Film adaptations of children's books are a golden goose for publishers, but success is difficult to grasp and slow in coming

<p>Caroline Horn</p><p>Last year's bumper crop of family films showed just how successful book-to-film adaptations can be. The box-office successes of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "Lemony Snicket" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" brightened booksellers' windows and generated millions of new sales. This year, however, children's booksellers are facing Christmas without a swathe of box-office hits--although forthcoming film "Eragon" will be of some comfort.</p><p>This situation reinforces the idea that the film industry is a fickle business. But when it does deliver, the rewards are rich. The $1.5m (&#163;819,000) advance paid by Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films to option The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless (Ahmet Zappa) piqued Puffin's interest before the publisher went on to acquire the book.</p><p>Ongoing series such as Lemony Snicket and the Princess Diaries have been given a boost by their film launches, while classics such as Nanny McPhee and The Chronicles of Narnia were given a new lease of life by their film productions.</p><p>The presence of film scouts and agents at this year's Bologna Children's Book Fair is testament to the film industry's growing interest in children's books. However, publishing scout John McLay says: "The reality is that books are being optioned and the films are not getting made--but the options are getting more expensive and are being sold quicker."</p><p>Film deals have become so much a part of bestsellerdom that, if a film option hasn't been taken on a children's book, most would wonder why. Linda Summers, associate publisher (rights) at Random House Children's Books in the UK, says: "We are always very interested in film deals; it adds to the exposure and potential performance of a book and is good for extra revenue."</p><p>It seems to be worth publishers' while to forge closer links with the film industry; in the US, this is already happening. The deal announced between Penguin Young Readers Group and Walden Media--for a joint venture to develop new books and films--follows Random House Inc's deal with Focus Features to co-produce and co-finance films via a new production house, Random House Films.</p><p>In the UK, where publishers are distanced from Hollywood, the approach to the film industry has traditionally been less formal--although HarperCollins Children's Books firmed up an agreement with US management firm The Gotham Group to represent its film and television interests in the US.</p><p>Puffin's approach is to wait and see how the deal with Walden Media progresses. Puffin m.d. Francesca Dow says: "We do not have a formal arrangement with Walden in the way that Penguin US does, but we are working more closely with our US colleagues on acquiring and working on projects, and film interest may become part of that."</p><p>If the US-based partnership proves to be fruitful, then Puffin "will look at doing something similar ourselves", according to Dow. Currently, Puffin has no attachments to specific film companies, and film sales are handled by its rights team. This has been working successfully for the company, and a number of films of its titles are currently in production, including a film of Charlotte's Web, which will be released next year.</p><p>Random House Children's Books already had a close working relationship with film agency Rod Hall before the creation of Random House Films and its deal with Focus Features. Focus is now exploring RHCB's backlist for film material.</p><p>Meanwhile, independent publisher The Chicken House has taken a more proactive approach to its film interests by setting up a separate film division called Chicken House Entertainment. The company works with an agency in Hollywood to develop treatments for film agents.</p><p>Because The Chicken House has been working with many new authors, it tends to hold more film rights. But, on the whole, publishers are getting fewer film rights in children's book deals; the rights are increasingly held by agents, and the deals brokered by them.</p><p>Rosemary Canter, agent at PFD, says she would "almost never" sell film rights to a publisher, because she sees their main business as publishing books. PFD has a team of film agents who know how to get the best deal for an author. It can also be harder for publishers to spot what a film company might like. Maggie Noach, agent, says: "Film companies ultimately make films of filmable books, and many of the most well-reviewed books are simply not good film material." </p><p>Making a book into a film</p><p>It takes an enormous amount of time, effort and luck to get a book optioned, never mind to film stage. Agents typically send out "hundreds of manuscripts and proofs" without sparking any interest; others, like Garry Kilworth's Attica, can be sold over a conversation.</p><p>In turn, scout Riley Ellis, who works solely on children's books for Twentieth Century Fox, may read 200 books for every one that she decides to take further--but is happy to receive this number because it can mean surprise finds. She says: "Publishers in the US can be a little more guarded about their material, and more material tends to be handled by agents. British publishers are happy to talk about their good products with film agents, though, and that's great business practice."</p><p>According to Fiona Kenshole, director of scouting operations for Laika: "The normal ratio for a large studio is that 10 to 15 films may be in development, of which only one goes on to be made. As a publisher, I wouldn't restructure my department on such slim pickings."</p><p>When a film company options a book, it is buying exclusive time (usually 12 to 18 months) to make the transition from book to film, including writing a script and building characters. "It can take months to find the right screenwriter, and another few months before they can start the project," says Riley.</p><p>Film companies may realise during the scriptwriting process that a book will not work as a film--no matter how much they like it. And any number of changes and difficulties can prevent a book getting to the production stage, from budgeting issues to big corporate changes of the kind recently experienced by Miramax, which saw an end to the partnership between independent film producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and the Walt Disney Co and Dreamworks, now owned by Paramount.</p><p>However, while we are still waiting for films such as "Artemis Fowl", "The Amulet of Samarkand" and "Northern Lights" to make it to screen, others are arriving. "Stormbreaker" (Anthony Horowitz) and "Eragon" (Christopher Paolini) are due out this year; others are in progress, including Cressida Cowell's "How To Train Your Dragon" and Stuart Hill's "Cry of the Icemark".</p><p>Tie-ins will accompany each of these new films, with their formats becoming increasingly creative. Walker Books, for example, is producing a graphic novel tie-in to accompany the "Stormbreaker" film this summer, and publishers are being offered the rights to an eight-page insert of stills from the film for the tie-in novels.</p><p>Authors and some publishers are also beginning to play a greater role in the transition from book to film. Laika has worked closely with author Neil Gaiman on the forthcoming animation of "Coraline" (due in 2008) and plans to do the same with "Here Be Monsters" by Alan Snow. Authors such as J K Rowling and Cornelia Funke, executive producer on "Inkheart", have had positive input into film adaptations of their books.</p><p>While the current level of film interest in children's books is unprecedented, it is unlikely to end any time soon. Ellis says: "There are so many interesting stories coming out of children's literature right now. In the movie business, it is getting harder to tell an original story and they have to cast their nets wider. But as long as there are big books coming out of the children's world, there will be film interest."</p>