By Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times
CONYERS, Ga. — There was a time when the idea of a movie based on the “Goosebumps” series of books would have seemed as natural as a Harry Potter visit to the wand shop.
“Goosebumps,” after all, had turned scores of pre-teens into obsessive readers with its mix of laughs and light scares. So popular was R.L. Stine’s anthology series — a seeming never-ending carousel of kid heroes and colorful monsters — that for several years the books tallied more than $100 million in annual revenue for publisher Scholastic and made Stine the top-selling author in the country. If you hadn’t kept up to date on the latest “Goosebumps,” you might as well just pack up and leave the fifth grade.
That time, alas, was nearly 20 years ago. The original series ceased publication in 1997, and though a number of spinoff lines followed, the books’ popularity would never achieve those heights again.
Which makes it a Hollywood anomaly that all these years later, a movie, backed by Sony and starring Jack Black, will arrive in theaters on Oct. 7. After all, with its ability to turn kids into devoted readers, book releases into epic events and children’s publishing into big business, the 62 (!) original “Goosebumps” books that began in 1992 helped lay the groundwork for the gush of youth-oriented literature that followed. Shortly after the “Goosebumps” series ended, J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books would go on to become publishing phenomena and spawn eight smash movies, the last of which came out in 2011.
Even the “Goosebumps” creator at first wasn’t sure what to make of the news. “It came as a surprise the movie was still alive,” said Stine. “You sort of forget about it. And then I get this call from Deborah [Forte, Scholastic film overseer and one of the movie’s producers], and it dawned on me, ‘This might actually happen.’”
Said Diane Roback, the longtime children’s books editor at Publishers Weekly: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. It’s been so long that some people who don’t know the books will say, ‘Is this ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Hunger Games’ lite?’ And of course ‘Goosebumps’ came out earlier than all of them.”
It’s no surprise that Hollywood, smitten with the lucrative allure of kids’ stories, would embrace the horror-infused book series (estimated global sales: 400 million copies). What is a surprise — and, to some, as mysterious as the events of the lighthearted chillers — is why it took so long and whether they’re relevant in 2015.
There is much on the line. That’s true for Sony, in need of fresh franchises. But there are also intriguing stakes for the entertainment world at large. In taking on a well-known property from so long ago, the “Goosebumps” film addresses questions about the durability of once-dominant brands and the importance of pop-culture narratives in retailing movies generally.
ENTER R.L. STINE
On a soundstage in this town 25 miles east of Atlanta one day last summer gathered, in no particular order, an extensive crew, a trio of teenage actors, Jack Black and a ventriloquist dummy.
In one corner of the space a study had been meticulously built, complete with knickknacks, books and, at the slightly unexpected request of Black, a menorah. He was starring as R.L. Stine, the author of the “Goosebumps” series in real life, but also an eponymous character — more eccentric and reclusive than the real one, both would hasten to note — in the latest meta turn from Hollywood.
The U.S. men’s soccer team was playing a critical World Cup game that day, and the cast and crew paused to huddle over an iPhone to watch. It was a break from the delicate if chromatic work of building a story based on such a rich book property.
In a field outside the soundstage an abandoned amusement park had been created, with a restored haunted house and a souped-up Ferris wheel that would become a centerpiece of the movie’s climax.
Completing the tableau was a group of monsters. There are many in the “Goosebumps” universe, including an Abominable Snowman, a haunted mask, a swamp-dwelling werewolf and the gleeful (and, most important for the film, speech-enabled) Slappy, a possessed ventriloquist dummy. Several actors dressed as ghouls drifted through the space. A man on stilts loped into a makeup area. A witch-like woman in ratty clothing practiced her planned reaction to an explosion, repeating her double take with the solitary concentration of a Shakespearean actor rehearsing “Hamlet.”
Just before the cameras began to roll, Black walked into the study, with the crew offering the respect due a distinguished clergyman, the actor the high priest of the goofy-creepy.
“Now we go tighter on Phase 2 so Slappy’s back on the pedestal,” called out the director, Rob Letterman, who had previously directed “Shark Tale” and collaborated with Black on “Gulliver’s Travels.” Then the ventriloquist operating the puppet villain, after announcing his plans to terrorize the town, growled the line: “You’ve made Slappy — very unhappy,” which the kids shrunk back from with a sort of benign terror.
Creating just-scary-enough entertainment is not easy.
“The really daunting part — besides the monsters — is the tone and how to make it scary but also fun and not gruesome,” Letterman said. “I really want to make the Amblin movie I grew up with,” referring to early Steven Spielberg pictures. “It’s accessible but with the edge of scares. ‘Keep an eye on the tone’ — that was the advice R.L. had given me.”
The day before, Stine, 71, had visited the set, for a cameo as “R.L. Stine’s’” colleague. The moment offered a Hollywood head-spinner: an author whose material is being adapted playing someone who is not him opposite a man who is an exaggerated version of him.
A FRIGHTFUL JOURNEY
More than most, the “Goosebumps” back story shows the studios’ fevered interest in harnessing a literary smash and the challenges in doing so. Beginning in the late 1990s, a number of versions languished at Fox, with Tim Burton onboard at one point to produce; the mix of horror and comedy is the director’s specialty.
