By the time Micheal Flaherty and his old college roommate, Cary Granat, pitched their idea for marrying education and entertainment to Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, they had already spent a year seeking out venture capitalists, all of whom thought the Boston education wonk and his movie executive friend were foolish. Not Phil Anschutz. Being a counterintuitive thinker himself, he embraced their plan to produce quality movies based on great works of literature and seminal events in history. He saw a real opportunity to make a significant impact on the culture.
Five years later, Anschutz, Granat, and Flaherty, co-founders of Walden Media, have done just that, producing several popular films based on great literature, most notably the wildly successful The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This film tells the story of four British children displaced from London during World War II who discover a magical world called Narnia in an old wardrobe at a country mansion. Within Narnia, they encounter the noble lion Aslan, who empowers them with the strength and courage they need to overcome their feelings of helplessness and help him end the hundred-year reign of the evil White Witch.
Narnia grossed more than $291 million in domestic ticket sales (over $744 million worldwide) on a $180 million budget, making it the most successful film in the United States behind Star Wars last year. DVD sales, which recently topped 11 million units, have made Narnia the #1-selling DVD this year as well.
At a Hillsdale College seminar, Anschutz outlined what he sees as the keys to success in the movie business. “First of all, you need a clear vision of the kind of movies you will make—and an equally clear vision of the type of movies you will not make. Our company primarily makes family films—films that families can see together. We expect them to be entertaining, but also to be life-affirming and to carry moral messages.
“Secondly, if you are going to be in this business, you need to bring your own money and be willing to spend it. Otherwise, Hollywood doesn’t see you as a serious player. Nothing communicates with the people that make the real decisions in Hollywood like spending your own money and showing that you can make profitable films.
“Lastly, you have to keep firm control of the creative process. Many things happen between the time you hatch an idea for a movie and the time that it gets to theaters—and most of them are bad. So you need to control the type of writers you have, the type of directors you get, the type of actors you employ, and the type of editors who work on the final product. Then you have to control the way the film is marketed and watch over the distribution and exhibition sides of the business. There are a lot of good movies that have been made but not seen because they couldn’t find distribution and they couldn’t find exhibition.”
Turning Kids Into Readers
As much attention as Anschutz and company have put into the movie unit of Walden Media, they have put at least as much attention into their education unit. While Walden Media CEO Cary Granat, the former Dimension Films president, concentrates on the Hollywood side of the business, Walden Media’s president, Micheal Flaherty, orchestrates the educational programs that are the company’s raison d’être. To keep Walden Media focused on its educational mission, says Anschutz, “the education unit is headquartered as far from Hollywood as we could get it—in Boston.”
In keeping with that educational focus, Walden Media maintains close and constant contact with educators across the country. “We go to every education conference in the country,” says Flaherty, “probably two dozen or so a year. And every year we have well over 200,000 individual conversations with educators (primarily teachers and librarians), during which we solicit their recommendations for stories we should turn into films. Once we’ve decided to make a film, we work closely with educators to ensure the key parts of the story are present, for nobody knows stories better than teachers and librarians. Once a film is in production, we ask them how we can help integrate these stories into the classroom and then produce curricula that accomplish those ends.”
Flaherty is no stranger to innovative education programs. Before co-founding Walden Media, he developed a program that helped students from underserved school districts gain acceptance into Boston’s elite preparatory schools, for which the Boston Globe hailed him as “an entrepreneur in education.” He also co-authored the application for the Boston-based Frederick Douglass Charter School, which the Massachusetts Board of Education ranked first out of 38 applicants.
When 69 percent of fourth graders and 69 percent of eighth graders are still reading below proficiency for their ages, unconventional approaches to reaching these children may be warranted. “The basic key to getting kids to read,” says Flaherty, “is to find great stories, sit down with kids, and if they’re not reading yet, read to them. One way donors can help kids get into reading is by supporting some of the great entrepreneurial programs out there. One such group is First Book, which gets books into the hands of kids whose parents can’t afford them. The Center for Educational Development released a study in 1998 which concluded that nearly two-thirds of low-income families didn’t own a single book for their children. If you are growing up and there are no books in the house, they’re alien to you when you encounter them. But the way our DNA is wired, we love and crave great stories.
