Through his belief in the enormous meaning of faith in films and literature, Michael Flaherty works to turn stories about the faithful into movies that impact viewers. Mr. Flaherty tells many of the fictional and historical stories that have inspired him and explains how he has rendered their connections to Christianity in motion pictures. He also shares the personal side of his career trajectory and speaks to the beauty in the lives of people who have dedicated their lives to God. He emphasizes the importance of finding good stories, reveals the stories he’d like to tell next in his films, and outlines the challenges involved in translating stories about religion into movies in the modern age. This talk gets to the heart of spiritual filmmaking.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, Micheal’s bio, of course, is in your packet. He’s the President and Co-Founder of Walden Media. We did put a special request in a couple months ago that he figure out a way to see if Aslan could show up for our occasion but we weren’t able to work it out yet, couldn’t get through security, but as you know, they’re the producers behind the Narnia Chronicles, The Lion and the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian, and those have been a great success.
One of the questions that I wanted to ask Micheal to address, of course, before he gets into the whole bulk of his talk is how long has he misspelled his name because this is the way he spells Micheal and I’ve had several people correct me, say you keep misspelling it. Oh, no, that’s the way he spells it.
So you can begin your comments to us, Micheal, by explaining, if you would, the origin of your first name.
MICHEAL FLAHERTY: I’ll begin with the cover story. My grandparents came from Ireland and it was one of the last dying requests that they had as they left that food-starved nation, that one day they would have a guy named Micheal and they would spell his name the way it’s spelt in Galway. Of course, it’s not spelled that way in Galway either.
MR. FLAHERTY: The reason why I spell my name that way is because in sixth grade I idolized a basketball player named Micheal Ray Richardson from the New Jersey Nets. He got kicked out of the league for drugs and then they brought him back in. He said, look, I’m off it, I’m never going to do drugs again. They brought him back into the league again. He got kicked out for doing drugs again and they said, listen, this is the third time. We need to see some real positive physical sign that you’re taking this seriously. We need to see you change something about your life.
So Micheal Ray brought in his birth certificate and he said, look, I’ve changed it. It’s now M-i-c-h-e-a-l. That’s the new Micheal and so on a dare, my big brother said I dare you to change the way you spell your name and it’s just one of the many lies I’ve kept going for decades and it’s too late now to change it back.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Well, good. Now we’re looking forward, Micheal, to hearing from you on Faith, Film and Culture, and then we have—we’ll get right into the discussion because we’re—for this session, we don’t have a respondent on purpose.
MR. FLAHERTY: So I just wanted to thank you so much, Michael, and a fantastic session this morning, really appreciate that, Jeffrey and Ambassador. That was great. It’s great to be here with a group of journalists because that was actually my dream when I was getting out of college. I always thought that I always wanted to be a writer and when I got out of college I went to work for William F. Buckley as his research assistant which meant that I got an X-Acto knife and a copy of the New York Times and I had to cut out every single article and put it in a file folder.
This was before the day and age of the Internet and then about a year after trying that, my father called me, a public defender in Massachusetts, and he said, “Little fellow, it’s about time you got a job with the government and got on with your life” and so I went home to Massachusetts. I worked for this great guy named Bill Bulger. He was the president of the Senate in Massachusetts. His brother was number one on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and learned quite a bit from him.
Education was always a real interest of mine. So was school choice and education reform. I was always interested in that and I would always tutor and on Saturday mornings, to break the ice, I would always ask kids what’d you do last night and they’d always either watched a film or watched a television show and about six months in, they said to me, you know what we did last night is we watched this movie Titanic and then the next week they said we watched Titanic again and then the next week they said to me you know what we did yesterday is we went to a museum.
They had an exhibit on the Titanic and we were able to put our hands into the same ice cold water that Leonardo DiCaprio drowned in and we were able to see all these things. Then the next week they went to the library. They got books out about the Titanic and that’s when I realized that stories could really have a profound influence on education. They could really change people’s outlook and they could start to see the application and so all these names, dates, and facts would actually start to mean something for them.
A year later, after all that, was April 20th, 1999. A lot of you probably remember Columbine, when two students walked into their school with shotguns and murdered, I think it was, 12 of their classmates and one of their teachers and, you know, the nation went into a depression. I didn’t know how to—what to do. I didn’t know how to react and I started reading these stories about these girls who had guns pointed in their face, you know, 16, 17-year-old girls, and were asked do you believe in God and they said yes.
I know that there are some journalists now saying otherwise but I’ve spoken to people who were in that library who swear that that’s what they heard and I realized that I’d been going to church my entire life and I didn’t have that same commitment and same faith as a 16-year-old girl and if I was looking down the barrel of a gun, I would say something I learned in some freshman philosophy class about there’s a presence and, you know, do anything I can, you know, to try to appease this guy and I didn’t really know what to do.
I was hoping that at Mass that Sunday they would make sense of it and this was before the scandal in Massachusetts broke out and the priest came out and he pressed play on an old Radio Shack recorder and it was an appeal from the Cardinal for that year’s Cardinal’s Appeal, not a word about what had happened just a few days before at Columbine.
The one thing that I was very lucky to have was a really powerful conversion experience where I really felt like the Holy Spirit, who I’ve heard about all my life, heard about at church, you know, really came into my life and told me that I needed to reset my priorities and make God first in my life and so if any of you have met, and I know the term is out of vogue now, but a born-again Christian, I became every caricature of that.
I put Scripture verse—the one Scripture verse I knew on my e-mail tag. I actually—the very next day, I went to a Christian bookstore and I bought a fish and I put it in the back of my car, so I felt like this is the equivalent of, you know, confirmation for an evangelical and because of that, I was just filled, you know, with—I was fearless.
I said, well, what do I really want to do with my life now? You know what I’d love to do is I’ve noticed that stories on my students had a real profound impact on their learning and I also know that stories could have a real profound impact on the way people think and feel.
Cassie Bernall, one of the girls who was murdered at Columbine, loved movies like Braveheart. The people who went in, the two murderers, a lot of people talked about did those films influence them or did they not, but that day was called Natural Born Killers Day in celebration of the movie about serial killers that they watched, you know, over 50 times. They wore black trench coats because they saw The Basketball Diaries with Leonardo DiCaprio where Leonardo DiCaprio wore a black trench coat and fantasized about going in and shooting his classmates.
And I know that there’s always that debate about, you know, can films influence people, you know, to do bad things and I think that if you look at it logically, if you buy the fact that great art and great music can inspire us and make us better people and want us to be better people, you know, you just have to buy that corollary, as well, that it can appeal to our darker natures and our darker angels and so I went out with a business plan.
The only problem was I had never made a film and I didn’t know how to write a business plan. So my wife bought me Business Plans for Dummies at Barnes and Noble. We wrote up a business plan with my old roommate from college, a great guy named Cary Granite, and Cary had made the educational classics Scream, Scary Movie, Children of the Corn VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X, and he was just the perfect guy to go in to make these new transformational, inspirational stories.
So we went around everywhere like the odd couple trying to raise money about films that would be based on great books and great people and literature and got laughed out of every venture capital private equity firm in the country and I still remember my first meeting with one VC in Massachusetts. The guy said to me, “Well, look, I understand your idea but where’s your P&L?” and I said, “Well, what’s a P&L?” He said, “It’s a profit and loss statement. It’s the cornerstone of every business. You don’t have one of those?” And so I bought a book on P&Ls for dummies and then we were out of money and the last meeting that we could afford was a meeting with a gentleman in Denver, named Phil Anschutz and about 10 minutes into our pitch about making this new film company, Phil said, “Okay. I understand. I get it,” and I said, “Well, thank you for your time. Do you know where we can catch a cab?” and he said, “No. I’m interested in investing.” I said, “You’re kidding me!” And he said, “No. I just would like to get a better idea. I love books and I love history and I really think that film could have an impact and I’d love to get an idea of what kind of movies you guys are going to make.”
