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BANFF, ALBERTA – The 1908 Canadian kids novel Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, which sold 50 million copies worldwide, long revealed Canada’s reputation as a gentle nation with a giant sense of fair play.
Many a girlish heart over the last century swooned when the story of spunky, red-haired orphan Anne Shirley finding a home on Prince Edward Island was adapted into plays and musicals, cartoons, films and TV shows, each depicting an inviting and sunny place and time.
Even the Disney Channel bought into the heart-warming portrayal of small-town Canadiana when it acquired the Anne of Green Gables-spin off drama Avonlea from indie producer Sullivan Entertainment when it had the TV rights to the classic literary franchise during the 1980s and 1990s.
So it came as quite some surprise in July 1999 when Montgomery’s granddaughter, Kate Macdonald Butler, called a surprise Toronto press conference to go public with a long and bitter fight with Sullivan Entertainment over the size of the Anne of Green Gables TV pie.
“It’s not only a dispute over money, it’s a dispute over respect for this author who has created these Canadian classics,” Butler told Canadians at the time, painting a sharp contrast between a beloved national institution in her grandmother and the predatory world of Canadian TV.
And it was about money, as the claims and counter-claims of the nasty profit dispute led Sullivan Entertainment, run by Kevin Sullivan and Trudy Grant, in fall 1999 to pull plans for a lucrative Toronto Stock Exchange listing and to sue the Montgomery heirs for slander.
“I have to admit, I am gun-shy,” Butler told The Hollywood Reporter after unveiling plans to produce a new 13-episode Anne of Green Gables TV drama with Canadian indie producer Breakthrough Entertainment.
“It’s not pleasant to be in litigation. It’s over, it’s a long time ago,” she added, with her legal dispute with the Sullivans now past and the TV rights to Anne of Green Gables back in the Montgomery family hands.
The new Anne of Green Gables drama is set for production in summer 2013 in the Canadian Maritimes, with the first co-production partners likely to be in place by the time the project is rolled out to potential international buyers at MIPCOM.
Breakthrough, working closely with Butler and the Montgomery family heirs, plans a contemporary take on the 1908-era spirited redhead.
“They (Breakthrough) get it. They’re interested in my involvement. I’m so pleased about that and so we move on,” Butler said.
As president of L.M. Montgomery Inc., Butler oversees all exploitation of the Anne of Green Gables franchise, including publishing, film and TV and merchandising ventures.
For Breakthrough principal Peter Williamson, the focus is on collaboration with the Montgomery family.
“For us, It’s a tremendous opportunity to work with Kate, to bring this fantastic character to the television screen,” Williamson said.
“Anne’s a very contemporary spirit, she’s an independent thinker and a inspiration to girls around the world,” he added.
It helps that Butler and Breakthrough executive producer Joan Lambur have known each other since bumping into one another more than 30 years ago at a grade 9 party in high school.
“We instantly liked each other,” Butler recalled.
“I had red hair, and I sure wasn’t fitting in,” Lambur jokes, echoing the trials of Anne Shirley coming of age in Montgomery’s original book series by winning everyone over to her side.
Lambur added the up-dated Anne of Green Gables TV drama will portray more than a quaint community, as it becomes peopled by immigrants who know financial struggle, much like the Edwardian age Montgomery grew up in.
“Anne comes from a different background. She’s had to find it in herself to succeed and get along and make her way, and the while do so with dignity and with class,” Lambur said of a contemporary Anne of Green Gables series.
“The goal is to create a new Anne for a modern-day and really present her in a more global perspective,” she added.
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