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Walden Media moving into a new phase

May 1st, 2006 by Paul Martin

The folks at Walden Media figured they really arrived when the irreverent comedians of “Saturday Night Live” did a rap called “Lazy Sunday – The Chronic of Narnia.”

SNL’s Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell map out a faux hip plan to sneak cupcakes into a theater showing of “The Chronicles of Narnia” in a skit that was a huge hit online. It also drew belly laughs from Walden executives.

“That’s when I knew we had reached a new level,” Walden co-founder Michael Flaherty says.

On the heels of the successful “Chronicles of Narnia” film epic last year, Walden is moving into a new phase by not only starting a book publishing arm but exploring a potential joint venture or partnership with studios.

Under the still-developing concept, Walden would become a branded company that would distribute virtually all its film products – all family friendly – through a particular studio.

Current management, including Denver billionaire owner Philip Anschutz, would remain in control. Anschutz has made a fortune in myriad areas – telecommunications, oil, railroads, sports teams, newspapers and theaters, including Regal Entertainment. He formed the Anschutz Film Group to help produce family-friendly fare.

“Money is coming to look for us,” confirmed David Weil, chief executive officer of the film group, an umbrella company over Walden. “We’ve been approached by a large number of potential studio partners and potential investment banks.”

Weil said he and other executives were talking with some studios and having “more serious” discussions with just a couple. He declined to identify the suitors, but said it “simply would be easier” with a single studio partner to handle distribution.

With offices in Los Angeles and Boston, Walden is the brainchild of Cary Granat, a former president of Miramax Films’ Dimension label – which produced “Scary Movie,” “Scream” and “Spy Kids” films – and Flaherty, a Boston educator.

The two shared a vision to make films without violence, sex or profanity. They have tapped educators and librarians in their search for material, offering school activity guides and getting students involved through special movie showings and interactive events with authors, producers and stars.

Flaherty and Granat spent a year shopping their concept to skeptical venture capitalists before they met Anschutz, who has a knack for turning undervalued assets into moneymakers. The result was Anschutz Film Group, which also owns Bristol Bay Productions, best known for “Ray,” based on Ray Charles’ life. The umbrella company, reportedly formed in 2004, is privately held and does not release financial results.

“What we’re trying to do and focus on is really establish Walden as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval kind of brand,” Weil said. “If they see that name on a film, it will be instant recognition and instant trust and the knowledge that the quality of the product will be of the sort that is beyond question.”

Early Walden movies include James Cameron’s documentary about diving to the wreck of the Titanic, called “Ghosts of the Abyss,” which spawned a nationwide robotics contest for youths. “Because of Winn-Dixie,” the story of a girl who learns about friendship through a dog named after the grocery chain, led to a children’s reading program.

There have been some disappointments (“Around the World in 80 Days”) but the outstanding success has been “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” based on the book by C.S. Lewis. It has earned at least $730 million in both domestic and international release and even more in DVD sales.

Walden and partner Walt Disney Co. targeted a general audience but also spent some time and money courting church groups and religious organizations. Many believe Lewis’ Narnia series includes Christian allusions.

Granat said it’s difficult to say how much of “Narnia’s” financial success can be credited to faith-based marketing because the books already had a following among religious groups.

He said about 5 percent to 6 percent of the marketing budget was earmarked for Christian groups and an additional 5 percent to 6 percent was put into the educational outreach programs.

The success of movies such as “Narnia” and Twentieth-Century Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” encourages others to try the family film genre, said Harold Vogel of Vogel Capital Management, a New York-based investment firm. “It’s like anything else, it has to be done well, it has to tickle the audience.”

Walden already has started work on a sequel called “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” which is based on the third book in the C.S. Lewis series. It’s scheduled to be in theaters by the end of 2007.

Next month, it will release “Hoot,” based on a book by Carl Hiaasen that tells the story of children who prevent developers from building a restaurant on a Florida parcel inhabited by owls. Walden partnered with the National Wildlife Federation on family programs centered on owls and interaction with the outdoors. It also will release “Charlotte’s Web,” from E.B. White’s book, in December.

In a partnership with Penguin Group USA Inc., Walden also will begin publishing books targeted at young people. One of its first projects is a book about the college career of All-American Jim Thorpe.

Laura Martin, an analyst with Soleil-Media Metrics, expects the trend to grow, not only for family films but for those with Christian themes a la “Narnia,” Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” and the “The Da Vinci Code.”

“Any time you seen big numbers you’re going to get duplications from other studios,” she said.

Seattle PI