And he goes, “Why don’t we just break for lunch and you’ll come back?” and I’d never thought the plan out that far. So I called my wife. She was a fifth grade teacher at St. Peter’s and I said, “Look. I need some books. Give me some ideas for some books,” and so she went through her fifth grade reading list at St. Peter’s. She’s like, “Okay. Got a pen?” I said, “Yeah.” She goes, “Okay. Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia, Holes, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and I wrote them all down. I said, “Well, these are the movies, you know, the research and the focus groups are telling us that they’d really like to see” and so we went out and we optioned all of them and then, you know, we were able to go and make feature films out of all of them and that’s where it all began, was with my wife’s fifth grade reading list at St. Peter’s.
And so as we were starting up, we realized one of the things we wanted to do is really tie in the films to education because a lot of kids are in lousy schools and this is their one chance to really get them inspired and get them excited about things.
We’re always trying to tie things in, but as I was sort of growing in my faith and reading these books, I realized that these were a lot more than kids’ books and at that point, I had memorized another verse of Scripture, so I was up to two, and that one was Hebrews 11:1 which is “the substance of faith is the hope in the unseen,” and I think that’s one of the things for all of us who are believers.
Lisa, you talk about this in your book about Heaven which is fantastic, which is once you get down to these basics, well, tell me about Heaven. You know, once people are looking for the specifics, we get a little nervous that, you know, we’re going to look crazy, you know, because we pray, you know, to an unseen God and we believe in things that we can’t see and we can’t feel and we can’t touch and that is the major point of all of children’s literature.
It really is the common theme that runs through it. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy says that she’s been to a place called Narnia, and her brothers say she’s crazy. They go and appeal to the professor. They want to hear some logic from him and, borrowing from Lewis’s trilemma, he says, “There’s only three options. Either your sister’s a liar, she’s a lunatic, or she’s telling you the truth.”
In Charlotte’s Web, Fern goes to her mother and tells her that she’s having these great conversations out in the barn with Wilbur the Pig and Charlotte the Spider. So the mother does what any good suburban mother would do and she goes to see a therapist and she says, “Listen, I think my daughter has lost her mind. She’s talking about talking animals,” and he says, “Well, what makes you think she’s lost her mind?” She goes, “Well, it can’t be true, can it?” The therapist goes, “I don’t know. Maybe we just haven’t been listening. Maybe animals have been talking to us and the sad news is there’s a word for what your daughter’s going through. It’s called childhood and one day it’s going to pass.”
And then another film that we made, Bridge to Terabithia, was about a young girl who was a non-believer and she was friends with a boy and the only book in his entire house was the Bible and so that was the only book that he ever drew upon and what ended up was they imagined this land called Terabithia because if you ever look at the Narnia books, there’s an outlying province there called Terabithia and so she introduced this boy to the wonderful world of literature and really opened up his mind and they would have all these great conversations.
One conversation they had was he was sort of embarrassed and he took her to his church one day and said, “Listen. It’s Easter. I’d like you to come,” and he was nervous that her parents were intellectuals. They had never been to church. She had never been to church, and he didn’t know how she was going to react and so afterwards, he sort of sheepishly said to her, “Well, what’d you think?” She goes, “What did I think? I think Jesus is the coolest person I ever heard of. He’s like Aslan or Abraham Lincoln. He just wanted people to love each other and then they killed him. What a great story.”
And it is a great story and it’s a story that we miss out so much on and I think we also a lot of times miss out on the way Jesus approached questions. Philip Yancey talks about how, in the New Testament, Jesus is asked 183 questions and he only gives direct answers to three of them and the rest of the time he would always respond with a story. One of those stories that we’ve heard so much is the story of the Prodigal Son and the more that I read that story and the more that I read great works by people like Pastor Tim Keller, the more I realized that this is the story of the Prodigal Sons, plural.
We all know what happened with the youngest son, but we don’t hear much about that elder son who was constantly asking about his rights and constantly appealing to justice. How can this be fair and that’s when I realized for a lot of times Hollywood’s representations of Christians represent the elder son.
They talk about the person who is always protesting the world shouldn’t be like this, the world shouldn’t operate like this. This is the way things should be. This is the way we have to do things and too often we miss out on the other Son. That’s in there and let’s face it. That Son is what great stories are made out of.
There’s no greater story than someone who has been redeemed, someone who’s reconciled, someone who has turned a leaf and gone on to have a completely new life. So many times—I remember one of the big movies when I was growing up on cable was Footloose and in that one, the Christian came into town to ban dancing. You probably all saw Cape Fear where Robert De Niro had Scripture tattooed on his back and so for a lot of times, these are the representations we have of people who believe.
Either if they have Scripture, it’s tattooed in permanent ink somewhere on their body or they hate dancing and there really wasn’t much else in there to talk about and so when—after we had made a lot of these books into films, we were looking to see what are some books we can make about great people. Phil always loved this idea of William Wilberforce, how one person armed with faith can change the world, and he called me one day and he said, “Do you know who William Wilberforce is?” and again growing up Catholic, I could give you the lives of the saints. I could tell you everyone. I don’t know any of these Protestant virtual saints and so I—oh, yeah, of course, Phil. William Wilberforce. Do you mean the classic British statesman and Reformer who—you know, just read him verbatim the Wikipedia entry. He’s like, “You have no idea who I’m talking about, do you?”
And so I had to quickly study up on Wilberforce and the only books that were out there were these really thick books out there, these huge biographies. So my wife went to the Christian Bookstore where I bought the fish and she found me this book, Heroes of the Christian Faith. It was 88 pages on William Wilberforce and that was perfect for me and we ended up getting about 10 lines from that book into the film.
But the really cool thing that happened during that film is the writer, Steven Knight, who’s a great writer, never had a conversation with him about faith, but he loved the story. He thought that it was an amazing story and we all particularly liked the idea of this character John Newton and a lot of you probably know the story of John Newton but it’s worthy of review.
John Newton was guilty of the worst crimes against humanity. John Newton was a slave trader, in his own words, a slave trader and an infidel, and one night as his ship was going down in the Atlantic after, you know, a successful passage of selling slaves, John Newton said a prayer to God and he said, listen, if you can spare this ship, I will turn my life around. I will put you first in my life and I will become a great Christian and so as the Sunday school lessons tell us, John Newton then went and wrote Amazing Grace and became an abolitionist.
“I know that there’s always that debate, can films influence people to do bad things and I think that if you buy the fact that great art and great music can inspire us and make us better people and want us to be better people, you just have to buy that corollary, as well, that it can appeal to our darker natures and our darker angels.”
What we realized when we were making the film is the real-life story was a lot more complicated. What happened when John Newton got into town is he said to himself, listen, I’m going to become a Christian, so no more swearing and no more dancing and these slaves are going to love me. I am going to be the most moral slave trader in all of England and at the time, there was no contradiction with that and how could there be?
You know, when the Crown, elements of the Church, and most of British polite society said, you know, slavery’s fine, we can reconcile that with Christianity, but it was over time that Newton’s heart started to soften and soon the things that broke God’s heart began to break Newton’s heart and over those course of years, he finally truly understood what it was like and he became a writer of hymns and he became a great abolitionist and so when you hear that word, “Amazing Grace, I once was blind but now can see,” that isn’t about someone going from non-belief to belief, that is about someone who thinks that they believe and thinks that they understand and until they really start to look at the world around them and really try to figure out what is this proper response, that they begin to behave differently.
We always are trying to do more and more of these kind of stories and these kind of films because we really believe that culture is upstream from politics. Earlier we were talking about a lot of the problems that we have. A lot of things are happening in the Middle East and we’re all looking for political solutions.
What Wilberforce understood was that you have to change hearts and minds before you can change any laws and that’s why one of the first people Wilberforce made an alliance with was Wedgwood and Wedgwood made a beautiful pendant that had a picture of a slave and it said, “Am I not a man and a brother?”
And then Thomas Clarkson would go and he would speak at all of the high schools and all the colleges, talking about this. These guys took a long view of social change. They didn’t expect things to change overnight. They knew that they were in for it, for a long haul and those stories are so powerful that once, Philip Yancey, again another great writer that I quoted earlier, someone was asking him—a Russian dissident was staying at his house and he was talking to him about the spread of Christianity in Russia and this is in the ‘80s and Yancey said to him, “I don’t buy it. How could this be happening in a country where, you know, idols are forbidden and where a lot of the most beautiful churches are being turned into cruel museums for Communist propaganda? How can people be hearing the stories of Jesus?” He goes, “It’s easy. You know, in all of their totalitarian rage, the dictators forgot one thing. They forgot to ban Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the most perfect representations of the Gospel in modern times.”
