'Gallagher Girls' Book Series Optioned by Producers Tonya Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver (Exclusive)

Nikki Silver, left, and Tonya Lee Lewis

Under their new Tonik Productions banner, the duo have produced the upcoming Hallmark Channel movie "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," and they are readying a film adaption of Lois Lowry's "The Giver" with Jeff Bridges.

Producers Tonya Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver, operating under their new Tonik Productions banner, have optioned film rights to the Gallagher Girls book series with an eye toward establishing a big-screen franchise.

The six-book young-adult series, written by Sarah Leigh Fogleman under the pen name Ally Carter and published by Disney’s Hyperion Books, centers on a student, Cammie Morgan, at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women in Roseville, Va. While the school poses as an institution for highly intelligent girls, it’s actually a training facility for the CIA.

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“It’s an incredibly readable young-adult series about a spy school for girls. We love it because it’s totally about girls and girl empowerment, and it's very international,” says Silver. Adds Lewis Lee, “It’s important for us to have things that are about diversity and empowerment -- and it’s kick-ass and fun.”

While they are looking for a writer to take on the project, the duo, who formerly joined forces last year, have a number of other projects coming to fruition.

The TV film The Watsons Go to Birmingham, starring Anika Noni Rose, David Alan Grier, Skai Jackson and Wood Harris, will air on Hallmark Channel on Sept. 20. Also in September, Tonik will begin filming The Giver, starring Jeff Bridges, in South Africa.

Silver and Lewis Lee first worked together as executive producers on the miniseries Miracle’s Boys, which aired on MTV’s The N (Teen Nick) in 2005.

Silver began her career in documentary television at New York’s WNET before moving into children’s TV, working on such series as Reading Rainbow and What’s Going On? Her credits also include the 2011 documentary Teenage Witness and the American Masters portrait Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides. Before partnering with Lewis Lee, she was president of On Screen Entertainment.

Lewis Lee, who is married to director Spike Lee, began her career as a corporate lawyer before shifting into writing and producing. Through her previous company, Madstone, she worked with Disney Television Animation, Nickelodeon and Nick at Night and also produced the series That’s What I’m Talking About for TV Land. She is also the author of three children’s books as well as co-author of the novel Gotham Diaries.

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“Nikki and I like to have provocative, interesting conversations that push us to grow and evolve. I think in our work our desire is to make people think, to make people feel and to push the envelop a little bit,” Lewis Lee says of the traits that led the two to work together. “Even in something like Gallagher Girls that might seem so initially mainstream, I think the themes of girl empowerment and global inclusion are what really draw us to the work.”

Adds Silver of Tonik’s particular focus: “We do say we’re women, we’re mothers and we’re diverse, and I think in all the work that we do, you’ll find some element of those three things.”

They’ve also been drawn to novels as the basis for several of their projects. “From the moment we came together, all these projects that had been dormant really started coming to life,” Silver says. In the case of The Watsons, Silver had been developing the project for several years before asking Lewis Lee to take on writing the screenplay.

The Watsons is based on a 1995 historical novel by Christopher Paul Curtis. “It’s about an All-American, African-American family that travels from Flynt, Mich., down to Birmingham, Ala., in the summer of 1963,” says Lewis Lee. “They happen to be there when the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that kills the four little girls happens. The film is really about parents who are trying to protect their children from what’s happening in the civil rights movement, and yet they end up right in the middle of it.”

With Tonik’s Lewis Lee and Silver producing along with Philip Kleinbart, the film was directed by Kenny Leon and produced in partnership with Walden Media. It will air as part of Hallmark Channel’s new Friday night Walden Family Theater, presented in collaboration with Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Walden and ARC Entertainment.  

Tonik, in association with Bridges’ As Is production company, also is readying an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s young-adult novel The Giver for a late-September filming start. Phillip Noyce is directing the project, with Bridges starring; Walden and The Weinstein Co. are partnering to produce. Bridges, Silver and Neil Koeningsberg will be serving as producers.

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Says Silver of the book: “It’s the mother of all dystopian fiction. It’s the story of a boy in a futuristic utopian society, who is given the job of holding all the memories of the past. He starts to understand what the world has given up in order to attain this sameness and how emotions are really what make us human beings.”

Tonik’s slate also includes an adaptation of Walter Dean Myer’s young-adult novel, Monster, about a 16-year-old African-American boy jailed for murder, which Radha Blank is writing and which they hope to film as an indie in the spring; an adaptation of Lewis Lee’s own satirical novel Gotham Diaries, which she co-authored with Crystal McCrary Anthony; and an adaptation of Mary V. Dearborn’s Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, a biography of the celebrated art collector that Lewis Lee is adapting with Dan Friedman.