“So another key is to find out the stories that kids are interested in today. A real wakeup call for Cary and me occurred when we started to have conversations with librarians and we thought they were going to tell us ‘oh, listen, kids love Treasure Island.’ We thought it was going to be all of the stories that we remembered reading in school. So we were really surprised when we kept hearing about stories like Holes.”
Holes is a Newberry Medal-winning book that tells the off-beat story of Stanley Yelnats, a boy falsely accused of stealing and subsequently sentenced to serve in a juvenile detention camp. The camp warden has Stanley and the rest of the detainees dig “character-building” holes exactly five-feet wide and five-feet deep in the middle of a dry lake bed. Stanley and his friends soon realize that the warden is in search of something less valuable than character.
“Once we establish what kids will like and produce a solid film based on the book,” says Flaherty, “we hope to draw even more kids to the book. And once you actually get a kid into the routine of reading, that routine will take over, and they will likely become lifelong readers and learners.”
One program Walden Media uses to facilitate reading is its library initiative. “When the last Harry Potter book came out,” says Flaherty, “I read a newspaper article that said there was a waiting list at many libraries in the several hundreds. With renewed interest in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we didn’t want kids to walk into a library and be completely shut out. We don’t want to miss that first spark where the interest is fresh in someone’s head, they read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, then read the other six books in the series, and then they start reading Tolkien. So we worked with a number of different groups, including the Urban Library Council, to deliver 90,000 copies of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to libraries in communities where kids likely wouldn’t be able to afford the book. We’re sending out a similar number of copies of Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web, two other classic stories we’re turning into films.”
Very shortly Walden Media will be publishing its own classic stories through a new joint venture with Penguin Books. “One of our first books is called Teacher’s Edition,” says Flaherty, “which is about a kid who finds a physics book that has fallen from the sky. Kids are not as interested in math and science as they could be; so we set out to find a great story that shows how math and science can be cool. Through the practical application of physics, this kid who finds the book becomes a dodge ball star because he understands all the different angles, thus becoming one of the most popular kids in school. Another new book we have coming out, probably next year, is The White Giraffe, which addresses the reality that kids don’t know much about what’s happening in Africa right now by giving them a basic introduction to African terrain and geography.
“The next phase of our publishing venture, which is more creative and involved, requires going to teachers and saying—now that you’ve told us all the books you love, what type of books do you think are missing? What kind of stories do you think should be told? The basic criteria we use to identify tales worth developing are simple. We’re looking for stories that will capture kids’ interests, make readers out of kids who aren’t typical readers, and involve someone or something that undergoes a positive transformative experience.”
Walden Media’s business model is producing its own positive transformative experience—in Hollywood. “We are a for-profit company,” says Flaherty, “but at the same time, we don’t think our for-profit status and philanthropic aims need to be contradictory. Rather than just mindlessly spend advertising dollars on newspaper ads the way most people in Hollywood have done, we redirect some of those dollars toward creating sustainable programs to get kids more excited and interested in learning.
“Teachers are using our films to reintroduce these great stories in schools. Take The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So many more people have read that book now. And we’re able to draw some relevant parallels between the children in the book displaced by Nazi air raids and the poor kids displaced by Hurricane Katrina, many of whom were forced to live in a strange new place and adapt. As a result, more people know and care about the film, which is the sole purpose of advertising. And at the same time, we’re able to do some good as well.”
Hollywood executives are taking notice. “We have great relationships with a number of studios, and we have seen these studios take on more book-based projects, on their own, and start to develop some great substantial educational programs around them. The studious are starting to get conscious of their ability to affect what people are reading. The DaVinci Code, for instance, was always a huge blockbuster success as a book, but with the release of the film, the sales for the book are absolutely astronomical. It’s because a feature film has such a huge marketing budget, and they can keep saying ‘based on the book, based on the book.’ It’s a great way for publishers to get their book out there.
