Ask any parent, kid or media executive if films for children and families are hot these days and you'll likely hear a resounding "yes." Of course this assessment is obvious to just about anyone who has visited a multiplex in the past year. Harry Potter may have taken 2003 off from the box office, but the family film industry fared just fine without him.
Flicks for the minivan crowd made a splash this summer with Finding Nemo ($334 million in ticket sales) and Pirates of the Caribbean ($287 million), and smaller films stayed afloat in their wake, too. Earlier in the spring audiences dug the relatively low-budget Holes, the movie based on Louis Sachar's Newbery-winning novel, to the tune of $67 million in box office business.
Thanks to numbers like these over the past several years, it's now commonplace for studios, producers and agents to routinely traffic in projects geared toward kids. In turn, the appetite for family movie ideas has never been bigger. And oftentimes, as Hollywood has discovered, nothing satisfies those creative (and commercial) cravings like a children's book.
Hunting for Hits
Nailing down a trend or niche within the family-film field today is not easy. With a few exceptions, one might label it "anything goes."
"For a while, everyone wanted the next Harry Potter," said Joan Rosen, v-p, director of subsidiary rights for HarperCollins Children's Books. "But there is now high interest in children's books in general, running from frontlist to backlist, with everybody looking for the next hot thing. We get more than 100 requests over the transom every week about our books."
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse and Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes, Septimus Heap by Angie Sage (due out in spring 2005), Epsilon by Christine Morton-Shaw (due in March '05), and Biscuit by Alyssa Satin Capucilli are some of the HarperCollins titles that have generated significant interest recently, Rosen reported.
She noted that one interesting development over the past year is that agents and studios are "looking for specific vehicles for child actors." Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam and the forthcoming Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat) and Jonathan Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire, Stuart Little, the forthcoming When Zachary Beaver Came to Town) are among the young thespians for whom film material is being sought. "I love those kinds of requests," Rosen said. "Then I can really show them a variety of things that might work."
According to Robb Pearlman, subsidiary rights manager, domestic markets and brand licensing at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, "What people want is really running the gamut, depending on the production company or studio. Some studios were overrun with stories about boy wizards and dragons and now they want something new. Others are looking for edgy things and some want only squeaky-clean properties. I feel like the interest in our books has increased overall, but I've also been more proactive in making more contacts. I field anywhere from 10-20 queries a day."
The Raggedy Ann and Andy line, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Ruby Electric by Theresa Nelson, Tithe by Holly Black and The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E.L. Konigsburg (Feb. 2004) are a few of the projects he is currently shopping around.
Lots to Look At
Movie studio executives and production companies focusing their cameras on kids' books are happy to have a bounty to choose from. "We are definitely still on an upward curve," said Julie Goldstein, executive v-p of development for Miramax Films, of her company's growing family-film roster. "We weren't in that area before, but about a year ago we decided to expand and we've done that wholeheartedly. We're creating a diverse range, just as we do with our adult films—from large-scale fantasies to titles that are smaller in scope to films that fall in between. We see family entertainment as important in all aspects of the company, spanning the book division as well as the theatrical and direct-to-video operations."
The upward trend at Miramax is one that is completely embraced and encouraged by co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. The company is currently developing The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, and had acquired the rights largely because the book was one of Weinstein's childhood favorites.
Speaking to the internal vibe at Miramax as well as a larger Hollywood shift, Goldstein said, "More of us have children now and we want to make movies that our kids can enjoy. The same is true for actors and directors. They feel it's an area they want to get into so their kids can say 'Dad is so cool because he made a movie that I like.' "
Goldstein said that large-scale fantasy-based projects at Miramax include Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, which is in the script stage; the Bartimaeus trilogy beginning with The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, for which the company recently purchased film rights; and Ella Enchanted, based on the Newbery Honor-winning novel by Gail Carson Levine, which will star Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) and is slated for release next April.
Ella Enchanted is in fact a book that caught the eye of producer Jane Startz, of Jane Startz Productions, several years ago. Startz's company is coproducing the film and has a first-look type of arrangement with Miramax. Her expertise in acquiring and developing children's book properties for film and TV dates back to her tenure as a co-founder of Scholastic Productions, where she helped create such films as The Baby-Sitters Club and The Indian in the Cupboard.
