Hollywood turns a page
The movie company behind 'The Chronicles of Narnia' views films as a powerful tool for inspiring kids to read.
LOS ANGELES — Micheal Flaherty is a man on a mission, one that began humbly enough, with an ice-filled sink in a blue-collar suburb of Boston. Mr. Flaherty, now president of Walden Media, the unconventional film company behind "The Chronicles of Narnia," was teaching a weekend exam prep class for poor students. "The real challenge there was to get their attention on a Saturday morning," he says of that day in 1997.
The sub-zero water played a key role when he realized the kids would spark to topics they already liked. "Titanic" fever was raging at the multiplexes as he was struggling to bring a science section to life. One of his pupils wanted to know just how cold that ocean was and plunged his arm in that chilly sink. From there, the class headed to a museum and then the library for more books about the tragic event.
That "ah-ha" moment made Flaherty think about how movies can be used as educational tools. Though he'd never set foot on a movie set, the New Englander took his idea to Hollywood and staked a company on the idea. Launched in 2003 with two mild hits ("Holes," "Because of Winn Dixie") and one big flop ("Around the World in 80 Days"), Walden has embarked on its biggest venture yet with "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which opens Friday.
The film could position Walden Media as a major player with a mission unique among profit-minded production companies: It wants movies to inspire young adults to read.
"People always think that media is working at odds with reading and living the examined life," says Flaherty, who says he believes the opposite is true. "We think education and entertainment feed each other."
The company's bold ideas are backed by serious money. Flaherty parlayed personal connections into a hearing with billionaire philanthropist Philip Anschutz. The Denver oilman is well known for not talking to the press ("He hasn't given an interview in 30 years," says one company representative), but in a 2004 speech he said that he wanted to make "some small improvement in the culture."
Flaherty has developed what he considers a winning formula through trial and error: Work closely with those who know this age group - such as teachers, librarians, and authors - and stay true to the source material. Then tap those communities to support the films when they come out.
For his first venture, 2003's "Holes," a dark film about a teen in a corrupt youth-correctional facility, Walden commissioned its author, Louis Sachar, to present a writing seminar for some 20,000 students. The event was beamed from the Staples Center (owned by Mr. Anschutz) in Los Angeles to the attendees in Regal Theaters across the US (also owned by Anschutz). Walden Media used a similar strategy with "Winn-Dixie." But Flaherty admits they strayed with "Around the World in 80 Days," deferring to those who wanted to showcase the talents of its star, Jackie Chan. "That book wasn't at the top of the list of books recommended to us by librarians," he says. "We started to see a correlation there."
Now, with "Narnia," Walden has sent out educational materials, including 90,000 copies of the novel, to "every" elementary and middle school in America. It has also replaced old copies of the book in more than 200 libraries. But most important, to avoid the impression that the company is merely soliciting commercial tie-ins, it has engaged educators in developing their own materials. "Even with our full-time education staff, we can only produce a couple of guides or programs," says the Walden chief.
Not everyone is as optimistic about Walden's mission as Flaherty. "The history of Hollywood is full of outsiders with deep pockets who thought they could come and make movies and succeed somehow where the studios had failed," says film historian Joseph McBride. Beyond that, some naysayers suggest that Walden Media is living in a fantasy world. "It's a wonderful and noble goal, but I think it's doomed to failure," says Ray Greene, documentarian and film critic. "How many kids in the real world are going to see these films and then read the book versus demanding the DVD and watching that over and over again?"
But early (albeit utterly anecdotal) evidence suggests the company may have found an overlooked mother lode. Celebrated authors such as Carl Hiaasen to Kate DiCamillo are lining up to work on upcoming projects, while educators are using the Walden materials as a jumping-off point for their own projects. Walden has further demonstrated its interest in the educational process with its emphasis on science and math-themed projects such as "Aliens of the Deep," directed by James Cameron.
Walden hasn't ignored the arts, either. Anne Fennell, a music teacher based in Vista, Calif., was tapped to create online music lessons that will integrate musical themes, lyrics, and literary ideas into school lessons for teachers nationwide. "To have a large company realize that media is a vital part of our young people's lives and to do so with standards and integrity is a testament to the company," she says.
According to "Narnia" producer Mark Johnson, Walden is mining a simple truth Hollywood used to know but has forgotten in its rush to make the next big blockbuster: Kids aren't stupid. Mr. Johnson observes that C.S. Lewis, the author of "Narnia," felt strongly that adults shouldn't condescend to children. "Lewis disagreed with those who felt children should be protected from the evils of the world, but he felt it was really irresponsible to tell them about pitfalls and evils and not present hope," he says.
Mr. McBride says that the serious young-adult market has been underserved until now. But if there's a peril for Walden, it will more likely come from business challenges than lack of good ideas, says the film historian. Walden's challenge may be to make a name for itself, independent of the big film studios (such as Disney) it partners with to distribute its films. "Distribution is always the hardest part," says McBride. "You can make great movies, but if you can't get them distributed without giving away the bank, then you won't make it."
Flaherty knows many people perceive him as being on a fool's errand. "We know this isn't for the faint of heart," he says. But he says his model is fundamentally sound. "If we can stay with what teachers and those who know best are telling us the kids want to see, we think that's a 'north star' - and gives us a head start."
It doesn't hurt that he's already attracting top-tier talent. In addition to a slate of upcoming films starring, among others, Harrison Ford and Owen Wilson, Walden is already preparing its next big holiday release, a live-action adaptation of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web," with Dakota Fanning.