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Kids fantasy lit offerings take centerstage as feature film fodder

While kidlit has an established history as a breeding ground for feature film concepts, the book-to-box office rise of Harry Potter has led to a resurgence of interest in the fantasy genre. Whether reactionary trend or well-timed coincidence, the studios are now taking a second look at material that might not have fit with their brand identities previously, optioning works by fantasy writers and authors leaning towards the darker side of kidlit.
November 1, 2001

While kidlit has an established history as a breeding ground for feature film concepts, the book-to-box office rise of Harry Potter has led to a resurgence of interest in the fantasy genre. Whether reactionary trend or well-timed coincidence, the studios are now taking a second look at material that might not have fit with their brand identities previously, optioning works by fantasy writers and authors leaning towards the darker side of kidlit.

According to Mark Gill, president of Miramax L.A., today’s kids look for more of a spectacle, and their film expectations are higher. ‘The stuff that worked 15 years ago doesn’t work as well now,’ explains Gill. Kid projects themselves wouldn’t have worked for Miramax–typically associated with horror flicks and art house fare–in the past, but 2000 bore witness to the studio’s kid market entry with Dimension Films’ Spy Kids.

Aided by an in-house publishing division (Talk Miramax) and a recent deal with Storyopolis, the studio has been scanning the pages of kid fantasy lit in search of its next project. To date, Miramax has optioned Irish author Eoin Colfer’s fantasy novel Artemis Fowl, Michael Chabon’s Summerland and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted fairy tale.

Artemis Fowl, often referred to as the ‘anti-Potter,’ but also coined as a combination of Spy Kids and the Rowling hit, is about a 12-year-old criminal mastermind attempting to restore his family’s ill-gotten fortune. Young Artemis’ plan is to steal gold from a magical underworld–an act that could spark a cross-species war. The author’s summation: ‘Die Hard, with fairies.’ Although the film is tentatively on next year’s slate, no screenwriter or director has yet been announced.

While Summerland and Ella Enchanted are in the ‘just optioned’ category, with no firm plans for either as of press time, both offer rich story lines for feature film development. Summerland is Chabon’s (otherwise known for the book behind the movie Wonder Boys) first stab at kidlit, described as a fantasy based in the contemporary world and set against a background of North American myth. Published in 1998, Ella is the first in a long string of Levine’s efforts in the children’s book genre. Ella is the teenage daughter of a traveling merchant. At birth, she was visited by a fairy and gifted/cursed with obedience–she has to obey any order given her, whether it be to hop on one foot, cut off her head, or betray her kingdom.

Miramax/Dimension also signed a first-look, three-year deal with Storyopolis, an L.A.-based company committed to developing alternative media incarnations for both new and classic kids books. It represents more than 80 artists and artist estates, including Quentin Blake (Matilda), Tim Burton (The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy), Holly Hobbie (Toot and Puddle), Michael Paraskevas (Monster Beach), Rosemary Wells (My Very First Mother Goose) and Dan Yaccarino (Oswald).

Scholastic Entertainment is also delving into the fantasy game, with its film division–known for lighter book-to-film fare such as The Babysitters Club and Indian in the Cupboard–optioning the worldwide film rights and U.K. publishing rights for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (made up of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass). Scholastic waited six years–until the third book came out–before seeking to acquire film rights for the series. ‘We don’t go optioning everything because we don’t believe that we can be involved in a movie that isn’t as good or better than the book,’ says Debra Forte, Scholastic Entertainment’s executive VP.

The trilogy centers around Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, two tweens living in different worlds. In Lyra’s world, everyone has a personal demon–a lifelong animal familiar–and science, theology and magic are closely intertwined. Will lives in a world like ours, leading a rough life in which magic doesn’t hold much weight. Will and Lyra travel between the two worlds while there’s a war raging in the Kingdom of Heaven.

On the lighter side of fantasy, Universal picked up the rights to Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are two years ago from Columbia Pictures. A CGI feature is in development for a possible 2003 release, and Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzam (Silence of the Lambs) have signed up to produce the project. An animation house hasn’t been chosen yet, but writer David Reynolds (The Emperor’s New Groove) and director Eric Goldberg (Disney’s Hercules) have come on board.

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