Startz commented that "things have been great" in terms of interest and activity involving children's books. But more pointedly, she said, "The big news is girls. There is really a growing opportunity for the young girl audience. Studios now see that projects aimed at that audience are a pretty safe bet. They [studios] are appreciating literary properties more and more and are looking for the next Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as much as the next Harry Potter."
On the girl-power front, Startz lists several recent titles that have "performed very well," including Freaky Friday, the remake of the Disney film (adapted from the novel by Mary Rodgers). Though some recent girl-targeted films (Tuck Everlasting and How to Deal) have shown more modest returns in theatrical release, Startz notes that the box-office numbers were still "respectable" and that Tuck, one of her company's productions, "did a huge video and DVD business."
Startz believes that studios are now more willing to take chances on projects that aren't big budget movies because "there is a built-in video market," she said. "There is always a need for great family home viewing. It can give a film a second life." In the same vein, Startz added, "I also think the direct-to-home-video market is not huge yet, but it's definitely a burgeoning area."
In step with Startz's assessment, TV properties for girls are also thriving, with The Cheetah Girls a case in point. The Disney Channel Original Movie inspired by Deborah Gregory's book series aired for the first time on August 15 and drew 6.5 million viewers, a feat that earned the movie a spot as the number-one basic cable show for kids on that day. The TV series Lizzie McGuire, a solid Disney Channel hit for tweens, is not originally book-based but has inspired a line of bestselling spin-off paperbacks as well as this summer's successful The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Similarly, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who have spawned several top-selling book series for HarperEntertainment in addition to TV and direct-to-video hits, are currently filming their first theatrical release, New York Minute, due out next May.
Finding a Good Fit
For Walden Media, the Los Angeles— based educational entertainment company that produced Holes, the criteria for selecting children's book properties to develop are very particular. "The first thing we look at is whether the book is being taught in schools," said Walden president and co-founder Micheal Flaherty. "Central to our mission is assisting teachers in the classroom; we try to find ways to make the material come more alive for the students."
Holes certainly made the cut, and projects in the pipeline include long-revered classics (The Chronicles of Narnia) and another Newbery winner (The Giver by Lois Lowry). "The Narnia series is the first series of books my mother ever bought for me," said Flaherty, describing a more personal reason for going after the C.S. Lewis titles. As for the award-winners, Flaherty called them "low-hanging fruit, so to speak," when it comes to picking projects with both entertainment and educational elements.
Big box office business is appreciated, of course, but is not Walden's primary goal. "It's always a blessing when a movie does well but we were very optimistic about Holes from the beginning because Andy [director Andrew Davis] had such a friendship with Louis [Sachar, the author]," Flaherty said. "It was something magical; they shared the same vision for the book. We did 65 screenings for students and teachers and 99% of the questionnaires were extremely positive."
Though Holes's theatrical run is all but finished, the movie will still have a presence in theaters this fall. "In November we're having a writers' workshop at Regal Theatres in 40 cities and in four different time zones," said Flaherty. "It's a one-hour program during which Andy and Louis will answer questions about writing. The book property is really just the first part of an effort that doesn't end when the movie is finished."
At Nickelodeon Movies, "Our credo is 'real people in extraordinary situations,' " said senior v-p Julia Pistor. As books go, "We're looking for a world that will translate onscreen and stories that are character-driven," she said. "We like irreverent voices. We are a contemporary brand, so you won't see us doing a lot of classics."
One of the big book-based projects in the Nickelodeon hopper is Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, starring Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep and Jude Law, which begins production November 10. "On first glance, it looks Dickens-like, very traditional," said Pistor. "But it takes children's literature and turns it on its ear. In that unworldly world you have both Victorian clothes and cell phones. It was so out there that it worked for us. And Klaus, Sunny and Violet are very real kids."
