Multimedia legwork: Spotting books with crossover potential

Characters culled from the pages of children's books provide the backbone for some of the most popular and enduring kids properties in the market today. Take Thomas the Tank Engine. Still chugging along after 60 years, the property contributed 18% of HIT Entertainment's revenues in 2004. And then there's that much newer kid on the block by the name of Harry Potter, whose ability to make box-office magic is legendary. The franchise's first three films raked in more than US$2.6 billion worldwide - and there are four more in the pipeline.
April 1, 2005

Characters culled from the pages of children’s books provide the backbone for some of the most popular and enduring kids properties in the market today. Take Thomas the Tank Engine. Still chugging along after 60 years, the property contributed 18% of HIT Entertainment’s revenues in 2004. And then there’s that much newer kid on the block by the name of Harry Potter, whose ability to make box-office magic is legendary. The franchise’s first three films raked in more than US$2.6 billion worldwide – and there are four more in the pipeline.

Successes like these speak volumes about the viability of books in the kids entertainment realm, and studios, independent production companies and agents continually return to the publishing inkwell for source material. But how do they know which books will work? And what does a book need to have in order for its stories and characters to leap off the page and into other media? Simply put, there’s no established formula for assessing and exploiting a book’s post-print potential. And not all titles that make this kind of jump stick the landing. But by looking at some successful translations and up-and-coming prospects, a few signposts and strategies emerge that are worth considering.

Disney Publishing: A hit hatchery?

Disney is certainly no stranger to generating successful franchises from publishing-based IPs. Perhaps a honey-addicted bear named Pooh rings a bell. Inspired by an A.A. Milne character that first appeared in print in 1925, Winnie the Pooh merchandise generated US$5.3 billion at retail in 2003 and now accounts for 22% of Disney Consumer Products’ revenues. Granted, it’s taken decades to build that kind of market presence for the property, but laying the right groundwork is the first step. And Disney has worked hard to give its newest crossover hope that crucial foundation.

In the late ’90s, as part of his plan to turn DCP around, president Andy Mooney charged Disney Publishing Worldwide with the task of birthing new IPs with cross-platform potential. The benefits would be twofold. Not only would Disney become less reliant on its theatrical arm for properties, but through Disney Publishing Worldwide, it could also create IPs for a fraction of the development cost.

Based in Italy, DPW’s global magazine center presented the House of Mouse with its first candidate in 2001. Developed for roughly US$100,000, the comic book series W.I.T.C.H. centers around a group of five female friends embarking on that oh-so angst-ridden transition from girlhood to teendom. Typical tweens Will, Irma, Taranee, Cornelia and Hay Lin deal with the daily stress of school, socializing and parents, but they also possess superpowers that are at their most potent when the girls work as a team.

Alessandro Belloni, senior VP of global magazines at DPW, says his team created W.I.T.C.H. specifically to fill a tween girl property gap in Disney’s portfolio. Girls are not big comic book consumers, and he admits that the monthly W.I.T.C.H. format was initially a hard sell with Italy’s preteen girls. But what appeals to the demo about W.I.T.C.H., he says, is that it speaks to a very delicate phase in the lives of girls, and readers identify especially with the characters’ everyday doings and strong peer relationships.

To help the comics achieve lift-off, this strong content pull was buttressed by a US$200,000 marketing spend, prominent placement in the country’s 12,000 newsstands and a community website. W.I.T.C.H.’s monthly circulation now sits at 200,000 in Italy, and since its launch, the books have gone into 70 countries and sold 20 million copies worldwide.

DCP rolled licensed products out in Italy about a year after W.I.T.C.H.’s launch, and plans for a TV series based on the comics began to take shape at about the same time. VP of girls franchise management Mary Beech says that the initial line of products – including stationery items and an Italian apparel line that achieved sell-through rates between 70% and 80% – was successful enough to trigger the launch of book-based product into the other European countries that carry the comic books. Without a TV presence, W.I.T.C.H.’s publishing and consumer products business is on track to generate US$115 million at European retail this year. And after the TV show debuts across Europe on Jetix platforms throughout ’05 and ’06, DCP expects the merch program to ramp up to warp speed.

Because the TV show stays so close to the comics’ plot, characters and design, Beech says new product will be generically W.I.T.C.H.-based, without reflecting one or the other medium specifically. As with other tween brands, products will be lifestyle-driven, relying on the overarching style elements of W.I.T.C.H. and less on character art. Depite the presence of 18 serialized W.I.T.C.H. books in North America and the huge success of Europe’s publishing-driven consumer products range, Beech says the State-side program still hinges on TV as its most important catalyst. To give the series more time to take hold on the Jetix block, where it launched in February, product won’t hit U.S. shelves until 2006.

