KidScreen takes a look at the inside story on the deal-making process behind taking three books to the small and big screens…
While kids book optioning agreements generally follow the same format, each is still individually negotiated, and the rights and money awarded to each party can vary wildly from case to case, as can the speed of the deal-making process.
The ink is barely dry on two recent deals between Nickelodeon and HarperCollins, which show just how quickly things can move when optioning veterans are running the show.
Regular Guy, by Sarah Weeks, was published by HC Children’s Books in the spring of 1999 and was earmarked by Nick for a TV movie before it hit the shelf. Around the time the book was published, Nick Flicks, Nickelodeon’s TV movie division, happened to be searching for a story it could transform into a funny, weird show for kids ages six to 12.
‘Regular Guy was all those things,’ says Pat Buckley, VP, director of subsidiary rights at HC Children’s Books. The book concerns a kid named Guy who’s convinced his parents are from another planet (read: weird hippies-his mother tie-dyes his underwear), and thus, he must be adopted. Guy comes to think he and a classmate, whose mothers gave birth on the same day, must have been switched in the hospital, and along with friend Buzz, he investigates his true identity. Through the course of the story, he finds out where he truly belongs.
Nick book scout and development executive Damon Ross read an advance copy of Regular Guy and was ‘crazy about the material,’ says Buckley. Working together with Candy Monteiro, of L.A-based literary agency The Monteiro Rose Agency (many Eastern Seaboard pubcos have West Coast agents closer to the Hollywood scene), a five-figure agreement (which Buckley says is average-HarperCollins rarely inks any option deals for under US$10,000) was drawn up and the deal was closed around Thanksgiving. The final option purchase agreement was signed in late February 2000.
The terms of the agreement for Regular Guy were fairly typical. Weeks and HarperCollins retained copyright, nondramatic audio rights and stage rights, while Nick scooped up TV, film, sequel, prequel, spin-off and merchandising rights. As well, the publisher and author have first refusal rights, so the rights to any publication derived from the dramatization, such as making a novelization out of the series, would go to HarperCollins first. ‘Basically whenever it goes into another medium, Sarah will get a nice chunk of change,’ says Monteiro.
Electronic and multimedia rights are just starting to be negotiated when it comes to kids books. Usually an author can option rights to a Web site to publish a portion of the book. If you publish the entire book on the Web, says Monteiro, you don’t get much cash up front, but the author has the chance to buy into the Internet company and secure a substantial back-end deal.
Advertising rights, which are also part of the option agreement, are typically limited to no more than a 7,500-word excerpt of a particular book.
Now that the deal is sealed, Nick plans to kick off the property’s on-air incarnation with a 90-minute movie-of-the-week, which Weeks will consult on, tentatively set to air in 2001. Following that, Nick may develop a half-hour live-action series. ‘For a first-time author I was very happy with the deal,’ says Monteiro.
Although many HC books are optioned, Monteiro says Regular Guy is an anomaly because the deal wrapped so quickly and because it’s unusual to produce a TV movie to kick off a kids’ book-based series. As well, option payments for HC agreements typically take the form of 12 monthly payments, but in the case of Regular Guy, Weeks gets one payment a year for three years. A second book, Guy Time, retails in fall 2000, and a third is in the works.
The optioning process for the second HarperCollins book recently signed by Nick went equally smoothly, despite its somewhat ominous title. The Bad Beginning, the first title in a book series called A Series of Unfortunate Events, is a pseudo-gothic Roald Dahl-esque book by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). It tells the sad tale of the three Beaudelaire orphans, who are sent to live with the evil Count Olaf. The story surrounding the story has proven almost as popular as the title itself, as the author is every bit as mysterious as his material. Handler shows up at readings as Snicket’s agent, dressed in a cape and playing miserable accordion tunes.
Agent Charlotte Sheedy of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency in New York pitched the story to a number of studios in fall 1998, and in early 1999, Nickelodeon’s Ross called expressing interest. Sheedy hooked Ross up with West Coast agent Ron Bernstein at L.A.-based ICM, and he met with Ross and Handler to kick off negotiations last summer. The talks went well, and Nick bought both film and TV rights, with plans to produce a big-screen feature and possibly a TV series. The deal was signed last fall, and Ross says that Nick views Unfortunate Events as ‘a potentially explosive property.’
While negotiations for the Nick deals were underway before the books hit retail, respected author John Burningham had a much less expeditious experience. It took 10 years for Random House U.K. to take his Oi! Get off our Train from print to screen, but it was a deal that pleased both author and agent when the resulting half-hour Christmas special finally aired on the BBC and Germany’s ZDF in 1998.
The 32-page children’s picture book came about after the award-winning Burningham was asked by Japanese Railways to do a project for the 1990 Expo in Japan. The only stipulation was that the story had to include a railway engine called Yoshitsune, which was the first railway engine ever imported to Japan, a ‘wild west sort of train,’ says Burningham. The story he wrote and illustrated was an environmental piece depicting a little boy’s dream about setting off in a life-sized toy train with his pyjama-case dog. Along the way, the boy saves endangered species all over the world from extinction. The hardcover version of Oi! was originally published in the U.K. by Jonathan Cape Limited in 1989, just before the publishing house was acquired by Random House U.K. (RH published the paperback version in 1991).
John Coates, a producer for London’s TV Cartoons (TVC) and Snowman Enterprises, says he had been wanting to work on a second project with Burningham ever since TV Cartoons produced another one of his books, Granpa, in 1987. Coates says for him, Oi! was ‘very simple and basic, yet impressive. It tells you something moving.’
‘I fell in love with the book,’ Coates says, ‘and wanted to make it into a film.’ So from 1991 to 1995, Coates and TVC searched for financing. Coates initially approached Random House in 1994 about optioning the book, but didn’t make any serious headway until 1995 when the BBC offered to cover 20% of the budget. In the spring of 1997, Hungary’s Varga Studios became interested, and 35% of the budget was knocked off thanks to a Varga/TVC operation set up in London and a deal to do some of the animation work in Varga’s Budapest studio.
At the time, TVC was making The Bear with Miramax, and Coates used the connection to persuade Miramax to come up with a large portion of the remaining budget. The last 15% came from ZDF in Germany, and production finally got underway in October of 1997. The finished film was delivered in 1998 and aired Christmas Day on BBC 2 and ZDF to an audience of over one million in the U.K.
The final agreement, signed in 1997, included all the typical elements: A warranty clause stating that Burningham is the sole owner of the work; lists rights granted to TVC and Varga; the option payment schedule, which is usually a monthly payment paid out over a year; an advertising clause stating that only a certain portion of the book can be published for advertising purposes; and a clause saying credit must be given to the author.
Rights were negotiated for broadcast, cable, film and merchandise. The final deal netted Burningham and Random House a good five-figure sum, says Camilla Shestopal, licensing director for RH Children’s Books in the U.K., which is fairly typical for a kids book deal, and Burningham was guaranteed a split of any merchandise revenue as well.
Coates says that although he was pleased with the final project, he’s disappointed that Miramax hasn’t pushed to air the special in other countries or moved on its worldwide merchandising rights. There was little licensed merch based on Oi! produced, except for some commemorative items in Japan.