TV hits, 'Snow's' solid bow point to genre's return

In the immediate aftermath of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, with its 17 Academy Awards capped by a best film Oscar for 2004′s “The Return of the King,” Hollywood seemed ripe for a fantasy invasion.

Yet despite the success of that franchise, including a nearly $3 billion (non-3D) box office haul, film studio executives largely have given dragons, fairies and gnomes the cold shoulder when filling their development pipelines. Though two successful fantasy franchises, “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” were already under way, only a handful of new projects found their way to the screen in the years following “Lord of the Ring’s” final triumphant bow: Fox’s “Eragon,” New Line’s “The Golden Compass” and Sony’s “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.” All three were box office disappointments, cooling any bigscreen momentum the genre might have enjoyed.

In 2007, amid little fanfare, HBO optioned George R.R. Martin’s bestselling fantasy series “A Song of Fire & Ice” — the basis for “Game of Thrones.” The show debuted in 2011 to critical and audience acclaim, and today, coupled with the breakout success of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” and the qualified success of NBC’s “Grimm” on a tough night (Friday) — it is spurring a new hunger for projects that explore magical realms. The fantasy uptick in TV, which coincides with Peter Jackson’s return to the Shire for the bigscreen prequel “The Hobbit,” suggests the genre, which plays well on 3D screens around the world, may be sowing the seeds of what could be a broader revival.

“Everyone is now looking for another ‘Game of Thrones,’ and everyone is trying to handicap what will be the next ‘Game of Thrones,’?” says Intellectual Property Group partner Amy Schiffman, who reps authors Dennis Lehane and Don DeLillo as well as the estate of fantasy writer Andre Norton, whose work she is pitching. “There is absolutely more appetite (for fantasy books) at the feature, cable and network levels right now.”

In the 13-plus months since “Game of Thrones” debuted on HBO, a number of fantasy books have been optioned for the screen in splashy deals, including the e-book “Wool” in mid-May. Fox acquired film rights for the Hugh Howey-penned sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, with Scott Free producing alongside Film Rites’ Steve Zaillian and Garrett Basch.

Evan Daugherty, who wrote Universal’s fantasy tentpole “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which woke up to $95 million worldwide over the June 1 weekend, dates the genre’s turning point to a year before the “Game of Thrones” bow. The scribe, who wrote the “Snow White” reimagining as an NYU undergrad around the same time “Lord of the Rings” was conquering the box office, found little interest for his fairytale take until Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” became a behemoth in spring 2010, raking in more than $1 billion worldwide.

“A lot of people read it at the time,” recalls Daugherty of his gritty PG-13 take on the “Snow White.” “Some liked it, but most didn’t. They didn’t get it until Disney’s ‘Alice’ came out and was successful. I think that started the trend.”

Still, inasmuch as “Snow White’s” trailers feature scenes with visual similarities to “Game of Thrones,” the new Universal pic seems to be reaching out to viewers of the HBO series.

Whatever sparked the renewed interest in the genre, lit agents are pleased to find eager buyers looking for their next franchise property.

“In the past five years, (film and TV studios) are much more open to fantasy,” says Kassie Evashevski, co-head of UTA’s book department, who brokered the “Wool” deal amid a heated bidding war. “Even in publishing, if you look at the YA (young adult) market, so much of it is fantasy, post-apocalyptic, dystopian. There’s definitely something happening in culture that is being reflected in the book market as well as television and film. They are all more open to that kind of (content) than they would have been in the past.”

In April, German indie Constantin Film picked up the film rights to “The Iron Trial,” the first book in a new YA fantasy novel series that marks the first collaboration between two of the genre’s biggest authors: Cassandra Clare (“The Mortal Instruments”) and Holly Black (“The Spiderwick Chronicles”). Similarly, Constantin is already moving forward with Screen Gems on “Mortal Instruments,” which was selling briskly in international territories even before the start of Cannes.

In December, Universal nabbed Laini Taylor’s YA fantasy book “Daughter of Smoke & Bone” for seven figures, the first novel in a planned trilogy. The property was particularly attractive to global-minded studios, given that “Daughter of Smoke & Bone” has already been sold in more than 25 countries.

“The appealing thing about fantasy (to studio execs) is it’s international (and timeless),” explains Howard Sanders, co-head of UTA’s book department. “It’s not American culture; it crosses cultures. And that’s appealing (considering) that a large portion of the box office is dictated by overseas.”

Meanwhile, Evashevski is about to go out with 18-year-old Stefan Bachmann’s debut “The Peculiar,” which is part of the burgeoning subgenre of fantasy known as steampunk. Spawned during the 1980s and early 1990s, steampunk blends elements of sci-fi, fantasy, alternate history, horror and speculative fiction. “The Peculiar,” the first in a two-book series, will hit shelves and e-readers in September.

What many lit agents find most heartening is the fact that fantasy is making impressive inroads in television, a previously hostile market given the expense of bringing the genre to life. After all, HBO is said to have shelled out $50 million-$60 million on the 10-episode first season of “Thrones,” mostly shot at London’s Pinewood Studios. Season 2, with more location shooting and complex battle scenes, cost even more. But with a greater number of cablers competing with the networks for quality material, television has become a viable market for those peddling fantasy. And the serialized nature of fantasy stories works particularly well on the smallscreen.

“Programming in TV has become quite sophisticated,” says Josie Freedman, co-head of ICM Partner’s media rights department, specializing in books to film. “Material that could have been a feature film five years ago, they are now watching on TV.”

Freedman notes that while fantasy has existed as one of the earliest film genres, part of its current success has been its ability to evolve. “If you think back to ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and the Grimm fairytales and ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ these have traditionally been forms of escapism,” she says. “But I think today that a lot of the material reflects complex storytelling. It’s mixing genre and literary fiction. If you look at ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Wool,’ these are things that explore ethical, political and social themes. They are a lot richer, and they still provide the audience with a form of escapism.

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