Little miss moviegoer

Special to The Times

Not all moviegoers who powered “The Princess Diaries” to $108 million at the U.S. box office may know that the film was based on a young adult novel by Meg Cabot. But many of the teen- and tween-age girls who made up the surprise hit’s core audience certainly do. They probably have the book (or one of its three sequels) on their shelves alongside titles by other favorite bestselling authors like Ann Brashares, Gail Carson Levine and Louise Rennison.

Girls are reading a lot, and they’re looking beyond “Harry Potter” and “Holes.” Girls see a lot of movies, too, so it’s no wonder that Hollywood is taking notice. Now, some of the hottest girl-centric titles -- a mix of Cinderella stories, coming-of-age tales and sassy comic novels -- are coming to the screen with a number of on-the-rise teen stars in tow.

“Ella Enchanted,” based on the popular fantasy tale by Levine, will be released by Miramax next spring with Anne Hathaway of “The Princess Diaries” in the title role, and Lindsay Lohan, who stars in the current remake of “Freaky Friday” (originally a young adult novel by Mary Rodgers), is filming an adaptation of Dyan Sheldon’s “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen” for Disney. The studio has also signed Raven, star of the hit Disney Channel series “That’s So Raven,” for a big-screen version of Cabot’s book “All-American Girl.” Brashares’ publishing sensation “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” is in development at Warner Bros. and scheduled to shoot next year with director Ken Kwapis, while Paramount and Nickelodeon are working on an adaptation of Rennison’s “Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging,” which has been described as a “Bridget Jones’s Diary” for the younger set. And a sequel to “The Princess Diaries” is set to shoot in November, with Hathaway, Julie Andrews and director Garry Marshall all returning.


This increased interest from studios in young adult fiction aimed at girls is a marked change from past years, says “Ella Enchanted” producer Jane Startz, who has worked on adaptations of young adult and children’s books for over two decades. “When I first started out, I was doing after-school specials based on young adult books and that was really the only venue for those stories,” she says. “Nobody considered the audience economically viable to do a project for that audience on a feature level.” But unexpectedly muscular grosses from films like “The Princess Diaries,” “Legally Blonde” ($96 million) and “Save the Last Dance” ($91 million), for which girls made up a large part of the audience, changed that perception.

Studios since have rushed to fill out their slates with girl-oriented movies like spring’s “What a Girl Wants” ($36 million) and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” ($42 million), which can be made on modest budgets and tap into a devoted audience that will often see a film more than once.

“The time I was growing up in this industry, the conventional wisdom was girls will watch something that has a boy [as the lead character], but the boys won’t watch something that has a girl,” Startz says. “That may or may not be true.... But I think what people are realizing is it really doesn’t matter that much if the boys are going to come or not because there is such a faithful following for some of these girl projects.”

Fueling this box-office boom is the growing population of teens and tweens in this country: 45 million youths between ages 8 and 18 with more than $90 billion to spend each year, according to market research firm Packaged Facts. That means more young girls are buying books, and Hollywood, looking for ways to reach that audience, is discovering a trove of source material in the young adult section of bookstores.

“I think right now the genre is really in the best place it’s been,” says author Sarah Dessen, whose novels “That Summer” and “Someone Like You” formed the basis for the recent Mandy Moore vehicle “How to Deal.” “It’s really evolving, and I think that a lot of these books being made into movies is bringing them to a wider audience.” Although the overall book market is soft, “the fiction category in publishing is very strong right now in the middle grade and young adult areas,” says Shannon Maughan, a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly who writes about children’s books.

“There are a lot of girls that are reading all of these books,” says Debra Martin Chase, who produced “The Princess Diaries” and is now shepherding “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “All-American Girl” to the screen. “You can talk to [many] 12- to 16-year-old girls and they’ve read all four of the ‘Princess Diaries’ books, they’ve read ‘Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ and bought the sequel as soon as it was available. They’re devouring them.”


The popularity of the books ensures a solid base audience for the films, which also drive new readers to the books. “There’s a great synergy back and forth between the books and movies,” says Startz, who notes that the novel “Tuck Everlasting” topped the charts on in the weeks before the film, which she produced, came out last year.

