Walden Media, the production studio behind The Chronicles of Narnia, isn’t letting the dismal economy slow down its growing presence in both the movie and publishing industries. Next month Walden starts filming Beezus and Ramona, with Joey King playing Ramona and Disney star Selena Gomez as Beezus, the pest’s older sister. It’s also developing the third installment of The Chronicles of Narnia and the movie version of Ingrid Law’s 2009 Newbery Honor book Savvy.

And in early 2010, Walden and HarperCollins will co-publish the first three titles for a new HC imprint called Walden Pond Press. “It’s a great story in the wake of all the bad news in publishing,” says Francis X. (Chip) Flaherty Jr., publisher of Walden Pond Press and executive v-p of Walden Media. “It’s really no different than what we do on the movie side, where we look to Fox or Disney to distribute our films, to get them into 3,000 theaters. We don’t have a printing press, we don’t know the folks at Barnes & Noble.”

This week Walden signed Mary McAveney, previously v-p of marketing for Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, as “publishing amplification advisor.” Her job: to build buzz for Walden’s books and films. She will work closely with the marketing and publicity teams for Walden’s films and all of its book titles. The aim, Flaherty says, is not to have “a good book… fall through the cracks. So many good stories just don’t have a voice.” Walden’s “secret sauce,” according to Flaherty, is its ties to both Hollywood and to educators and libraries.

For her part, McAveney says she is “thrilled” to be part of Walden. “I have long admired their mission to use movies to bring kids closer to reading,” she says. “Their imprint continues to deliver on that core mission by bringing to market great literature that inspires and entertains. I also believe their investment in marketing at a time when the industry seems to be contracting underscores their commitment to reaching kids and igniting curiosity and enthusiasm for books.”

Last summer, after its contract with Penguin Young Readers Group expired, Walden Media inked a five-year deal with HarperCollins that gives each a “first look” or “first crack” at fresh material, says Flaherty. “If we like a manuscript, we can go in as partners, both put up advance money and co-publish the book together. We split the costs of publishing and bringing a book to market. And then we split, in an equitable rate, the revenues.”

Walden Media will continue its pre-existing projects with Penguin. These include 20 original titles—nine already published, and 11 in the pipeline. “Our Penguin relationship has been robust and will continue to be robust,” says Flaherty. Projects include the Savvy movie and sequel; Mike Lupica’s six-book Comeback Kids sports series, aimed at middle-grade boys; and Lauren St. John’s four-book series about a girl who goes to live with her grandmother at a South African game preserve after her parents die. “We stand committed to our Penguin titles,” says Flaherty. In fact, Karen Janszen, who wrote the screenplays for Gracie and A Walk to Remember (unrelated, non-Walden titles), is currently working on the script for Savvy.

Walden Pond Press’s three winter 2010 books are Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions), about an unusually old-looking 12-year-old who cons himself onto a civilian space ship as the parental chaperone to a bunch of kids; an as-yet-untitled middle-grade story by TV star Tim Allen and his 19-year-old daughter; and Max Cassidy in Shadow Island, a thriller by first-time novelist Paul Adam, about a 14-year-old Houdini-like escape artist on a quest to find out the truth about his maybe-dead parents. “I would essentially pick it as the great ’60s James Bond movie that Hitchcock never made,” says Jordan Brown, who is overseeing the Walden Pond Press imprint at HarperCollins. The future of Walden Pond Press is not affected by the departure of Brenda Bowen, whose Bowen Press imprint was originally going to house Walden. HarperCollins “remains committed to Walden Pond Press,” says Flaherty.

Potentially, all three books could become Walden movies. “We’re thinking about format, about possible film adaptation, from the moment of acquisition,” says Brown. Like Holes and Bridge to Terabithia, which Walden turned into films, the newly acquired books have a “timeless and almost cinematic feel,” says Brown.

Sharing Talent and Material

The teams at Walden Media and HarperCollins met during the marketing of the first Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (HC is the longtime publisher of the Narnia books). “We knew immediately that we shared a vision for high-quality, action-packed material that appeals to families, teachers and librarians,” says Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books. “We’ve created a partnership where we discuss and share talented writers and their material with an eye toward acquiring not only book but all related media rights.” Walden and Harper offer “two businesses with so much experience in marketing stories to kids,” says Brown. “We’re genuinely looking for new voices and new talent.”

From Walden’s Bridge to Terabithia movie.
(c) 2006 Buena Vista Pictures Marketing
and Walden Media, LLC.

The joint acquisition model should appeal to writers who worry about the fate of movie versions of their books. “It’s the same people they met on the phone when the book was acquired who may be turning their book into a film,” says Brown. “What we offer is making sure that the author’s vision isn’t lost through the process.” In traditional publishing, a separate team acquires film rights to a book that was often published years earlier; with this new model, that’s no longer the case.

Walden Media takes advantage of its offices in Massachusetts (for books) and in Los Angeles (for movies). “Los Angeles is to entertain and come up with first-rate movies,” says Flaherty. “The Boston office is to make sure it’s entertainment that’s inherently educational.”

Flaherty sees the marriage between Walden Pond Press and HarperCollins as a way to give some Hollywood-like “buzz” to high-quality children’s books. “I like to think of us as a storytelling company,” he says. “Stories take different formats. The average movie costs $65 million to produce, $35 million to advertise. You only get so many of those in a year.” Books, which cost much less to produce, allow Walden to get more great stories on the market, he says.

Kids who saw the 2003 movie Holes—Walden’s first foray into turning an award-winning children’s book into a film—wanted to buy the book. “It felt more familiar to them, and it helped them crack that reading nut, if you will,” says Flaherty. “We saw the book sales that occurred, and we saw how they went through the roof, and we saw how teachers and librarians saw us. This is a great opportunity to get kids in this age group excited about reading.” The challenge: figuring out how to convey a book’s magic to a movie screen.

Opting for quality over quantity, Walden Pond Press plans to publish six to eight titles a year, focusing on middle-grade readers. Parents and teachers want “books that are challenging, that are great books of literature, but are safe to put in the hands of a nine- or 10-year-old,” says Brown. Even in a bad economy, he says, “kids are still going to need great books and great stories.”

The stories are sometimes test-read by Flaherty’s daughters. “When I bring home a manuscript, I have a quick focus group!” says Flaherty. Flaherty went with Savvy because he loved it—and because his 12-year-old gave it her “Maggie seal of approval.”

Walden Media also continues its storytelling with several films that did not begin as books. Band Slam, about a boy who gets a bunch of outcasts to start a musical group for his new high school’s battle of the bands, comes out on July 31 (stars include Vanessa Hudgens from High School Musical). And in November, Duane “The Rock” Johnson will star as a National Hockey League defenseman in Tooth Fairy.

Walden Media is backed by conservative Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz. It is named after Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book and is not connected to the Waldenbooks bookstore chain.