Making Kids' Films Is Not Kid Stuff

Mark Johnson is the producer of How to Eat Fried Worms, based on the children's book. But translating literature for young people to the big screen is a tricky genre.

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The new film How to Eat Fried Worms opens on Friday. The movie is based on the popular children's book by Thomas Rockwell. But beloved children's book don't always do well on screen, and NPR's Kim Masters reports that despite a craze for family-friendly films in Hollywood, How to Eat Fried Worms had to fight for theatrical release.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

Mark Johnson knows a lot about the difficulties of turning children's books into films. Most recently he produced The Chronicles of Narnia, the first in a series based on the works of C.S. Lewis. He also produced My Dog Skip from the memoir by William Morris.

But before those pictures, Johnson was stymied by the failure of A Little Princess, a movie he made based on the classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Mr. MARK JOHNSON (Film Producer): The truth of the matter is, A Little Princess is as close to a perfect movie as I'll ever come.

(Soundbite of movie A Little Princess)

Ms. VANESSA LEE CHESTER (Actor): (As Becky) I want to (unintelligible).

Ms. TAYLOR FRY (Actor): (As Lavinia) Oh, hush up, (unintelligible). I'm sure Princess Sara will give everyone a fair share. Right, princess?

Ms. CHESTER: I told her that's what you were.

Ms. LIESEL MATTHEWS (Actor): (As Sara Crewe) Well, not just me. All girls are princesses. Even snotty, two-faced bullies. Like you, Lavinia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: Critics raved about A Little Princess, and the movie remains one of the biggest disappointments of Johnson's career. Part of the problem, he thinks, was the title.

Mr. JOHNSON: No self-respecting boy would go to the playground the next day and tell his buddies that he had to go see a movie called A Little Princess. And I think actually older girls didn't want to see a movie called A Little Princess. It maybe sounded a little bit too babyish to them.

MASTERS: Johnson has also produced many hits for adults, including Rain Man, Donnie Brasco and The Notebook. But he's found that films based on children's literature are iffy. Hugely successful books like Harry Potter can pay off handsomely. In Johnson's case, the Narnia film had a blockbuster budget and turned in blockbuster grosses.

But his other movies based on books, even very popular ones, were made for much smaller budgets and had a much harder time drawing audiences to theatres. Still, Johnson has hopes that audiences will embrace How to Eat Fried Worms.

The film tells the story of a young boy who makes a bet that he can ingest a certain number of wriggling worms in time to meet a deadline.

(Soundbite of movie How to Eat Fried Worms)

Mr. ADAM HICKS (Actor): (As Joe) Worm boy, you couldn't even eat one worm. Right when it touched your tongue you'd puke.

Mr. LUKE BENWARD (Actor): (As Billy) You wanna bet?

Mr. HICKS: (As Joe) The smell would make you puke. You couldn't even eat a quarter of a worm.

Mr. BENWARD: (As Billy) I can eat this many worms, Joe. Ten easy.

MASTERS: A few months before Fried Worms was set to be released, another film based on a popular book almost derailed it. Hoot, based on a bestselling Carl Hiaasen book about endangered owls, got bad reviews and flopped overnight. It failed so resoundingly that New Line Productions, which co-financed both Hoot and Fried Worms, got cold feet about even putting Fried Worms into theatres. Producer Mark Johnson.

Mr. JOHNSON: Things are very cyclical in Hollywood and we tend to be afraid of our own shadows. So that if a baseball movie opens before your baseball movie and it doesn't do well, the assumption is that baseball movies don't do well. The answer is, no, that's not true. Bad baseball movies don't do well.

MASTERS: Hoot's producer, Frank Marshall, doesn't think the film deserved the drubbing that it received. Like Johnson, Marshall has considerable experience making family movies, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Seabiscuit. Marshall also directed Eight Below, the sleeper hit about sled dogs stranded in Antarctica.

He says Hoot's abject failure is something of a mystery to him.

Mr. FRANK MARSHALL (Film Producer): I just think the story didn't have that hook. It wasn't, you know, maybe we should've had a shark attack in it or something. There wasn't that thing that you could say, oh, I got to rush out and see that.

MASTERS: Film executive Cary Granat has a different analysis. He is the founder of Walden Media, which co-financed Hoot. Walden is part of the empire belonging to conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz. Walden is dedicated to making films that can provide opportunities for education. So the company has lots of experience turning children's books into films.

Not just Hoot and Fried Worms, but also The Chronicles of Narnia, Holes, Because of Winn Dixie and Around the World in 80 Days. Granat says those films have taught his company many lessons. He has his own theory about Hoot.

Mr. CARY GRANAT (Walden Media): The mistake that was made was to try and perhaps simplify and age it down versus, I think, keeping some of the edge that the book had.

MASTERS: Whatever the causes, Hoot made Walden's partners at New Line very nervous. But New Line president Toby Emmerich says Fried Worms did well with test audiences. And since the company was splitting the costs with Walden, it doesn't need the film to turn in huge grosses.

So New Line went ahead, but the marketing budget for Fried Worms is less than half of what the company spent on Hoot, and it's opening the film on far fewer screens. Emmerich is hoping that Fried Worms will have marquee value, like another current New Line release.

Mr. TOBY EMMERICH (President, New Line): Like Snakes on a Plane, the title How to Eat Fried Worms really tells you what the movie's about. It's very simple, you get it from the title. Whereas with Hoot, you don't know what that movie's about from the title.

MASTERS: It's a title that should appeal to boys, so producer Mark Johnson believes the film can avoid the problems that he had with A Little Princess.

Mr. JOHNSON: Girls have been conditioned to go see the so-called boy movies, but boys have not been conditioned to go see girl movies, which is really embarrassing, for very obvious reasons.

MASTERS: That may go a long way toward explaining why no one's made a big screen version of Anne of Green Gables since 1934. Walden's Cary Granat says his company looked at that property but decided to pass. Instead, the company has just announced a deal to make big screen pictures based on the American Girl books. The first project will focus on Kit Kittredge, a clever girl growing up during the Depression. Parents can already buy hardcover books about Kit. A set that comes with the Kit doll retails for $150.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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