.O.L. dolls.” It comes with paper dolls whose identities remain secret until opening. L.O.L. Surprise! Make Your Own Pop-Up Book: Fashionably Fierce has all the pieces you need to color and construct your own pop-up book. And finally, L.O.L. Surprise! Bling-A-Tree Advent Calendar includes a paper-based calendar with surprise Christmas tree décor in each window, plus activities, hidden codes, and other features. The tree itself becomes a playset once everything is unboxed.
Current plans call for an additional title each season going forward, starting with an Easter egg hunt book next spring and a cookbook in summer 2021.
BuzzPop Communes with 'Nature Cat'
Little Bee Books’ BuzzPop imprint is the new master publishing licensee for Nature Cat, in a deal with Spiffy Entertainment and its U.S. licensing agent HiHat Media. The show, which has aired on PBS Kids since 2015, is based on a natural science curriculum for children ages 3–8, with secondary appeal to ages 6–11.
“We’re always on the lookout for thoughtful programming,” said senior editor Rebecca Webster, noting that the show promotes awareness of environmental issues and empowers children to take on environmental advocacy. It also has themes of kindness and teamwork, and features characters who are not afraid to ask questions when they do not know the answer, she said. “It’s more and more important to have something thoughtful like this in the book space. And families are looking for content they can enjoy together. Parents can read the book alongside their kids and have a discussion about it afterward.” The show is also infused with humor.
The first book, set for a fall 2020 release, is Nature Cat: A Nature Carol, a picture book tied to a Christmas episode based on the Dickens classic. It comes with an ornament and holiday cards and serves as an origin story for the main character, Fred, a house cat who transforms into “backyard explorer extraordinaire” Nature Cat when his human family leaves the house for the day. The characters are self-aware and know they are in a TV series, which makes the kids feel like they are along for the adventure, Webster said.
Future formats will include board books, additional picture books, coloring and activity titles, leveled readers, 8x8 storybooks, graphic novels, and audio books, many with add-ons such as stickers. One to two titles are planned per season, ranging from an 8x8 storybook on wind power to backyard expedition guides. “The activity books are designed to be taken on adventures,” Webster said. “You feel like you’re part of the gang and an agent of the great outdoors.” Distribution will include bookstores, schools, and libraries, as well as museums and parks.
The show’s production team is heavily involved in the creation of the books, with the creators even coming to sales meetings to talk to BuzzPop’s reps. “I could wax poetic about this property all day long,” Webster said. “It’s a joy. We’re working with the content creators to make really meaningful books.”
Razorbill Gets Cooking with The Tiny Chef
Penguin Random House imprint Razorbill is publishing a picture book tied to The Tiny Chef Show, about the stop-motion-animated adventures of The Tiny Chef, known for his quirky and humorous adventures in the kitchen and his unintelligible patter and singing. The show launched on Instagram and is also available, along with additional content, on YouTube and Facebook. The book, which is for “cheffers” ages 4–8, goes on sale September 15.
“I was making breakfast on a Sunday morning and just mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when I came across The Tiny Chef in a post that was shared by the actress Olivia Wilde,” said Casey McIntyre, v-p and publisher at Razorbill. “I thought it was perfect for a picture book, sort of Marcel the Shell meets the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. With the songs he sings and the joy he takes in cooking, he’s the perfect little green man to invite into your kitchen.”
She took immediate action. “I did some research and found out that one of the creators, Adam Reid, was represented by CAA, so I emailed them on that Sunday and said they needed to do a picture book. We made a really nice preemptive offer, and like good agents do, they turned that into an eight-house auction, but we prevailed.”
The show’s creators, Rachel Larsen, Reid, and Ozi Akturk, who are also credited as the book’s co-authors, developed a pitch that is very similar to the final version, McIntyre said. Sets and photos were created specifically for the title, which centers on a lost cookbook and the making of a vegetable stew. The executive chef of Little Pine, a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, developed a recipe for the stew, which is included in the book.
A second picture book is anticipated for fall 2021. “This type of thing, where something goes from Instagram to books, usually happens really fast,” McIntyre said. “But I thought this was timeless, and I’m glad we didn’t rush it. We took the time to make it more substantial.”
