Mitch Kaplan, the Coral Gables Entrepreneur who Turned Books & Books into a Community Institution, has Gone From the Small Print to the Big Screen
By Doreen Hemlock
Books & Books store owner Mitchell Kaplan was attending a conference in New York City when a well-known editor handed him a manuscript and asked, “How are we going to make this into a bestseller?” Kaplan read the novel, loved it, and saw potential for a great movie. He asked his sister, a TV producer, for help. She recommended a film-producer friend, Paula Mazur, who read the book and loved it too. Soon, the duo secured the option to make the World War II story into a film. A Hollywood studio quickly signed up, with big name talent to boot. Kaplan was thrilled, figuring the movie business must be easier than he’d ever imagined. Then, like so many Hollywood deals, it suddenly fell apart.
Now, nearly 10 years later, Kaplan and Mazur are set to debut the finished film this April in London, based on the now best-selling novel they optioned, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” It’s a widely anticipated premiere in the United Kingdom, backed by Europe’s Studio Canal, directed by Mike Newell of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” fame, and starring Lily James, known for her roles in “Downton Abbey” and “Darkest Hour.”
For Kaplan, a fervent movie fan as well as a lifelong lover of books, the London debut is a sign of how far he has come in the filmmaking business. The movie is actually the second theatrical release for he and Mazur, following the November debut of “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” That film, based on a book by South Florida’s Les Standiford about how author Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” featured actor Christopher Plummer (best known as the father in “The Sound of Music”) as Ebenezer Scrooge. The movie met critical success, earning an 80 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes from both critics and viewers. In all, the partners have more than a dozen books now under option that they aim to turn into movies or TV series.
For Kaplan, film offers yet another powerful channel to connect audiences with writers. For decades, the South Florida native has been building communities with authors, both as the owner of the independent Books & Books stores (which host more than 500 writers yearly) and as co-founder of the Miami Book Fair International (now the country’s largest literary festival). But film requires far more costly, complex and timely collaboration, the booklover has learned.
The biggest challenge in film is everything…Books & Books owner, Mitchell Kaplan
“The biggest challenge in film is everything,” Kaplan said with a laugh during a chat at his flagship Coral Gables store. “You can have someone putting up the money, but you’re not finding the right director or the right actors. Or you find them, and something is taking too long, so you lose them because of their window of opportunity. Anything collaborative like that is challenging. Just look at sports teams or our government.” Kaplan seems to take the obstacles in stride. Modest with the passion of an eternal college student, he emphasizes the joy of working with creative people on projects they all believe in. He’s quick to honor his teammates, calling Mazur “brilliant” and Guernsey co-producer Graham Broadbent “the sweetest guy.”
“At this point, I really believe that the journey is more important usually than anything else. I do things because I enjoy them, so I surround myself with people I really like, who share the same vision,” he says. “I know it takes a village to make things happen.” As book-to-film producers, The Mazur/Kaplan Company handles the gamut of what it takes to make things happen. But it partners with others on tasks that can run from finding funds to selecting talent and securing distribution. Guernsey co-producer Broadbent, for example, came with a string of credits that included the Exotic Marigold Hotel series and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which just won Oscars for best leading actress and best supporting actor.
As for Mazur, she was intrigued when Kaplan approached her and said, “I read books that I think might make good movies.” She’d been producing films mainly from plays and books, working independently, without steady partners. She figured Guernsey was a one-off project, but she and Kaplan bonded. She likes his literary taste, how fast he learns, and above all, his ethics in what can be a “back-stabbing” industry. “He never pretends to know what he doesn’t know, which I’m not used to in this business,” said Mazur, chuckling.
