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News / Life / Entertainment

Coming-of-age tales like ‘Percy Jackson’ getting live-action TV moment

By Christi Carras, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 16, 2024, 6:05am

LOS ANGELES — While co-creating the live-action TV adaptation of the magical children’s book series “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” for Disney+, Jon Steinberg looked to several classic films starring plucky young heroes for inspiration.

“There were a lot,” Steinberg said, rattling off titles including 1986’s “Flight of the Navigator,” 1985’s “The Goonies” and 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

“That was a genre that I felt like I was frequently, constantly exposed to as a kid. … It’s not talking down to kids in any way. It’s just talking to everybody. And that was sort of the unmeetable ambition that we set out for the show.”

When asked about live-action TV series that informed his approach to “Percy Jackson,” however, Steinberg drew a blank.

“I don’t know that I’d ever quite seen anything like this” on TV, he said.

“Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is among a growing number of epic, coming-of-age stories that are finally getting the live-action TV treatment in the streaming era. For decades, the tween demographic — too old for “Sesame Street” and “Bluey” (rated TV-Y) but not quite old enough for “Stranger Things” and the original “Gossip Girl” (rated TV-14) — has turned to books, animated series and their movie adaptations for larger-than-life storytelling designed specifically for them.

TV was where preteens got their live-action fix of lighthearted, multi-camera sitcoms such as “iCarly” and “Zoey 101” on Nickelodeon or “Lizzie McGuire” and “That’s So Raven” on Disney Channel. Live-action adaptations of world-building, tween-facing intellectual property such as “Percy Jackson,” “Harry Potter” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” were mostly reserved for the big screen.

That’s starting to change.

All three of those properties, which had previously been adapted into live-action feature films — to mixed results — are now getting a second life on the small screen over a decade later.

Executives and creatives offered some insight as to what has triggered this resurgence.

For starters, the visual technology needed to convincingly translate these grandiose sagas to live action has “become so much more advanced and so much less expensive” in recent years, said Jabbar Raisani, an executive producer and director on Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” He also credits fantasy sensation “Game of Thrones” with awakening studios to TV’s full potential as a storytelling medium.

As TV has evolved, audiences’ viewing habits and tastes have become more voracious and sophisticated. And children are no exception, added Ayo Davis, president of branded television at Disney.

“These streaming platforms are giving everyone the ability to be more expansive and ambitious in the way that these stories are being told,” Davis said.

“Pulling from these epic tales that are filled with these big heroic adventures is something that can touch [kids] in a meaningful way. And having the ability to do it right on a platform that can reach a global audience simultaneously is really key.”

Based on Rick Riordan’s 2005 novel “The Lightning Thief” inspired by Greek mythology, the first season of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” (TV-PG) follows the 12-year-old demigod son of Poseidon on a dangerous quest to return Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt and restore peace to Mount Olympus.

Following its premiere on Dec. 19, the pilot episode amassed 26.2 million views in its first three weeks on Disney+ and Hulu, according to the company. The entire debut season has racked up more than 110 million hours streamed, reflecting a demand among young audiences for big-budget, live-action TV adaptations. (Reports have speculated that “Percy Jackson” cost between $12 million and $15 million per episode. Disney declined to comment on its budgets.)

It appears that companies such as Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery — which recently reaffirmed that it is moving forward with a live-action “Harry Potter” series set to debut on Max in 2026 — are willing to spend big bucks on immersive kids programming despite Wall Street pressure to cut costs in other areas.

That’s because when they work, they have crossover appeal for parents and nostalgic adults eager to reconnect with their childhood heroes.

Research firm Parrot Analytics found that since 2020, the demand for young-adult shows has consistently surpassed supply, suggesting that such a content space is “ripe for further investment,” according to Parrot strategist Brandon Katz.

During its monthlong run, the freshman season of “Percy Jackson” was roughly 19 times more in demand than any other show that aired in that window, landing it in the top 2.7 percent of series in terms of overall engagement, the research firm found. Disney in February announced it would stream a second season.

“It is arguably Disney+’s biggest hit — and perhaps their most important hit — outside of the Star Wars, Marvel universes,” Katz said. “The fact that they were able to get a live-action series that wasn’t in the Star Wars and Marvel universes to reach such heights bodes well for them moving forward.”

The new “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (TV-PG) has shown early promise as well. The latest live-action take on the acclaimed animated series — created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for Nickelodeon in the early 2000s — was 11.7 times more in demand than the average TV show in the month leading up to its debut, Parrot Analytics said.

Since it arrived Feb. 22 on Netflix, the show — which centers on a powerful 12-year-old who must master the elements of fire, water, earth and air in order to save the world — has racked up more than 21.2 million views and claimed the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s Global Top 10 English TV list, the streamer reported.

Despite their substantial built-in fan bases, costly live-action re-imaginings of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Percy Jackson” were still a bit of a gamble for the studios — if the previous film attempts are any indication.

M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” (2010) was poorly received by fans and critics. And though Chris Columbus’ “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” (also 2010) got a sequel and didn’t provoke the same level of vitriol, it came nowhere close to reaching the status of Columbus’ first “Harry Potter” film.

Adapting the stories into a different live-action medium gave the “Percy Jackson” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” showrunners a chance to make different choices than the filmmakers did. This time around, for instance, the child actors who play the main trio in “Percy Jackson” match the ages of the kids in the books — unlike the movie, which aged characters up a few years.

Steinberg said that while it’s easy to understand the instinct to avoid certain production complications that come with casting younger actors, “everything changes the moment you’re in a teen story instead of a preteen, adolescent story.”

“It just didn’t feel like it was gonna be honest if it wasn’t coming out of the voice of a kid,” Steinberg said.

Raisani also pointed out that streaming platforms permit creatives to take the time they need to finish and fine-tune all the episodes before the season is released. In linear TV, a season of a show typically begins airing before all of the episodes are filmed and completed.

Because the series was made for streaming, Raisani explained, the “Avatar” team had the “luxury” of being able to go back and tweak earlier episodes — a key advantage when working on an ambitious project with a complex story and heavy visual effects.

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For example, Raisani said that a digital double of the high-flying protagonist, Aang, wasn’t ready by the time “Avatar” started filming. So they blocked out certain scenes during production and inserted the digital replica after the fact.

“That’s the benefit of working in a nonlinear delivery platform,” Raisani said.

Like linear TV, movies have their limitations too.

The makers of Paramount Pictures’ “The Last Airbender” and 20th Century Fox’s “The Lightning Thief “ were tasked with condensing several hours and hundreds of pages worth of content respectively into feature-length films.

The eight-episode seasons of the new “Percy Jackson” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” enabled the creators to cover significantly more ground and potentially deliver more faithful interpretations of the source material.

“There were so many episodes, and there was that depth of character exploration from the original animation,” said Peter Friedlander, head of scripted series at Netflix.