The kids book market harvests a new crop of screen spin-off hopefuls

Though it may seem like recent history, long before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Shrek raked in millions in box office and DVD sales, the studios recognized the value that kids books held as source material for developing lucrative entertainment franchises. But with the success of those properties - and others - they appear to be redoubling their efforts to scope out new and old titles that will make for good film and TV fodder.
October 1, 2002

Though it may seem like recent history, long before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Shrek raked in millions in box office and DVD sales, the studios recognized the value that kids books held as source material for developing lucrative entertainment franchises. But with the success of those properties – and others – they appear to be redoubling their efforts to scope out new and old titles that will make for good film and TV fodder.

‘Optioning kids books is not new. People had optioned Stuart Little 15 years ago,’ says Riley Ellis, a young adult book scout for Twentieth Century Fox Feature Films. ‘You’re hearing more about kids books now, because Hollywood is figuring out how to do right by a classic, and the audiences are going [to the films].’ A testament to how serious the studios are about kids books these days is the very existence of Ellis’s position, which wasn’t part of Fox’s corporate hierarchy six months ago. Though the major studios all have people who monitor the book world for hot properties, only a few have one person solely focused on children’s books. That’s likely to change, though, given the economic realities of the industry.

Do the entertainment math and you soon realize that family movies – many of which are based on kids books – offer better ROI than other entertainment genres in terms of potential audience reach and ancillary revenue streams, says Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Entertainment, which is developing a film with New Line Cinema based on the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

‘For years, we’ve been talking to studios about the viability of family films, but nobody was really interested until the success of Harry Potter,’ says Forte. ‘Many of the top-grossing films of all time are family or G-rated movies.’ But it’s not just the Potters and other high-profile titles that are being successfully leveraged into other entertainment media. An even more attractive business model from a prodco’s perspective, says Fox’s Riley, are those moderately successful books like Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries and Willie Morris’s My Dog Skip, both of which have been turned into highly profitable films. Budgeted at US$30 million, Disney’s The Princess Diaries yielded US$108.2 million in ticket sales, according to box office business tracker Exhibitor Relations; My Dog Skip, which was made for a paltry US$7 million, racked up a cool US$34.1 million.

With the goal of removing some of the guesswork involved in collaring hot book properties that lurk just beneath the radar – and with thousands of the world’s book cognoscenti poised to descend upon the Frankfurt Book Fair later this month – KidScreen decided to query major publishing houses on which upcoming titles boast the strongest big- and little-screen potential.

While the success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films may have resulted in a glut of wizard- and wand-spackled titles, there’s still plenty of variety as far as content goes.

Food is what’s on the menu in Dish, a new tween-skewing series from first-time author Diane Muldrow. Published by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers division Grosset & Dunlap, Dish stars a set of preteen twins who launch a successful catering business one summer after having their fill of takeout food, which they often get because their parents are usually working. Set in New York and peppered with many multicultural characters, Dish is a funkier Babysitter’s Club, says G&D’s president and publisher Debra Dorfman. That the series touches on kid empowerment and cooking – the latter of which is a hot trend in the toy industry and a popular leisure time activity for tweens – should make Dish an appetizing option for production companies, adds Dorfman, who feels the series lends itself particularly well to a live-action TV series treatment. Penguin, which owns the entertainment rights to Dish, released the first three titles in the 10-book series earlier this year. The fourth book, Into the Mix, which was released last month, finds the twins struggling to balance business, friends and school.

Kid empowerment of a different sort informs Hank Zipzer: The Mostly True Confessions of the World’s Best Under-Achiever, about a boy with dyslexia trying to make his way in the world. Targeted at middle-grade readers, each book in the series, which tentatively includes four titles, will examine the challenges that Hank’s condition forces him to face, like doing schoolwork. G&D will launch the series, co-authored by actor/director Henry Winkler (who also has dyslexia) and Lin Oliver, next spring. Though Penguin does not control the entertainment rights, Dorfman feels that Winkler’s celebrity status and the fact that he owns his own production company bodes well for the series’ film and TV prospects.

