July 2, 2008

The Producers of Kit Kittredge Talk About Making the Film

I always love to here from the creative film people about how they got a film made. Kit Kittredge is produced by all women and several of them including Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Ellen Brothers (president of American Girl Doll) and Lisa Gillan attended a Q&A.

It was kind of strange to have a person who is a corporate brand leader talk about producing a movie but since everything is about marketing these days it was illuminating to see the impetus for taking the dolls to the screen.

I'm one of the people who really doesn't know much about the American Girl doll. For those others of you out there is the doll desert, here's what they are from the woman who runs the brand.

Ellen Brothers: American Girl is a 22 year old business all about celebrating girls. It's all about about developing products and experiences for girls that generations can share. If you go to one of our stores there are manners classes and cooking classes and muffins with mom and all sorts of things you can take with you. American Girl is about the emotional connection. Our audience is girls 3-12 and we have about 92% awareness of the brand and if you're not we have zero.
Manner classes? Cooking classes? I think that kind of regressive. How about climbing on the jungle gym classes?
Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas: I was aware of it because of my niece. I was always aware of the characters and knew they were more than a doll. American Girl, to me, was in a league of its own. There were toys and then there was American Girl, and the only reason I say that is that it's history come to life. What other product shows you history through the eyes of a nine year old? What was so impressive to me is that they vet everything. They have a whole department that historically looks at what life was like for a nine year old so you are looking at history through the eyes of a child, and sometimes you need to look back to see where you are going. Whether its Kit or Felicity when dealing with war, or Julie dealing with divorce -- each one of these girls is thinking how am I going to get through this.
How do you make sure that it is up to your standard?
EB: you control every single detail. We were very respectful of entertainment because in a girls eyes we have sold over 120 million books and these characters live in a girls imagination. We were very concerned that when we picked an actor to play the lead that forever more she would be that character so you have to make sure that you control all the details. I was so impressed when Elaine and her team came in to talk about this. She could have been interviewing for a job that's how well she knew the intellectual property and we always start with the story and then the doll. We start with the story first, the values we want to infuse, and then decide what the characters is going to look like and Elaine knew that to its core. We were pretty sure that we found the right partners and we made three TV movies in o4, 05, 06 and the logical extension of the success of those was to move to feature films.
EGT: We also knew that there was no family audience in TV. With very little media we sold 1 million units and what what that told us that while advertisers are not going to pay a lot to reach a family audience in TV, there is a family audience in features. And while others audiences are dwindling and coming and going what I kept on saying to anyone who would listen is this could be a movie because it's a family movie. I don't think its just for girls. I hope boys go and hope dads go. I know that our target is girls but I think its empowering for kids. It tells kids you can get through it. If a movie can entertain and educate a little bit, hallelujah.
We never say when it's a movie for boys or men that we need to get women and girls to attend, but when it's a movie for girls or women we say we need to get the male audience in. How can we overcome these stereotypes?
EGT: It's hard because this is American Girl. It bothers me to no end. I've given lots of interviews where I've said why does the success of Sex and the City limit or define an audience? The female audience has been there. For 15 years it was there with Julia (Roberts, an Executive Producers on this film) and everyone says oh it's just because it was Julia, then it was Sandra Bullock, then it was Reese Witherspoon, then it was The Devil Wears Prada and Chicago. We are always the exception why can't we just be the rule? I just don't understand it. Now they are saying that we are Sex and the City for little girls. No, we're a good movie. I don't like being the exception. I think the female audience has been there. I think that Julia Roberts did define it for our generation for 15 years, but before her there was Barbra Streisand there were always women there. It exists, it's healthy we have to feed it. And we have to stop treating every movie like its the definition or the end.
Why Kit's story?
Lisa Gillan: Kit is very popular and it's a time period that kids don't know very much about and are fascinated with. There is no technology and it opens up a world that their grandparents lived in and there are fascinated by little things that we at our age take for granted like typewriters. When Abigail first sat down at the typewriter she said: "where's the screen? and then how do I delete?" Kit's story was also expandable. We have a young boy who's a co-star. Valerie Tripp (the book writer) made these characters real. What we tried to do was dramatize it and honor her work as best as we could but expand it. It's hard because the 12 million girl fan will bust you.
EB: We love the way that the depression, 1934 Cincinnati, resonates with what we are going through today. It's about losing your home, relying on family and friends to get through, it's about loss, and we just thought that when we were putting this movie together a year ago we thought there were wonderful links that girls would understand. You can't ignore the relevance.
9 year old girls are strong and powerful and soon after that they lose a lot of that power. Why did American Girl pick 9 as the age of the dolls?
EB: I think that's one thing the founder of the brand Pleasant Rowling did. She didn't really understand what she was doing but took girls seriously. Now we look at the tween market which has 220 billion dollar in discretionary spending. No one was marketing to them 22 years ago when American Girl started. They decided not to pander to them. The books are written at a second grade reading level, and the whole premise is to compare and contrast points of American history that is taught in public schools. We've never done TV advertising. We market through catalogs and the catalogs are a real emotional hook because moms and girls keep them in their houses. There is an emotional connection.