Books are proving to be fertile ground for producers looking for a bright idea that will capture the imagination of kids around the world
In a market as crowded as the kids’ business is, there’s not much that can top the benefits of launching a property with built-in brand awareness. And much like toys and videogames, books and comics offer just that for producers of children’s programming, along with a wealth of story lines from which to draw inspiration.
This is perhaps most evident in Japan, where the entire anime industry owes much of its success to manga – Japanese comic books. “Nearly all of our properties are manga based,” says John Easum, the executive VP of VIZ Media, the U.S.-based Japanese content giant that has fared well with properties such as Inuyasha and Naruto. “A large majority of the animated content that comes out of Japan does have its roots in manga. It comes down to the power of manga and the publishing companies. Manga is one of the fastest-growing categories in publishing in North America today. In Japan, the presence of manga is overwhelming; it’s really ubiquitous in the daily existence of Japanese society.”
Noting that a leading comic book, such as VIZ Media´s own Shonen Jump, can sell between two million and three million copies a week in Japan, Easum says that manga can provide a bevy of market research before a pilot even has to be pronounced. Publishers “collect reader responses on an ongoing basis,” Easum says. “If a story has proven itself to be immensely popular, the rights-holder will say, this is a great concept for an animated series; let’s take it to the next step.”
In the absence of that sort of market research in the rest of the world, producers must rely on other rationales as to why a book property deserves a television adaptation. “There has to be a reason” for it to exist, asserts Deborah Forte, the president of Scholastic Entertainment, which has built its business on developing television properties based on the wealth of material available from its parent company, publishing giant Scholastic. “Books and literacy are at the core of everything we do, and that gives us something of a unique perspective. It gives us an abundance of content to look at, but it also is very instructive in that you learn very fast that not all good books make good media. The media experience has to be different and complementary. There is no reason to do it if it’s exactly the same.” The key, Forte says, is that a television adaptation must “take advantage of the idea of a moving picture and audio to tell a story, which you don’t have with a book.”
For the German producer Greenlight Media, SimsalaGrimm’s reason to be was clear – the worldwide recognition of fables by the Brothers Grimm. The series has been licensed into more than 120 territories since its 1999 launch. “These fairy tales reach across all languages, countries and cultures and are known by all generations,” explains Katja Wagner, the brand and license manager at Greenlight Media. “It was important for us to pick this up and adapt it to a TV format.”
The same was the case for Universal studios, which secured the television and film rights Curious George, whose books, penned by Margret and H. A. Rey, have sold more than 25 million copies since first hitting shelves in 1941. The animated feature was released this summer, and the series launched on PBS in September. “This is the first [Curious George TV series] that will have this kind of exposure,” says Ellen Cockrill, the senior VP of animation at Universal studios Family Productions. “Margret and H. A. Rey had really tight reins on this character, with very strong opinions about what could and couldn’t be done with it. Eventually it wound up at Universal for theatrical development, and eventually it got to a TV show. It was a slow process.”
With the show finally on the air in the U.S., and being licensed internationally by NBC Universal International Television Distribution, Cockrill is confident that kids around the world will be taken with this enduring publishing icon. “He’s a timeless character that is a lot of fun to watch,” she says. “He’s like a kid on a permanent Saturday with very little supervision. He gets himself into all kinds of hilarious misadventures but uses also his curiosity and his perseverance to get himself out of those situations. The fact that he isn’t a speaking character will make it something that children all over the world will be able to enjoy.”
Kiddinx Media also had a well-established base to work from with Bibi Blocksberg, which started as an audio-book series before spawning magazines, books and a string of merchandise. “We have sold more than 8.5 million magazines to date and more than 650,000 books,” says Andrea Bannert, the director of television and merchandising at Kiddinx. “And we sold 42.2 million audio stories on cassettes and CDs.” Airing on ZDF and Ki.Ka since 1999, the show, about a young witch, has notched up deals in several markets, including Austria, Norway, Taiwan, Thailand, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and Slovenia.
At Canada’s Spectra Animation, the chance to do a TV version of Toopy and Binoo, which had more than 30 books released to acclaim and notable sales in French Canada, couldn’t be passed up. “The author came to Spectra Animation with the idea of producing a TV series,” says Michèle Dal Cin, the director of international sales and licensing at the company. “We went to Treehouse TV, they loved the idea and we went into production.”
