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Hollywood eyes Phil Anschutz’s film company

May 1st, 2006 by Paul Martin

Hollywood movie studios are vying to buy part of Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz’s family-oriented Walden Media LLC movie company.

Such a deal would solidify Anschutz’s reputation in Hollywood and mean millions more in capital for Walden, according to movie-industry experts. It would give the studio buying into Walden an entry into the family-movie business.

Walden is a “hot property” since the success of its 2005 movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

The film, based on the C.S. Lewis novel of the same name, cost $180 million to make and has grossed more than $739 million worldwide, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. “Narnia” was last year’s second-most successful movie behind the last “Star Wars” installment, “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” which has grossed $849 million total.

Los Angeles-based Walden makes “uplifting” movies that appeal to families, including “Narnia,” “Holes” (2003) and the Jackie Chan version of “Around the World in 80 Days” (2004). It’s headed by CEO Cary Granat and President Michael Flaherty, who were roommates at Tufts University and visited writer Henry David Thoreau’s retreat, Walden Pond.

Executives at Walden and its parent company, Anschutz Film Group (AFG), declined comment this week about any deal involving Walden, according to spokesman Ryan Chingcuangco.

But AFG CEO David Weil recently told Forbes magazine that interest in Walden by other studios has gone beyond “the casual-discussion phase.” He didn’t specify which studios are courting the company, or how much a partial sale might be worth.

Other recent studio transactions have been worth millions and even billions of dollars. They range from Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.’s acquisition of Artisan Entertainment for $210 million in late 2003 to Walt Disney Co.’s $7.4 billion purchase early this year of Pixar Animation Studios Inc.

Any discussions by AFG and Walden about a deal remain preliminary, according to a person familiar with the discussions. But if a partial sale occurs, Walden won’t change its family and educational orientation.

“I’d pretty much bet Anschutz won’t give up control of Walden,” said Rod Buxton, associate professor of mass communications at the University of Denver.

Studios forming partnerships has become more commonplace, as production costs have risen. Hollywood movies now cost an average of $70 million, according to Business Week magazine.

“The costs of production are exorbitant,” Buxton said. “Nobody wants to take that risk entirely by themselves.