And so the story of an all-loving, all-merciful, all-forgiving God came through in those pages to them and as we’re looking forward, one of the things we’re always looking for are new stories. We’re looking for great people in history and we’re looking for great books and they don’t always have to be right on the nose to tell the story of faith.
Dorothy Day, a great Catholic nun, used to say, “I think the Lord likes it when we read books that he didn’t write,” and I think that there’s a lot to the fact that these books might actually be inspired and he might even have a rather indirect hand in their creation and so we’re always looking for those kind of stories and right now there’s two stories that I really like that we’re working on.
The first story is a true story of a gentleman named Desmond Doss and Desmond Doss grew up poor in Tennessee in a tiny one-room house and his mother was a devout Christian and his father was a raging alcoholic and they had a tapestry of the 10 Commandants on their wall. Desmond used to look over at the picture of Thou Shalt Not Kill and there was a picture of Cain killing Abel and Desmond would say to his mother, “I don’t get that. How could a man kill his own brother?” And his mother said to him, “Desmond, you’ve got to understand the human heart is capable of every good and every evil and you always have to watch out for that.”
A week later after she told her son about this, his alcoholic father went into the house, having a fight with Desmond’s uncle, his own brother, and he went in to get the gun and went out to shoot his own brother, take his own brother’s life.
The mother got out, heroically intervened, handed the gun to Desmond and said, “You need to go bury this gun because if the police find it, your father could go to jail for a long time.”
Desmond went outside in his backyard, buried that gun, looked up into the heavens and said, “Okay, God. I now understand how a man could take his own brother’s life. Thank you for sparing them. I promise you I’ll never touch a gun as long as I live.” Ten years later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. First person to show up in line to register for the draft is Desmond Doss and they said, “Is there anything else we need to know about you?” He said, “Yeah. I refuse to carry a gun.” They said, “Okay. You’re a conscientious objector. You get over there.” He goes, “I’m not a conscientious objector. I’m a conscientious cooperator. I just can’t carry a gun.” And they said, “What kind of religion is this that says that you can’t carry a gun?” He said, “I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about a relationship. I made a promise to God that I wouldn’t carry a gun and I’m not going to break that promise.”
So Desmond goes through all of these different things, court martials and everything else. Everyone is trying to kick this guy out. He wants to be a medic because it’s his belief that in war you need people who will take life and people who will save life and he just wanted to be on the saving life side.
Finally, he’s able to win things as a medic and when everyone else is going through their maneuvers, practicing with guns, Desmond is going back to his Eagle Scout days and he’s practicing making different knots out of different ropes and once again he’s the object of scorn and derision because people are like, oh, look, Doss is going to save us all from the enemy with his ropes. You better watch out and so they get to Okinawa and they were set up.
Desmond’s unit was actually set up for an ambush. One hundred and twenty people were left to die at the top of this escarpment and they were treated. Desmond Doss, against the orders of his commander, climbed up the side of that rock and lowered 120 men down to safety and the way he was able to lower them down to safety was because he had this elaborate knot that he was doing when everyone else was practicing with the rifles and they were teasing him that that would never—it ended up saving nearly all of his men.
The next day, Doss went into battle. He was shot to ribbons and when he got to the Mercy Ship for the first time, his fellow men saw him collapse into tears and they said, listen, we have morphine, don’t worry, you’ll feel better. He said, “I’m not crying about the pain. I’m crying because I lost my Bible,” the Bible that had sustained him, that his fiancée gave him at the train station, the Bible that he was never without throughout the entire war. So this commander who was once a skeptic radios back and he’s like, “Guys, you’ve got to find Doss’s Bible.”
So now all these people that made his life really difficult are risking their lives looking everywhere, looking behind rocks, as they’re taking enemy fire, looking for the Word of God. Desmond Doss went on to become the first and only conscientious objector to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor and after he got the Congressional Medal of Honor, he got a gift from his men which was the Bible that they made sure that they had found. The reason why I love that story is I don’t think that we really appreciate paradox anymore.
Paradox is a very key part of the New Testament and we’re always trying to reconcile things and the stories that I love are the stories about slave traders that become abolitionists, conscientious objectors that become war heroes, and that’s the kind of transformational thing I think that can happen when people have a deep abiding trust and love in our Creator.
MR. CROMARTIE: Where did you hear the Desmond Doss story?
MR. FLAHERTY: There was a documentary, The Conscientious Objector, that was done that maybe only played like in one or two Christian film festivals and a producer found it and brought it to us and it’s an amazing story and about two years ago—I love talking about Desmond Doss and talking about his pacifism.
One of the things that’s interesting right now that’s happening is the growth of global Christianity. I think that not only is that a story that’s not being told, it’s certainly not a story that Hollywood is telling.
You think about people were talking about Egypt earlier but what’s going to happen to those 10 million or so Coptic Christians? This is the front lines. I mean, these are people risking their lives because of what they believe and in one place where this is really interesting, which I think could make a great film, and again we’re not making it, but some day I hope that someone could come in with a great idea, is what’s happening in China and there’s two interesting things that are happening.
Both of them have been brought to light by a good friend of mine who’s in Bible study, whose name is Chai Ling. Chai Ling was the Supreme Commander at Tiananmen Square and so she was the person that you see on top of the boxes with the megaphone, talking to everybody, trying to rally the troops, and after the tanks rolled in that night, Ling was rescued by a community of Buddhists who all risked their lives to get her over to Hong Kong and after that, she made her way to France and then she became one of these classic American stories.
She went to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, got her Master’s there, then worked at Bane, then went to Harvard Business School, and then started a very successful business. Ten years before that, she was in a crate being smuggled around different provinces in China.
So it really is sort of the American dream, but she also felt an enormous emptiness and she said, “I can’t believe this. Here I am. I’ve had all the material things I thought that I ever wanted and I feel just as empty as I felt as when I was in Tiananmen,” and she realized that the reason why she felt so empty was because she hadn’t accepted God into her life and so Ling became a Christian and then asked God what is it that you expect me to do next?
Ling is always dying to get back into China. She still to this day, I think, is fourth on the Most Wanted List in China. So she can’t go back, but the one thing that she is really dedicating her life to now is abolishing China’s one-child policy which is, you know, a pretty pure unmistakable form of evil that not many people are doing anything about.
I mean, I think if you want to review the numbers very quickly, I think that there’s basically a hundred million girls missing in China right now because of selective abortion. The ancient preference for boys over girls that takes place in China that’s happening there and also the one-child policy, if you really think about it, how do you enforce a coercive policy like this if someone gets pregnant? Well, you kill the baby and so in a lot of these provinces in China where this is happening is when women are getting pregnant, they are being forced to have abortions. She’s brought back some pretty compelling pictures from China, official government slogans that say things like “10 Graves Are Better Than One Birth,” and what’s happening there is coupled with the fact that there’s now probably over 100 million Christians and these people are really believers in the Gospel and they’re doing everything they can to carry out and protect the innocent. So you have these two things that are really starting to come into opposition.
And then at the same time, you also have a population where I think right now there’s probably somewhere between 30 and 40 million men in China of marriage age that will never get married. So the disparity is continuing to grow and it’s out of control right now.
When you think about that, that’s sort of the equivalent of the entire American male population that’s eligible for marriage. So picture if not a single American was eligible for marriage right now, and knew that he would never get married. What would happen there?
So those are the kinds of things that we’re hoping to do in the future and from my perspective, there’s nothing that makes for a better story and nothing is more powerful in terms of that real transformational element than when somebody lets God into their life and really does their best to put God in charge. Again everything from children’s literature to historical biographies, there’s so many great examples of this, and I’d just love to take some questions now.
MR. CROMARTIE: Great. Thank you, Micheal.
Well, I get the first question. Have you had some commercial success with these movies?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yes. Well, as Phil likes to say, he’s got three different kinds of businesses. He has his for-profit businesses, his not-for-profit businesses, and his intended-for-profit businesses, and we fall into the intended-for-profit category, but it’s all rather up and down because, you know, we’re in a hits business.
So sometimes when a movie like Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe comes out, Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe made $750 million at the box office. It made probably another half a billion dollars in DVDs and everything else, but these films are really expensive to make. You know, they can cost over $200 million and the cost to advertise them also can be over a $100 million.
