As books have become critical source material for films, traditional television series, and streaming content, a presentation titled “From Page to Screen” was one of the most popular programs at last week’s virtual Bologna Children’s Book Fair, according to moderator Cristina Angelucci, editor-in-chief of Licensing magazine. “Bologna is where producers go to find children’s properties to make audio-visual content,” she said.
Four speakers, who represented each phase of the “page-to-screen” process, discussed what they look for when assessing books for development into television or film. In 2020 Annie Nybo evaluated 215 submissions, including 22 books, in her role as a script reader for Netflix in the U.S., recommending eight of them. For each one, she writes a three-page synopsis and a one-page analysis, focusing on five criteria—premise, structure, story beats, character, and dialogue—as well as a one-sentence logline to describe the project.
“I look for a great example of a genre, with the expected beats, but with surprising twists and turns,” Nybo said. “I want a blend of familiar and fresh.” She noted that the size of the audience for the book does not matter and, in fact, less awareness about a book can be a benefit, since plot points that are changed to fit the needs of the screen do not face a backlash as they do for a story with a big following. Nybo added that great literary writing is not as important as story and character evolution.
Caterina Gonnelli, executive v-p of content at French production company Xilam Animation, said that, in addition to certain production parameters, like the number of locations, sets, or characters that are featured, she looks for the authenticity of the characters and the existence of clear motivations. For children, Xilam wants a character with positive traits, but also with some age-appropriate flaws, which drive the comedy and make the character relatable. “Otherwise, there is no salt in the recipe,” she said. It is also critical that characters not be static. “We want them to change, and to change the world they live in.”
Ellen Doherty, chief creative officer at U.S.-based Fred Rogers Productions, agreed, saying, “If it makes you smile, if it makes you think, if it changes your perspective a little bit, that’s what we’re all looking for.” She added that diversity of experiences and viewpoints is very important, especially of groups that are historically underrepresented on children’s television.
French house Glenat publishes 700 books a year and is known for its comics. Etienne Bonnin, the company’s head of foreign rights, explained that the process of pitching comic or book properties to producers is different than selling foreign publishing rights. The message for producers is focused closely on the characters and how they evolve, the environment, and the story, while the length of the book, the writing style or quality, or even the illustrations (with the exception of animation in some cases) is less of a concern.
One thing that has changed in recent years is the proliferation of content on different platforms and the ability to find new content on social channels, including from independent authors, artists, and publishers. Doherty noted that she follows many writers and illustrators on social media and is open to working with them, adding that being able to get to know their voice and personality as well as their work is an advantage.
Another topic discussed was the role of the author, with panelists pointing out that authors and producers bring different strengths to the partnership. “What is key is a relationship that is built on mutual trust,” Gonnelli said. “If you try to keep the author out of the loop, you’re in trouble. They have to trust you to take care of their characters.”
Doherty agreed that a strong relationship is important and stressed that time should be taken to make sure everyone is on the same page during the development phase, before production begins. But, she cautioned, “The producer has to have the final say, because we know our medium. There are times when the author can have too much power, and the show doesn’t work.”
The panel touched on the global nature of television and what that means for purchases of book rights. For the most part, the sales process is the same from one region to another, with a few exceptions. The U.S. market is more likely to have agents representing the publishers and authors, for example, and there are tax differences from region to region. In most countries, producers look for companies from other regions to co-produce, bringing financing and local broadcasters to the party. U.S. and U.K. producers are more apt to go it alone, although they also work with co-producers in many cases.
Several countries have strong local animation industries and government support that encourages local productions, and France is one of those. “France has a large number of producers and a production environment that is subsidized,” Bonnin said. “We benefit from that and are part of that environment.” While Glenat works with producers all around the world, it is most apt to sell to French companies. The publisher has had dozens of books produced for TV and film over the past 10 to 15 years and currently has 20 in development, although only a percentage of those will make it to the screen. “Not all the eggs make chicks,” Bonnin said.
“Animation is a global industry much more than live action,” Gonnelli said. Animation tends to translate well across borders and the higher costs need to be amortized from international sales. Live action, on the other hand, can work regionally and tends to skew in that direction due to the involvement of locally known actors.
Nybo reported that the projects she reviews need to have a broad U.S. audience, but added that Netflix wants to have as global an appeal as possible.
Stories with very specific local content can still have themes that resonate globally. Doherty mentioned her studio’s new series, Alma’s Way, developed with longtime Sesame Street star Sonia Manzano for PBS Kids. It takes place in a Bronx neighborhood and is about the unique experiences of that environment. “But it’s still relatable in all areas of the world,” she said.
Bonnin was asked whether producers are looking mostly for franchises or whether there was a place for original content. “Franchises are less of a risk for producers, but you need fresh meat,” he responded. Consumers also want a balance of comforting familiarity and something new. “I think the world needs both,” he said.