Pistor believes that the Unfortunate Events film is one result of an industry shift that has taken place to keep up with kids' and families' more sophisticated tastes. "In the same summer you have Finding Nemo which is rated G and Pirates of the Caribbean which is rated PG-13, and families flocked to both of them," she said. "In a way, it's anything goes. People used to think of family films as quiet classics, but Harry Potter blew the genre apart, opening the door for more high-concept motion pictures."
Indeed, many of the classic children's books being made into movies these days are far from quiet. Witness Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, due November 21 from Universal Pictures/Dreamworks Pictures/Imagine Entertainment. Actor-comedian Mike Myers (already beloved in this arena for his turn as the voice of Shrek) stars as the flashy feline in the red-and-white stove-top hat, with kid stars Spencer Breslin and Dakota Fanning in the roles of Conrad and Sally. Trailers show Myers in high-energy wacky mode, and the film will no doubt invite comparisons to 2000's Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (from the same producers). As expected, merchandise and licensing deals abound and include everything from an extensive line of Random House tie-in books to food products; the movie's budget is estimated at $90 million.
The Gotham Group, an agency in L.A. that represents a varied roster of family entertainment talent as well as Simon & Schuster's children's catalogue and backlist for film rights, keeps an eye out for "books that can be big animated motion pictures or books that can be family films ranging from Holes to Harry Potter," according to Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Gotham's founder and president. In recent months Gotham's Julie Kane-Ritsch has noticed that "studios and producers are more open to book projects for animation." A bulging roster of active projects at Gotham includes a big-screen adaptation of Brian Jacques's Redwall series with Andrew Marlowe (Air Force One) working on a screenplay (Nelvana holds the rights), and a feature film development for the Frannie K. Stein, Mad Scientist book series by James Benton (S&S).
Sealing the Deal
With interest running high, potential projects come from just about anywhere these days. "Now that people know we are making these movies, we get pitches from agents, producers, actors, authors," said Goldstein. "And we're looking everywhere—we have a lot of feelers out there," she added, echoing the comments of several colleagues. At S&S, Pearlman tries to spot movie potential as early as possible in the publishing process. "I know I'm thinking that way, though I'm not sure if editors are. I've been begging to keep rights on many of our titles."
However, once a buyer first decides to purchase rights in a book property, the real work begins. In addition to a publishing house's subsidiary rights and legal departments, literary agents and licensing agents (the latter representing properties from publishing houses) play a big role in getting book-to-movie projects signed, sealed and delivered. "The legal department and various agents do a lot of negotiations," said Rosen of HarperCollins. "Some deals can run to 50 pages. Film deals can be a huge bear for us, but they are exciting all the same."
Obviously, excitement is very much the name of the game for everyone involved. "It's very sexy to have a film deal," said Rosen. "Some authors really want it to happen and are willing to forgo anything. Many times their bubbles are burst when they see that million-dollar deals don't happen very often."
But parties on both sides of the negotiating table maintain that what's most important in any book-to-movie/TV deal is protecting authors and their work. "We take whatever steps we can to get authors and illustrators involved in the process," said Pearlman. "We have to make sure that they are being respected." Echoing that strategy Goldsmith-Vein added, "Every deal is different, but we always try to get as much control for the client as we can."
Pistor at Nickelodeon stressed, "We're very careful when we adapt a book. We want to be sure to keep the spirit of the book, but also let it breathe so it can become a film. We try to work with the authors as much as we can. We take time on our projects and don't rush into production; we want to keep the integrity of the story." Flaherty at Walden concurs. "One of the keys is to really have the author intimately involved," he said. "Louis's involvement was critical to the success of Holes."
And what if the deal falls through? Or an option runs out and the rights revert back to the original holder? Most people we spoke to for this article would agree that it's never a total wipeout if a movie doesn't get made after all. "An option gives a studio the privilege of thinking about making a movie. It may bring little money for the author, but it always brings new attention to the book," Rosen noted.
With not many downsides to the whole process, Hollywood and the children's book world will continue their symbiotic relationship. "Now that we've gotten our feet wet, we love it and we plan to keep doing these," said Goldstein. "For us it's so joyous and fun. There's nothing better than seeing a roomful of kids laughing and enjoying your film."