Reader loyalty

At test screenings of “Ella Enchanted,” “it was encouraging how many kids had already read the book,” says Startz, who is also developing Levine’s “The Two Princesses of Bamarre” for Miramax. Dessen’s two novels were packaged in a single volume as a paperback tie-in to “How to Deal.” Although the movie, made for a reported $16 million, opened last month to a disappointing $5.8 million, the tie-in landed Dessen for the first time on the New York Times children’s bestsellers list.

Girl readers often become loyal to their favorite authors and love to recommend books to their friends and talk about them online. “Because most people now know that teenagers spend a good deal of time on the Internet, there are numerous Web sites and chat rooms and all kinds of discussion groups out there where these books are getting a lot of attention,” Maughan says.

Dessen, like many contemporary young adult authors, maintains a Web site and even keeps an online journal, wanting to reach out to her readers with the idea that a writer is a real person. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like when I was teenager if I could have gone to Judy Blume’s Web site,” she says. “I think it does make readers feel a connection to me.”

That so many young adult novels are making their way to the screen is a testament to the passion of producers like Chase and Startz for that body of literature. “I grew up on my version of these books when I was younger,” Chase says. “I was always a voracious reader, and I still enjoy them as an adult. They speak to, I think, all girls and the girl in every woman, when they’re written right.” Startz, who has three children, the youngest of whom is 14, adds that “now you have more women who are in strong positions at the studios who are mothers or who have access to children or who are interested in children, and when something hits home to you I think you become much more interested in it.”

Disney, attuned to the family film market, was quick to identify the potential of such projects. Chase notes that when she first shopped around “The Princess Diaries,” other studios doubted there was a market out there, but Disney knew there was from its success with the 1996 remake of “The Parent Trap,” which starred Lohan.


“Now, it’s part of most studios’ slates,” Chase says. “They are looking for their ‘girl’ movies.”

Books spoke to producer

“How to Deal” producer William Teitler first came across Dessen’s pair of coming-of-age novels six years ago and was struck by the honesty of the author’s voice. “Being the father of two teenage daughters, I felt it was unusually real and true,” he says.

Although the two novels concern different characters, they both feature a teenage girl protagonist, and Teitler and his partner Chris Van Allsburg (author of the children’s book “Jumanji”) commissioned playwright Neena Beber to fuse the storylines into one script about a 17-year-old dealing with her best friend’s pregnancy, her parents’ divorce, her older sister’s engagement and her own determination not to fall in love.

Studios didn’t bite right away, however. “People read it and a lot of people loved it, but it didn’t have that high-concept hook,” Teitler says. “There was a strong romantic element, [but] it was a more nuanced family story.” As the option on the books was running out, the script sparked the interest of Moore, whose “A Walk to Remember” had just opened strongly, prompting New Line to quickly give the film the green light. Beber is now adapting Dessen’s latest novel, “This Lullaby,” for the studio.

More young adult-inspired projects aimed at girls are on the way. Chase, who speaks to young girls regularly to find out which books they are talking about, says, “I’ve come across a couple of things that maybe weren’t on the Hollywood radar screen but that they were enjoying.” Her projects include the new Lifetime mystery series “1-800-Missing” (which debuted Saturday), based on a series of books by Cabot, and the Disney Channel telefilm “Cheetah Girls” (airing Aug. 15), based on a book series by Deborah Gregory.

“Cheetah Girls” features Raven as one of four multiracial teen girls who form a singing group in Manhattan, while “1-800-Missing” stars Gloria Reuben as an FBI agent who partners with Caterina Scorsone, a young woman with psychic powers, to find missing persons. Chase is also developing Cabot’s ghost story “The Mediator” for ABC.


Another coming television series, the WB’s “Fearless,” is based on a series of books by Francine Pascal and stars Rachael Leigh Cook as a young FBI agent unable to feel fear. And Startz is teaming with Blume to bring several of the author’s well-known books to film and television, after years of Blume declining offers to adapt her works. “It’s Judy Blume who really sculpted out the whole young adult fiction for girls,” Startz says. “She was really the pioneer of the whole movement.”

As Maughan notes, “There have always been wonderful young adult novels. It’s just that in recent years, Hollywood has woken up to the wealth of good storytelling that is available for that age level of audience.”