Hollywood Turns a Page ; the Movie Company Behind 'The Chronicles of Narnia' Views Films as a Powerful Tool for Inspiring Kids to Read

Article excerpt

Micheal Flaherty is a man on a mission, one that began humbly enough, with an ice-filled sink in a blue-collar suburb of Boston. Mr. Flaherty, now president of Walden Media, the unconventional film company behind "The Chronicles of Narnia," was teaching a weekend exam prep class for poor students. "The real challenge there was to get their attention on a Saturday morning," he says of that day in 1997.

The sub-zero water played a key role when he realized the kids would spark to topics they already liked. "Titanic" fever was raging at the multiplexes as he was struggling to bring a science section to life. One of his pupils wanted to know just how cold that ocean was and plunged his arm in that chilly sink. From there, the class headed to a museum and then the library for more books about the tragic event.

That "ah-ha" moment made Flaherty think about how movies can be used as educational tools. Though he'd never set foot on a movie set, the New Englander took his idea to Hollywood and staked a company on the idea. Launched in 2003 with two mild hits ("Holes," "Because of Winn Dixie") and one big flop ("Around the World in 80 Days"), Walden has embarked on its biggest venture yet with "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which opens Friday.

The film could position Walden Media as a major player with a mission unique among profit-minded production companies: It wants movies to inspire young adults to read.

"People always think that media is working at odds with reading and living the examined life," says Flaherty, who says he believes the opposite is true. "We think education and entertainment feed each other."

The company's bold ideas are backed by serious money. Flaherty parlayed personal connections into a hearing with billionaire philanthropist Philip Anschutz. The Denver oilman is well known for not talking to the press ("He hasn't given an interview in 30 years," says one company representative), but in a 2004 speech he said that he wanted to make "some small improvement in the culture."

Flaherty has developed what he considers a winning formula through trial and error: Work closely with those who know this age group - such as teachers, librarians, and authors - and stay true to the source material. Then tap those communities to support the films when they come out.

For his first venture, 2003's "Holes," a dark film about a teen in a corrupt youth-correctional facility, Walden commissioned its author, Louis Sachar, to present a writing seminar for some 20,000 students. The event was beamed from the Staples Center (owned by Mr. Anschutz) in Los Angeles to the attendees in Regal Theaters across the US (also owned by Anschutz). Walden Media used a similar strategy with "Winn-Dixie." But Flaherty admits they strayed with "Around the World in 80 Days," deferring to those who wanted to showcase the talents of its star, Jackie Chan. "That book wasn't at the top of the list of books recommended to us by librarians," he says. "We started to see a correlation there."

Now, with "Narnia," Walden has sent out educational materials, including 90,000 copies of the novel, to "every" elementary and middle school in America. It has also replaced old copies of the book in more than 200 libraries. But most important, to avoid the impression that the company is merely soliciting commercial tie- ins, it has engaged educators in developing their own materials. …