Walden to co-finance Lewis adaptation

This article was updated at 6:58 p.m.

Walt Disney Studios has inked a deal with Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media to co-finance, produce and distribute a live-action film version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the best-known book in C.S. Lewis’ series “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

Pic will be directed by Andrew Adamson (“Shrek”) and produced by Mark Johnson. Ann Peacock penned the script, with subsequent drafts by Adamson and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Shooting is expected to begin in late June or early July in New Zealand and Czechoslovakia for a Christmas 2005 release.

Walden, Anschutz’s family-entertainment shingle, paid an unknown sum to option rights to all seven books in Lewis’ children’s series in December 2001 and plans to develop with Disney a series of pics based on the books. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is the second book in the series. A prequel, “The Magician’s Nephew,” was written later.

Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook and Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group prexy Nina Jacobson will oversee the pics with Walden Media CEO Cary Granat and Walden co-founder Michael Flaherty.

Pic tells the story of siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, who step through a magic wardrobe into the fantasy world of Narnia, which has been frozen in winter by the evil White Witch.

Though no budget details were discussed, first pic is expected to be budgeted at about $100 million, with Walden co-financing 50/50 with Disney. The Mouse House will retain worldwide rights, including homevideo, licensing and merchandising rights.

Pics will feature substantial CGI visual effects and animation to bring the magical characters of Narnia to life.

Aspiring franchise could provide potential TV, theme park and merchandising spinoffs for the studio.

“I think this has the potential to be very, very important for Disney,” said Cook. “Around the world the books have sold over 85 million copies.”

Granat said, “On a production level we’d like to generate films on some type of regular basis, but whether that is every other year we don’t know yet.”

The series presents a significant challenge in terms of production. “In ‘The Lord of the Rings’ the filmmakers created an amazing photorealistic character in Gollum,” Granat said. “Andrew Adamson has the challenge of creating five photorealistic characters with the Narnia series that carry you through the film as lead characters, and that takes a long time to develop.”

Walden inked a two-year, first-look distribution deal with Disney in September 2002, but “Chronicles of Narnia” was not included in that pact.

So far, Disney and Walden have teamed on “Holes” and “Ghosts of the Abyss.” This summer, Disney also will distribute Walden’s big-budget remake of “Around the World in 80 Days.”

HarperCollins retains publishing rights to the “Narnia” books and has no involvement in the film pact.

The “Narnia” collection had at one time been under option to Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall’s Kennedy/Marshall Co. and was set up at Paramount. But the shingle allowed the option to lapse and the rights reverted to the C.S. Lewis Co.

A number of high-profile scribes and filmmakers had previously been involved, including scribe Menno Meyjes, writing team Kiri Zooper and Chris Barbour and helmers John Boorman and Rob Minkoff.

Other books in the series are “The Horse and His Boy,” “Prince Caspian,” “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” “The Silver Chair” and “The Last Battle.”

Lewis, a classics professor at Oxford and Cambridge, died in 1963. The 1985 feature “Shadowlands” told part of his life story.

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