“We get to work very closely with publishers to make sure we do more than just the traditional Hollywood tie-ins. Holes, Narnia, and Because of Winn-Dixie all went to number one on the USA Today and New York Times bestsellers lists. When you look at other films that are based on books, there is a spike in sales, but it is nowhere near the spike that Walden Media has achieved from being so aggressive. We hope our efforts encourage imitators. We would really love to see a lot more of them.”
While book-based projects are at the core of Walden Media’s business plan, Flaherty also intends to release some original films that offer the same life-affirming, educational, and moral messages. One such film in development is Mr. Magorian’s Wonder Emporium, starring Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, and Jason Bateman. It’s a story about the most popular toy store in town and its eccentric owner “and how the most important things we see in life are usually the things that are invisible to the eye.”
Making A Difference
One of the Walden Media films Flaherty is most proud of is I Am David, an adaptation of Anne Holm’s North to Freedom, described by School Library Journal as “the single finest novel ever written for children of about ages 9 to 13.” I Am David tells the story of a young boy who escapes from a communist labor camp in Bulgaria in search of his mother. “There is so little that is taught about the whole experience of communism after World War II,” says Flaherty, “particularly in the Soviet labor camps. I picked up a textbook somewhere and the only thing that I could find—and this is one of the bigger textbooks in the country—was a reference that life was hard in these Soviet labor camps, ethnic strifes were greatly reduced, healthcare was provided, and people were given three meals a day. There was no mention about how people were completely robbed of freedom and independence and dignity.
“We were able to link up with a great girl, an Afghani refugee named Nargiz, who was denied an education in Afghanistan. She wasn’t even allowed to read. Her father would sneak books to her to try to teach her himself. Her family escaped to the relative safety of Iran, and then from Iran to Russia, and finally to San Diego. We tried to tie her experience, as well as other refugees, with that of the boy David from the film, who had to roam without a home after enduring persecution and repression.
“We worked closely with Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History, to develop some sound educational materials around the film, which we produced in partnership with the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. These materials include a free educators’ guide with discussion topics and lesson plans that explore 20th-century history through the lens of this global problem, challenge common misperceptions, and encourage students to make a difference.” [The educators’ guide can be downloaded from Walden Media’s website, www.walden.com.]
Flaherty hopes to make an even greater impact with Amazing Grace. This film relates the trials and triumphs of 19th century British Member of Parliament William Wilberforce, who devoted his life to the abolition of slavery and the reformation of manners in the United Kingdom.
Accompanying the film’s release is Walden Media’s Amazing Change campaign, inspired by Wilberforce. “Each week,” says Flaherty, “we’re going to be giving microgrants to people doing great work in the field to accomplish one of Wilberforce’s objects: either the abolition of slavery (and sadly, we still have slavery with us) or, quite broadly, the reformation of society through effective voluntary organizations that are making a real difference in people’s lives. We’re hoping this will be the movement behind the movie.”
The enterprise Anschutz, Granat, and Flaherty began five years ago to employ entertainment in the service of educating the next generation, mentally and morally, has proven that an odd mix of the practical and the unorthodox can produce uncommonly successful results.
Micheal Leaser is managing editor of Philanthropy.
We asked Micheal Flaherty to recommend three literacy programs that he thought were especially helpful:
The Reading Connection: Homelessness and Literacy
In 1989 a group of teachers realized the children they taught who lived in homeless shelters were unfamiliar with books and unable to read. Tragically, these very skills would prove the most essential to their overcoming homelessness. These teachers witnessed the relationship between illiteracy and poverty and have committed themselves to breaking its cycle. Conscious of the situation and committed to social change, they founded The Reading Connection (TRC).
