Other people’s stories: How Canadian producers turn books into film and TV winners

This is where it all starts: Playback Daily reports from the OMDC's Page to Screen mixer, where publishers pitch books and producers pitch themselves.
Hardcover book gutter and pages

Cute and cuddly animals can prove amazingly profitable in film and TV.

Just look at Uggie, the canine star of The Artist, striding onto the stage at the Academy Awards on Sunday night in Los Angeles.

That has a factual or family content producer always keeping one eye open for animals that, however ferocious and dangerous when you’re running from them, may succeed on screen as the next March of the Penguins.

So the majestic Arctic polar bear not surprisingly had Kit Redmond’s inner producer juices flowing on Friday at the OMDC’s From Page to Screen mixer in Toronto.

The RTR Media topper had spent the morning speed-dating with book publishers as the OMDC looked to pair up literary properties and indie producers for film or TV treatments.

Publishers pitched Ontario books and the producers pitched themselves, each eyeing possible option deals and screen adaptations, or just establishing relationships for the future.

And Redmond was pitched a book about a famous Canadian polar bear researcher who has spent 40 years working with Arctic bears, and has now written about his life’s work.

“Polar bears, a story on the man and animal,” she told Playback Daily at lunch about a possible factual series for Animal Planet or Discovery.

Possibly optioning the Canadian scientist’s book makes complete sense for Redmond.

“Half your work is done. It would take a year to research polar bears on our own,” she says, as she mulls an adaptation of a character, the passionate polar bear researcher-turned TV guide, solving the mystery of the ice-dwelling bear.

Redmond isn’t alone in having her curiosity piqued by a book cover and a passionate pitch from a publisher with new books and a back-catalogue.

“Who knows the story better than they do,” Avi Federgreen, head of indie producer Federgreen Entertainment and distributor Indiecan Entertainment, said of an author who can do a screenplay for a low-budget film adaptation of a literary property.

Federgreen said he may hook an author-turned-screenwriter up with a story editor to hammer out a first script, and then develop a project further towards packaging and production.

Veteran film producer Sandra Cunningham of Strada Films like Federgreen had spent the morning going from table to table for a series of pitches and fast-paced meet-ups with book publishers.

She recalled a chance encounter over lunch at the Page to Screen gathering two years ago with Sandra Howsom,VP of sales at The House of Anansi, a prestigious Canadian publisher.

“I said, tell me about next year,” Cunningham remembers asking Howsom, hoping for a little nugget.

What came next was a glimpse at Ian Hamilton’s first Ava Lee crime novel, whose main character is a Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant.

To the novice, accountants hardly inspire drama.

But Cunningham immediately conjured up the image of a female James Bond, a young woman who uses her brains and brawn to travel the world to collect debts.

“I read the book in a galley edition and we knew right away this was a hot property,” she recalled.

Other producers recognized the gold nugget too, however.

And each time Howsom, who held the international book rights to the Ava Lee novels, pointed the producers to Westwood Creative Artists, which was selling the film and TV adaptation rights.

“We had an edge in the bidding, because we saw it (the book series) was a movie franchise,” Cunningham remembers.

It turns out she was right, because Strada Films snagged the adaptation rights, with a potential movie a year, most likely structured as international co-productions, to emerge in due time.

House of Anansi’s Howsom explains what gave Strada Films the inside track.

In a word, synergy.

“I don’t have the film rights, but I have the world language rights. And this will work to our advantage,” she explained.

The Ava Lee novels were recently published in Germany, thanks to Howsom and a deal she made at House of Anansi.

So Cunningham at the recent Berlin Film Festival showed positive local book reviews to German film producers needing evidence local audiences know the Ava Lee novels before they consider co-producing the movie adaptations.

Howsom in turn can move ahead and sell the book series into additional territories, knowing she has leverage as local publishers recognize movie adaptations are coming down the pipeline to goose local book sales.

So Strada Films and House of Anansi are predictably collaborating on the global launch and marketing of the Ava Lee book series.

“It’s all to the good,” Howsom insists, as distribution, territory by territory, depends on the Ava Lee books and movies each helping to expand the audience of the other.

An added advantage from doing business at the OMDC’s Page to Screen mixer: the Ontario agency underwrites up to half the cost of optioning a book, and producers get a project on the OMDC’s radar for later financing rounds.

Photo: Horia Varlan / Flickr Creative Commons