Move Over, Harry Potter
Once upon a time in Chicago, three friends decided to found an entertainment company. It would create characters and stories that would work for books and movies and television and toys and T-shirts, all at once. It would build a peerless relationship with its audience of kids through the Internet. It would attract major partners like Nickelodeon and Mattel. It would start in a Rogers Park apartment, then move to sprawling new quarters in the West Loop. And then it would need some cash . . .
Trish Lindsay trained as an architect and came to Chicago in 1991 to work for Eva Maddox Associates. She redesigned some hospital and museum gift shops and says she realized that what nonprofits really needed were better products to sell. By 1993, she and Rick Carton--an artist she'd hooked up with after admiring the posters he did for his band Tarnations--had founded Treehouse Productions, a toy company with a storefront on Lincoln Avenue. "We made educational toys for everyone from the Smithsonian to Neiman Marcus," she says. "We had no idea what we were doing, but we had a great time." They sold Treehouse to the Strombecker Corporation, a west-side toy maker, in '95, and Lindsay subsequently went to work for Thompson Target Media building a monitored Internet site for kids. In 2002 she and Carton recruited Sara Berliner, who'd interned at Treehouse, to help them launch a new company, Star Farm Productions. "Rick said he wanted to do entertainment," Lindsay says, and "I knew we had to sell completed projects, not just ideas."
Carton and his brother Billy came up with the concept of a series of books for 8-to-12-year-olds built around a pair of humorously wicked twins. The result, fleshed out by Berliner (and ultimately a team of helpers), is a six-book series about the gothic misadventures of Edgar and Ellen (named for Edgar Allan Poe). Attributed to a reclusive author, Charles Ogden, and written in a voice a stone's throw from Lemony Snicket's, the books feature Carton's illustrations of the bug-eyed, pointy-chinned siblings, clearly descended from Gorey and Addams. They live in an Addams Family-ish tower with their pet, Pet, a neatly licensable one-eyed hairball, and skulk around the town of Nod's Limbs creating mayhem until the end of every story, when they get their just deserts. Lindsay found a small California publisher, Tricycle Press, and the inaugural book, Rare Beasts, was published in September 2003; a month later Star Farm launched the edgarand ellen.com Web site.
"The aha moment for me was when I looked at Harry Potter," Lindsay says. "I wanted to see where Harry Potter left money on the table." She found it in the "millions of pieces of fan fiction the kids wrote on the Internet--all this elaborate backstory about Harry's parents and about Hogwarts, all the stories that aren't told in the books and movies. I said, Bingo! The future is storytelling in multiple media, and kids want to participate." What happened next is as amazing as anything that unfolds in Nod's Limbs.
According to Lindsay, the Edgar & Ellen books are now being published in nine languages and 68 countries. In two years the Web site has had 26 million hits from 140 countries, although the books haven't been promoted in the U.S. since mid-2004, when Star Farm bought the rights back from Tricycle. Beginning in January, Simon & Schuster is relaunching the series in the U.S. with a 75,000-copy first printing for each title and a billboard on Times Square; Mattel plans to bring out an Edgar & Ellen puzzle and games next year. The twins made their television debut last month on Nickelodeon's Nicktoons channel, where they hosted a Halloween marathon. Nickelodeon has signed on for six E & E holiday specials (everything from Valentine's Day to April Fools') to air through 2006 and an animated TV series to begin in 2008. Foreign broadcasters are ready to pony up more than $6 million for the television shows, and Kopelson Entertainment, which produced Platoon and The Fugitive, is partnering with Star Farms to produce a live-action E & E feature film for release in 2007. The DVDs, video games, sneakers, and lunch boxes can't be far off.
Last year Star Farm moved into a 7,000-square-foot office space on West Lake, a block from Harpo Studios. The staff has grown to 30 people, including a corps of talent from places like Disney and Publicis. Five new multimedia projects--each rooted in a series of books geared to specific age groups--are ready for launch, and Lindsay, who reached into her own pocket for the company's seed capital, is looking for more money. She says they've raised $6 million to date and are hunting for another $4 to $6 million. Though animation for the E & E television shows is being done in Canada, she says she's committed to working and filming in Chicago "if the money makes sense" and prefers local, private investors. Lindsay notes that "Governor Blagojevich has set out a really aggressive plan to recruit production in Illinois," but that the investment community here isn't keeping pace. There's an opportunity there, she says: "When Chicago can become an entertainment powerhouse is when the investment community is matching the efforts of the political community." In the meantime, "We're talking to east-coast venture capitalists."
Not the Man They Married
Lyric Opera had a little problem when Hugh Smith, the scheduled lead for The Midsummer Marriage, which opens November 19, showed up for rehearsals a few weeks ago. According to Lyric, Smith, who'd been cast four years ago, "came fully prepared" and "singing wonderfully," but his voice had "grown in size and heft and darkened in color." General director William Mason, conductor Sir Andrew Davis, and Smith "mutually agreed that the role of Mark requires a different vocal aesthetic," and Smith "requested to withdraw." That sounds like Smith shook hands and walked away, but a week later Susan Elliott of MusicalAmerica.com reported that Smith was bought out of his contract for $98,000. According to the Tribune, Lyric spokesperson Magda Krance called the report incorrect; Elliott stands by her item. Smith has been replaced by Joseph Kaiser, conveniently available from the roster of young singers at the Lyric Opera Center. On top of that, director Sir Peter Hall withdrew from the production last week because of illness; he'll be replaced by British choreographer Wayne McGregor.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jimmy Fishbein.