Company plans to make every movie an 'event'

The wildcatter is ready to stake his claim.

Walden Media, the film venture backed by Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz, is set to unleash seven pics during the next year aimed squarely at the moviegoing demographic that Disney used to own: kids and families.

“We feel that this market — films that the whole family can attend — is badly underserved,” says David Weil, CEO of Anschutz Film Group, which oversees Walden and Bristol Bay Prods.

Of all the players angling for a piece of Disney’s G- and PG-rated turf, Walden seems well-positioned to succeed on the live-action front, and not just because of the depth of Anschutz’s pockets (Forbes lists his net worth at $7.6 billion).

The famously media-shy mogul, who made his first fortune in the oil biz before moving into railroads and then telecommunications, has collected a range of entertainment-related assets that will help Walden and its partners exploit the ancillary business opportunities that make the family-movie biz so lucrative, with the right property. Disney has faced its challengers in the past, but Anschutz’s 6-year-old enterprise has the benefit of a diversified media enterprise and experienced management at the helm in Weil and Walden co-founder and prexy Cary Granat, who previously headed Miramax’s Dimension Films banner.

Anschutz also brings to the party a personal motivation, beyond profit-making, to make “some small improvement in the culture” by producing wholesome family fare, as Anschutz explained in a 2004 speech at a leadership seminar hosted by Hillsdale College, a conservative school in Michigan.

Assets under the Anschutz umbrella range from the nation’s largest movie theater chain, Regal Entertainment, to some of the world’s most prominent sports and entertainment venues, controlled through AEG Worldwide, to sports teams including hockey’s Los Angeles Kings and soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy.

Walden Media has its own publishing imprint, and a centerpiece of its pic-marketing strategies is outreach to schools, libraries, community, religious and civic orgs. It’s all designed to make Walden’s key releases something more than just another new movie in the eyes of its target demos.

Anschutz’s film ventures overcame the unavoidable stigma of being a rich man’s Hollywood toy in 2005 when Walden scored a mammoth hit with “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which scored in part by heavy promotion with churches and evangelical groups who responded to the pic’s Christian allegory.

“Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn’t at times understand the market very well,” Anschutz said of his film ambitions in 2004, prior to “Narnia’s” release. “I saw an opportunity in that fact.”

Disney was Walden’s distrib partner on “Narnia,” and will continue be on its sequels. But just when the success of that pic encouraged Walden to ramp up in a big way, Disney made the strategic decision to downsize its annual pic slate.

As a result, Walden wound up forming a marketing partnership with 20th Century Fox, creating the Fox Walden banner.

“Disney had made the decision to cut back, and Fox saw this as a real opportunity, but it was our intention all along to operate at this level,” Weil says. “At the time we released ‘Narnia,’ there were a number of companies that were interested in partnering with us, but as it turned out, Disney did not have the same degree of need to match our supply.”

Fox Walden released its first title Oct. 5, “The Seeker,” about a 14-year-old who learns he’s the last of a long line of immortal warriors dedicated to fighting evil (aka the Dark). The early buzz on “Seeker” is mixed (see review, page 54), but for its most promising properties, Fox Walden will have an arsenal of marketing platforms at its disposal, including Fox’s broadcast and cable TV outlets.

Over the next year, Walden will release seven movies — four through Fox Walden and one each through Walt Disney Co., Sony and New Line.

In addition to “The Seeker,” Walden has “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” on Nov. 16; “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep” at Christmas; “Nim’s Island” on April 4; “Journey 3-D” on July 11; and “City of Ember” on Oct. 10, 2008. The most anticipated pic on the slate, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” bows May 16.

With the pump well-primed and infrastructure in place, the big question facing Walden now is: Can it execute? The film-biz vets on Walden’s team, in addition to Granat, include Jeffrey Godsick, marketing prexy for the Fox Walden banner. The company is film-centric and has yet to venture into TV production.

Walden did have a shaky start when it first began releasing pics in 2003. The company’s first pic, “Holes,” performed respectably, but its expensive remake of “Around the World in 80 Days” bombed big-time in 2004. At that point, Anschutz looked like the latest in a long line of rich outsiders to flop in Hollywood.

