Walden Media breaks out as a Hollywood power player -- Looking at the company that's making its name by producing family films like ''Hoot,'' ''Holes,'' and ''Charlotte's Web''
Cary Granat began to see the light the day his daughter saw her first R-rated movie. Like many conversion stories, the epiphany would take a while to sink in. As the president of Dimension Films, Granat oversaw the creation of slick genre flicks like Spy Kids, Scary Movie, and the Scream franchise. Yet there were voices in his life nagging him about all that edgy, youth-centric pop he was making. His conscience was telling him that the movie industry’s images and music were molding a generation of cynics and narcissists. His wife was warning him there was ”no deeper meaning” in the films he was making. And his grandfather — Granat’s mentor, a rabbi and philanthropist — was urging him: ”Make the major change. You’re stuck.”
It all started one day in 1997, when Granat walked into his living room and discovered his daughter watching some work he had brought home from the office: dailies from Scream 2. There, on the TV screen, was the black-robed, ghoul-masked killer he had helped turn into an icon, chasing Courteney Cox around a recording studio with a knife. Granat’s daughter was terrified. She was also only 2 years old. In that moment, he considered the prospect of his little girl growing up steeped in the kind of culture he was producing. And he realized that something — or someone — needed to make that major change.
The solution to Granat’s soul-nettling angst was to create a company that has since emerged as a new, if unlikely, Hollywood power player: Walden Media, producer of last year’s faith-and-family steamroller The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which had a global gross of $734 million. (Before that, Walden produced the niche hits Holes and Because of Winn-Dixie.) Funded from the deep pockets of billionaire businessman and Christian conservative Philip Anschutz, the burgeoning studio now hopes to build on its Narnia success with an ambitious slate of films formulated from its signature strategy: high-quality adaptations of kid-lit classics supported with aggressive, education-focused grassroots marketing. Leaping from page to screen this summer are Carl Hiaasen’s eco-caper Hoot (May 5) and the boys-will-be-boys perennial How to Eat Fried Worms (Aug. 25). Christmas will bring E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, starring Dakota Fanning as Fern and Julia Roberts as the voice of the most beloved word-spinning arachnid in bookdom. Scheduled for next year: a 3-D version of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and the sequel to Wardrobe, Prince Caspian. (Maybe.)
Walden’s rise has been fueled by its exclusive focus on Hollywood’s least sexy genre: the family film. No, these movies aren’t Scream-ishly cool — but they are packing the theaters rather consistently in these uncertain box office times. (See family hits like Eight Below, Ice Age: The Meltdown, March of the Penguins, anything Pixar.) ”’Family films’ do have a stigma: limited audience, kinda boring,” says Hoot producer Frank Marshall (the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future sagas). ”The great breakthrough Walden has made has been in making quality family films that appeal to all ages. They’ve succeeded by broadening the definition.”