So it’s incredibly capital-intensive and I think one of the things that’s going to make a big difference is when people figure out not only how to make movies for less (people have proven that they can do that). The real challenge is how do you get the word out about a great movie and how do you advertise these movies for less because until you can get over—I think the average cost for advertising a movie is about $40 million and so that’s even if you make—I’m sure you guys saw Paranormal Activity or heard about that, the movie that was made for $15,000.
Well, it was $15,000 plus the $30 million that Paramount spent advertising it. So that’s the other part of the equation that really needs to get figured out and I think with social media, there is a real possibility for that, as well. More stories can be told.
MR. CROMARTIE: And before I move to our colleagues, what was your role in Waiting for Superman?
MR. FLAHERTY: Well, we’ve always been interested in education as a civil rights issue and so we’re always out there looking for a project and we’re actually starting to shoot a film in May called Still I Rise, the title comes from the great Maya Angelou poem, about what happens when two mothers refuse to wait any more.
So many times, moms are told, yeah, the school’s going to get better, just give us another year, give us another two years, and then, you know, you’ve run out of time and so after that movie played at Sundance, I read a review of it and we called Participant, who were the producers, and we asked them, can we buy into this movie? And so we came alongside Participant as producers of that.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Paul Farhi.
PAUL FARHI, The Washington Post:Thanks very much, Micheal. I’m wondering what you see as the spiritual dimension of Waiting for Superman, if there is such a dimension to it, as opposed to plain old public policy.
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. We don’t exclusively do spiritual films. So I don’t really see a spiritual dimension to Waiting for Superman. I do think, however, though, that the Church is now starting to get heavily involved in education reform and I really think that they could make a really positive mark if they got more involved.
You know, with Martin Luther King, I think in his letter from Birmingham jail, where he says, “too often people tell us to wait” because if you remember, Dr. King was criticized by people who were alongside him, saying take your time. Don’t upset the apple cart, we gotta go slowly at this, and it was Dr. King who said wait means never, justice delayed is justice denied, and that’s what’s happening right now, particularly in an issue like public education where poor minority communities are so adversely affected.
For me, I do see a strong spiritual dimension in that ed reform debate. We’d like to bring up more about it but this whole idea that we don’t worry about other people’s children and that we’re only fighting for our own kids and we have—if we really look at these people and consider them sons and daughters of God in the same way that our own children are, I think that’s what’s going to have to happen.
If it continues to be a public policy debate, I don’t think anything’s ever going to get done. If it becomes a true social justice civil rights issue, then there might be a chance.
MR. CROMARTIE: Now, let me ask you—I have several people on the list but I want to jump in.
What about the movie—and maybe you can’t speak to this on the record but the movie—the Narnia movies. I understand that there’s been some argument about the content of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the various themes.
Have you all been able to navigate that debate about what can and cannot be done in a Hollywood movie?
MR. FLAHERTY: I tried and I gave up and I think this is something that Jim Daly goes through and a lot of people go through and, you know, Tolstoy wrote about this. He just says, I can’t believe this, that here I am with the Russian Orthodox people and they’re telling me, don’t listen to those Methodists and those Episcopalians. They don’t know anything and then I go and talk to the Methodists and it’s like, oh, those Russian Orthodox people are off their rocker, don’t listen to them.
When we’re developing these films, internally there will be a lot of discussion about what to include and what not to include and there’s a pivotal scene at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which is basically the Gospel which is when Aslan comes back from the dead, Lucy and Susan look at him and say, “Well, how’d you do it? I saw you die,” and Aslan says, “Well, there’s a deeper magic, and it was written that when an innocent person gives up his life for a traitor, that time will stop and death itself will be reversed.”
Beautiful line and right up until about a month before we locked the film, the line was, “There’s a deeper magic. It’s based on what’s right and what’s wrong. Always do right,” which is a totally different movie and he should have kept going with some hygiene tips from Jeffrey, comb your hair, brush your teeth, always do what’s right, and so there was an internal battle over that and then we did it right, but then even once that’s out there, you get criticized.
The same thing happened on Amazing Grace the day that that movie came out. A big thing in the Wall Street Journal about how Wilberforce’s life was whitewashed and this is a film where I fought to have lines put in there like “I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great savior,” you know, “Christianity leads to action as well as meditation,” and so there’s always going to be people out there saying you didn’t do enough and that’s the one that really sort of grates on me the most but you just have to start to accept it.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Mike Gerson, then Dan, and then Shelby and Tom and Fred.
MICHAEL GERSON, The Washington Post: You asked my question.
MR. CROMARTIE: The one I asked?
MR. GERSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Excellent.
MR. FLAHERTY: That also came up in Voyage of The Dawn Treader, too. At the very end of that film, you know, you have Reepicheep, a foot and a half of courage, you know, the brave mouse who’s always running around and Reepicheep’s great because he represents Lewis’s sort of faith based on reason because Lewis finally came around and he said, “Well, look, if I’m hungry, I can eat, if I’m thirsty, I can drink, if I’m horny, I can have sex, but what do I do about this sort of other hole that I can’t get any sort of satisfaction for? It must be that I wasn’t made for this world. I was made for another world and that’s the God-shaped hole,” and that’s what happens at the end of The Voyage of the Drawn Treader. They get to Aslan’s country, Heaven, in Narnia, and Reepicheep decides that he wants to go on and that we had a lot of discussions over that scene, as well, in terms of how that would be done and it was interesting and again I recommend Lisa Miller’s book on Heaven for people who haven’t read it yet.
We decided that we were going to just stick with what Lewis did because if the second you start to see Heaven, it’s always going to fall short. So all we wanted to do was sort of see the look on Reepicheep’s eyes that he had finally made it there and not represent that and then there’s also that line at the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the book where Aslan says, you know, “In your world I have another name. You must learn to know me by it. That’s the whole reason why you came to Narnia by knowing me here a little you will know me better there.”
And so everyone had their eyes on that line. Would it be in? Would it be in? And not being there, again the battle went on right up until towards the end. The line got in there but then, you know, Liam Neeson and some other producers were asked about the meaning of that line and they were like, oh, no, no, I don’t really think of Aslan as Christ. He’s more kind of like Buddha and he’s more like Mohammad and he’s more—so I remember my wife reading me the article and she says there goes your day. And so, for the rest of the day, we’re doing damage control on that kind of stuff.
But, you know, these guys are actors and it’s always tough when they get drawn into really tricky theological questions and debates and, you know, as long as they’re delivering the line and doing it well, I mean, I really don’t care what they think behind it.
MR. CROMARTIE: Dan Gilgoff. Dan, you’re up.
DAN GILGOFF, CNN: It seems like a lot of your films could be described as Christian films, at the same time they’re not kind of ostentatiously Christian, like—
MR. FLAHERTY: Correct.
MR. GILGOFF:—a film like The Passion of the Christ which I think provoked a lot of us to start paying much more attention to films that were overtly Christian, that were marketed to Christian audiences, and I’m wondering if your films appeal to a Christian audience but certainly to a much broader audience and so you don’t have to be one or the other to take in one of those films and to find meaning in it.
And I’m wondering how much of that is by design. Are you responding to a trend of Christian media from a previous generation that you felt tried too much to bang you over the head with its Christianity or to proselytize and how much stuff comes to you that you kind of reject for that reason, if that’s part of your MO?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yes. Well, what was interesting was sort of for the first decade it was easy because we were just going by that reading list and what’s amazing is those books that kids read, they all have those great themes and the stories behind those stories are amazing.
Bridge to Terabithia is a story, as I told you earlier, about the little girl who dies at the end of that movie and the boy is left struggling with the reasons for trying to figure out why that all happened. The woman who wrote that book, Katherine Patterson, her son lost his best friend when she was only in the second grade. She got struck by lightening and died.
So his mom wrote that book as a way for her son to try to heal and for us, what we’re really interested in is the big questions and so religion answers a lot of those. Science, you know, answers a lot of those and so what is truth, what is justice, what is friendship, what is loyalty, that’s what we always go after, and if, in the basis of the story, there’s someone in there that represents the spiritual point of view, that’s great.
