Donovan’s Smart Quill enjoys purple patch as it enters second decade

Donovan’s Smart Quill enjoys purple patch as it enters second decade

This year marks the 10th anniversary since Philippa Donovan pictured right founded Smart Quill—her books-to-film/TV speciality scouting agency-cum-literary consultancy—and she says the last few years have been by far the most exciting, with a market transformed by studios hungry for cross-media properties. 

The changes are, of course, spearheaded by the streaming services gobbling up IP to bring to our screens, which has led to major adjustments to the way Donovan works. As an example, she cites Fremantle Australia, the Sydney and Melbourne-based outpost of the London producer, which is in turn owned by the German media giant RTL. She scouted for the firm a couple of years ago when she relocated for a time to her home country. Fremantle’s biggest international books-to-film hit is probably “My Brilliant Friend”, based on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, while Fremantle Australia’s is the recent Natalie Dormer-starring Amazon Prime series “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, a reboot of the 1975 Peter Weir film based on Joan Lindsey’s 1967 novel. (Although Fremantle Australia is undoubtedly most famous in the UK for its non-book flagship property, “Neighbours”.) 

Donovan says: “Yes, they were looking at Australian and New Zealand fiction and non-fiction, but there was also an international filter that was always at play. Which is really interesting, because this is where I think scouting is going. It used to be that you would scout for a certain company, read for a publisher or producer in a country—and you would just look for books in that country. Whereas now, the brief is so much more expansive. It crosses international boundaries because the demand from production companies is so high.” 

That internationalism has been helped because there have been huge hits. For example, HBO has just commissioned a third series of “My Brilliant Friend”, while Netflix has scored with “The Witcher”, taken from Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski’s series, and “Lupin”, based (very loosely) on Maurice Leblanc’s early 20th-century stories of gentleman thief and sort of French Sherlock Holmes, Arsène Lupin. Donovan adds: “Honestly, I think part of this shift was the Americans started to get a bit bored with American stories about American characters. And there is the realisation that there are stories out there that may be in different languages, set in different places but they are also still accessible [to Anglophone viewers]. Also, if you are like Netflix and operate in 190 countries, you can tap into the local markets. Hollywood used to be an almost entirely export business, and it feels like a recalibration is happening. It’s become more import/export.” 

She suggests there are a number of other factors driving the books-to-screen bonanza, not just that there are more players looking for content, but in the inherent risk-averseness of studios, given the production costs. Dononvan says: “There are only so many original scripts that get taken on, and that books can have this built-in fanbase is very appealing to studios... the money seems to be reflecting that, as the prices of options have gone up because it’s more competitive.” 

Triple roles
Donovan was born and raised in Australia but has spent almost all of her working life in the UK. She broke into the trade as an associate agent at A P Watt, before moving over to scouting when she joined Anne Louise Fisher Associates (ALFA), and then becoming a commissioning editor at Egmont. Coincidence or not, all three of those companies have been acquired or merged since Donovan left: A P Watt is part of United Agents, ALFA became Eccles Fisher Associates after Louise Fisher retired in 2015, and Egmont is now the HarperCollins division Farshore. 

Donovan founded Smart Quill because she saw an opportunity to combine the skills from all of her previous roles to make a company combining scouting and editorial services for writers. Early on, the latter was the greater part of the business, but the scouting increased considerably when Donovan moved to Los Angeles in 2017, partly to work on behalf of the LA and Toronto-based Mad Rabbit production company. She says: “I guess you can say I am more of a scout now than anything, because even with the editorial services, I’m seeing book manuscripts at a very early stage and I’m essentially scouting for literary agents. And the film and TV side has really become demanding of late.”

Though she ended up scouting for Fremantle there, that return to Australia a couple of years ago was not initially for professional reasons. She moved to convalesce after she contracted Lyme disease and was bed-ridden for many months. Donovan says: “I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but it was pretty grim, and I almost died. But a good thing about scouting is that I could do a lot of it from bed, even in those times that I could barely raise my head.”

Demand for IP
There is more than a bit of irony that Donovan returned to London, hale and hearty, just in time for the world to be shut down by a deadly pandemic. What was not shut down, she notes, was the desire for IP from producers. She says: “Last year was manic, both in terms of buying of IP and/or the rush to try to get IP made. A lot of people saw that [production] window closing and there was the mad dash to get in before it closed. Also, I think this points to another change to the climate now, compared to when I started Smart Quill: streamers don’t option to develop and sit on the IP like studios famously used to. They tend to buy things only if they are going to make them.”

“Lupin” and Netflix’s biggest book-based success “Bridgerton” point to another huge area of growth, Donovan says. “I guess this is the ‘Bridgerton’ effect, but everyone is asking about backlist titles. And that’s really fascinating, because a lot of backlist has been optioned in the past, so chasing down rightsholders and options that have lapsed—which in many cases is not an easy thing—is going to be a big area of focus.” 

In the end, Donovan says returning to the UK was the right move: “It feels like I’ve really reconnected to what I think of as home, or at least my work home. And I’m proud of myself to have carried on when I was really sick, and had a disease that almost knocked me off the planet. The scouting is going great; I have more clients than ever. It’s really good to be back.”