In ‘Narnia,’ Tycoon Seeks Blockbuster With a Message

Times Staff Writer

After coming up dry on such costly movie flops as “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Sahara,” Hollywood’s highest-rolling wildcatter is looking for his first gusher.

And once again, Philip Anschutz is risking big.

The Denver-based multibillionaire, who made a fortune in oil, natural gas, railroads, telecommunications and real estate, has spent $90 million -- half the film’s $180-million budget -- to produce the screen adaptation of the children’s classic “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

But whether the movie, which opens Friday, will produce the lucrative family-oriented franchise that Anschutz hopes for depends on how skillfully he and his partners at Walt Disney Co. have tapped the well.


Anschutz’s independent production company, Walden Media, and Disney, which cofinanced the film, are banking on religious moviegoers and secular fans alike to make “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” -- adapted from the beloved book by British theologian and literary scholar C.S. Lewis -- a giant hit.

Such a windfall would give the 65-year-old Anschutz, whose vast assets include Staples Center, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, the San Francisco Examiner and Regal Entertainment Group, the world’s largest operator of movie theaters, something he needs more than money: credibility as a savvy investor in the movie business.

It could also give Disney something it lacks -- a sure-fire movie series on a par with the “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” franchises, which have reaped billions for rival studios. Anschutz, a religious Christian who has vowed to make wholesome entertainment that doesn’t rely on sex, foul language or violence to sell tickets, controls the rights to all seven books in the Narnia series.

But first, the companies must pull off a delicate balancing act, luring religious moviegoers to the allegorical film without turning off mainstream audiences.

“It’s a balance to try to market to the widest possible audience,” said Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook. “We’re trying to cast the widest net we can.”

To that end, Disney is spending mightily -- an estimated $120 million to market and distribute the PG-rated film worldwide on more than 8,000 screens.

Although the studio hopes to attract the same churchgoers who helped make Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” a box-office juggernaut in 2004, Cook said less than 5% of the film’s marketing budget was earmarked to reach that group.

Disney has hired some of the same marketing outfits that drummed up grass-roots support for Gibson’s film through church-based outreach programs, study guides and other means, but “none of the marketing plays up the biblical aspects of the story,” Cook said.

Brent Plate, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said Disney was smart to take a two-pronged sales approach.

“It’s a fine line to walk because you don’t want to alienate anyone,” said Plate, who believes that the Narnia saga is “in no way a ‘Passion’ for kids,” as some evangelical groups have labeled the film.

In Lewis’ books, which have sold more than 95 million copies worldwide, there are many religious references, though to most children, they’re hard to spot. For example, Aslan the lion, a benevolent character who is sacrificed and resurrected, is widely seen to represent Christ.

But many, including Lewis himself, have said the mythologies in “Narnia” are open to various interpretations, and the story is more about universal themes of good versus evil, betrayal, sacrifice and forgiveness than about God.

In the film version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” devoted fans will recognize the four young British siblings who are transported through a magic wardrobe to Narnia, a parallel universe inhabited by talking animals, satyrs, dwarfs and an evil witch. The children discover their inner strength when they lead the forces of good in a battle to save Narnia.

Though there is plenty of spirited swordplay to satisfy audiences that like action-adventure movies, the film is true to the book’s spiritual themes. The children, for example, are referred to as the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” in other words, has all the elements -- loyalty, family, redemption -- that Anschutz prizes most. Those who work with him say that for the press-shy entrepreneur, “Narnia” represents the perfect melding of his dual missions: to make big money while subtly promoting a moral agenda.

“It is a true combination of two motives,” said David Weil, chief executive of Anschutz Film Group, which owns Walden Media and its sister firm, Bristol Bay Productions.

Anschutz declined to comment for this article, but remarks he made last year at a Florida college speak volumes about what motivated him to become a Hollywood player.

After years of complaining about the content of movies, Anschutz told the students, “I decided to stop cursing the darkness ... and instead do something about it by getting into the film business.”

That decision, he joked, prompted his wife to question his sanity.

“Phil, this is one of the nuttier things you’ve ever done,” he recalled her saying before warning him to keep his day job.

