- Associated Press - Saturday, January 13, 2018

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - A big-hearted bull changed Lisa Marie Stetler’s life. The Waverly native and Abington Heights graduate was a 30-something aspiring writer and struggling film producer in Los Angeles in 1996 when she fell in love with “The Story of Ferdinand.”

The short children’s book, published in 1936, tells the tale of a bull who would much rather sniff flowers than fight. Its message of love and acceptance made it a timeless classic that’s still in publication today.

“I read the book and I immediately saw it as a movie,” said Stetler. “I knew I was supposed to do this.”

It took nearly 22 years - and 183 rejections - but the journey led her to the Golden Globes in Hollywood, where the film she helped produce, “Ferdinand,” was nominated for best animated film and best original song.

“It’s a dream come true for me,” Stetler said in a phone interview from her home in Pacific Palisades, California. “I had no idea it would get this much attention when I went after this story.”

Her parents, Larry and Dorothy Stetler of Waverly, said they’re elated by her success.

“She’s had some hard knocks,” Larry Stetler said. “She started with nothing and worked for 22 years. Now she’s finally made it.”

Set in Spain, the movie focuses on the adventures of Ferdinand, a lovable lug who is the antithesis of the fierce beasts that entertain humans in the country’s popular bullfights. His life changes one day when, while sniffing a flower, he is stung by a bee and thrashes around wildly.

A famed matador sees him, mistakes him for a vicious beast and carts him away to bullfighting camp. Ferdinand is determined to return to the home of the loving farmer and his daughter who raised him. The movie follows him as he meets a team of misfits who help him with his journey.

A 1981 graduate of Abington Heights High School, Stetler has no training in animation or filmmaking. She never imagined she would be a movie producer. After graduating from Bucknell University in 1985 with a degree in economics, she moved to California in 1987, intent on pursuing an advertising career.

To pay bills, she took a job as a temporary worker for Geffen Records, then as an assistant to president of production for its movie division. That position provided a inside look at various aspects of the film industry.

She was hooked.

In the ensuing years, she worked as a production coordinator or producer’s assistant on various films and television shows. It was a demanding and unpredictable career with many periods of unemployment as she bounced from project to project.

Then, one fateful day in 1996, her mother sent her a book, “Robert Francis Weatherbee,” a story by Munro Leaf about a boy who refuses to go to school. Stetler said she was enamored of the writing and went to a library in search of Leaf’s other books.

The librarian told her about “The Story of Ferdinand.”

The book is a beloved classic. Walt Disney studios adapted it into a short animated film in 1938. Stetler had a much grander vision for the work.

First, she had to acquire the legal rights to the copyrighted work. With the help of a friend, she located one of Leaf’s heirs and negotiated a deal. Then the real work began.

“It was trial and tribulations for the next 13 years,” Stetler said. “I was pitching it to agents, to actors, to studio executives. … No one could see how an 800-word book could become a movie.”

Stetler continued to work as a production coordinator. The long hours made it tough to work on marketing “Ferdinand,” so in 2001 she made another fateful decision.

“I knew I was either going to sacrifice it all and focus on ‘Ferdinand,’ or go back to production work and work 60, 80, 90 hours a week,” she said.

For the next seven years she supported herself primarily by walking dogs.

The big break came in August 2008.

“I got a call from Fox. They said they had a director interested,” she said.

That director turned out to be Carlos Saldanha, one of the top animated film directors in the world whose credits include “Rio” and several of the “Ice Age” films. It would take another nine years, including four to five years of film production, to complete the movie.

It’s been a whirlwind year for Stetler, who says she’s overwhelmed by the critical and financial success of the film. Released in U.S. theatres Dec. 15 by 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios, Ferdinand had grossed $143 million in sales as of last week, compared to its $111 million production cost.

One of five producers, Stetler’s key role was in obtaining the rights to the story and convincing the studio to commit to the film. She credits Saldanha and the team of writers and animators for transforming the short story into the critically acclaimed film it became.

“I brought it forward. These people had a vision and took it far beyond what I could ever hope for,” she said.

She said she is also eternally grateful to the Fox studio executive who shared her vision.

“I owe her a big debt of gratitude. She brought me into Fox when no one else would let me in the door,” she said.

She hopes the success and critical acclaim of “Ferdinand” will open doors for her other projects. She’s currently developing a situation comedy for TV, a live action movie and two animated features. The live action film and one of the animated films are set in Pennsylvania.

She also authored a children’s book, which, much like “Ferdinand,” has been rejected by numerous publishing companies.

Of course, she’s determined not to let that stop her. She is now working with illustrators and will self-publish the book, if necessary, she said.

“I love being underestimated and that person that’s been written off,” she said. “That’s when people don’t see you coming.”





Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/

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