A novel idea

'Investigators' finding way to film

Khayelitsha township, with its sprawl of tin-roofed shacks and makeshift shops, is an unlikely setting for a family film franchise.

But it's here that director Florian Baxmeyer and Germany's Studio Hamburg have come to shoot the first of a trilogy of films based on an almost-forgotten series of U.S. children's books.

Khayelitsha doesn't play a big role in the $15 million movie, "The Three Investigators and the Secret of Skeleton Island," but it does provide the backdrop for one of the film's action sequences. As the bad guy's truck barrels down on a tiny shack, the three half-pint heroes — played by Cameron Monaghan, Nick Price and Chancellor Miller — pull Chris, a local township girl, to safety just in time. The truck smashes through the front door. The shack is toast.

Everyone knows films based on children's serials are hot right now. From the "Harry Potter" and "Narnia" series to Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, the first leg of which began shooting in September, best-selling kids books are being optioned by studios almost as soon as they hit the shelves.

But Hollywood passed on Robert Arthur's "The Three Investigators" series, which has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 30 languages. Several studios optioned the rights before, but the story of three young detectives who solve supernatural mysteries never got past the development stage.

"The Americans tried to make a TV series out of it but it never seemed to work," says Studio Hamburg producer Ronald Kruschak, who picked up the rights in turnaround in 2002. "We saw the potential of these stories as a feature franchise."

While "Three Investigators" books have been out of print for more than 20 years in the English-speaking world, the series is still a hit in Germany. More than 2 million books are sold every year along with some 3 million audio books, making the series one of the territory's most successful kids brands.

Studio Hamburg has picked up all rights for the first 10 of Arthur's "Investigators" novels and is set to produce at least three using the same cast. As Baxmeyer completes postproduction on "Skeleton Island," Studio Hamburg is already prepping the sequel "The Mystery of the Secret Spider."

"We are using (it) as the brand to launch our international production arm, SHIP," says Studio Hamburg head Sytze van der Laan. "We obviously can't compete with a $150 million production but we think there is a niche for mid-budget family entertainment that isn't currently being satisfied."

Disney seems to agree. Buena Vista in Germany picked up the first "Three Investigators" for an Easter 2007 release and is treating the film as a tentpole. Now Studio Hamburg just has to convince the rest of the world.