Whistling Dixie

Flocking to the local multiplex on the weekend continues as one of the staples of youth. According to a 2003 Motion Picture Association report, patrons ages 12 through 24 account for 30 percent of total yearly admissions to movies, as measured by ticket purchases.

In recent years, kids have been attracted to films that find their roots in books. Multi-million dollar generating blockbusters including Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Sleepy Hollow and The Lord of the Rings trilogy all sprung to life from hardcover classics and bestsellers. Two nonprofits are currently tapping that Hollywood well to provide literacy programs in conjunction with film.

The Heartland Film Festival and the National Collaboration for Youth (NCY) have partnered to promote reading for fun among children through the supplementation of film.

“We’ve been awarding what we call ‘truly moving pictures’ for about four years now, and we’re out there looking for films that are character-building, life-affirming and with positive role models for kids, which are important criteria in anything we select,” explained Jeffrey Sparks, president of the Indianapolis-based Heartland Film Festival. “We then started looking, with all of our connections in the industry, and asking, ‘What do you have coming out that might work with this program?’ That’s how we discovered Because of Winn-Dixie.”

Because of Winn-Dixie is the story of a young girl whose life is enhanced by the bond formed between her and a dog, named Winn-Dixie. According to Sparks, many third-fourth-and fifth-grade teachers have used the Newbery Award-winning book in their classrooms. The upcoming film stars Cicely Tyson and Jeff Daniels and is scheduled for national release on February 18.

Walden Media in Boston is developing the curricula and the cost of reaching out to the agencies and encouraging participation is being borne by Heartland and NCY, said Irv Katz, president of the National Assembly of Health and Human Services and NCY in Washington D.C.

The pilot effort has been made possible by a six-month, $50,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment. Both Katz and Sparks said they hope to secure other funding to take the idea of a book-film combination to a wider scale and to replicate it two-to-four times a year.

“The movies selected will be a joint decision that will be driven primarily by the youth agencies,” Katz said. “We’ll only connect with a really great film where the message is appropriate for young people. We could also choose from the classic films. For example, schools teach To Kill a Mockingbird, which is also truly one of the most moving films. Heartland has a list of existing films, not just the movies released each year. So, we have the option of selecting a film that came out 10, 20 or 50 years ago.”

The program has the potential to involve 30 to 40 youth serving organizations and reach 40-to-46 million kids each year, Katz added.

Since Hollywood has a penchant for adapting younger kids’ books into films, both nonprofits are planning additional programs to service the teen-age crowd. One of the possibilities under discussion involves screenwriting, whereby students would read the screenplay before viewing the film.

There are a potential variety of other avenues of youth development programming, including exploring the wide diversity of career opportunities in the film industry. Building sets, lighting engineering, writing scripts, acting, makeup and costumes would all interest kids, Katz added.

The program does have some issues to iron out. A national reading program would be difficult to institute if the movie selected is a platform release that is not being widely distributed. The initial goal is to target films that have a wide national release, Sparks said.

“(20th Century) Fox has been wonderful in working with us on this program, as is Walden Media, which produced the film,” Sparks said. “Walden Media’s whole mission is producing movies from educationally valued books. They’re also doing The Chronicles of Narnia and that may be the next one that we do. Disney is already talking to us about that.”

With the excitement brought about by talks with high-profile film studios such as Disney, Sparks knows that the work has only begun.

“We’re going to have to get out there and raise some serious money,” Sparks acknowledged. “Right now we’re not buying the books and getting them into the hands of kids. Our budget right now is pretty small since it’s a test project with Because of Winn-Dixie. Once we’re done with that we’ll have more of an idea of what we need to do and what it’s going to take to get it done.” my ability.”