This is going to sound very Hollywood but my therapist wrote a book that we did a documentary on and—
—he’s a professor at Harvard, his name’s Armond Nicolai, and for 30 years Armond has been teaching a class at Harvard that says the way that the world looks at the big questions, why do bad things happen to good people, is there life after death, can basically be looked at one of two ways. Can be looked at through a spiritual lens, best articulated by C.S. Lewis, or it can be looked at through a secular lens, best articulated through Sigmund Freud. So I’ve always thought that was a really interesting way to approach things, and as long as the people are representing their point of views to the best degree possible, for me, someone that really believes in the Holy Spirit, as long as you can get people asking the questions…
I think too long we try to do the work of the Holy Spirit. If we can just get people’s minds on these big questions, they’ll eventually discover the truth.
MR. CROMARTIE: Shelby Coffey.
SHELBY COFFEY, Newseum: This is a question of beyond the fifth grade reading list. Where are you looking now for particular stories? Books? Documentaries? You’ve mentioned a couple in passing.
Secondly, in terms of the influences on your own work in writing the scripts and working with them, you obviously have to pay attention to the rest of the media landscape. So what movies are you seeing that you wouldn’t make that you have to think about being an influence on the viewing habits of the audiences you’re trying to reach and have to take into account in your own construction of the story?
MR. FLAHERTY: In terms of where we’re looking right now, we’re still looking at books but that’s sort of been picked clean. There aren’t that many books out there in the children’s literature space that have big followings. There’s one that we love called The Giver which is a fantastic book about, you know, this dystopia.
One of the things we’re seeing right now is the biggest thing out there right now for kids, it was wizards and then it was vampires and now it’s dystopias. It’s a pretty amazing thing to look at.
The best-selling series out there right now is a series called The Hunger Games and has anyone here read that one? It’s an unbelievable read. It’s one of the best page-turners I’ve read in the last few years. It’s again about this dystopia that has 13 different districts and each year there’s a lottery where one boy and one girl is chosen from each district to fight to the death on a reality show until only one person is left standing.
There’s so many of those kind of stories and a lot of people look at those and think they’re sort of bleak and what does this say about spirituality and I think it reflects a really sort of healthy response because what always happens is our hero in these things rejects materialism and because the woman that wins the hunger game, she can have a life of luxury and comfort the rest of her life and she rejects it to take on this totalitarian regime. The same thing happens in The Giver. These people are always taking those things on.
We’re publishing our own books now and so for us that’s one way around the really expensive route of developing—just seeing if it will work and investing a $100 million in a story and that’s been a big help. We got lucky and one of the first books we published won the Newberry Medal which is a prestigious thing for kids literature.
MR. CROMARTIE: What book was that?
MR. FLAHERTY: It’s called Savvy. It’s about a home-schooled Christian family that goes on a pink bus to save their father that’s in a coma. Home-schooled Christian families, I thought were going to be up there with vampires and zombies, but that genre hasn’t taken off but we’re hoping, and so we’re developing that into a movie.
We’re finding great screenwriters. Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote the book Millions, which was a great movie that Danny Boyle directed, he wrote a book for us called Cosmic which is a great book about parenting. That’s where we’re looking, and then in terms of films that we wouldn’t make, I can’t—I just love movies, so I can’t think of that many that we wouldn’t do.
MR. COFFEY: I meant, what were you seeing that was influencing where you see these are the films that younger people are looking at, they’re influenced by that then influence what you do, not necessarily—
MR. FLAHERTY: Oh, yeah.
MR. COFFEY:—what you would make.
MR. FLAHERTY: It’s amazing when you look at book sales and again this is something that no one in Hollywood really does and also just talking to librarians. Librarians can predict before a book comes out how it’s going to do. It is really amazing. They have a sixth sense and it makes sense because they’re pros. This is what they do and they really understand stories. They understand the components of a story, the elements of a great story.
We just talk to them in terms of children’s stories. They really know where it’s going and, for example, there was this book series Diary of a Wimpy Kid and we tried to do that and we decided not to. It wasn’t commercial. The sequel opened last weekend, a $25 million opening weekend, bigger than Narnia, and so, and it cost like, less than lunch, and so it’s amazing but if you look at Narnia, just as an example,—
MR. COFFEY: If it makes you feel any better, Irving Thalberg took a pass on Gone With The Wind on the grounds that no civil war movie ever made a nickel.
MR. FLAHERTY: You know, there’s a lot of those kind of things. People love to generalize like that but with Narnia, the thing that amazed me was Lion, Witch, came out and we thought, oh, this is easy. There’s six more of these things and it’s just—you know, we can just keep printing money and then Prince Caspiancame out and it made half of what Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe made. Then I looked at the book sales and Prince Caspian only sold half of the books of Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then Voyage of the Dawn Treader came out over Christmas and it sold 50 percent less tickets here in the U.S. than Prince Caspian sold and then perfect correlation, 50 percent less in terms of book sales.
And so it is pretty amazing and there are always—you know, there are exceptions to these things but these are stories that have been around for 60 years and readers have been able to make their choice about what they like and what they don’t like and so, I actually love The Magician’s Nephew. It’s my favorite book in Narnia and so I try to use that book to try and couch it in real business philosophy.
That’s how we got to do Magician’s Nephew next because Silver Chair, which is next in the sequence, that sold the fewest books out of all of them, and so that it’s good to look at those book sales, to look at those trends and then also just to talk to kids and teachers and librarians.
MR. CROMARTIE: Tom is next, then Fred, and Sally. Tom?
TOM KRATTENMAKER, USA Today: Dan asked the question I was going to ask, so compliments to you, but let me take it out to a broader context.
I’m interested in the whole notion of sort of Christian culture, Christian rock music, Christian magazines, Christian media. I know some edgy young evangelical musicians who hate the whole idea of doing Christian rock music and are breaking out of that.
Maybe you could comment on what you see happening in this regard, maybe on the wisdom, the whole idea of having this enclave Christian pop culture.
MR. FLAHERTY: Yes. I forget what the exact Lewis quote is but we don’t need more Christian novelists, we need more novelists who are Christians. I like a lot of that music. I like a lot, but I think it’s self-defeating and this whole ghetto that’s been built up really marginalizes us and when I look at one of the most successful musicals in the history of Broadway theater, Les Miserables, I mean, it doesn’t get any more on the nose Christian than Les Miserables.
You know, “my soul belongs to God, I know I made that promise long ago, gave me hope and hope is gone, strength to carry on,” I mean, but no one calls that a Christian musical and then you, you know, read U2’s lyrics, you read interviews with Bono where he talks about grace. You go to a U2 concert and he puts a psalm to words but no one’s calling them a Christian band and so I think what people should do is not retreat one inch from what they love and what inspires them and what they like, but I do think that it would be helpful for them just to go out there and just be known as great artists because a lot of these folks that are Christian musicians, they can compete on any level and then there’s sort of the backlash where you have people who just go nuts.
“We’re not a Christian band, man, don’t call us that,” and so it’s just that whole problem with labels, you know. Are you a Christian band or aren’t you? And then there’s that great story of The Fray got rejected, I think, by every Christian music label because they didn’t have enough JPMs, Jesuses Per Minute, in their songs and so they—
—sent their disk on Sony and it goes on to be, you know, number one album on Billboard and so that was the best thing that ever happened to them, that they went out there in the mainstream.
And again, you listen to those lyrics, they’re about longing and suffering and redemption and reconciliation and, you know, one of their number one songs was about a conversation with God. “Where were you when everything was falling apart?” Very direct. So in terms of all that, there’s a lot of Christian music and Christian films and everything else I love but I just love them on their own because they’re great stories and great musicians who are contributing to all that.
MR. CROMARTIE: Before we go to Fred, Fred Barnes is next, you’ve mentioned Lisa Miller’s book at least three times. Are you going to do a movie about Lisa’s book?
LISA MILLER, Newsweek/Daily Beast: How about optioning that?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. You know what I think? And it’s available on Kindle. So if people are looking for it, but, no, what’s great about that is, you know, there’s just not much in Scripture about that and I think that there are a lot of films, and the great thing about films is they deal with the supernatural. They deal with other worlds.
