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Scholastic Baby-Sits Its Girls’ ‘Club’ : Movies: The publisher of best-selling books geared to preteens takes an active role in the making of the film version.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is nothing new for Hollywood to adapt movies from best-selling books. Certainly, many of the biggest movies of recent years have been cinematic versions of bestsellers, notably Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” John Grisham’s “The Firm” and Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County.”

It is also no surprise when movies aimed at younger audiences likewise call upon successful books hoping to capitalize on a winning formula, as in the case of “The Baby-Sitters Club,” which opens Friday.

What is a new phenomenon is having the publisher of the best-selling books take an active role in the making of a film.

Banking on the runaway success of Ann M. Martin’s best-selling series for preteen girls, Columbia Pictures has joined forces with Scholastic Inc., the 75-year-old publisher of children’s books and educational materials, to produce the feature film version of “The Baby-Sitters Club.”

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Scholastic was a co-producer on the film and proved to be a very hands-on player, not simply one whose name ends up in the credits because it owns the property.

“I think this is unique,” said executive producer Marc Abraham, citing a combination of factors to explain how the collaborative effort went off without a hitch.

“They weren’t just producers because they happened to control the project,” Abraham said. “They had production experience. Also, the project was so valuable as a franchise that they were hesitant to just trust it to anyone.”

Indeed, the series of books, of which more than 130 million have been printed in nearly 10 years, has made about $600 million, according to Scholastic Inc. senior vice president Barbara Marcus. So it is clearly not a project the publishing company would take lightly.

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“Scholastic wanted to make sure ‘The Baby-sitters Club’ movie would have the same feel as the books,” said the film’s director, Melanie Mayron, who added that she also attempted to expand the film’s “consciousness” a bit to deal with some more weighty issues like divorce and budding romantic relationships.

“We couldn’t have done the movie without Scholastic,” said Sid Ganis, president of worldwide marketing for Columbia Pictures.

As part of the effort to ensure the movie stay faithful to the books, the publishing company’s film liaison was on the set of the movie, filmed in and around Los Angeles, for the entire shooting schedule of 35 days.

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Jane Startz, executive vice president of Scholastic Productions, was involved in all aspects of the making of “The Baby-sitters Club,” from hiring a screenwriter, script revisions, helping select a director and assisting Mayron on the set. The film--which was shot for a modest budget of $6.5 million--chronicles a summer in the lives of seven young girls, bound together by friendship, a sense of adventure and a joint baby-sitting enterprise.

“Jane [Startz] and I wanted the same thing for the picture,” Mayron said. “She was like a partner and I was grateful to have her. She’d catch something while we were shooting. It was like having another eye. She’d point to [one of the characters] and say, ‘She wouldn’t do that.’ ”

As film studios scramble to find material that will draw large audiences, they are looking to other proven successes in the family entertainment arena, such as Children’s Television Workshop or Henson Productions.

“We are obsessed with understanding and penetrating the family market,” said Ganis. “We all know the value of family films to the movie company and the need for family films to the consumer. And most of us have kids and enjoy working in that arena.”

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Scholastic has had a production wing for the past 15 years, but its projects have been focused on television (after-school specials on network television and HBO, and series such as “The Magic Schoolbus” on PBS). Its first foray into film production was earlier this year with Paramount’s “The Indian in the Cupboard.”

With “Indian in the Cupboard,” Scholastic optioned the movie rights to Lynne Reid Banks’ children’s book. (Scholastic was not a publisher of the book and does not own the book rights.)

“What Scholastic does well is really develop great stories for kids,” Startz said. “Everybody here is really committed to that audience. Everybody respects and understands that audience.”

So well do they understand that audience--in this case 6- to 14-year-old girls--that Columbia let them take the lead on marketing the picture in a typically Scholastic Inc. fashion. Marketing efforts included alerting die-hard “Baby-sitters Club” fans about the upcoming movie months in advance directly or through schools, mailing such promotional materials to fan club members as movie posters, one-strand leather bracelets and Day-Glo pink and green shoelaces with the Baby-sitters Club logo and “Friends Forever” inscribed on them.

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And besides the usual books aimed at readers 8 to 11, they also have produced new versions for a broader audiences, including preschoolers and early elementary schoolchildren, as well as a hardcover version of the books that include a charm. Selected fan club members have also received a “Movie Party Kit” complete with the movie trailer, buttons and tips on throwing a movie-themed slumber party.

Just last week, Scholastic hosted “the world’s largest pajama party” at Minneapolis’ Mall of America that attracted an estimated 2,000 girls, Ganis said.

“Those die-hard fans are willing to come out, we know it for sure,” Ganis said. “We tested it by sending the baby-sitters to them [in national promotional tours] and they’ve come out. Therefore, we assume they’re also going to come see the movie.”

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The publisher has also provided book stores and libraries with movie posters and other promotional materials, Marcus said.

“Because they have the know-how to reach that market, part of the deal was that Scholastic would have to be included not just as a producer, but as a marketer,” Abraham explained.

And because the movie was made for such a modest sum, all involved hope to turn a tidy profit, projecting an estimated $5 million in box-office receipts on opening weekend.

“You can make a successful ‘girls movie’ if you target the specific audience and keep your budget tight,” said Abraham, whose 10-year-old daughter first introduced him to the series of books. “It may not make $200 million, but it can be successful.”

Scholastic executives say the publishers’ entry into film production was a natural evolution as it has diversified over the years.

“With all the new technologies and the power of the media, the ways to reach our audience have broadened,” said Startz. “We decided about a year ago January that we would make the move into feature films as an extension of our other business.”

Meanwhile, Scholastic has four more film projects in development, one of which is with United Artists and another with Columbia.

“We’re forming alliances with distributors and production companies that really share our point of view on the material and who complement what we do well,” Startz said. “What we’re really trying to do is develop and produce books based on the best literature for families and make movies that families can watch together.”


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