It took a village to raise “Ramona and Beezus” from the pages of Beverly Cleary’s classic kidlit series of books to the bigscreen.
And like much of the child-rearing from the ’50s — the decade that spawned Cleary’s beloved Quimby sisters — the heavy lifting was largely done by women.
From top to bottom, few films boast as much female power as the upcoming Fox 2000 pic — slotted as midsummer counterprogramming in a season filled with sequels and retreads. The film, which is based on Cleary’s eight illustrated books featuring Ramona — was shaped by women in nearly every key creative and decision-making role, including “Aquamarine” helmer Elizabeth Allen behind the camera. (Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win notwithstanding, female directors are a still rarity in Hollywood, filling less than 10% of the open jobs.)
But the decades-long “Ramona” journey symbolizes more than female involvement. The G-rated pic, opening July 23, represents years and years of investment by Allen, producers Denise Di Novi and Alison Greenspan, co-screenwriter Laurie Craig, author Cleary and even a small assist from Tom Rothman’s daughters.
“This was special in that all of us — even the studio execs — were female,” says Di Novi. “Did we notice this or think about it? Not really. However, in (retrospect), it did create a shorthand and greater comfort level.”
Perhaps the femme power trickles down from the top of Fox 2000, which is run by Elizabeth Gabler. “Ramona” was very nearly scrapped a number of times over its six-plus years of gestation, but Gabler kept fighting to keep the film going.
Furthermore, a series of women behind the scenes paved the way, including Fox book scout Riley Ellis, who brought the series to Fox exec Erin Simonoff’s attention. It then took more than a year for Gabler, Di Novi and Greenspan to negotiate the bigscreen rights to the series — a deal that finally closed in late 2005.
Author Cleary, still plucky at 94, sought creative control and was impressed with Di Novi’s ability to bring other literary classics to the screen, including the Winona Ryder starrer “Little Women.” But the author still harbored reservations about how Ramona’s multi-tome arc, which sees the heroine age from 4 to 10 years old, could be told in a way that wouldn’t devolve into disjointed vignettes.
Enter another femme faciliator in Barbara Lalicki, Cleary’s longtime editor at Fox sister company HarperCollins.
“She was brilliant in navigating the negotiation waters for us,” says Gabler.
But studio co-topper Rothman had his own concerns. He refused to greenlight the movie for a dollar more than $15 million, and he wanted a star for one of the leads. Allen and the producers wanted the then largely unknown Selena Gomez for the role of Beezus, but Rothman had set his sights on Miley Cyrus. The “Hannah Montana” star’s camp sought a $5 million payday for 25 days of work, and when negotiations broke down, the project was again in jeopardy.
Gabler is quick to shoot down any perception that “Ramona” — Fox’s most modestly budgeted film this year — faced resistance from her bosses. She says all were in agreement about the need to bring a cultural relevancy (i.e., a thesp with a tween following) to a property nearly a half century old.
“We needed to have a way to get young girls all the way up into their teens excited about (“Ramona”),” says Gabler, who, thanks to her track record at Fox 2000 with such hits as “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” enjoys wide latitude. “You can make a movie for a low budget, but if no one has a burning desire to go and see it in the theater, it doesn’t matter what the budget was. I wanted it to have a shot commercially.”
Gabler and the team caught a break when Gomez, another Disney Channel star with a music career on the side, began finding breakout success in her own right. The studio quickly struck a deal before her quote skyrocketed into the Cyrus sphere, and the project was back on the fast track. With his marketing team insistent that the film could be sold to the target audience of girls 6 to 12 years old, Rothman — the father of two daughters who were both rabid fans of the “Ramona” books — gave his blessing to the project.
The Gomez-instead-of-Cyrus casting proved fortuitous for Fox. Had Cyrus filled the shoes of goody-goody Beezus, the studio’s marketeers would have found it challenging to sell that image amid the pop star’s current wild-child antics.
Ultimately, helmer Allen credits the Fox 2000 team — particularly Gabler and Simonoff — for championing the little film that could.
“Their mother instincts kicked in, and not just with me but with the cast,” says Allen. “I’m sort of a touchy-feely kind of person, so it helped to have that energy around me.”
And though the project wasn’t all-female by design, it created a pleasant filmmaking experience, despite the anxiety-inducing hiccups.
“The fact that this team is all chicks was coincidental, but made it that much more fun,” says producer Greenspan.