Envision a pipeline that starts with an author at work on a manuscript, continues to an agent, a publisher, and on to a TV or movie producer, and you’ll have a rough idea of the traditional path many stories have traveled from the page to the large and small screen. Today, while that model still applies to some degree, the trajectory is often more complex.
Discovering great stories and getting them in front of readers and viewers is the common focus of two Vassar alums who work with authors and other creators. DreamWorks Animation film producer Damon Ross ’94 and Nickelodeon Vice President of Literary Affairs Eddie Gamarra ’94 note some significant changes since the early days of their careers. While literary works continue to be an important source of stories, creative content is now being drawn from a much wider field—a development that is shaping the current publishing and visual entertainment environment, as well as their roles.
Close friends since their freshman year at Vassar where they majored in psychology and took every available film class, both Ross and Gamarra have spent much of their careers scouting out and developing literary properties for film and television in the kid/family entertainment sector. Ross is now a producer, while Gamarra describes his role in literary affairs at Nickelodeon as resembling that of an air traffic controller: “I bring in a project and get it to the right department and the right individual executive [for development].” But both remain guided by the imperative to find new and original voices that will speak to a wide range of audiences.
Early on, Ross turned his attention to children’s publishing at a time when few others were looking to this sector as a reservoir of ideas for movies. “The goal was to get access to this material early, before it hit the bookstore shelves,” Ross says. It was a strategy that allowed him to sell his team on the idea of developing Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events as a film before the books became widely known. The books have the cinematic appeal and strong adult character that both Gamarra and Ross agree are criteria for success in a film.
The decision to option a property is also informed by the vision for where the story can go next, Ross explains. His recent film The Bad Guys (which followed a string of successful book-to-screen adaptations, including The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants) was based on a series of graphic novels that focus on a group of notorious animals who commit to reforming their criminal ways.
Casting stars like Sam Rockwell, Awkwafina, and Craig Robinson to voice the main characters may not mean anything to young viewers, but it does to the adults who watch along with them—or on their own.
“We want a movie to appeal to everyone in the family,” Ross notes, “to have a core of kid relatability, but also a kind of sophistication and emotional authenticity that everyone can connect to.”
“That old Hollywood idea of entertainment remains a goal,” Gamarra agrees. “But we also always want to be asking who our audience is, because with the advent of streaming and TV binge-viewing, there’s also room for a pink and purple princess show for girls who are seven to eight years old.”
At Nickelodeon, Gamarra also occasionally looks to older children’s book titles that can have a new life in a visual medium. “We recently acquired the rights to the iconic chapter books Junie B. Jones for example, a juggernaut book series that already has incredible brand awareness,” he says. Before assuming his current position, Gamarra worked as a literary manager representing, among others, writers of YA and adult content, including the Maze Runner trilogy, Stargirl, and Slow Horses (a spy series for television that he sold to a British production company). He also served as executive producer on the Maze Runner movies and Stargirl while he was there. These experiences offer him perspective on multiple sides of the business.
Today, in their respective roles, Gamarra and Ross continue to keep a close eye on the publishing industry—both religiously follow trade publications that announce the acquisition of new manuscripts—but with more of their competitors looking at literary properties, they’re also casting a wider net.
“Every media company is out there scouring the world for intellectual property, not just from the publishing world, but from the card and board-game world, articles, podcasts, plays, web comics, graphic novels—anything that could be adapted into live action or animation in film or TV,” Gamarra says. He’s currently in negotiations for the rights to a self-published graphic novel he came across at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
“You want to be open to receiving it all,” Ross says. “There are so many animated movies now that it’s more of a challenge these days to find those big original ideas.”
Regardless of the specific story source, development from one format to another doesn’t necessarily follow a predictable path, Gamarra points out. Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, which began life as a TV series, was followed by films, audio and print books, and even a Broadway show (Vassar alums Ethan Slater ’14 and Lilli Cooper ’12 were headliners). Bob’s Burgers, an animated series that premiered on the Fox network in 2011, has served as a basis for a film, as well as related media including a comic book, a soundtrack album, and a cookbook.
In the end, despite the potential offered by stories that appear first in less traditional formats—HBO’s enormous success with The Last of Us, based on a video game, is a case in point—neither Ross nor Gamarra anticipate a radical departure from a reliance on books as a major source of intellectual property. “There’s something compelling about holding up a book to [decision makers] and saying ‘there’s a movie in this,’” Ross says. “It’s already been produced, just in a different form.”