A TV show, which aired in the U.S. on Fox Kids, came and went. Writers cycled through the script. The problems weren’t insurmountable, but they were hardly simple: The original 62 books were episodic. They followed a basic template — a new kid arrives in an idyllic town, then realizes something’s not right. Soon a monster is threatening the town or the child or children, whose problems are compounded by adults not believing them. The hero must overcome adult skepticism and their own fears to vanquish the threat. Only a few antagonists ever recurred.
Stringing the books into one movie wouldn’t work, since the main characters were different in each installment. And none of the books on their own was big enough to justify a film. “The challenge in making the movie was how do you take something small and intimate and episodic and make it a worthwhile event,” said Forte.
Fox eventually put the project into turnaround, and around 2008 it landed at Sony. Shortly after, a breakthrough came — the “Ed Wood” writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski had come up with the idea of making Stine himself a character; in doing so it allowed multiple books to be threaded together and enabled a host of villains to be included under one roof. The threat would come to Stine and several children, when the monsters the author created had, “Jumanji” style, sprung from the page and come to life. Screenwriter Darren Lemke followed, giving it shape.
The movie in its final form, with a budget estimated at $90 million, follows teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) moving in to a Delaware town with his single mother (Amy Ryan), then falling for a neighbor (Odeya Rush), who is the daughter of a reclusive author named R.L. Stine. “Goosebumps” is probably one of the few movies not associated with filmmaker Charlie Kaufman to reference the adaptation process within the frame of the film itself. There are plot turns that involve Stine writing, jokes about how many books he’s sold and even a mini-rant by the author — disavowed, good naturedly, mostly, as unrealistic by the real-life Stine — about “Steve King” being more famous than he is.
Still, the greenlight was dependent on Black’s participation. And Black wasn’t going until Stine gave the OK. They met in New York, home of Stine, a longtime joke book writer before he started “Goosebumps” on a lark. Slappy was there too, propped up on a chair.
“I was a little on pins and needles,” Black said. “It was a surreal setting, in a spooky old building that was apropos,” he said, before realizing it was Scholastic headquarters. I mean, we are taking his material and his brand but also his name. We’re messing with his identity.”
“Well, I did want to read the script,” Stine deadpanned, asked how he felt when he heard a distorted-mirror version of him would appear.
CATERING TO YOUTH
The notion of a youth-entertainment economy, separate and distinct from the adult one — and often so large it threatens to engulf it — is now taken for granted. Six of the top 10 movies at the box office this year were made explicitly for children, and two more were seen by a lot of them. No one bats an eye.
And more such properties are in the pipeline. Despite the floundering of bestseller-derived movies such as “Mortal Instruments” and “Beautiful Creatures,” next year will bring films based on Rick Yancey’s alien-invasion YA bestseller “The 5th Wave” and Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” directed by Tim Burton. Meanwhile, Rainbow Powell’s 1980s coming-of-age story “Eleanor & Park” and Rachel Renee Russell’s middle-grade “Dork Diaries” series remain in development.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Sure, there were Saturday morning cartoons and scattered cultural offerings, largely from Walt Disney. But the idea that youthful pop culture would dominate the landscape — that it would be the reason an industry would exist — was, until this century, unheard of.
The “Goosebumps” franchise is a reminder of a time when that was still the thinking; unlike “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight,” these were titles exclusively about and for children. Parents were happy that kids were picking up books, but they didn’t go to great lengths to find out what was in them, and they certainly didn’t become fans themselves.
But “Goosebumps” is also a bridge to the modern era. Practically speaking, it emboldened and enriched Scholastic, which would go on to make a big investment in Harry Potter. Culturally, it showed producers what kind of money lay in this realm — and how, in a world of childlike obsessiveness and anxious modern parenting, reaching a youthful audience is really reaching the American audience.
How, then, will a movie that harks back to a time before the kid-centric era but is coming out decidedly in it fare?
Many people now in their late 20s and early 30s did eat, sleep and breathe these genre benders. The problem is that this group as a rule doesn’t go to PG kids movies, and they’re not old enough to have children who would. There’s a reason big-budget PG films — aimed primarily at that tween demographic roughly between ages 9 and 12 — come out so infrequently these days. Dip too young and the junior high schoolers will roll their eyes; reach too old and they’ll be scared or turned off. A PG arrow, in other words, needs to hit a small target.
Goosebumps” — which Sony hopes will spin off sequels — seeks to achieve a balance. Scenes involving a cop played by “Veep’s” Timothy Simons goes for more adult laughs. Older teens might also be drawn to a few “Paranormal Activity”-style beats and even the Chucky-like visage of Slappy himself. But in the main it features the kind of wholesome romance and bend-but-don’t-break scares that will work for a 10-year-old.
Despite the challenge, filmmakers say that when such an effort works, it can strike gold. “If you look at the movies that have done best over time, they have always been PG movies,” said Neal Moritz, one of the film’s producers. “There’s a lack of product that the whole family could see. A lot of movies my 10-year-old-daughter wants to see I’ll go to but take a nap. We were trying to do something different here.”
Black sees an even bigger cultural issue at play.
“Today’s parents might err on the side of protecting kids a little too much, a little too much helicoptering,” he said. “It wasn’t like that when ‘Goosebumps’ was popular. Scares are a healthy rite of passage. There are things here that will be enjoyed by adults, yes. But it’s a movie that I think kids will see. It’s a movie I think they should see.”