I mean, you mentioned Lovely Bones in your book and for Peter Jackson that was a big challenge for him cinematically. How do I represent Heaven because when people read the book, it’s a 14-year-old girl’s idea of what Heaven is going to be like and I think that’s one of the reasons that movie disappointed, is because it always is going to fall short.
The writer for Wired, I forget who—Kevin Kelly. This is where I see Lisa’s book going, is Kevin Kelly’s book was mandatory reading before people filmed The Matrix. The Matrix wasn’t based on his writing but in order to understand where society was heading, people read it and I really think that for anyone that has any component of other worlds and everything else, it’s all right there and the people in Hollywood would love it because you really don’t have to give you attribution because you can just read it and just say, oh, yeah, well, let me give you a little history on this because you’ve pulled it all into one place. It’s fantastic.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Fred Barnes.
FRED BARNES, The Weekly Standard: I wanted to follow up about Christian movies, I mean, really specifically Christian movies. I see a lot of ads in Christian magazines for movies that are not scheduled at my neighborhood theater anyway and I assume they’re just circulated among churches and at least distributed that way.
I have seen a couple of these Christian movies made by that church in Albany, Georgia. Facing the Giants was one about a football team and the other one, I can’t remember the name of the other one. They made about three or four of them, which—Fireproof, yeah. I have seen Fireproof.
They are professional but not as professional as movies you all make. So my question is this: Is there a serious movement among Christians to make movies and do you see this leading to movies that would be appealing to a secular audience?
MR. FLAHERTY: I think so, and it’s interesting when you watch Facing the Giants and then watch Fireproof. You see the improvements these guys are making.
MR. BARNES: Indeed.
MR. FLAHERTY: And I just love the fact that they’re in the ring and that’s the best way to learn, is just to get out there and start to make these films and they’re getting better at their craft. They’re getting better at story-telling and that’s what I love to see because film, it’s tough because there’s maybe only between a hundred and 150 major releases each year.
So to be one of those 150 is tough and there’s so many people just sitting there waiting tables and doing other things waiting to get their shot rather than just going out there and making the films.
So I have seen more of that and the problem is, and I’ve hit the lottery. I totally lucked out in terms of how I fell into this business, but it’s certainly not a scalable model, as the investors like to tell us, and I think too many—there’s no bench.
You know, there’s no bench strength in Hollywood for Christians and I think that everyone is getting out of film school and there’s this idea of let me become a director and it’s something kind of interesting that I’m noticing about some of these younger believers, is that really trying to explain to them the whole idea of paying your dues and at the same time explaining to them the idea of living your life. It’s probably not the best idea to move to Hollywood when you’re 21 and expect that you’re going to have some real great stories to share. Go live your life, travel, do some different experiences, do things.
So I think that there needs to be a bit of an attitude shift there, too, in terms of how it can all happen.
MR. CROMARTIE: But one part of Fred’s question was do you see more of this happening?
MR. FLAHERTY: Oh, without a doubt, but the problem is people are divorcing production from distribution and there are a lot of great people who invest in these films. I mean, films aren’t cheap, no matter how you do it. So you see one of those movies and you know that someone has been separated from at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, probably millions, to get that film made but it was made without any idea of how to bring it to market, and there’s only, you know, maybe five studios that are out there and once your film is done, as you can imagine, you don’t have much negotiation strength when you only have five places to go and you were sitting on this million dollar asset that has a lot of interest against each month. So you’ll take anything to get it out into the theaters.
What would be great is if a lot of filmmakers would get together and figure out how to create a distribution pipeline.
SPEAKER: They call it United Artists.
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. Exactly. I think the name’s for sale. Yeah. There’s something that could be done there.
So that’s the thing, Fred, yes, there’s more and more of those movies but still no real thought to how they’re going to distribute them and that’s been the biggest problem.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Sally Quinn, and then Lisa Miller.
SALLY QUINN, The Washington Post:Well, first, I would like to reiterate what you said about Lisa’s book which is absolutely fabulous. Everyone should read it, if they haven’t read it, go out and buy it immediately, because—
MR. CROMARTIE: The title is again?
MS. QUINN: And it should be—Heavenit’s called and it should be a movie.
But you were—just following up on the Hollywood question, how are you viewed in Hollywood? It is a rather secular industry, and do people see you as a little weird or kind of a nut, you know, religious nut or do they take your success—excuse me for being blunt here. Or do they take your success well? Do they sort of look at what you’ve done, oh, my God, he really is making a difference here?
MR. FLAHERTY: One of the things I’m lucky about is I don’t live there, I live in Boston, and so I go there maybe twice a month and so I’m not there much, so I don’t know much in terms of what’s happening.
“There’s no greater story than someone who has been redeemed, someone who’s reconciled, someone who has turned a leaf and gone on to have a completely new life.”
I do know that the proper perception is that I’m lucky because so many other people, the way that they get into Hollywood is they have to work their way up and they’re assistants for a few years and they’re treated awfully and then they’re junior development and, you know, I bypassed that. And then when I tell them I bypassed that through providence then you can imagine where the conversation goes.
So that does lead to, you know, the weirdness questions and—
MS. QUINN: Give us a little dialogue.
MR. FLAHERTY: What’s that?
SPEAKER: How do I meet this guy Providence?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah.
Is he funding other companies? No. You know, what’s interesting is there probably is—any conversation that happens about faith quickly degenerates into questions about politics and it’s really hard to engage people with conversations.
The irony, the paradox of all this is when you talk about Jesus, you’re a lot better off. When you talk about Christianity, you’re kind of hosed, and so people think that the more general they are about things, the more that they can get away with it.
I’ve had a lot more luck, the more that I’m on the nose about it and the more that I talk about it, and then I think the other key thing to talk about is just story-wise is talking about redemption and rehabilitation and never presenting ourselves as cradle-to-grave saints and talking about the fact that so may heroes of our faith were murderers and prostitutes and liars and adulterers and—
MS. QUINN: They get that in Hollywood, right?
MR. FLAHERTY: Exactly, yes. So there, there you go.
MS. QUINN: They can identify.
MR. FLAHERTY: They really can. Look, the biggest question Jesus ever got was what’s in it for me. So they definitely get that one in Hollywood.
But, yes, it’s good. I have just no idea if there even is a perception. I think there’s a perception of the company, that it’s a Christian company and there’s probably, out of 70 people, four Christians, and so, you are the movies that you make.
So, ultimately, any judgment that people have or any opinion that they’re going to render, they’ll base it on the films that you make and I think that people are trying to figure it out because for so long family films were defined by what’s not in them. You know, there’s no swearing, there’s no sex, there’s no fun, and when we came out there, ours were a little different. They had alcoholism and separation and death and all kinds of other things.
So we wanted to have our family movies be a little different.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. The author of Heaven, Lisa Miller, is up.
MS. MILLER: I wrote a check for Micheal, it’s in your room.
MR. FLAHERTY: All right. Cool. Thanks. That was the arrangement.
MS. MILLER: Thank you so much. I wanted to ask you about Walmart. There’s this idea out there that Walmart is now the biggest distributor of Christian books in America and that the Christian bookstores have largely failed and that at Walmart they have a very sort of rigorous vetting process about what they will and won’t sell until the book actually starts selling so well that they have to carry it.
And I guess I wonder, is that true? Have you come up against it? Do you have to target your books and your films to pass the Walmart test?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yes. We’ve never—we only make G and PG movies, so we’ve never had that problem, but their influence is unbelievable. It’s greater than half of all the DVDs. For family films, it can be over 60 percent and so if you’re not in Walmart, you’re out of business, and the interesting thing is going to be what are they going to do with that power. You know, are they going—they’ve just started to do some films on television, some network television movies, and the next day they’re available for sale in Walmart. That’s an unbelievable competitive advantage that those films will have and so the next question is, well, what kind of stories are they going to tell with that kind of platform and that influence, and ultimately, with Walmart, the bottom line always wins.
I mean, the stories of Sam Walton’s biography being shipped back to the publisher when they couldn’t sell it, those stories are legend. So they always will be driven by that but they have been really—I’m not just saying this because they control 60 percent of the business, but they have been great partners and they’re really interested in this idea.
