Start with the heart of an educator, add a love for film and a pinch of entrepreneurial verve, and then season the mix with a dynamic faith. What do you get? Walden Media president, Micheal Flaherty. The 38-year-old film executive lives out his Christian commitment by making the kind of movies that are starting to give Hollywood a good name.
Since Flaherty co-founded Walden five years ago, the media company has been busy making movies about family and faith. Its credits include Holes (2003), Around the World in 80 Days (2004), Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), and the recent mega-hit The Chronicles of Narnia (2005). Walden’s latest releases include the hit adaptations of the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and The Bridge to Terabithia, and Amazing Grace, about the life of famed British abolitionist William Wilberforce.
In an industry skittish about portraying religious themes, Flaherty is bucking the trend. “We’re after great stories,” he says. “And we find that a key element of a great story is faith.” The pictures Walden creates also reflect Flaherty’s proactive approach to changing the culture. “Better to light a candle,” Flaherty says, “than to curse the darkness.”
An Educator’s Heart
Darkness cursing was never Flaherty’s thing. Before working in Hollywood he was an educator whose creative initiatives opened up opportunities for minority children. In his native Boston Flaherty designed a program that increased the enrollment of minority students at elite prep schools by over one thousand percent, prompting The Boston Globe to deem him “an entrepreneur in education.” He also co-founded the Frederick Douglass Charter School, and helped write a grant that garnered the organization $15 million.
When Flaherty transitioned to Hollywood, he wasn’t abandoning his educational vision; he was just finding a louder voice. The Columbine tragedy of 1999 had a major impact on his spiritual and professional life. The faith of young victims like Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott, who both professed their faith in Christ before being killed, prompted Flaherty to examine his own relationship with God.
Though raised in a Catholic family, Flaherty questioned the depth of his dedication in light of the students’ compelling example. “I had this Christian language,” he remembers, “but I really wondered if I had that type of commitment.” Flaherty also noted something else about Columbine. There was a significant difference between the kind of movies favored by the tragedy’s perpetrators and victims. While Cassie and Rachel loved wholesome films, the gunmen preferred dark flicks like Natural Born Killers.
This revelation inspired Flaherty to make movies that would positively influence youth. He contacted his old college roommate Cary Granat who, at the time, was president of Dimension Films. Granat caught Flaherty’s vision, and Walden Media was born.
Combining education with entertainment, most of Walden’s films are adaptations of well-known novels. It is Flaherty’s hope to provide librarians, teachers, pastors, and parents with resources for teaching kids positive, and even biblical, values.
Narnia, an adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, has been Walden’s most successful project to date. There was a veritable whirlwind of activity surrounding the movie’s release. Flaherty remembers showing the film to Prince Charles and Laura Bush (they loved it). He talks about the immense pressure he felt from Lewis lovers to “get it right,” and then the overwhelmingly positive response to what most saw as a faithful adaptation. Flaherty relished the experience. “It was awesome!” he says. Yet he’s quick to deflect praise. “Lewis wrote a great book, and [Andrew] Adamson is a great director. I can’t take much credit.”