The show has been licensed into more than ten markets, including Latin America with Cartoon Network, and France, Italy, Korea and Singapore, among others. Spectra is aiming to sign on the U.S., the U.K. and Germany this year.
Spectra is also working on Amos Daragon, a fantasy action-adventure show for boys 8 to 12, with M6 in France. “There’s a series of 12 books.” Dal Cin says, noting that the TV show will serve as a prequel to the books. “They are a phenomenon in Canada. They’re going to surpass the 1 million mark, and the publishing rights have been sold to about 18 territories around the world, including Japan.”
There are other things that jump out at producers, regardless of where a title may be on a bestseller list. For example, the award-winning bestselling series Toot & Puddle, by Holly Hobbie, “really speaks to the core mission of National Geographic,” says Donna Friedman Meir, the president of National Geographic Kids Entertainment. “We talk about our mission as being able to excite kids to explore their world. Toot and Puddle really embody that mission, because Toot is the world explorer and Puddle is more of the backyard adventurer.”
At CCI Entertainment, co-chairman and GEO Arnie Zipursky found himself enchanted with a British book series entitled Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs. “I felt really strongly that this had wonderful potential, just on its premise,“ Zipursky says. “When you’re identifying what’s going to work in the world of television, it’s obviously about telling stories. This is a beautiful premise of a 4-year-old boy with his bucket full of dinosaurs. “Airing on Cartoon Network’s preschool block Tickle U in the U.S., the show has also performed well in several other markets, including the U.K., Germany and Australia.
When working from picture books, producers must determine how closely they are going to abide by the original illustrations. Indeed, a wrong turn here can affect the chances of a show’s success. When children internalize the characters in their own minds, they own them, explains Scholastic’s Forte, and when a third party represents those characters, sometimes it can miss.
In the case of manga, the visual interpretation tends to stay close to the original. As VIZ’s Easum notes, “Manga lends itself well to adapting itself to a storyboard.”
Likewise, Scholastic did little to change the nature of its popular big red dog, Clifford. “You have to respect your source material and you have to understand what is sacred about it, ” Forte explains. “We would never mess with Clifford. Clifford is who he is; we didn’t make him a superhero. We didn’t make him magic. He can’t sing and dance. But we can certainly take Clifford and put him in an environment and create a community for him that makes him shine and be a viable television personality.”
Mike Young Productions, which animated Clifford for Scholastic, has had experience bringing another very unique series of books to life on the small screen. Todd World, based on books by the artist and author Todd Parr, is a place where a kid can dance with a porcupine, buy ice cream from hippo or eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub. The vivid colors in the books and the visual design of the characters and locations not only lent themselves very well to television, they have been almost identically matched in the TV version. ToddWorld also picks up on several of the messages of the books, including friendship and tolerance. Todd World has so far been sold to the BBC in the U.K., KI.KA in Germany. France 5, ABC Australia, TVO in Canada and Discovery Kids in the U.S. The first season of 52 11-minute episodes is complete and a second series is in production.
Universal had two different sources to draw on for its Curious George production. “We knew we wanted to create a hybrid between the film that was being developed at the same time, and the books,” Cockrill says. “We knew fans would come to the TV show from both avenues, so we wanted to create a look that would honor both, so it would be seamless experience for those viewers.”
As in the case of Scholastic’s Clifford, Universal was reluctant to alter George’s nature- which posed a few challenges in the development process. “We have a main character who does not speak,” Cockrill explains. “And he has five friends who don’t speak either. That was a huge challenge. We did a lot to make that work. First of all, you have to be very precise with the animation and with the acting to get things across. We have a wonderful narrator, William H. Macy, which is very much in the tradition of the book. He’s an observer but he has that wry comedic sense that really adds a wonderful layer to the story. Through him we can see what George is thinking, just as we do in the books. We also use a though-balloon device occasionally, so you can see what George is thinking.”
National Geographic too, appreciated the nature of its original material with Toot & Puddle. “Hollie’s illustrations are absolutely stunning. “Freidman Meir says. “The New York Times called it a modern-day classic. There is the classic beauty to it, but at the same time it’s very contemporary. There’s a lot of wit, and it’s just a mart, beautiful series.”
