By Vince Bzdek
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006
As head of Dimension Films in the late 1990s, Cary Granat was the wunderkind of teen slasher comedies, midwifing the sex- and gore-laden "Scream" and "Scary Movie" trilogies into hundred-million-dollar franchises by the time he was 32.
Then, toward the end of the decade, Granat and his wife birthed three future moviegoers of their own. It was a kind of Saul on Sunset Boulevard moment for the young producer. He began asking himself if he really wanted his children to see the kind of movies he was making.
For years he and his Hollywood peers had deliberately aimed raunchy R-rated and PG-13 films at increasingly younger kids. "What used to be defined as 'teenage' -- 13 to 18 -- all of a sudden became 12 to 18, and all of a sudden that became 11, then 10, then 9, and then these types of genre films were being seen by 8-year-old kids," he admits.
By the end of the '90s, "we were looking at this generation of kids who were growing up in a very cynical environment," he says. "They were being robbed of their imaginations."
Granat decided to do something about it.
The result is a family-friendly juggernaut, Walden Media, created on the back of a napkin in 2000 at the wedding of Granat's college roommate turned partner, Micheal Flaherty, and bankrolled by conservative Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz.
Walden, a unique combination of film studio, book publisher and educational outreach company, just released the G-rated "Charlotte's Web" remake in partnership with Paramount. It's the latest in a string of moderately to very successful family films the company has produced or co-produced in its six-year history, including "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Holes," "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "How to Eat Fried Worms."
Granat's epiphany has paid off handsomely. "Narnia" has grossed more than $744 million worldwide since its release last year and has made the small production company a major Hollywood player. Other studios have taken note, showing a renewed interest in "faith and family" fare and expanding their G and PG offerings, though such films still account for a small minority of all movies made.
More titles suitable for youngsters were released in 2006 than in many previous years, says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. Many did well at the box office, and their makers' clout is growing.
"The reason? Family movies sell a lot of tickets, many DVDs and merchandise," he says.
The numbers are convincing: In 2004, for the first time in 20 years, G and PG movies made more money than R-rated films, according to Fithian's group.
Twelve out of the 18 significant family movies released in 2006 will make more than $50 million at the box office.
A study released in 2005 by the Dove Foundation -- a Grand Rapids, Mich., nonprofit that promotes "family friendly entertainment" -- found that between 2000 and 2004, R-rated movie production dropped 12 percent, while G-rated film production was up 38 percent. During that time, the average profit for an R-rated film was $17 million. The average G movie hauled in a $92 million profit.
From 2000 to the end of 2005, G, PG and PG-13 movies went from 56 percent of ticket sales to nearly 80 percent, according to statistics compiled by Nash Information Services.
Part of the rise in PG-13 movies can be attributed to stepped-up enforcement of the rating system, Fithian said. In 2000, a national policy of checking IDs at the box office was instituted by the theater owners.
"We have seen many studios cut scenes out of their movies in order to get a PG-13. They can simply sell more tickets that way," Fithian said.
Dozens of family-oriented production companies have sprung up in recent years to ride the conservative cultural wave, including a new label at Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Faith. The Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, former heads of Miramax, announced last week that they, too, are getting into the Christian film business. (We'll overlook for a moment "Black Christmas," an R-rated slasher flick from the Weinstein Co. that opened on Christmas Day.)
This discernible shift in Hollywood values has probably happened for many reasons, including a faith-based presidency that has emboldened conservative Christian groups to play a more public role in defining what family fare ought to be. But money is also a prime motivator.
The profitability of directly appealing to religious moviegoers was brought vividly to Hollywood's attention in 2004 by the enormous success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which grossed more than $600 million worldwide, and the Christian-undertoned "Narnia," which now ranks among the top 25 biggest moneymakers of all time.
The wave has been pushed along by Christian-rooted cultural arbiters such as the Dove Foundation and Focus on the Family. Dove now issues a seal of approval for movies that pass certain family-friendly requirements, an imprimatur many studios seek out before they release their films, hoping such groups will help generate positive buzz.
In several recent releases, including Twentieth Century Fox's "Everyone's Hero," filmmakers have made changes in their movies to appease Dove critics. Fox has signed a deal to have the Dove seal displayed on all the DVDs that pass the foundation's muster.
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Granat and Flaherty, both 38,would probably be just another two well-intentioned guys without much clout if their ambitions hadn't dovetailed with Anschutz's own desire to clean up movies -- and the money to make a stab at it.
The man behind the Walden curtain is worth $5.8 billion, which puts him 65th on Forbes's list of the richest people in the world, having made separate fortunes in oil, railroads and telecommunications before taking on Hollywood.