Children’s Author-Illustrators Step into Licensing
Licensing agency Firefly Brand Management is representing two author-illustrators, Mary Engelbreit and Todd Goldman (known in the children’s book world as Todd H. Doodler), with plans to rejuvenate the licensing programs for both.
Engelbreit, recognized for her greeting card designs, holiday artwork, and illustrated books such as The Bedtime Book, once oversaw a $1 billion licensing program encompassing 6,500 products. But she has only had a limited presence in consumer products in recent years. Cynthia Modders, Firefly’s president, who met Engelbreit through a bartender friend of the artist whom Modders met while on vacation in Florida, hopes to change that.
She is currently speaking with publishers about children’s books based on Engelbreit’s classic work, and is seeking partners in stationery, home goods, and other products based on her holiday and other evergreen images. Modders is also pitching some of Engelbreit’s more recent work, namely her social media-driven Social Justice and Engeldark programs, which focus on women’s empowerment and current social justice issues and are introducing her work to millennials. The first Engelbreit products are likely to debut in 2021.
Goldman, meanwhile, is a “professional doodler,” a fashion designer with his David & Goliath brand, and the creator of a variety of humorous art brands. He is also the author, as Todd H. Doodler, of the Bear in Underwear series (Blue Apple) and the Hound Heroes graphic novel for Scholastic (set for January 2021), along with other children’s books. All told, he has published more than 30 titles with Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Bloomsbury, as well as Scholastic and Blue Apple.
Modders, who has known Goldman for 15 years, ran into him a few months ago, which led to the representation deal. His entire range of properties for all ages are under consideration for licensing. “His irreverence and humor are needed now more than ever,” Modders said. In addition to expanding Bear in Underwear into consumer products, she wants to take his Gurly Monster brand into children’s books, as well as other merchandise. Publishing is on the radar for some of his adult-skewing properties as well.
Random House Children’s Books’ Uni the Unicorn is being featured on a children’s nightgown and three-piece pajama set on Target.com and in a card game created in partnership with Clarkson Potter…. Ameba Productions, the production division of streaming platform Ameba, will bring four of Sandra Boynton’s books, including Moo Baa, La La La, onto the platform in a read-along format. More titles by Boynton and others will follow…. Scholastic is releasing a graphic novel adaptation of its classic Animorphs series on October 6, along with a retro tin gift box containing the first six titles of the series with their original 1990s covers. In addition, Scholastic Entertainment and Picturestart, its strategic partner for YA content, are jointly producing a feature film based on the property…. Mango Publishing is expanding its Dino Dana publishing program, which started with a single field guide earlier this year that has reached number-one bestseller status on Amazon. Titles will include an activity workbook, board book, card games, and another field guide…. Global educational publisher Twinkl partnered with BBC Studios to create educational resources for kids 7–-11 based on the classic sci-fi property Doctor Who. The materials, which cover science, geography, and history, are aligned with the U.K.’s national curriculum…. Dr. Seuss Enterprises paired with Billabong to create an Earth Day 2020 fashion collaboration available from April through July, for adults and kids. The sustainable collection features artwork from a number of books, including The Lorax…. Fisher-Price is selling a 3-in-1 potty training aid that is inspired by the success of Daniel Tiger potty-themed books from Simon & Schuster—which is up to more than 10 million books in print based on Daniel—as well as other products focused on the topic…. Quarto’s My First Frida Kahlo, from the Little People Big Dreams series, will be included in a new Frida book-and-ragdoll gift pack , according to Kahlo’s licensing rep, Art Ask Agency…. Creative Licensing Corporation signed Dark Horse for comics and Welbeck Publishing for a making-of book tied to the August feature film release Bill & Ted Face the Music…. Striker Entertainment is representing IDW’s comic book property Locke and Key for licensing…. In other IDW news, the latest iteration of its comic book series based on Scholastic’s Goosebumps franchise is a five-issue monthly miniseries, Goosebumps: Secrets of the Swamp, written by Marieke Nijkamp, illustrated by Yasmin Flores Montanez, and colored by Rebecca Nalty. Boom! Studios paired with Netflix to create TV productions based on the comic publisher’s proprietary creations.