NEW YORK — “We need to be an ally to kids in schools,” preaches Cary Granat, the founder of Walden Media. “So that we make what they are learning more exciting, so that they can immerse themselves in the subject matter.”
The man who shepherded “Spy Kids” at Dimension while serving as Bob Weinstein’s president of production has reinvented himself as the voice of family entertainment. But what makes Walden more than just another specialty shingle packaging and hawking its product to distribs is the company’s devout belief in the educational uses of its theater, music, film, large-format and doc projects.
“Forming Walden Media fulfills a long-term dream of mine,” Granat said last year. “I have spent the last 12 years engaging audiences with general entertainment but have always wanted to find a way to ignite a sense of fascination, discovery and wonderment through the marriage of entertainment and education.”
It was slightly more than one year ago when Granat’s Walden Media found a patron in the Denver-based Anschutz Co., the broad enterprise of billionaire investor Philip Anschutz. Anschutz is a majority owner of Walden. With deep pockets available, Granat and Walden prexy Michael Flaherty have wasted little time pursuing their niche.
But no matter how exciting it’s been for an upstart to attract the likes of James Cameron to do a project with them, the jury is out as to how well the first slate of projects will fare in the marketplace.
Though Granat lacks immediate distribution pacts for his slate of high-profile projects, he’s not concerned.
“I believe inherently in the merits of the people involved in each project,” he says. “If I announce tomorrow that we have such and such a distributor, will that make the project any better?”
Granat’s first coup was landing Oscar winner Cameron to helm “Ghosts of the Abyss,” a large-format feature shot on 3-D digital video. The 45-minute doc focuses on underwater explorations of the Titanic and the sunken German WWII battleship Bismark. Walden plans to publish related educational materials and a 90-minute version on homevid and DVD.
And late last year, Granat secured the film and ancillary rights to British author C.S. Lewis’ children’s book series the Chronicles of Narnia from the C.S. Lewis Co. Walden immediately began to develop the most popular, and first, book in the seven-part series — “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Granat says he is in talks with A-list talent to topline “Lion” and predicts production will be under way by next year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Already, the company is in the midst of additional projects in a variety of media, including the $33 million-budgeted “Holes,” based on Louis Sachar’s 1999 Newbery Award-winning children’s book. Pic began production in late April with Sigourney Weaver toplining and Andrew Davis (“Collateral Damage”) directing. In June, the company will start lensing an under-$25 million update of “Treasure Island.” And forthcoming is a large-format version of the smash percussion-heavy legit show “Stomp,” to be titled “Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey.” Also on the slate: Jeff Bridges will produce for Walden “The Giver,” based on the novel by Lois Lowry.
Like parent Anschutz, Walden also has its eye on theaters. In early April, the company teamed with United Artists Theaters and television and stage producer Douglas Love to establish the Walden Family Playhouse in Denver. The venue will supplement performances by a professional resident company with classes for children and a mentoring program.