Anschutz hasn't given an interview in 30 years, but in 2004 he did tell students at a Christian school in Florida why he decided to get into the film business: "I decided to stop cursing the darkness. . . . I had been complaining about movies and their content for years. . . .
"Why can't movies return to being something that we can go and see with our children and our grandchildren without being embarrassed or on the edge of our seats? I don't think they understand the market and the mood of a large segment of the movie-going audience today."
Anschutz pointed out that G and PG movies are historically far more profitable than R-rated movies, but said Hollywood continued to ignore those economics until recently.
"Is this preponderance of R-rated films simply -- as we hear so often -- a response to the market?" he asked. "I would say not, considering that of the top 20 moneymaking films of all time, not a single one is rated R, and of the top 50, only five are rated R -- with the remainder being G or PG."
Fithian points to 2006 as a good example of Anschutz's thesis. Ten family pictures, most of them animated, earned more than $50 million each, bringing in a total of $1.3 billion: "Cars," "Ice Age," "Over the Hedge," "Happy Feet," "Open Season," "Eight Below," "The Santa Clause 3," "Monster House," "Barnyard" and "Flushed Away." The recent releases "Charlotte's Web" and "The Pursuit of Happyness" (rated PG-13, but very uplifting) are expected to join the list.
"And still the studios put out many more adult or late-teen films than family titles," Fithian notes. "And still the average box office return is smaller across the board for R-rated films than any of the lesser, more family friendly ratings.
"Is it just not cool to direct family titles and then hang out at the party circuit in Hollywood?"
Granat thinks that's exactly the problem in Hollywood: arrogance and the pursuit of cool. Many producers and directors try hard to stay relevant by being on the cutting edge -- as they perceive it -- and believe that the rest of America shares their worldview.
Anschutz has anointed himself the anti-Hollywood movie mogul. He's based himself in Denver, pointedly avoiding the Hollywood social scene, and donates generously to conservative Christian causes, including the think tank at the heart of promoting "intelligent design."
As a result, he has been accused of trying to "Christianize" pop culture. Observers have noted that, like the studio bosses of old, he owns not only movie production companies -- Bristol Bay Productions in addition to Walden -- but a distribution system as well. Regal Cinemas, a subsidiary of Anschutz's film group, operates more than 6,000 screens across the county, more than any other chain.
Add to this empire the tabloid Examiner newspapers he owns in San Francisco, Washington and Baltimore, and Anschutz is beginning to resemble a multi-platform Citizen Kane, with the clout to push American culture significantly rightward. (Anschutz also owns several sports franchises around the country, including the popular D.C. United soccer team.) But Granat dismisses such talk as conspiracy theory. Business associates close to Anschutz see his move into movies as more of a business decision than religiously motivated.
"He's a dollars-and-cents guy," says Neil Westergaard, editor of the Denver Business Journal. He cites Anschutz's uncanny knack for "seeing around corners," anticipating the next big wave in an industry, whether it's in movies, telecommunications or oil.
America is predominantly Christian and, as the billionaire pointed out in his 2004 speech, "Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn't understand the market very well. I saw an opportunity in that fact."
But the bottom line is that moviemakers still have to tell good stories to keep people in their seats. How did Granat and Flaherty find success in getting families into theaters? They credit a secret weapon: librarians.
"It's such an obvious place to look, but Hollywood never looks there," Flaherty says.
Walden has staff members in Boston who make contact with hundreds of thousands of teachers, students and librarians each year to find out what kids are reading. (The movie "Holes," for example, grew out of a Pennsylvania teacher's comment that her pupils loved the book.) "We go to 24 conferences a year . . . heavily focused on librarians, because who knows stories better than librarians?" says Flaherty.
Granat works the movie side in Los Angeles, while Flaherty, who used to work on public policy and education issues for the president of the Massachusetts Senate, runs the education outreach program in Boston. Together the two try to merge education and entertainment, struggling mightily to keep Walden a contradiction: a movie company that tries to get kids to read.
"It's one thing just to drive kids to read, but it's another thing to drive them to great literature, because that will really give them the bug and make them lifelong readers," says Flaherty.
Walden provides activity guides and seminars for teachers interested in involving kids more deeply in the stories their movies are based on. They also sponsor field trips and literacy events around the country, including a "Charlotte's Web" read-athon this month that included 547,826 children in 28 countries. The kids set a Guinness record for "Most People Reading Aloud Simultaneously in Different Locations."
Not a bad way to create word-of-mouth for your movie, either.