They recognize the power. They recognize the influence that they have. For example, on Amazing Grace, we couldn’t get a distributor for that movie. We had a really hard time getting notice with it and Walmart was great because they treated it like it was a big release. The best thing about that was one of the things we did to try to make Amazing Grace relevant to today’s people is we tied it into modern day slavery and so every effort, every marketing piece we had came along with ideas about what’s happening with modern day slavery, talking about groups like International Justice Mission and Salvation Army, and all these groups that are combating modern day slavery and so that even people who didn’t see the movie thought we were doing some good. Walmart actually ran that PSA in their stores, drawing attention to modern day slavery and talking about the—
MR. CROMARTIE: PSA means?
MR. FLAHERTY: Public Service Announcements.
Yeah. They’ve been really good partners, but it’s amazing and it is sort of sad to see what’s happened with the Christian bookstores because they’ve almost surrendered. Because one day I remember they were looking for us to advertise in their magazine and they just said, look, even though people don’t shop here anymore, they still look in the magazine to find out what’s available before they go buy it at Walmart and so people will—they won’t buy it at our store but they’ll still see it if you advertise in our magazine. So how’s that for turning the other cheek?
MS. MILLER: Yeah.
MR. FLAHERTY: So, very powerful players.
MS. MILLER: But I guess I’m wondering is there an explicit or implicit Christian world view among the buyers there?
MR. FLAHERTY: Again, I think it’s all bottom line. That’s what I get because it’s not as if any of the other stuff gets favored or disfavored and because we’re in such a safe middle, the question just never comes up.
MS. MILLER: Yeah, yeah.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Next is Jeffrey Goldberg, then Clare, then Tim.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: I have just sort of two related questions. I’m curious if you’ve been tempted to make a PG-13 or an R-rated movie, not because you’re looking for prurience but because if you’re telling stories of redemption, you have to tell stories of sin and sin can sometimes come in an R-rated fashion and Lisa Miller covers that in her next book.
MS. MILLER: Hell.
MR. GOLDBERG: Hell. That’s right.
MS. MILLER: The sequel.
MR. FLAHERTY: If you loved Heaven, you’ll love Hell and Purgatory.
MR. GOLDBERG: And Purgatory. Right, right. That’s called publishing, actually.
MR. FLAHERTY: It’s been done. It’s called Dante.
MR. GOLDBERG: Could you do Dante is the question, actually? The sort of related question I have is what are your actual favorite movies, not Christian movies, but movies? And movies that have Christian themes but weren’t made to be sort of Christian movies?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. You know, our rule is G or PG but I see so many opportunities for PG-13 and R-rated movies, you know. Unbroken, the book that’s out now, that’s definitely going to be a PG-13 movie, but it’s going to be fantastic.
MR. GOLDBERG: I mean, do you have a firm policy—I mean, is it—
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. We only do G or PG. We did a PG-13 once, Ray, the movie about Ray Charles, and again to make an X-rated life, you know, PG-13 was a challenge.
MR. CROMARTIE: You all did Ray?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. That was one where—this is where we’re just so blessed to have an investor like Phil because he read the script and he loved it. He loved Ray Charles. He loved his music and we went to every distributor and they said, well, look, let me show you the numbers here. Bio pics don’t make much money and then African American bio pics, those don’t make any money. Will Smith’s the biggest star on the planet and he couldn’t go get people to see Mohammed Ali, so no one’s going to go see this In Living Colorguy playing Ray Charles and Phil, in his great way, just said, “Well, that’s interesting but irrelevant. I’m making it,” and so he went and financed it with no distributor, $35 million. And it actually makes it a lot easier on us to stay focused on those G or PG because it’s—there’s plenty to do that’s there and there’s plenty of PG kind of problems.
The one time it really came up was when we wanted to invest in World Trade Center and I got a call from Oliver Stone just out of the blue. He goes like, “Look, you guys got a perception problem. Everyone thinks you’re really right wing and I got a problem, everyone thinks I’m really left wing and let’s get together and like really F with their minds,” and so—
In the way that only he can ask and that’s, you know, a fantastic story. I mean, those guys never should have survived and it was their faith that brought them through there.
So, yeah, I mean, there are—I loved Saving Private Ryan, one of the best movies ever made, R-rated film, and one of my favorites. It’s A Wonderful Lifeis my all-time, you favorite movie.
MR. CROMARTIE: Then there was another question in there, though. Did you get them all?
MR. GOLDBERG: He covered it. He covered it. No, no, no. The reason I was thinking, it just crossed my mind that, you know, The Godfather was my favorite movie, always struck me as essentially the biography of Satan and it has obviously—you know, it’s shot through with, sometimes overt, religious imagery but I’m wondering, you know is it simply a moral reason you will not make PG-13—
MR. FLAHERTY: Oh, no. It’s just more—
MR. GOLDBERG: You don’t want to put any boobs on the screen or something like that?
MR. FLAHERTY: No. It’s a stick-to-your-knitting kind of thing. You know, if we just want to stay in that realm, but—and this was the problem that happened when we were developing The Screw Tape Letters. You know, to get real specific in terms of what you’re talking about,—
MR. CROMARTIE: Are you doing that movie?
MR. FLAHERTY: No, because there is no PG Screw Tape Letters, and so as we were trying to do it and as we—
MR. GOLDBERG: You just can’t do it?
MR. FLAHERTY: We couldn’t figure out a way to do it and we didn’t want to do it wrong.
MR. CROMARTIE: Is it true possibly that Phil Anschutz will never do a movie that’s PG-13?
MR. FLAHERTY: Oh, no, no. That’s not it at all. I just think that you gotta think about the business in terms of, you got guys who all day long it’s their job to go out and get stories and everyone wants theirs to get made and people can be all over the place.
You have to start to draw the line and again it’s got nothing really to do with morality and anything else like that. It’s got to do more with the fact that there’s a great business proposition out there, if you can make a G or PG movie.
So for us, it’s much easier just to take that policy of the G or PG because otherwise people just get away with everything that they can before they get in there and they’ll just be running wild and there’s enough Diary Of a Wimpy Kids that we’re missing that are really lucrative, that are great PG movies, that, you know, if we expanded it and people felt like they could look for anything that they could sort of define in their own terms, we’d never get any work done and it becomes a debating society.
Once you open it up from there, well, they said penis breath in E.T., so why can’t we say penis breath, and it just—people are kind of missing the point.
MR. CROMARTIE: Claire Brinberg, and then Tim, and then Clare Duffy. Okay.
CLAIRE BRINBERG, ABC News: I remember reading all the Narnia Chronicles, all the books when I was in school, and I went to a predominantly Jewish school. We had no clue that Aslan was anything more than like a really cool lion. Then obviously you grow up and you’re like, oh, wait a second, I wonder what this is about.
So you partnered with Disney on that movie, I think, and that must have been a little bit of a marketing push pull. I remember doing stories on it and Disney was not trying to have any of the Jesus discussion whatsoever. I remember being in a really huge church in I think it was Ft. Lauderdale where there was Narnia Day in anticipation of the movie’s release and there was all sorts of press materials from Walden and a big kind of session and games and the pastor was very clear at the beginning to tell kids before they saw the movie that Aslan is Jesus just in case you’re confused when you go and see it. It was like a preemptive strike on his part.
So I’m just wondering how, if you’re trying to have a movie with such huge and broad commercial success but still have such overt Christian themes, that you walk the line, saying this is a Christian movie but it doesn’t have to be a Christian movie. What’s the marketing push pull there and what was that struggle working with a company like Disney that wants to make money?
MR. FLAHERTY: People just really over thought it and they got petrified about it. Rather than just coming right out and just saying exactly what you said and saying, yeah, we have—and C.S. Lewis wrote so much about this. The problem is he added to the confusion and he was on the record saying, well, it’s actually not an allegory. It’s a supposal, and try explaining that, you know, to a journalist for their one line. Is it Christian or not? You know, I got a deadline and so don’t tell me about supposals, you know, like we all thought it was on the level.
And so that was the thing. The cuter we tried to get about it and the more that we tried to talk around it, the bigger the hole that we dug for ourselves and so, yes, it was just a tightrope walk that we didn’t do that well and that’s why with Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we were just a lot more out in front, like, yep, Lewis was a Christian. He was on the cover of Time Magazine as the greatest apologist and these are books that are really enjoyed by believers and non-believers alike and Lewis himself wrote about that.