Looking for lightening to strike twice, Disney has also announced plans for its next publishing-based property, Disney Fairies. Ella Enchanted author Gail Carson Levine is crafting a tiny world for Tinker Bell and three new fairy friends in Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. The title hits bookstores this fall, with six more chapter books and a line of merch following up in 2006.

Consider a book’s brand equity

When it comes to exploiting publishing-based IPs, not many are in Disney’s league. But smaller players continue to mine strong franchises from books. Toronto, Canada’s Nelvana has a history of successfully translating characters including Franklin and Babar from page to screen.

Beyond the prerequisites of compelling characters and a great story, executive VP of production and development Scott Dyer says his company looks at a book’s presence in the market. Does it have the kind of sales and public awareness that would attract kids to watch a derivative TV show and buy merchandise based on its characters? Optioning a book with no track record makes for a bit of a slog. It’s not impossible to get an obscure author’s work off the ground, he says, but at that point, you could just as easily develop a show from scratch.

Being able to tell broadcasters and retailers that a book has sold X-million copies also makes for an easier sell, says executive VP of business development Doug Murphy. But equity costs. The more famous the author and books, the more backend rights and other income streams you’ll have to part with. Deals vary on a case-by-case basis, says Murphy, but you can expect that an author’s rights will add at least 5% to upfront production costs, and they could amount to as much as 50% of the backend split. ‘The days of exorbitant book deals are certainly behind us at Nelvana,’ he adds. ‘We’re more inclined to develop our own IP now than to acquire rights to a publishing property. It’s a margin decision. The economics now make it a more difficult proposition.’

But there are some book properties too attractive to pass up. One good example is the Miss Spider series of books created by David Kirk. Nelvana’s CGI Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends TV series bowed on Nick Jr. in fall 2004, and consumer products including preschool toys and apparel will hit retail in Q3.

Nelvana was drawn to Miss Spider’s sales pedigree (close to five million copies have sold through to date), its successful book-based merch program and its beautiful 3-D style. But equally appealing were the books’ characters, which seemed strong enough to inspire hundreds of stories. Dyer says Kirk is very involved in the show’s creative development, and that’s also a big plus. ‘David’s helping to watch the stories and make sure the characters behave in a consistent fashion,’ he says. Kirk used to produce vibrant lacquered wooden toys by hand, and his visual sensibilities are put to work in translating his characters into the show’s vibrant CGI aesthetic.

Another set of books Nelvana couldn’t refuse are Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes and Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda by Margaret Atwood. The Canadian author’s adult fiction titles, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin (winner of the prestigious Booker prize), have captivated older readers for years. ‘She’s an icon in Canada, popular internationally, and her kids books are pretty funny’ says Dyer.

In each of the books, the main kid characters meet up with a wacky cast of characters on their travels. For example, in Princess Prunella, the little royal protagonist is cursed by a witch to whom she is unkind. A hideous purple peanut sprouts up on the tip of her nose, and Prunella must perform three good deeds to make the growth disappear.

Nelvana optioned the titles this past January with an eye to producing an animated series that rolls in characters from all three books. It’s early days yet, and Dyer says the alliterative nature of the English-language books presents an international distribution challenge. But development will bring the humor stemming from the characters’ interactions to the fore, rather than the playful language. ‘Margaret is just full of ideas for the back stories of these books,’ says Dyer, and the plan is to keep her involved in as much of the development process as possible.

Don’t discount going with your gut feeling

Sometimes it pays off to leave aside concerns about development costs and brand equity and just go with your gut. That’s how New York’s Silver Lining Productions found author Ian Falconer and his irascible, fashionable piglet Olivia.

Silver Lining has forged a reputation for discovering, nurturing and representing talented authors, and what usually sways president Diana Manson and CEO Amory Millard are unique characters, stories and style. ‘We want to work with people we respect and admire because we rarely acquire rights to one book,’ says Manson.

Manson and Millard first saw Olivia in galley form at publisher Simon & Schuster, and they knew they had to snap it up. ‘The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I saw her,’ says Millard. But rather than plunge straight into screen treatments for the property, Silver Lining chose to pursue consumer products first.

