At the New York Rights Fair last week, producers, agents, and film executives joined a forthright panel discussion about the art of adapting children’s and young adult books for all the screens now available to consumers. The “Adaptation: Navigating the New Hollywood” panel was curated by Global Kids Connect, an annual conference hosted by Publishers Weekly and BolognaFiere.
Gotham Group literary manager and producer Eddie Gamarra moderated and also provided an agent’s perspective on an adaptation marketplace for children’s books that now includes streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu alongside technology companies or platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Apple. “They need to make product ASAP,” he said, explaining that streaming services are looking for lots of content, quickly. “Netflix launched 120 programs between docs, comedy specials, features, and TV series across kids and adult—in one month. That’s an extraordinary amount of output.”
Lisa Fragner, v-p of feature film development at 20th Century Fox Feature Animation/Blue Sky Studios, spoke about how the streaming content boom has affected her work at a major animation studio. “There’s a lot of competition,” she said. “There are these new flexible, exciting, and financially powerful places where sellers of content can go now. We aren’t the only game in town anymore. That’s a huge shift for studio executives and TV executives.”
Nevertheless, everyone from traditional studios to streaming services is competing for the attention of the same viewers. “Everybody is so dependent now on pre-sold underlying properties for brands,” said panelist Jane Startz, founding producer at Jane Startz Productions—stressing the power of books that already have established fan bases. She spent decades developing kids’ books into film and television, and helped co-found Scholastic Productions in 1997. “There are so many different places for people to watch, so there’s more pressure to distinguish yourself as a network or a studio to say, ‘I’m doing The Maze Runner’ or ‘I’m doing The Hunger Games,” because everybody knows that property and there’s a built-in audience,” she said.
In this booming marketplace, agents are wary, and are working hard to protect sub rights related to a literary property. Fragner understands this instinct, but offered her perspective from the other half of the rights equation: “From a studio side, we want as much as we can get,” she said. “When I bring something into the studio, it goes to business affairs. They are going to ask for everything and settle for what they can get.”
Gamarra offered more context about merchandise rights to children’s books. “When it comes to television programming in particular, the Disneys and the Nickelodeons of the world will tell you the animated show doesn’t really make any money,” he said. “The money is being made in merch. Plastic is profit. That’s why we have to fight that merchandising battle a different way in the kids’ business, I’ve found.”
The panelists also gave attendees a glimpse behind the adaptation process. Pouya Shahbazian, a producer who leads New Leaf Literary’s film and television division, stressed that the art of adapting books is a long process—despite streaming giants’ efforts to speed it up. Among many other book-to-film projects, Shahbazian produced the adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. “We turned Divergent in 36 months, and that was lightning fast,” he said. “The Notebook took 10 years to make. You’re always going to have this long lead time with a book.”
Startz recalled an experience she had helping make an adaptation of a classic novel. “In The Indian in the Cupboard, I had two really strong personalities— novelist Lynne Reid Banks and the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison,” she said. “They sat in a room and argued it out until they finally reached a place where they both felt good about it. It was a collaboration.”
“It’s very rare to have producers who are that forward-thinking about protecting the author’s vision,” said Gamarra when he heard Startz’s story.
The panelists concluded by offering some advice for aspiring creators hoping to see their book adapted to film or TV. “My advice is to think ‘high concept,’ ” said Shahbazian, highlighting the essential skill of quickly summing up a story’s big idea. “Early in my career, I became very good at pitching in five seconds or less,” he said.
“Be a Disney of one,” said Gamarra. He also shared the advice he gives to his author clients, “If you want to do this as a business, think about this: ‘Could this be staged? Could this be merch? Could this be film or TV? Begin to look at each book as a unit of potential business.”
“Persevere—don’t be discouraged,” Startz said. “I just got a green light on a movie that I developed in 2004. It’s a long game!”