Children's Features

Hooray for Hollywood
Shannon Maughan -- 11/13/00
A variety of children's book properties are going strong in film and on TV

Jim Carrey, as the Grinch, will star in
this season's big Christmas movie;
Random House will publish tie-in books.
In Hollywood, when a movie project is "greenlighted," it has secured the approval (and funding) from a studio that enables it to move ahead into production. Later this week, movie screens all over the country will be aglow with a very bright Hollywood green light. Grinch green, that is, as the splashy live-action feature film Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (Universal Pictures/Imagine), starring Jim Carrey, opens on November 17. Inspired by Seuss's beloved 1957 book and equally cherished 1966 animated television special, the new film is the latest example of just how big children's book properties can become with some Tinseltown muscle behind them.
With a budget that is rumored to be $123 million and a nearly $5-million upfront rights fee paid to Seuss's widow, Audrey Geisel, The Grinch has cost plenty of green already. But good early industry buzz, Geisel's approval and a plethora of licensing and promotional deals should have the studio and licensees seeing some return on their investment fairly soon. The film steps outside the parameters of the Seuss original, providing the Grinch's back story (from infancy to how he got so grinchy) and introducing several denizens of Whoville not seen in the book (Molly Shannon as Mary Lou Who--Cindy Lou's mom--and Jeffrey Tambor as the mayor of Whoville). Anthony Hopkins serves as narrator throughout, taking on the role that Boris Karloff filled for the television program. On October 20, the Wall Street Journal predicted the film's U.S. box office sales would be approximately $140 million. Grinch Oreos, Grinch Pop-Tarts and other movie tie-in goodies have already hit grocery store shelves as part of promotions with Kellogg and Nabisco; Hershey, Visa and Wendy's are also in on the act. And, recently, a whole hour of airtime was devoted to selling Grinch movie-inspired merchandise on QVC.

Random House, Dr. Seuss's longtime publisher, is a key player in the licensing and promotion arena. On October 24, Random released a total of 1.4 million copies of its eight official movie tie-in titles. This group includes the paperback How the Grinch Stole Hollywood: The Making of the Movie, a behind-the-scenes look at the productionby Andy Lipschultz; storybooks; coloring and activity books; and a deluxe slipcased edition of the classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! hardcover.Account-specific signage and promotions were arranged with such key accounts as Barnes & Noble, Walmart and Target; more than 20,000 other accounts received Grinch floor displays, counter units, shelf trays and other display materials.

In addition to its publishing program, Random House has joined forces with Universal Pictures to create an initiative that will benefit literacy organization First Book. On November 1, which was First Book Day, Grinch director Ron Howard and cast members of the movie, as well as representatives from First Book and Random House, kicked off the program at the New York Public Library. Random House donated 30,000 books that day to First Book for distribution to children in the New York City area and announced a nationwide 500,000-book donation to come. For every copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! or any Random House tie-in purchased throughout the holiday season, Random and Universal Studios will donate one new book to First Book. Grinch First Book event kits are still available; booksellers may contact their Random House sales rep for more information.
A movie novelization
for the current film.
Another fall family film with a children's book heritage is The Little Vampire from New Line, starring Jonathan Lipnicki (from Jerry McGuire and last year's book-inspired film hit Stuart Little), which made the scene just before Halloween (October 27). Based on a series of books by German author Angela Sommer-Bodenburg, the film chronicles a boy's friendship with some young (and not-too-ghoulish) vampires. The Little Vampire books were published in the U.S. by Dial Books for Young Readers and Minstrel Books in the late 1980s and early '90s, but have since gone out of print. However, a new movie novelization is currently available from Pocket Books.
The Little Vampire and The Grinch, two distinctly different productions, suggest a range of opportunities that exist in the children's and family film arena. This wealth of possibility is one reason that producers like Jane Startz of Manhattan-based Jane Startz Productions believe that the climate for developing children's and family movie projects has never been healthier. "It's an exciting time to be involved in this business," she said. "There's a broad spectrum of production opportunities--from independent companies to big studios. There are new kinds of technology and animation that allow us to do projects that don't cost a zillion dollars. The opportunities have greatly expanded."

The industry has opened up in other ways as well, in Startz's view. "There are more parents running studios now," she said. "Their agenda has changed from their wild and crazy single days. There is also a large acting pool who are parents and who have an incentive to be in family movies."

Startz specializes in developing children's literary properties, a line of work she grew to love as cofounder and executive v-p of Scholastic Productions. During her time at Scholastic, she created and executive-produced the animated Magic School Busseries based on the books by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen, and produced the company's first two feature films, The Indian in the Cupboard and The Baby-Sitters Club. In her current capacity, Startz has a first-look deal with Miramax Films, which released the Startz-produced The Mighty (based on Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick) in October 1998. Among the new projects on her slate is a film adaptation of Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine's Newbery Honor title; and an adaptation of the YA novel Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson, a coproduction with New Line.

