As Walden Media prepares to find a new partner for its “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, the family-friendly mini-studio finds itself at a crossroads.
Founded in 2001 by billionaire financier Phil Anschutz and Cary Granat, the company has faced a number of significant hiccups in the past 12 months, culminating with Disney extracting itself from the “Narnia” relationship last month.
In November, Granat left the company, leaving Michael Bostick in charge of what had become a moribund development slate. That news came on the heels of the much-hyped Fox Walden marketing venture being shuttered as a standalone company. It was reabsorbed as an inhouse unit of 20th Century Fox’s marketing division.
On top of all that, some in town mistakenly believe Walden has stopped greenlighting films.
It’s hard to conceive Anschutz giving Walden a red light, given that he’s ideally positioned to be a major player in the movie biz thanks to his ownership of an extensive chain of movie theaters, like the movie moguls of old.
So, has Walden become Hollywood’s version of Narnia – a place where it’s always winter but never Christmas?
Not so, insist Walden insiders and many of those who work closely with the company.
“We are as enthusiastic and as committed as we’ve ever been,” says Anschutz Film Group CEO David Weil. “(This month), six scripts will be completed, with one or more likely being greenlit shortly.”
Weil says the development slowdown is temporary and just a natural result of a regime change.
“Michael (Bostick) has taken a hard look at the slate, and a number of the projects were not as commercially sound as we would like,” says Weil, who describes many of the scripts as one-quadrant and two-quadrant films.
One producer who has worked frequently with Walden says things have changed at the company in the past year but attributes that to the shifting economic landscape.
“It is a different company than the company Cary was running; now they are a lot more selective,” the producer says. “But everyone is being much more judicious or circumspect in what they develop.”
Like Walden, Disney is also re-evaluating what kinds of movies it wants to invest in. After crunching the “Prince Caspian” numbers ? the film grossed slightly more than half of the $700 million “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” took in ? the Mouse House decided to bail.
But sources close to the franchise say Disney and Walden’s relationship actually soured over release date issues. Walden blamed Disney for slotting “Prince Caspian” in the shark-infested waters of May rather than a holiday-season berth and was looking to avoid the same scenario for follow-up pic “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
“Disney didn’t like having a pushy partner like Walden and the C.S. Lewis estate,” says one “Narnia” insider. “Disney doesn’t really work with partners, and they don’t like ones who dictate release dates and marketing campaigns.”
But “Narnia” producer Mark Johnson says “Prince Caspian” is simply the least commercially viable story in the seven-title series.
“We may have made a mistake in doing ‘Prince Caspian’ as the second one,” he says. “Unfortunately, ‘Prince Caspian’ is one of the lesser-liked books. We also made a slightly more adult, darker story, and we shouldn’t have.”
The good news for Walden: The series’ third book, “Dawn Treader,” is perhaps the most beloved of the “Narnia” books.
Furthermore, the most important fan is still enamored of the franchise. Walden insiders insist that the reclusive Anschutz, who almost never gives interviews, is still very much committed to “Narnia,” as well as the rest of Walden’s slate.