The passion of Philip Anschutz
Is the financier of Walden Media bringing a faith-based business model to Hollywood?
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Philip Anschutz had three things going against him when he started producing movies six years ago. First, the secretive billionaire financier was a major contributor to Republican candidates. That wasn't going to get him any invitations to George Clooney's dinner parties.
Second, he spent as little time in Hollywood as he could. He preferred Denver, where he lives in a fairly modest home - by billionaire standards - and attends the local Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Finally, Anschutz seemed determined to alienate the Spago crowd by lambasting the industry's business practices. He insisted that the studios were foolish for churning out edgy R-rated movies.
It wasn't just that Anschutz found so many of them morally objectionable. He argued that there was more money to be made in "uplifting" family films that could be marketed through grass-roots campaigns to teachers, librarians, and church groups. He added that they might even make a "small improvement in the culture."
When a billionaire arrives in Hollywood intent on making movies for reasons that aren't entirely financial, it usually ends in tears. He soon learns one of Hollywood's enduring lessons: The Sammy Glicks of the world prosper while outsiders go home with lighter wallets.
But as he's often done in the past, Anschutz has discovered an opportunity that others missed. This is a man who made his first big fortune as a wildcatter when he found a billion-barrel pocket of oil on a Utah farm that his competitors had already scoured.
He parlayed it into billions by getting into real estate (he owns the Staples Center in Los Angeles), telecommunications (he was the founder of Qwest (Research)), movie theaters (he controls Regal Entertainment (Research), the nation's largest cinema chain), and professional sports (he is co-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and owns five Major League Soccer teams).
Last year Anschutz's family-movie company, Walden Media, struck gold with "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," which it co-produced with Disney (Research). Adapted from C.S. Lewis's books about four British children who enter a magical world of witches and fauns, it has grossed $291 million domestically, making it the second-biggest movie released in 2005, after "Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith," according to Variety. Walden's success is even more impressive when you consider that overall movie attendance fell by 7 percent in 2005.
"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" wasn't Anschutz's first successful film. Bristol Bay, his grownup film division, produced the Academy Award-winning, PG-13-rated "Ray." But the financier has poured a lot more money into Walden. That's probably a smart move. The Narnia movie made far more money than the Ray Charles biography, in part because Walden targeted an audience that the industry has often ignored: evangelical Christians. Churchgoers flocked to "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" because the movie is full of Biblical allegory that Walden was careful not to trivialize. (Aslan, the lion, is a Jesus-like figure who dies and is resurrected before leading the forces of good to victory.)
"The faith community really rallied around this movie," says Paul Lauer, president of Motive Entertainment, who handled the outreach to those viewers for the film and did similar work on Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ." "That really had an impact at the box office."
Before the success of the Narnia movie, Hollywood's leading studio chiefs might have dismissed Anschutz as a well-heeled interloper from a flyover state. Now several studios are vying to buy half of Walden and turn it into their family-movie division.
"This is no longer in the casual-discussion phase," says David Weil, CEO of Anschutz Film Group, Walden's parent.
Such a deal would cement Anschutz's reputation as a Hollywood player. He would be able to ramp up Walden's production schedule and tap other people's money. Does that mean he will go native and start making R-rated movies?
It doesn't seem likely. Anschutz hasn't sat for an interview with a reporter since 1974. But he clearly believes he is answering a higher calling. In 2004 he gave a speech at Hillsdale College, a small, conservative school in Naples, Fla., in which he shed some light on why he got into the movie business in the first place. Part of the reason was that he was troubled by Hollywood's infatuation with sex, vulgar language, and violence.
"My wife and I now have a number of grandchildren who are growing up surrounded by products of this culture," Anschutz said. "So four or five years ago I decided to stop cursing the darkness."
Around the same time he decided to make movies, Anschutz met two kindred spirits: Cary Granat and Michael Flaherty, the founders of Walden Media. Granat was a former president of Miramax's Dimension division, where he oversaw the development of the "Scream" franchise. Flaherty was active in Boston educational circles and had ties to religious groups.
The two men were looking for funding to make movies that would offer children an alternative to the same corrosive popular culture that so bothered the financier. They also hoped to get kids to read more books.
Anschutz bankrolled Walden, later making it a division of the Anschutz Film Group. The Walden founders acquired the movie rights to popular children's books like "Holes," which had a strong moral message and a built-in fan base. Anschutz himself courted C.S. Lewis's step-son to get the rights to the Narnia books.
Granat, Walden's CEO, says that Anschutz is not trying to proselytize with "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." He acknowledges that churchgoers were a target audience for the film. So were a lot of other people, he adds. "The film has done phenomenally well in places as far-reaching as Malaysia and Israel and Indonesia that aren't as Christian as America." In other words, "'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' is for everyone."
"I don't think there is any secret agenda," says Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Studio. "It's all out in the open. Phil Anschutz wants to make really great movies that appeal to the widest possible audience and in some way uplift the human spirit."
In a certain sense, Anschutz is playing the same game that C.S. Lewis did with the Narnia books. Lewis, whose books contained Christian allegory but avoided dogma, was sometimes called the "apostle to the skeptics." Walden and Disney actively marketed "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" to evangelicals, giving advance screenings of the film to groups like Focus on the Family.
But Granat and Flaherty would much rather talk about their outreach efforts to teachers and librarians. After all, if you want to make big-budget movies with Christian themes, you won't strike gold unless you also sell tickets to Jews, Muslims, and atheists. And Walden hopes to make six more Narnia movies. Next up is "Prince Caspian," which will arrive in theaters just before Christmas in 2007.
Nevertheless, by turning into a trusted brand for the born-again crowd, Walden has succeeded in becoming that rare thing that Hollywood does revere: a franchise. Motive's Lauer says that even some of Walden's less overtly religious movies can be used by pastors to teach a moral lesson. He points to Walden's soon-to-be-released version of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web," with its themes of friendship, death, and renewal. It sounds as if we can expect another big opening weekend in December for Walden.
What better time for Anschutz to be shopping Walden around? In fact, with the success of the first Narnia movie and "The Passion of the Christ," the movie industry is pursuing Christians with a zeal it hasn't shown since the days of "The Ten Commandments."
"Every studio has a faith-based strategy now," says Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission. A few more blockbuster openings, and it may be only a matter of time before Phil Anschutz winds up at one of George Clooney's parties.
Devin Leonard, a senior writer at FORTUNE, can be reached at email@example.com.