According to Startz, finding such quality properties is something that comes naturally. "I read all the time--it's my major passion," she says. "I'm a big admirer of the children's book genre and have developed a close relationship with authors, editors and agents. I look for a story that has a strong hero or heroine who g s through some sort of growth and comes out on the other side. Something that has intrinsic goodness to it and an earned redemptive ending." Acquiring the right book isn't a task she undertakes alone, however. "My vice-president, Gillian MacKenzie, constantly scours the marketplace. She's on the phone all day. Both of us are incredibly passionate."

2001 and Beyond
Moving into next spring, one of the children's films that could make it bigis the long-awaited Shrek. Featuring the voices of funnyman Mike Myers as ogre Shrek, Eddie Murphy as Donkey, Cameron Diaz as Fiona and John Lithgow as Lord Farquaad, the computer-generated animation/live-action version of William Steig's 1990 picture book will be released by Dreamworks next May 18. It's been at least three years in the making and survived some substantial retooling after the death of Chris Farley (the original voice of Shrek) in 1997. But after its big-screen run, it will have a really big screenrun as a 3-D film in IMAX theaters beginning in December 2001.

The term "big children's movie" may take on a whole new meaning when a certain project now filming in Britain--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Warner Bros./Heyday Films)--comes to fruition next fall. Sorcerer's Stone is scheduled to hit theaters November 16, 2001--and will no doubt be accompanied by an astonishing marketing/licensing push. Harry Potter merchandise mania has begun in dribs and drabs with products inspired by J.K. Rowling's phenomenally selling books about boy wizard Harry hitting store shelves this summer and fall. Even with the film release that far off, discussion of this project has been going at a fever pace for more than a year. Confirmed cast members include Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid and John Cleese as the poltergeist Nearly Headless Nick.

TV Time
Just as there are increased opportunities to develop children's books for the big screen these days, there are a number of new outlets for adaptations of children's books on the small screen, too. The array of cable channels continues to grow, and established cable and premium cable channels have increased their family programming. Examples of beefed-up coverage include the Fox Family network, a new initiative to develop book-based movies at Nickelodeon and a proven commitment to family programming by Showtime. HBO Family continues to air the animated George and Martha by James Marshall (Houghton), Babar by Laurent de Brunhoff (Random House), The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy (Candlewick) and Dear America series (Scholastic). New for December is an extension of Dear America, called The Royal Diaries: Isabel, Jewel of Castilla.
Fox Family brought The Zack Files
to TV starting last month.
The Fox Family network's fall lineup is where young viewers can find The Zack Files, a new TV seriesinspired by Dan Greenburg's books for early readers published by Grosset & Dunlap. Zack is a 10-year-old boy who always seems to be having supernatural adventures. The live-action show debuted on October 21, and a total of 26 episodes have been ordered from the producing partners Lancit Media and Decode Entertainment. Fox Family is also home to I Was a Sixth Grade Alien, a live-action seriesbased on Bruce Coville's middle-grade books published by Minstrel.
Disney synergy is at work for The Jersey, a TV series on the Disney Channel inspired by Gordon Korman's Monday Night Football books published by Hyperion. Featuring a magical football jersey, authentic football action and appearances by plenty of NFL stars, the show has been a hit since its September 1999 premiere.

Nickelodeon's daily Nick Jr. block remains a stronghold in book-based programming for preschoolers with Maisy by Lucy Cousins (Candlewick), Franklin by Paulette Bourgeois (Kids Can and Scholastic), Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins), and Kipper by Mick Inkpen (Harcourt), which are now also featured on CBS's Saturday morning lineup as a result of the Viacom-CBS merger. PBS has joined the Saturday morning fray for the first time with a programming block for preschoolers that contains six half-hour shows based on children's books. The series includes, among others, Timothy G s to School by Rosemary Wells (Viking), George Shrinks by William Joyce (HarperCollins/Geringer) and Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse by Betty Paraskevas, illustrated by Michael Paraskevas, which will be released in book form by Simon & Schuster in May 2001. Clifford the Big Red Dog has also joined the PBS fold. The beloved books by Norman Bridwell (Scholastic) have been transformed into an animated daily series that debuted in September.

Actress Glenn Close has been an ardent supporter of children's book projects for television, having starred in the adaptations of Patricia MacLachlan's books Sarah, Plain and Tall and Skylark, which were Hallmark Hall of Fame movies costarring Christopher Walken. More recently Close produced the TNT movie Baby, inspired by MacLachlan's book of the same name, which aired in October with Farrah Fawcett in the lead role. Next up, Close will star in a TV movie version of The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, a novel by Karen Cushman, for CBS, scheduled to air in February.

