Deborah Forte, president of New York-based Scholastic Entertainment, is a patient woman.
She was willing to wait 10 years from optioning the film rights to Philip Pullman’s trilogy “His Dark Materials” to starting principal photography last month on the first movie, “The Golden Compass,” which she’s producing for New Line in London.
And now she’s hoping to bring another long-cherished series of fantasy novels by British author to fruition on the bigscreen — Philip Reeve’s prize-winning quartet, “The Hungry City Chronicles.”
Forte has followed the same development arc with Reeve as she did with Pullman — buying the rights on publication of the first book, but waiting several years until the final installment was finished before even starting to discuss the first movie with talent and studios.
She ascribes this long-term perspective to Scholastic’s roots in the publishing biz.
“Rather than just making a movie based on a book, we are trying to find really special material that provides for a family franchise,” she explains. “In publishing, we count on longevity; we count on people coming back.”
“Mortal Engines,” the start of Reeve’s quartet, was published by Scholastic’s U.K. arm in 2001. The fourth and concluding episode, “The Darkling Plain,” came out earlier this year in the U.K., and will arrive in the U.S. next February. Last month, it won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize — which Pullman previously carried away for “Golden Compass.”
“When I bought the rights to ‘Mortal Engines,’ I really didn’t know where Philip was going with it,” Forte admits. “He was originally going to write three books, but he got so immersed in the world he created that it turned into a quartet. But now that it’s complete, it’s clear that the first two books will combine into a single movie, and so will the third and fourth.”
“The Hungry City Chronicles” is set in a post-apocalyptic world where natural resources are so scarce that cities have become immense vehicles that must hunt and consume each other in order to survive. But this brutal system of “Municipal Darwinism,” whose original rationale has been long forgotten, faces growing resistance from the Anti-Traction League.
“Philip Reeve was originally an illustrator, and when you read these books, you can see the sketches in his mind’s eye. It’s a world familiar to us, but not our world. Although it’s a fantasy, it’s not futuristic,” Forte says.
Finding a filmmaker and a studio with the right kind of vision to take on such material is never going to be easy, as Forte found with “The Golden Compass,” which flipped directors a couple of times before Chris Weitz finally rolled the cameras Sept. 4. Pullman himself has remained closely involved with the project, visiting the set and helping out with script advice.
“It’s been a long road getting here,” Forte admits. “There were lots of opportunities to do ‘His Dark Materials’ before this, but it would not have been the film I wanted to make. It would have been smaller, and would not have had the same level of talent.”
Although she describes sales of Reeve’s quartet as “very respectable,” it has not yet achieved the same profile in the U.S. as Pullman’s trilogy, which makes it a harder sell to Hollywood.
Awareness is not a problem for the other movie franchise Forte is setting up — a bigscreen version of “Goosebumps.” This blockbusting series of preteen chillers, which started publishing in 1992, ran to more than 80 books and sold 300 million copies worldwide before running out of steam in the late’90s.
It spawned a spinoff TV series and some straight-to-video fare, but Scholastic is now planning to re-launch the book franchise, and is in talks with a studio (Forte won’t say which) for the first “Goosebumps” theatrical movie. Once again, it’s been a long time coming, but as with Pullman and Reeve, Forte is determined to make sure it was worth the wait.