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
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
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
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
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. …