Miramax fulfills pricey fantasy

Mini-major eyes 'Bartimaeus' as tentpole magic

Hoping to plant a new tentpole in the kids’ fantasy market, Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein has paid close to $3 million for book and film rights to the Bartimaeus Trilogy, a series of novels about a djinni and a young magician by U.K. writer Jonathan Stroud.

Miramax closed the film deal early last week. In a high-profile publishing auction a few days later, Talk Miramax Books topped a handful of competing bids to gain North American rights to the trilogy. English publishing rights went to Random House U.K.

The first installment, “The Amulet of Samarkand,” follows an ancient djinni named Bartimaeus who is summoned by a disobedient young wizard to steal a magical amulet from a powerful magician.

It’s a story that reverberates with themes from both the Harry Potter books and “Artemis Foul,” a best-selling kids’ novel by Eoin Colfer published by Talk Miramax books that rolls into production this fall as a Miramax Films and Tribeca Films joint venture.

The kids’ fantasy boom may have petered out before the first “Bartimaeus” feature hits the screen, however. Deal was consummated on the basis of a 120-page partial manuscript from book one, and an outline for the trilogy.

But Weinstein told Daily Variety that “Amulet” doesn’t cover the same ground as “Artemis.”

Hip djinni

“It’s the hippest djinni you’ve ever read,” said Weinstein. “Like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Artemis Fowl,’ it takes you into another world. But each of these stories is different. We’re very selective about these books.”

Stroud’s trilogy, Weinstein said, will stand out even in a children’s market overrun with books and films about wizards, dragons and fairies.

But Stroud, a 31-year-old former children’s book editor with Kingfisher in the U.K., acknowledged the risks of beginning a trilogy of novels involving a young wizard at a time when the global craze for “Harry Potter” is at its peak.

“You have to be very wary about getting into that territory,” said Stroud. “So much of it has been done by other writers. But it’s been done for ages. There’ve always been children’s stories like this. Key for me growing up was C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ series.”

Stroud’s books turn the “Harry Potter” convention upside down: They are told from the perspective not of the impudent young wizard, Nathaniel, but of the world-weary djinni who does his bidding.

Weinstein described “Amulet” as “another great franchise” for Miramax. “I’m really concentrating this year on building these franchises,” he said. “I want to put some tentpoles into this company.”

The Miramax book division plays a key role in those plans.

Synergies sought

Stroud and agent Laura Cecil said Miramax made a compelling case for the marketing synergies between its book and film divisions.

Talk Miramax Books editor-in-chief Jonathan Burnham, who secured the deal with Miramax Films business affairs exec VP Steve Hutensky, said the cross-promotional possibilities at Miramax give his small imprint great leverage in a crowded kids’ book market.

The franchise will be driven by the books, he said, but the publishing program will benefit from the “marketing horsepower” of the film company — everything from early media coverage to book ads on video boxes. Rod Hall repped Stroud for film rights.

Talk Miramax Books has ambitious plans for its own franchises. There will be four books in the “Artemis Fowl” series, and the imprint has just bought two sequels to “Summerland,” a kids’ novel by Michael Chabon that’s also on the Miramax film slate.

Weinstein, who profited handsomely from another fantasy franchise, “Lord of the Rings,” after passing lit rights to New Line in return for 5% of the gross, hopes his next one will be home-grown. “This is our chance to do it,” he said.

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