Execs snap up magical, mystical tomes

Forget seasons past when animated series were based on toys, games, comic books or movies. Today’s kidvid producers are rushing to renew their library cards.

The trend for using books as source material is red hot, having been fueled by such hits as “Stuart Little” and the Harry Potter phenomenon. But most believe that finding another Potter-sized property is little more than a dream.

“We feel that nothing will ever achieve the kind of phenomenon level that Harry has,” states Jean Feiwel, VP of Scholastic, Inc., and publisher of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding hero. “We can’t rest on our Harry Potter laurels, we’ve got to keep moving.”

For Scholastic Entertainment, that forward thrust means turning other properties into TV fare, such as the top “I Spy” picture game books, which the company is developing for HBO.

“It’s taken us a lot of thought and care to come up with a format for the television show which really does justice to the book series, but is a completely different experience than interacting with the books or the CD-ROM,” says executive vice president Deborah Forte.

Still, one cannot discount “the Harry effect,” which has even touched pre-existing series, including Nelvana’s “Redwall.” The epic fantasy featuring a cast of mice is based on English author Brian Jacques’ hugely popular series of books, set to debut on PBS in April 2001.

Even though the toon series has already scored internationally, Nelvana Communications prexy Toper Taylor believes that the Potter phenomenon helped opened the way in the U.S. marketplace.

“We made our deal with PBS before Harry Potter,” he says. “But on a local station basis, accepting this property and placing it in the schedule in an important fashion has been greatly helped by Harry Potter.” Nelvana is also prepping Mercer Mayer’s “Little Critters” books as a toon series.

Not all books being tapped as sources are well known. For its fall 2001 lineup, Fox Family Channel is translating “Just Tricking,” Australian writer Andy Griffiths’ comic adolescent “memoirs,” into a series titled “What’s With Andy?”

“We read a lot of books and this is one that just rose to the top,” states Joel Andryc, executive VP of Programming and Development for Fox Kids Net and Fox Family Channel. Andryc expects the U.S. profile of the books (published in Oz by Pan) to soar from the series.

Increasingly, though, producers are turning to classic properties with name branding for new shows.

“Rather than try to guess what the next Harry Potter’s going to be, why not go back to something that already has demonstrated sales?” says Robby London, exec VP of creative affairs for DIC, which is launching a TV series based on Edith Kunhardt’s touchy-feely perennial “Pat the Bunny.”

Nicholas James is managing director of the intellectual properties division of the London-based rights group Chorion, which is producing a new, CGI-animated series of Enid Blyton’s “Noddy.”

He says: “It’s extremely difficult nowadays to launch a property that has long-lasting life that hasn’t got underneath it a significant publishing program.”

In the case of “Angelina Ballerina,” a toon series developed by HIT Entertainment from the mid-1980s book series by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig, the books themselves have been given a new life.

“After we acquired the rights,” notes Hit Entertainment L.A. prez Dorian Langdon, “we concluded a deal with Mattel and its subsidiary the Pleasant Company to re-release the books, and two of them debuted on the top ten New York Times picture books best seller list.”

How far will this lit trend go, and what does it mean?

“I’d love to say it’s because there is a mass search for deeper meanings by the studios,” says Fonda Snyder, president of Storyopolis Productions, the media arm of the West L.A. kids bookstore/imprint which has adapted cartoonist Berkely Breathed’s book “Edwurd Fudwupper” as a short film.

“But I would also say it is probably an enormous trend, and that [studios] have seen a few properties from books take off and they smell success from that.”

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