Walden Media’s Micheal Flaherty describes TRC as a “sentimental favorite” with “enormous potential.” The organization had humble origins, having begun with a group of volunteers who read in a small emergency shelter in Arlington, VA. It has grown quickly and impressively, and over 200 volunteers now teach and read in 13 shelters and six social service agencies throughout the Washington, DC metropolitan area. They impart their own love of reading to over 2,500 disadvantaged children.
TRC has also dedicated itself to achieving a focused objective: the education of children living in a housing crisis. To achieve this goal, they have designed a series of programs to provide a continuum of support. When they first arrive, children receive Welcome Bags filled with new books, school supplies, and a blank journal. Kids who begin the Shelter Read-Aloud Program may eventually advance to book clubs once they move into their own home.
Their parents may enroll in English and Spanish workshops to increase their confidence in sharing books with their children, and staff training sessions introduce social workers to the world of children’s literature. In each of the shelters, TRC has also built a Reading Corner and a mini-library, providing books and reading materials with a permanent place on site.
Amidst its growth and development over the years, TRC’s overarching goals remain the same: to encourage reading, expose children to books, and provide them with free books of their own. For more information, go to www.thereadingconnection.com.
First Book: 40 Million New Readers
Walden Media’s Michael Flaherty explains that First Book was created to serve a single mission: to give children from low-income families the opportunity to read and own their first new books. Their selective focus has enabled them to achieve their goals to an astonishing extent. Since its founding in 1992, First Book has distributed over 43 million new books in over 3,000 American communities.
The prevalence of low literacy rates in poor neighborhoods has been deemed a national literacy crisis. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the correlation between illiteracy and poverty is strikingly strong. A wealth of evidence shows that the number of books in the home is the best known determinant of reading scores, but a recent study in the Handbook of Early Literacy Research reveals that there is just one book for every 300 children in low-income neighborhoods.
Aware of the crisis, First Book chose to act. Rather than work independently, however, First Book collaborated with local partners to leverage the work of existing programs. They exercise significant financial discipline, noting that 98 percent of their funds are spent directly in the service of their mission. In turn, their efforts have elicited high praise from their partners: 78 percent of mentors and administrators running community-based tutoring and mentoring programs estimated that the “impact of First Book books on a child’s desire to read was very important.”
Independent evidence has shown their work produces results. An outside study funded by the U.S. Department of Education found that “the number of young people demonstrating a high interest in reading nearly tripled (increasing from 23 percent to 61 percent) after receiving books from First Book.”
First Book has the continued support of numerous corporate foundations, a growing network of partnerships, and plans to expand their scope internationally. For more information, go to www.firstbook.org.
Reach Out and Read: Good for a Child’s Health
Reach Out and Read (ROR) exemplifies a profession-wide approach to improving literacy rates. The organization focuses on “making literacy promotion a standard part of pediatric primary care,” training doctors and nurses to advise parents about the importance of reading aloud to their children. Reach Out and Read leverages the work already being done by pediatricians and uses their unique relationship with families to encourage a love of reading. Walden Media’s Micheal Flaherty observes: “The message is simple—reading is good for a child’s health.”
ROR uses their own tripartite model, which has proven enormously popular among the medical profession; its programs are now located in 2,948 hospitals and health centers in 50 states, and more than 2.5 million children participate annually.
In the exam room, doctors and nurses offer tips to parents and talk about the value of reading aloud to their children. At each visit, they give every child between the ages of six months and five years a new, developmentally appropriate children’s book for their own collection. Finally, ROR fills the waiting rooms of their sites with gently used books and displays that encourage reading, creating a “print-rich environment.” In some cases, they even have ROR volunteers on site to entertain the children and model for parents the techniques of reading aloud.
Flaherty offers high praise, recommending ROR as “a brilliant national strategy to let people know how critical it is to read to children.” While the initiative does receive a significant amount of public aid, it also heavily relies upon private donors and corporate partnerships; its main sponsors include Disney, Kraft, Qwest, and Scholastic, Inc. For more information, go to www.reachoutandread.org.