National Geographic is planning to also remain true to the Lottie’s World books, which it is currently developing into a TV series. The show follows the adventures of a “quirky chicken and a duck who are the best of friends in a little sleepy seaside town,” Friedman Meir says. “We’re pitching it as a traditional, old-fashioned preschool show.”
THE RIGHT LOOK
CCI, together with producing partners Collingwood O’Hare, knew that for Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs, the look of Harry needed to stay the same. “His brown shaggy hair with bangs, the facial structure, the body shape, are definitely based on the original,” Zipursky says. “The color palette has changed. We warmed it up, we made it softer. One of the early animation tests was to do it in 3-D animation, which did not suit the property. We’re doing it in classic 2-D. But the dinosaurs have changed. They’re softer and show more emotion and are more accessible.”
CCI also created a new setting, Dinoworld, for Harry and his friends to inhabit. “It’s a wonderful world to tell all these stories in and to work out all these dilemmas that Harry is dealing with as a 5-year-old boy,” Zipursky says. “We´ve created personalities [for the dinosaurs] and they’re all part of Harry’s personality, which is how kids connect to the show emotionally.”
Beyond Distribution is launching the new preschool book-based property Milly, Molly at MIPCOM. “We’re staying as close to the art as we can,” says executive producer Ron Saunders. “We wanted to keep the look and feel, particularly the ink wash. We’re very happy with the result. There’s no doubt that the books have come to life.”
Other properties, however, require a looser interpretation. Greenlight Media took liberties with the Brothers Grimm books, introducing two characters, Yoyo and Doc Croc, to serve as narrators of the classic fables. “With the help of the two new heroes we were able to compile the individual tales into a series,” Wagner says. “Yoyo and Doc Croc are two new, more modern characters that lead the viewer through all the stories. We were able to retain the character of the fairy tales while still relating them in a newer, fresher, sassier way.”
Forte at scholastic found she had to be particularly creative when adapting Goosebumps, a book series about kids and their supernatural encounters, for television. Instead of following the advice of broadcasters who suggested the property be developed into an animated series, Scholastic opted to go the live-action route. “The idea behind that material was that kids read the books and saw themselves , the normal average kid, where something extraordinary happens to them,” says Forte. “You can’t buy into that premise if you’re seeing an animated character.”
Despite initial hesitancy from the broadcasters, Goosebumps has proven to be one of Scholastic’s most successful properties, Forte says.
In other instances, a book property ends up just providing a kernel of an idea. “We’re recently optioned a book series called Adventures in Color, and it has no characters in it but it is visually stunning,” says National Geographic’s Friedman Meir. “There was an amazing visual style that combined photography and illustration and this great narrative voice. From there we’ve developed a full set of characters” for a series currently still in development.
While producers in general stay close to the visual look of their source material, there is fairly more wiggle room when it comes to story lines. In the case of SimsalaGrimm, “it was Greenlight’s intention to retain the classical plot as much as possible,” says producer Michael Henrichs. “The abundance of fairy tales allows us to sustain the brand over a long period of time in multiple projects. Notwithstanding [that intention], the stories are [retold] as the adventures of Yoyo and doc Croc.”
Furthermore, Henrichs continues, the series had to avoid some of the darker elements of the original tales. “It was only logical to avoid violence. For example, we don’t burn any witches or demonize any animals. Each episode should be fun for children and should fire their imaginations. We don’t want to frighten them.”
At Universal, Cockrill and her team had just six original Curious George books to draw from. “We mined them quite a bit,” she says. “We’ve come up with [some] stories based on those original six books. What we’ll do is, for instance, in the classic books, George will ride his bike and then he’ll go to the zoo and he’ll do a number of things. In [the TV series] we make a full story out of each one of those [activities].” Universal was also keen to enhance the educational nature of Curious George, given its home on PBS Kids. „His curiosity was such a great jumping off point for creating a curriculum in science, math and engineering, which is what we did,” Cockrill says.
The producers of Beyond´s Milly, Molly had more than 70 books to derive story lines from, according to Sanders, who notes that the series author, Gill Pittar, reads every script. “We’ve remained true to the underlying intent of the stories we adapted.” He says. „We really wanted to stay as close as we could” to the original.