But as crazy as it seemed, Anschutz said, he believed there was money to be made in family films. “My reasons for getting into the entertainment business weren’t entirely selfless,” he told the students. “Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn’t understand the market very well. I saw an opportunity in that fact.”

His mission, as he saw it, was to “figure out a way to make goods and products that people actually want to buy.”

So far, his track record has been spotty.

“More of our films lost money than made money,” acknowledged Weil, who was Anschutz’s attorney before being named head of the billionaire’s film company last year.

Anschutz’s successes include the acclaimed films “Holes,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Ray,” which won Jamie Foxx a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the legendary Ray Charles. The $40-million film, which Anschutz personally bankrolled, is his biggest box office hit to date with $75 million in U.S. ticket sales.

But any profits he may have seen from those films were offset by untold losses from such expensive misses as last year’s $110-million remake of “Around the World in 80 Days,” which grossed just $24 million domestically.

Anschutz’s only other attempt to create a franchise, this year’s $130-million action adventure “Sahara,” the first film from a series of Clive Cussler novels, not only was a box office disappointment but also prompted an ugly legal brawl. Cussler sued Anschutz, who had optioned all 18 of the novelist’s books, alleging his creative rights were violated. Anschutz countersued, saying the author breached their agreement by bad-mouthing the movie before its release, among other things.

No settlement talks are underway in the case, which is scheduled for trial in May. No other movies based on Cussler’s novels are planned.

Those who know Anschutz well say his experience in the oil business, where it’s common to drill 20 to 30 holes before striking crude, has made him a patient investor. He’s considered a contrarian, meaning he likes to operate counter to conventional wisdom.

For example, in 2000 and 2001, when the exhibition business was reeling from an overbuilding spree, Anschutz bought three troubled theater circuits at bargain prices. He then merged the trio of companies -- creating the world’s largest theater chain -- and took them public as Regal Entertainment Group.

“It’s been a good investment for Phil,” said Mike Campbell, CEO of Regal, whose 550 theaters boast more than 6,500 screens in 40 states. Campbell estimates that in any given year, Regal generates about 20%, and sometimes more, of the total U.S. box office receipts.

Since the company went public in 2002, Campbell said, Anschutz hasn’t sold a single share: “I think that reflects his confidence in the business and his long-term investment strategy.”

But Anschutz’s faith in his own intuition has also led him astray. Anschutz, who owns five professional soccer teams, invested $20 million in a World Cup-themed movie, “The Game of Their Lives,” that grossed a measly $375,474.

Still, Anschutz has told colleagues that he remains committed to the creative side of the movie business. He likes moviemaking not just for its entertainment value but also for what Weil calls its ability to “educate, inspire and promote literacy.” (Most of Walden’s movies are based on popular books, and Anschutz insists that the marketing of those films include educational programs that encourage children to read).

In that vein, Walden is launching a book imprint in partnership with a major publisher. Anschutz is also considering expanding his film company into such areas as television production and video games.

“Let’s put it this way: We signed a 10-year lease on our building,” said Cary Granat, CEO of Walden, whose posh new headquarters in a Century City high-rise boasts a 20-seat, state-of-the-art screening room.

“We’re building Walden into a trusted family brand,” Granat said. “And Phil is committed to the slate we have.”

Among its upcoming projects, most of which are budgeted at less than $30 million, is an $85-million adaptation of E.B. White’s pig-and-spider classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” which Walden co-financed with Paramount Pictures. It is scheduled for release in June.

Walden and Disney are already tentatively planning a “Narnia” sequel, based on Lewis’ “Prince Caspian.” If the first film is a hit, its director Andrew Adamson and producer Mark Johnson stand ready to go into production next fall on “Caspian,” to be released during the 2007 holiday season.

On an even grander scale, Granat and Weil said they were considering launching an endeavor that would compete with the major studios: a movie distribution operation that would enable the company to market and release its own movies.

“Phil Anschutz is known to be an opportunist,” Weil said.

As Anschutz told the students in Florida, he knows he has something to prove.

“Nothing communicates with the people who make real decisions in Hollywood,” he said, “like spending your own money and showing that you can make profitable films.”