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This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Paired on the wall of Frank Smith’s Walden Media office in Beverly Hills are posters for Blow, the Johnny Depp cocaine thriller, and family stalwart The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They are fitting choices for the man whom conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz has entrusted with taking Anschutz Film Group and its Walden label in a distinctly new direction. Known for family-values fare, Walden now wants to be a major studio co-financier of a diverse film slate — including PG-13 movies, new for the morally minded Anschutz. The Giver, opening Aug. 15 via The Weinstein Co., is first out of the gate.
Since 2001, Walden had been wedded to developing its own projects, making kid-friendly movies with inspirational messages. Its big property was the Narnia series, which is interlaced with Christian themes. But as the major studios began releasing fewer films, Walden had trouble finding partners for its movies. So Smith, 49, came up with a plan to identify existing studio projects to co-finance and began implementing it in early 2013. Late last year, Smith was promoted to COO as CEO David Weil and half of the staff exited (about 35 remain). Smith now runs all operations and works closely with Walden co-founder and president Michael Flaherty.
“It dawned on me that we were going about this the wrong way. What is the one thing we have? Money to invest. We needed to have less ego about our own homegrown projects,” says Smith, who arrived at Walden 11 years ago from New Line. “We are looking right now at co-financing one film that is $150 million and another that is about $105 million.”
The move is welcome news to studios, whose search for production money has taken them to such inexperienced players as China’s Fosun and Malaysia-based Red Granite Pictures. Walden put up about half the budget of The Giver, a $30 million YA book adaptation about a rebel teen. Walden is partnering with Universal on Everest, about a 1996 climbing disaster, and with Relativity on The Reading Promise, based on Alice Ozma‘s best-selling memoir.
“They are great partners, and I don’t say that too often. And they aren’t just silent partners, they have great notes and thoughts,” says Weinstein Co. COO David Glasser. Adds Relativity president Tucker Tooley, “We are pleased to see them evolve and grow.”
Smith stresses that the Walden brand hasn’t changed, only expanded. “Our films have heart, with life-affirming stories,” he says. “Now, we are adding ‘explorational’ to our motto. People have always pegged us as a Christian company, in part because of Narnia, but that’s not necessarily true.” For instance, Gravity is a movie Smith would have rushed to co-finance. “When we told Warner Bros. that, they were shocked,” he recalls. “And that’s why I chose Everest as a film that was good for our brand. These climbers put their families on hold but, when faced with death, they realize there is nothing more important, similar to Gravity.” At the eleventh hour, when a financier fell out, Walden ponied up a major portion of the $65 million budget on Everest, from Universal partners Cross Creek Pictures and Working Title.
Universal president Jimmy Horowitz welcomes Walden’s new mantra. “There’s a host of people who do a version of what they do, but they are the best version of it, because when you get a call from Walden, it’s real,” he says.
Smith says Anschutz, the reclusive Colorado-based oil and sports mogul whose interests include AEG and Regal Entertainment, is misunderstood. “When you avoid the press and you own newspapers yourself [including conservative magazine The Weekly Standard], it allows the press to fill in the blanks,” says Smith, whose corner office used to belong to CAA’s Michael Ovitz. Anschutz, who is worth an estimated $10.3 billion, and Smith speak at least weekly about which projects to target.
Says Smith: “One studio chief said to me, ‘I’d rather take money from Walden and have Walden’s name on the screen than a group of dentists from Belgium.’ “
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