The Toot & Puddle book series has been available for a decade, but only one new book is released per year. The title Toot & Puddle: I’ll Be Home for Christmas was the basis for National Geographic’s single 45-minute special of the same name. “Two-thirds of the movie fills out what is set up in the book,” says Friedman Meir. “ The book really is act thee. The story had to be blown up for a 45-minute special.”
For the series, which is still in development, however, it will be minutiae in the books that the producers will focus in on. “What may be a small two-inch illustration in the book may inspire a whole [episode], “ Freidman Meir says.” Just a postcard on the wall. There’s a beautiful one of Toot riding decorated elephants in India. There’s the Toot in India [episode].”
In the case of CCI´s Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs, however, “the only thing we took from the original book was the premise, that these dinosaurs are real,” Zipursky says.
The tremendous success of manga,” VIZ´s Easum observes. „Networks commit to 52 episodes, and if that is successful then you’re in the can for 104, and then you’re adding blocks of 52 or 26. So the animation surpasses the manga. That happened for us with Inuyasha. In that case, there’s no rule of thumb that applies, but typically the author will endorse the Producers to create original stories. They may be stories that go outside the scope of the manga or make a slight tangent. So a couple of years into a series, the manga and the series can veer off from each other. [But when] the animation does not overtake the manga, the animation stays very true to the flow and story arc” of the original, Easum says.
THERE AND BACK
Once original story lines are developed for a television series, rights-owners then have the opportunity to launch tie-in books, opening up an entirely new revenue stream. Such was the case for Scholastic with Clifford the Big Red Dog, which also spawned another TV Series, Clifford’s Puppy Days.
Greenlight believes its characters Yoyo and Doc Croc have since assumes such an independent profile that we want to place them more strongly in the forefront in the future,” Wagner says.” Grimm is no longer the only brand name.”
CCI has already secured a tie-in publishing deal for Harry, with Random House un the U.S. And Spectra’s Toopy and Binoo will see four new episode-based books hit the shelves in Canada later this year. The new books also mark the property’s English-language publishing debut in Canada. With the television show now reinforcing the property’s brand awareness in Canada, Spectra has begun rolling out a range of other merchandise.” We have two DVD’s that are scheduled to launch in November,” Dal Cin says. „Internationally, we are in discussions with a major international toy company. As soon as we place the series in key territories, our focus will be home video, publishing and toys, specifically plush, because the series has adorable characters.”
With 104 5-minute episodes available in season one, a series of 78 2-minute educational interstitials, and six half-hour themed “mini-movies,” Dal Cin says, Toopy and Binoo also features a website that offers original content and games. “ It transforms Toopy and Binoo into an educational and multiplatform property,” she says.
The Television success of Naturo on Cartoon Network in the U.S. has helped transform the manga into the leading Japanese comic in the U.S., according to VIZ Media’s Easum. VIZ Media is now rolling at DVD’s and is working with Mattel and Bandai on action figures, plush toys, vehicles, play sets, role-play games, puzzles, electronics and more.
Bibi Blocksberg has been a tremendous property for Kiddinx Media. According to Bannert, 3.1 million home-entertainment units have been sold, as well as 823,000 PC games. Further, she says, „we have a Bibi Blocksberg musical on tour, which has attracted 250,000 people in the German-speaking territories. We did two live-action feature films, with more than 3.3 million [cinema attendees] and we are working on the third movie.” Other consumer products based on Bibi Blocksberg include clothes and bedding.
With all the merchandising potential of book-based properties, it’s no wonder that CCI is now developing its own book series that will, Zipursky hopes, spawn a television production. The company has commissioned a book entitled Daisy Jane and the Fairy Tree, based on an internally development idea about a young girl who, Zipursky says, has a recessive fairy gene.” Every several generations someone in the Family gets the fairy gene.[Daisy Jane] has these magical powers and of course she gets into trouble with them, but she’s completely well intentioned. We’ve hired a writer and we’re working with a literary agent out of New York.”
For Zipursky, the move into book publishing was a logical one.” There’s such a wonderful tradition of children’s book-based properties having a very long shelf life.