But his reputation’s been burnished — first by his Bristol Bay Prods. financing the 2004 Ray Charles biopic “Ray,” which earned an Oscar for star Jamie Foxx; and then by Walden’s surprise success the following year with “Narnia,” which raked in global B.O. of $732 million. It also launched a franchise based on the classic C.S. Lewis novels that holds the promise of as many as a half a dozen sequels.

“‘Narnia’ is a curse and a blessing in that it’s really set the bar high for us,” Granat admits. “But we’ve also outgrown having to worry about just that franchise.”

Walden’s chalked up solid performances from “Charlotte’s Web” ($144 million worldwide) and “Bridge to Terabithia” ($130 million). “Web” carried a budget of roughly $80 million, while “Terabithia” was much less expensive, at $25 million.

There have been smallish missteps (“Hoot” and “How to Eat Fried Worms”) but Walden has shrugged those off. “We own our mistakes,” as Granat puts it.

Walden’s strategy features grassroots marketing efforts and partnerships with religious groups, schools and publishing houses. Execs seek feedback from librarians, teachers and booksellers and keep close tabs on rising-star writers in the prosperous market for young adult fiction, and also know which fictional tomes are required reading in schools.

Walden has formed a publishing partnership with Penguin Young Readers with an eye to developing the titles as film properties, including Lauren St. John’s “The White Giraffe,” Joe Bruchac’s “Jim Thorpe: Original All-American,” Mike Lupica’s “Two-Minute Drill” and Ingrid Law’s “Savvy.” (AnnaSophia Robb, star of “Terabithia” and the upcoming “White Giraffe,” is developing a series of books to be released by Walden’s book imprint.)

“Literature has always been very much a part of our mission, and we’ve built enormous trust with librarians,” Granat notes. “It’s a great way to find new authors.”

Godsick’s focus for Fox Walden releases: harnessing Fox and Anschutz assets to “event-ize” movies in the minds of potential customers.

For “Seeker,” for example, Fox Walden intercut movie scenes with footage of the Galaxy soccer players and ran it on Fox Sports regional cablers. Pic’s website contains content that can be obtained only by using six hidden signs. A fan’s tutorial on how to unlock content from the site was receiving 135,000 downloads per day recently.

“What we were operating on here is that if we have fun doing it, then they have fun,” Godsick notes. “And we’re sending a message by having only G and PG films — that the whole family can go.”

Granat and Weil also are bullish about next July’s release of “Journey 3-D,” co-financed with New Line. Though the pic should be ready by January, the execs believe they should wait until more 3-D-equipped theaters come on line.

“It needs a summer release — it’s a real roller-coaster ride — and it needs enough theaters outfitted to show a 3-D movie,” Granat says. He estimates that the release will go into as many as 1,400 theaters.

Hopes are highest for “Prince Caspian,” which will cost at least $100 million. Granat promises that the battle-filled sequel is easily distinguishable from its predecessor and the third pic on the sked, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

Walden and Disney recently shifted the release date for “Dawn Treader” from 2009 to 2010 due to the schedules of the young actors. The shift will also avoid a conflict of having to promote the second film and shoot the third at the same time.

Producers had announced at Comic-Con in July that auds could expect one “Narnia” installment each May for the next few years. Granat is committing publicly to only four or five, saying that “Silver Chair” might be the best bet for the fourth, followed by “Magician’s Nephew,” but he admits that there are a multitude of possibilities.

“There are a lot of stories to be taken from the seven books,” he notes.

Granat says he’s still using at Walden what he learned a decade ago as president of Dimension, where he made his reputation overseeing such fare as the “Scream” and “Scary Movie” franchises. His target market may be very different, but the lesson still holds: Develop a strong brand in the mind of moviegoers and then play to your strengths.

“What we do really starts with the brand, and that’s what we did at Dimension in the 1990s,” Granat says. “Anschutz is really focusing us on what’s working.”

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