With so many children's books gracing both the big and small screens, and with many more projects on the way (see sidebar), it's clear that the children's and family film genres are going strong. And with demographics indicating a large viewing audience for these films for the foreseeable future (there are approximately 38 million kids between the ages of 5 and 14 in the U.S.), children's book publishers--and the popcorn industry--are likely breathing a little easier. For those wondering whether a children's book will be at the heart of the next family-film blockbuster--stay tuned.

In the Works
145th Streetby Walter Dean Myers (Random House), optioned by Jane Coleman
The Adventures of Blue Avengerby Norma Howe (Henry Holt), optioned by Nickelodeon/Brownstone Productions
The Adventures of Taxi Dogby Debra and Sal Barracca (Dial), in production as live-action feature at Warner Bros.
Alice and Gretaby Steve Simmons (Charlesbridge), in development with Jane Startz Productions/Stu Krieger
The BFGby Roald Dahl (Viking), optioned by Paramount/David Higham Associates, London
Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryby Roald Dahl (Viking), remake optioned by Warner Bros./David Higham Associates, London
Cheetah Girls series(Hyperion/Jump at the Sun) by Deborah Gregory, scheduled as Disney Channel series debuting in May 2002; pilot produced by Brownstone Productions
Crazy Jackby Donna Jo Napoli (Random House), optioned by Tom Benedek
The Cricket in Times Squareby George Selden (FSG), optioned by Steve Waterman/Waterman Entertainment
Daughters of the Moon series(Hyperion) by Lynne Ewing, original TV movie on the Disney Channel (air date TBA)
Dave at Nightby Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins), in development with Jane Startz Productions
The Five Chinese Brothersby Claire Bishop (Putnam), optioned by Playtone/Tom Hanks
The Grounding of Group 6by Julian Thompson (Henry Holt), optioned by Katja Motion Picture Group/Wendy Finerman/Fine Line
Junebugand Junebug and the Reverend by Alice Mead (both FSG), optioned by actress Tisha Campbell
The Krazeesby Sam Swope and The Great Escape from City Zoo by Tohby Riddle (both FSG), optioned by Nickelodeon
Little Polar Bearby Hans de Beer (North-South), in development as animated feature film for Warner Bros., released in Germany fall 2001, in U.S. fall 2002
Lyle, Lyle Crocodileby Bernard Waber (Houghton Mifflin), optioned by Sony Pictures Family Entertainment for film and/or television
My Louisiana Skyby Kimberly Willis Holt (Henry Holt), being developed as an original Showtime movie set to air in 2001; starring Juliette Lewis and Shirley Knight; directed by Adam Arkin for Hyperion Entertainment/
Aviator Films
No Flying in the Houseby Betty Brock (HarperCollins), optioned by Spoon Films as independent feature or TV movie
Nosepickers from Outer Spaceby Gordon Korman (Hyperion), optioned for television by Nickelodeon
Pinkerton, Behave!by Steven Kellogg (Dial), in development as full-length feature for Sony Pictures
The Polar Expressby Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton), optioned for Castle Rock Productions; Tom Hanks attached as producer/ star
The Princess Diariesby Meg Cabot (HarperCollins), currently filming in Los Angeles for Disney; Garry Marshall directs, Whitney Houston is a producer; Julie Andrews costars with teen actress Anne Hathaway; release July 2001
The Pushcart Warby Jean Merrill (Yearling), in development for Jane Startz/Universal
Regular Guyby Sarah Weeks (HarperCollins), in development as TV movie for Nickelodeon
Sector 7by David Wiesner (Houghton), optioned by Famous Orange Productions (Nickelodeon) for feature film development
Sleeping Bear Theatre(A Wish to Be a Christmas Tree, The Legend of the Teddy Bear, The Legend of Sleeping Bear, Fibblestax, all published by Sleeping Bear Press) to air on 12 NBC affiliates, beginning with Detroit on November 23
Speakby Laurie Halse Anderson (FSG), optioned by Ann Claire Young
The Stanley booksby Griff (Hyperion), in development as a series on the Disney Channel for spring 2002
Tacky the Penguinby Helen Lester (Houghton), optioned by Sony Wonder for motion picture and TV rights
Thimble Summerby Elizabeth Enright (Henry Holt), optioned by Sesame Workshop (formerly Children's Television Workshop)
A Time for Dancingby Davida Wills Hurwin
(Little Brown; Puffin paperback), in post-
production for Lexington Road Productions
Tribute to Another Dead Rock Starby Randy Powell (FSG), optioned by Showtime
True Confessionsby Janet Tashjian (Henry Holt), optioned by Disney
Tuck Everlastingby Natalie Babbitt (FSG), in production for Jane Startz Productions/Beacon Films/Disney
The Worrywartsby Pam Edwards (HarperCollins), optioned by Hyperion Films
Compiled by Shannon Maughan