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Little miss moviegoer

The 8-to-18 female audience not only reads a lot of books but also flocks to movies based on those books, as Hollywood is discovering.

August 03, 2003|Andre Chautard | 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."

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