Shortly after Olivia’s U.S. launch in October 2000, Simon & Schuster began fielding requests for product – a sure indicator of consumer appetite if ever there was one. Millard responded by putting out an exclusive line of test products in the Holiday 2001 FAO Schwarz catalogue. The inventory, including an Olivia plush and Madame Alexander doll, sold out within three weeks of the first catalogue drop.

Since then, Olivia and Falconer’s two follow-up books Olivia Saves the Circus and Olivia…and the Missing Toy have sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide. And Silver Lining has maintained a focused mid-tier program for small children and another other key demo – young women in the U.S. and Japan. Buying patterns showed early on that young female consumers were attracted to Olivia’s wit and fashion sense. And that helped shape Millard’s product development mantra, which is ‘Hello Kitty meets Kate Spade.’

Another reason why Silver Lining chose to start small with Olivia is that the original book featured one self-contained story, and Falconer hadn’t really given much thought to expanding the property’s scope. With so little behind it, moving into developing a TV series and mass-market merch program right away could have destroyed the property.

With the fourth book ready to go to print, Manson says Falconer is much more comfortable in the world he’s created, generating more characters and beefier plots with each pass. And so Silver Lining is now heading into pre-development on a TV treatment.

You might not even want to wait for the book

Then there are creators who hatch properties with serious multimedia potential just waiting to be discovered. At least this was the case for U.K.-based greeting card illustrator Rob Scotton. Susan Miller, president of New York-based IP development and licensing agency Mixed Media Group, walked by Scotton’s booth at Licensing Show 2003 and was stopped in her tracks by an illustration of a very cute sheep hanging by his tail on a trapeze. She asked Scotton to tell her about the character, and five minutes later, he was still weaving tales about the sheep.

Miller knew she’d hit on something and used her licensed book connections to introduce Scotton to HarperCollins. Ten days later, the illustrator had signed a three-book deal; the first title – Russell the Sheep – will hit shelves in April with a print run of 75,000 copies.

According to Miller, this is just the beginning for Russell and Scotton. The newly minted author has finished penning book two, due out in 2006, and Miller says she’s received a firm offer for a feature film that could hit the big screen in late 2007/early 2008. She has also begun to field inquiries from TV producers who’ve seen the HarperCollins Children’s Books spring catalogue.

Like Silver Lining, Miller wants to take it slow. ‘Russell is cute, and there’s interest in doing some stand-alone merchandise, but I don’t want to go that way,’ she says. ‘I want children to want Russell and not just another piece of plush.’ That takes time, and more pragmatically, Miller admits there are very few examples of books that have successfully driven a merch program on their own.

Bolder pools toon talent for new book imprint

About three years ago, former Hanna Barbera president and Frederator Studios founder Fred Seibert started to look at the logistics of developing preschool franchises. He wanted to apply his Motown-like talent development system, through which he has produced more than 100 animated shorts from several first-time animation creators.

Seibert’s trusty system is credited with spawning long-form hits such as Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Cow and Chicken, The Fairly OddParents and My Life as a Teenage Robot. But he quickly realized that the preschool TV industry doesn’t have the financial teeth to support the production of dozens of short films to find a few gems.

Enter Mixed Media Group president Susan Miller, who introduced the idea of applying Seibert’s vision to publishing. After all, a picture book is really just a slightly different version of storyboard. And because the books would be written and illustrated by animators – who are better trained than print illustrators to construct screen-ready characters – there wouldn’t be any interpretive battles when it came time to move the story from page to screen. The partners also noted that many more books than TV series make it to market each year.

Realizing they were on to something, Seibert and Miller established Bolder Media to develop books, TV, film and licensing programs for preschool properties.

After putting out the word in L.A.’s animation community, the partners have spent the last two years culling through hundreds of book pitches from authors well-versed in screen development. They have now moved a first group of concepts into book development, and these projects will feed into a 24-book deal with Random House’s Bolder Books for Boys and Girls storybook imprint for 2006.

Bolder has also scored a first greenlight from Nick Jr. to produce a 26 x half-hour series for fall ’06 based on a book by Bob Boyle, the former art director of Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom. Wubby, Widget and Walden is about three close friends who approach and solve problems in very different ways, and the 2-D animated series is in production with IDT Entertainment and Film Roman. Seibert says Wubby wasn’t Nick Jr.’s first pick from Bolder’s portfolio, but Boyle’s tenacious personality and his willingness to hone the work put the concept back in the running.

Editor’s note: The electronic version of this article has been edited from the original print version in order to correct or clarify some information that it contained.

About The Author
Lana Castleman is the Editor & Content Director of Kidscreen and oversees all content for Kidscreen magazine, and related kidscreen events.


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