The Mazur/Kaplan Company has developed a blueprint for choosing books to option among thousands they peruse, including many Kaplan gets months or even years before publication. The four-member team looks for a distinctive story that “we would want to spend the years that it takes to get it made,” says Kaplan. Just as importantly, they determine “if there’s a path to get it made – if we can really find the necessary collaboration and resources to bring it to the screen,” he says. “It’s what I’ve done in buying for the store, where it doesn’t quite matter what it is, as long as it’s elevated, not snobby, and it hits its mark in what it’s trying to do.”
THE VIRTUE OF PATIENCE
The partners’ first theatrical release took eight years to complete. Les Standiford, the South Florida author of 23 books who leads the creative writing program at Florida International University, waited patiently for the film version of his novel, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” which portrays how Charles Dickens quickly wrote and self-published “A Christmas Carol” to keep his family from bankruptcy. The project passed through various hands in Hollywood, Canada and English TV before becoming an independent production shot in Ireland. “I never thought there’d be a movie about a book about a guy writing a book anyway,” Standiford joked.
Kaplan’s budding success in film doesn’t surprise Standiford. He recalls meeting Mitchell almost 40 years ago when Kaplan was opening Books & Books and already had grand plans for a book fair “that was going to close down all central Miami,” he says. “Five hundred authors were going to come, and there would be a street fair and cooking demonstrations and on and on. And this was 1981, mind you. I saw a lot of guys driving fast-boats with their shirts open and their navels showing. I didn’t see a lot of people reading in Miami, and all I could think was, ‘Mitchell, I hope you know what you are getting into.’”
Standiford left town and returned in 1985 to find the bookstore flourishing and the book fair a reality. “That told me that when Mitchell Kaplan decides that something is worth doing, then he’s going to make it happen. He has that kind of drive and possesses a charisma that makes other people buy into his vision.”
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” showed in some 800 cinemas at its peak and could become a holiday staple on TV. Standiford hopes the movie will encourage producers to turn more of his books into films and present his stories to wider audiences. But there is a caveat: Standiford wants good films made, like Mazur/Kaplan’s. An earlier movie of his book “Spill” made by a different group left him embarrassed. That action film never got the big budget it needed, so “watching Spill is sort of like staring into the sun for 103 minutes. That’s how bad it is,” Standiford said. In contrast, he proudly touts the Christmas film as a calling card for folks who’ve never read his books. Of course, some of Mazur/Kaplan’s projects may never reach the big screen. On his last trip to California, Kaplan met with Netflix, Hulu and Apple streaming services to explore film and TV ventures. He’d earlier worried about movies debuting online without cinema releases but has since reconsidered. Netflix recently premiered a film it financed called “Bright” and racked up 11 million viewers within days. Had that movie been in theaters, its numbers would likely have made it the highest-grossing release that weekend. “The world is changing,” says Kaplan. “So, we are adapting.”
Kaplan’s push into film – on top of work for some half-dozen book stores, several cafes and the annual book fair – might stress out others. But the 63-year-old says he learned long ago when opening a store in the Cayman Islands “how to delegate and allow people to run things in a style of their own, with me giving them direction.” When things get hectic, he tries to slow them down and dissect the problems. To stay sharp, he keeps up with news, exercises to music, and watches what he eats: “I’ve been a vegetarian, but I eat fish. I call myself a stone crab-atarian. I could not live without stone crabs.” To relax, he often types out poems he likes on one of the manual typewriters he collects. He also keeps scores of poems on his cellphone, including William Carlos Williams’ Winter Trees: “All the complicated details of the attiring and the disattiring are completed! …the wise trees stand sleeping in the cold,” he reads aloud.
Kaplan says he doesn’t measure success in his ventures only in dollars. He finds value in building communities, especially where writers and audiences connect. And though he’ll do the business tasks required, like pushing publishers for discounts and sticking to budgets, “I’m not a business person per se,” he says. “I grew up thinking that being an artist and being an author was the highest calling you could have. When I realized that I wasn’t going to be a writer, maybe I transferred that creative edge into the producer in me – being a producer of spaces, events, films, book stores and book festivals.”