For prodcos interested in older-skewing fare, there’s Son of the Mob (Hyperion) by Gordon Korman of The Jersey and Nosepickers from Outer Space fame. A kind of Sopranos for young adults, the novel takes a humorous look at a teen (Vince) who’s trying to have a normal relationship with his girlfriend (the daughter of an FBI agent), despite the fact that his father is the biggest gangster in town. Inevitably, though, his father’s vocation encroaches on Vince’s life at the worst of times – like when he’s out on a date and finds some guy tied up in the trunk of his car.

Though Son of the Mob may sound a little risqué for YA readers, Korman deals with the subject matter in a very light-hearted way, milking Vince’s predicament for high comedic value, says Molly Kong, director of children’s subsidiary rights at Disney Publishing. Jane Startz Productions and Miramax are in the early stages of developing the book (which is slated to hit stores this month) as a live-action feature film.

Also from Disney Publishing, but situated at the opposite end of the YA spectrum, is Summerland (Miramax Books) by adult author Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys). Chabon’s first outing in the youth genre, Summerland centers on a boy who moves with his recently widowed father to a desolate island, where he discovers a gateway leading to a cluster of interconnected worlds containing benign magical creatures called ferishers and an evil overlord named Coyote. In order to save the ferishers (and ultimately the world), Ethan and some of his newfound friends must defeat Coyote and his band of ne’er-do-wells in a series of baseball games. Miramax also picked up the option to Summerland, which debuted on shelves last month and which will be followed by two other books that are in the works.

Also trading in otherworldly beings is the new YA novel Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale (Simon & Schuster) by Holly Black. Described as a Buffy-ized gothic fantasy by S&S’s VP of subsidiary rights and international markets Carol Roeder, Tithe finds 16-year-old Kaye caught between two warring factions of fairy kingdoms, which she discovers while living in a Jersey suburb. S&S is managing the rights to the book and will release it this month in hardcover.

Chronicling more pedestrian teen girl problems, The True Meaning of Cleavage (Simon & Schuster/Richard Jackson Books) is a coming-of-age story in which two ninth-grade girls – one promiscuous and outgoing, the other shy and reserved – deal with boys and relationships. Due out in spring ’03, Cleavage will appeal to ‘The Princess Diaries audience and is already generating a lot of buzz based on that comparison,’ says Roeder.

Measuring pre-publishing hype alone, a sure bet to make the jump to film or TV is Scholastic’s The Thief Lord, penned by German author Cornelia Funke. Originally published in Germany, where it sold 150,000 copies, the book has already drawn comparisons to Harry Potter – partly because of the major marketing muscle Scholastic put behind launching the title last month, and partly because it was brought to English-speaking readers by Barry Cunningham (who also discovered Harry Potter). Cunningham’s imprint Chicken House publishes the title in the U.K.

The Thief Lord tells the story of two orphaned brothers who escape their evil aunt and uncle in Hamburg and make off for Venice, where they take up with a band of thieves led by a youth (The Thief Lord) who apparently loots the city’s richest homes. The brothers try to keep one step ahead of a relentless detective hired by their aunt to track them down, encountering a magical carousel that can change adults into kids (and vice versa) along the way.

Though it skews slightly older, Chicken House novel Martyn Pig by first-time U.K. author Kevin Brooks also deals with the issue of running away, but for entirely different reasons. Written in a hard-boiled style, the book centers on a teen who accidentally kills his abusive father. Rather than plead self defense to the authorities, Martyn hides the body and tries to make the most of his freedom. The remainder of the novel charts his struggle to get on with the rest of his life, while staying one step ahead of the police.

Though patricide may not be the sunniest of subjects, Liza Baker, a senior editor at Scholastic, feels that the story line of a teen overcoming incredible internal and external conflicts resonates with YA audiences. Already available in hardcover, Scholastic will bow with the title next month in paperback. Though entertainment rights to Martyn Pig have yet to be optioned, Comet Film GmbH has picked up film rights to The Thief Lord, with Warner Bros. Germany on board to distribute the flick worldwide.

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