Universal’s Sophie Kaplan: ‘A Symbiosis’ With Publishers

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Content development momentum, says Universal’s Sophie Kaplan ahead of the NYU Advanced Publishing Institute, comes from publishers and studios working in close coordination.

A production crew works on a shoot in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg with its Wilhelmine period facades. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Cineberg

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

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Developing Content in ‘a Symbiotic Relationship’
In next week’s inaugural five-day NYU Advanced Publishing Institute (January 8 to 12), Monday’s afternoon panel “Beyond the Page” will be moderated by Universal Studio Group’s Sophie Kaplan.

One of the points she makes is that her position as senior director of creative acquisitions and intellectual property management has her working with NBCUniversal‘s four studios:

  • Universal Television
  • UCP
  • Universal Television Alternative Studio
  • Universal International Studios

That means that her purview of the words-to-screen development field is informed by as much as 3,000 hours or more of programming that’s either currently on-air or streaming in various parts of the world. The sheer size of a collection of brands that holds more than 130,000 television episodes in its library means that Kaplan’s insights for the NYU Advanced Publishing Institute delegates are based in what she describes as a relatively unique approach to intellectual property.

“Our department works,” she says, in a way that’s “a little different from most IP departments at other studios. Often, when you have an IP department, they’re acting as book scouts. They’re working very closely with the creative teams to help them prioritize. Whereas we have external book scouts. Because of that, yes, we’re still getting material in from our agency relationships, but there’s more bandwidth for us to really embed with these four studios because it’s such a big remit.

“So it’s an ability to have a sense for the moving target, to know what the mandate is as any given time. That’s not only because vampires are in one day and out the next, but it’s also so that publishers and authors and editors and agents can come to us when they want to know what’s  going on with a project. We’re not going to have to say, ‘Hold on, please let me go chase that down for you.’ We’ll actually know what’s going on with it and we can be a useful resource.”

And that’s the sort of useful contact that the NYU program is designed to put its first year of registrants in touch with. The industry-to-industry gulf between book publication and screen production can be huge. Any chance to bridge it with immediately knowledgeable resources on a project in development can make all the difference for the publishing side of a book-to-television scenario.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the NYU program is the successor to the Yale Publishing Course and has been reformulated by Tina C. Weiner, the founding director of the Yale Publishing Course and the former publishing director of Yale University Press, with the support of Andrea Chambers, the associate dean of the Center for Publishing and Applied Liberal Arts in the School of Professional Studies.

In Kaplan’s panel on Monday,  United Talent Agency (UTA) media rights agent Mary Pender will be speaking, in part from a common background with Kaplan: they both were scouts years ago with Maria Campbell Associates, at which Kaplan was sourcing literary material both for Warner Bros.’ film and television studios and for New Line Cinema.

Kaplan and Pender will be joined by Lauren O’Connor, Amazon MGM Studios’ head of IP acquisitions, and Ryan Doherty, executive editor at Macmillan’s Celadon Books.

‘A Back-and-Forth Exchange’

One thing the publishing audience may hear Kaplan refer to is her awareness of “what’s going to be a good experience for the publisher and author and agent.”

Sophie Kaplan

For example, “Our aim is always to have a low ratio of development to production, obviously,” she says. “Everything we buy, we want to have a strategy to see it to the finish line. We really care about that. And so for us, it’s about how we’re going to create repeat business? How are we going to create relationships beyond that first project?”

To a reporter’s question about how publishers can interact with Universal’s operation, Kaplan says, this means that “with us, there’s a real symbiosis that that can happen in terms of supporting a book, which will then support the project.”

Underlying the kind of give and take that Kaplan is describing, in fact, is an investment strategy, as she sees it.

“Mary [Pender] and I always joke,” she says, “that people inevitably want a bestseller to option. And we say option the book and turn it into a bestseller. Help create the buzz. Work with the publishers’ marketing department.” She’s talking about “well-coordinated announcements” about a project, to raise visibility across the trade news outlets by working together.

“Then you’ve got yourself a bestseller,” Kaplan says. “Just invest that sort of communication and strategy into it.”

That “symbiotic relationship” she describes turns on being sure that a publisher’s marketing department is “onboard to work with our marketing departments, and [having] the editors onboard to keep us posted on where they are in the book’s lifecycle. Down the road, how do we make a tie-in edition?”

All these things are “a back-and-forth exchange,” she says, that create a sort of cyclical momentum for a project. “Whether or not the movie or TV show is made, whether or not it becomes a huge success, this can all support the book. And the better and bigger the book is, the better chance the TV and film projects have.”

After the 2023 Hollywood Strikes

Relative to the 2023 May-to-November Hollywood strikes involving the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, Kaplan says she agrees with Pender’s comments that it’s too early to see clearly what long-term effects may result.

“People are still really, really eager for new, great material that’s going to attract talent—going to attract great filmmakers, great acting talent, great writers. That comes from great books.”Sophie Kaplan, Universal Studio Group

Initially generating a period of “reading books and spending money on books”—as in the pandemic, a time when acquisition was possible even if production wasn’t—the post-strike reality has been a time to “focus internally,” Kaplan says, on what’s already in development: “What we need to get out the door,” with a little less attention on new material.

In the new year, she says, “I think all bets are off.

“We can all try and predict that there will be tightening at the buyers and the streamers,” she says, “but we really don’t know. At least from what I’m seeing, people are still really, really eager for new, great material, and really eager for material that’s going to attract talent—going to attract great filmmakers, going to attract great acting talent, great writers.

“And that comes from great books.”

Information on the new NYU Advanced Publishing Institute is here, and the latest look at the program’s agenda is hereMore on events in New York University’s programming relative to book publishing is here, and more on publishing education is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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