‘Eloise’ buy a big coup for Itsy Bitsy

Marketer outbids studios

NEW YORK — The marketers of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po bested the likes of Tom Hanks, Fox, Columbia, Universal and Warner Bros. in the screen-rights chase for “Eloise,” the classic Kay Thompson books revolving around a mischievous 6-year-old who lives with her nanny and pets in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel.

In a bid that sources pegged at north of $3 million, “Teletubbies” North American marketer Itsy Bitsy Entertainment won film, TV and merchandising rights to the franchise, with producer Denise Di Novi partnering in a series of feature films.

The deal comes after a 15-week auction that began when Simon & Schuster retained Hollywood attorneys Tom Hoberman and Craig Jacobson to join Thompson estate lawyer Arthur Abelman in engineering the sale of screen rights chased for years by studios and producers (Daily Variety, Feb. 18). They remained free because Thompson refused to part with them.

While it’s unclear which of the rumored bidders went to the final round, the winner qualifies as more than an itsy bitsy surprise; it’s a shock, and raises speculation that the company, which has helped propel the British import “Teletubbies” into a U.S. TV and merchandising sensation, agreed to higher gross splits on film and merchandising receipts to Simon & Schuster and the estate than bidding studios would abide.

Indeed, word spread quickly Tuesday that the all-around deal was comparable to the one Universal and Imagine signed for screen and merchandising rights for Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” even though “Eloise” isn’t nearly as well known.

Twofold edge

While he would not go into deal specifics, Rick Richter, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s children’s division, said that Itsy Bitsy’s success in turning the Tubbies into a merchandising phenomenon, coupled with the presence of Di Novi, brought the bidder all the credibility it needed.

“Itsy Bitsy understood the value and spunk of ‘Eloise’ better than anyone else, and Denise Di Novi is a proven producer,” said Richter. “That, combined with their clear expertise in merchandising and building a buzz, is very attractive. They understand the 6-year-old market as well as anybody. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for ‘Eloise’ that has to be handled just right.”

After a long absence, the “Eloise” line of books is slowly being reintroduced to bookstores. The film is expected to be distributed through a major studio, anchored by Di Novi, whose screen adaptations of books include Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” Nicholas Sparks’ “Message in a Bottle,” Alice Hoffman’s “Practical Magic” and Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”

Itsy Bitsy president, chairman and CEO Kenn Viselman told Daily Variety that his five-year-old company plans to shoot two “Eloise” movies back to back. Plans also call for a primetime TV series.

Although new to film, Itsy Bitsy is no stranger to entertainment. As the holder of North American marketing rights to kidvid hit “Teletubbies,” the company picked up four industry awards last week at the annual Licensing Show in New York.

Commenting on Itsy Bitsy’s foray into film, Viselman said, “We didn’t want to make just a movie but a great movie.”

Others obviously felt the same, as the project reportedly also excited Donald Trump (owner of a stake in the Plaza Hotel), who wants to be involved somehow, and even moved Tom Hanks to attach himself to a studio in an unsuccessful attempt to win the rights.

Lucrative license

All Viselman would say about the winning price was that it was “in the millions, but worth every penny.”

He also noted that as a merchandising company, Itsy Bitsy stood to benefit from its right to license “Eloise” initially as a classic character and later with a movie likeness.

“From a merchandising standpoint, we’re very confident of the deal’s exploitation value,” Viselman said.

“Eloise,” an instant bestseller published by Simon & Schuster in 1955, was followed by “Eloise in Paris,” “Eloise at Christmastime” and “Eloise in Moscow.”

New push

Author Thompson, who died a nonagenerian last July, halted publication of the first series of books five years after they were issued.

Last May, though, S&S Children’s Publishing successfully reignited its “Eloise” publishing program with the re-release of “Eloise in Paris,” which had been unavailable for 35 years, and a new tribute, “Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition.”

The series’ other two volumes will be in print again by the spring of 2000, giving yet another generation reason to seek out the Eloise portrait that hangs in the Plaza’s lobby to this day.

When asked to explain the Di Novi collaboration, Viselman said his pitch team, which includes onscreen entertainment president Don Gold and acquisitions-and-development head Robert Kanner, wrote up “a dream list of producers.”

Di Novi was already on that list when, Viselman said, “she called us out of the blue, complimented us about what we’re doing in children’s entertainment and said she’d love to work together if the opportunity ever presented itself.”

Itsy Bitsy, which in its initial bidding for “Eloise” was itself attached to a studio, severed that tie after sensing the studio’s reluctance to go full out for what Viselman called “the last of the great children’s classics.” And when it returned to the negotiating table, Di Novi was on the theatrical tyro’s team.