He said, “Look, there’s three different ways to enjoy my books. One, you can just read them and like them as great stories. Two, you can read them and see all the Christian symbolism in them and reject them, and, three, you can read them, see the symbolism and embrace them. I don’t care how you see it. I just hope you enjoy it.”
But again, it was just people just getting so nervous about getting dragged into the culture wars and then just a lot of feet inserted into mouths during that.
MR. CROMARTIE: Tim Dalrymple, you’re next.
TIMOTHY DALRYMPLE, Patheos.com:There’s a book called The Hobbit, also written by Lisa Miller, I think. I’m curious if you tried to option that or if it was gone already. I’m also curious about animated films. It seems that you’ve steered clear of those. And finally, you talked about integrating your efforts with education and so how has Walden done that? I’m particularly interested in—I know you home school and so have you guys sought to partner with any kind of home school curriculum developers?
MR. FLAHERTY: We—with The Hobbit, it was great because when we first started, it was just total Wild West, you know. It was myself and Cary. He was my college roommate and so we were just going out there, taking meetings with people, and I remember Cary coming back and saying, “I got The Hobbit,” and I said, “That’s amazing,” and then he said, “Yeah,” he goes, “But there’s a stipulation.” I said, “What’s the stipulation?” He goes, “It has to be an animated rock musical of The Hobbit, but we got the rights.”
So, yes, we did try to do an animated rock musical of The Hobbit with Creed but they never returned our calls. So, thank God, that one never got off the ground and, sorry, Tim, what was the other question after The Hobbit?
MR. DALRYMPLE: Animated and then education.
MR. FLAHERTY: Yes. Animated just we’ve never gotten around to that. I’d love to do it. We just—I tried to get Ferdinand, you know, one of my favorite books, more the passive history coming out here. You know, such a great story, and Fox actually got those rights because they have their own animation studio. So a lot of people that get those rights are people that have the studio to begin with.
And for home schooling, we’re always trying to do things. Lewis himself, you know, was home schooled and so the really fun—the thing that makes home schooling awesome is, it ranges from the home schoolers that we have in our neighborhood, who are the kids who just ride unicycles and their parents just want them to be themselves and it’s called unschooling, classic sort of Cambridge stuff that we have up there, and then to the other side of people that don’t want their kids ever having social security numbers, so it’s all over the place in terms of how wide the group is there.
But we are trying to do that and trying to figure out ways because it’s a huge exploding population, the number of people who are home schooling.
MR. CROMARTIE: And then education?
MR. FLAHERTY: Oh, on education, we—it’s funny because that’s getting a little frayed, our relationship with the NEA and the other unions that we used to work with—
MR. CROMARTIE: Used to work with?
MR. FLAHERTY:—in education. Yeah. We used to work very closely with the NEA, particularly on reading, and for us, when we first started, we tried to cover all the bases. So the first thing we did was we did 3-D documentaries with James Cameron. We did this one, Ghosts of the Abyss, and another one called Aliens of the Deep, and it was great.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that we were completely subsidizing James Cameron’s research in how to make 3-D movies and one of the guys that started the company with us, Josh Greer, I remember him coming into my office and saying, “Look, you know what, I think this is the future of story-telling, and I think what we need to do is really invest more in 3-D films and really even start to look into the business prospect of all this, of retrofitting some of these theaters.”
I remember saying to him, “Josh, that’s just a gimmick, just give it up. 3-D’s not going anywhere,” and Josh went out and started his own company called Real-D which went public in June. They’re the people that outfit all of the 3-D theaters and so that conversation was a $100 million ago in Josh’s world. So I was wrong in terms of anticipating where that went but instead of—so we do a lot of math and science around that but then we realized what we’re going to do is just focus on reading because nothing—the number one predictor of pretty much every socioeconomic problem we have in this country is the ability or the inability to read and so what we’re really trying to focus on is to get books to kids and also try to get some good reading instruction.
We work with the Harvard Ed School and the Jeanne Chall Reading Lab doing everything we can to try to get good models of teaching kids to read to parents and in Colorado, actually, one of the things that we did was working with the Harvard Ed School was every mother in 2011 that’s born is going to get this booklet on all the milestones to know that your kid’s on track to learn how to read and the idea is rather than looking for the instant solution, those third grade reading level scores are the most important, what we’re hoping to say is, out of the kids born in Colorado in 2011, the percentage of those kids who can read at grade level by third grade will increase substantially and so just really looking at the kids that are born this year and how do we get them better prepared.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Clare Duffy.
CLARE DUFFY, NBC Nightly News: This is a little bit like Jeff’s question about your favorite movies but not just your favorites but I’m wondering if you have any that you feel are just wonderful, perhaps probably unintentional depictions or dramatizations of great spiritual questions that stick out in your mind that you think like, I’d love to hit that same mark or something close to it in one of my own films. I’m just curious if you have any that you can think of.
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. For me, Les Mis is, you know, it’s perfection. That’s really as good as it gets. Another thing that we tried to do that was a little experimental was I always loved Cat Stevens’ music growing up and so when we started the company, we tracked him down and he came into our office and we had a great meeting with him trying to figure out different projects.
MR. CROMARTIE: Cat Stevens whose name is really?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yusuf—
MR. CROMARTIE: Jeffrey knows it.
MR. FLAHERTY:—Islam. What’s the story there? Can he be trusted or is there anything that you can say off the record?
MR. GOLDBERG: On the record, off the record. What do I care? Until he renounces his endorsement of the Fatwa calling for the execution of Salman Rushdie, I think we should put away our Tea for the Tillerman albums.
I used to like him. We used to listen to him in, you know, socialist Zionist camp in the ’70s and then one day he became Yusuf Islam and it’s like, oh, geez Louise.
“I think too long we try to do the work of the Holy Spirit. If we can just get people’s minds on these big questions, they’ll eventually discover the truth.”
MR. FLAHERTY: He never renounced that?
MR. GOLDBERG: No, no. He never renounced that.
MR. FLAHERTY: Oh, that’s amazing.
MR. GOLDBERG: Yeah. And, actually, you know, Rushdie got incredibly pissed off at Jon Stewart for having Cat Stevens at his rally and Jon Stewart, in a low moment for Jon Stewart, said, “I don’t care.” Basically, he said—you know Rushdie wrote Stewart and said, you know, “This guy has called for my execution for writing a book,” and Stewart said, “Yeah. I’m sorry about that,” but he didn’t do anything about it. He kept him on. It’s a very strange story.
MR. FLAHERTY: And for me, I mentioned Saving Private Ryan earlier. I like anything that shows faith in those really difficult moments in terms of people trying to rally, but then there are the other ones, like Tender Mercies. I don’t know if you ever saw that.
MR. CROMARTIE: With Robert Duvall.
MR. FLAHERTY: With Robert Duvall. That’s a fantastic movie, as well, but there’s a lot of them. Any ones that deal with grace, you know, those are my favorite ones.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NPR: This year, I think, a lot of the films at the Sundance Film Festival actually had religious themes, if not Christian themes. I’m wondering if you’re seeing these themes become more appealing to not just parents with eight-year-old kids but people like us, while some of us may have kids—okay. You know what I mean. People who are not looking for specific Christian themes or edifying themes but do you see a sophistication in religious films?
MR. FLAHERTY: A bit, but most of what I’m seeing is body-switching comedies and talking animal movies and so I haven’t had time to sort of see, you know, what the larger trends are there, but I’m very interested in this younger generation of kids that are growing up, when you look at their interests in spirituality, when you look at their interests in volunteering. When you look across the board, it’s a lot to be hopeful for, and these are kids who are into the big questions. They’re not scared of them and they’re really interested in dialogue and so hopefully that’s happening at Sundance. That’s just sort of a reflection of these younger kids that are coming into the system that are really thoughtful.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Paul, you’re up next.
MR. FARHI: I don’t quite know how to frame this question. Hollywood is perceived as Jewish and I wonder how that factors into the perception of someone who’s doing Christian themes. Is there some inherent resistance there because of the traditional Jewishness of Hollywood?
MR. FLAHERTY: Well, it doesn’t—it really doesn’t come up that much and also, I mean, I think you’re hitting on something that has really been forgotten which is the fact that our faith is based on a 1st Century rabbi and—
SPEAKER: JC was a Jew.
MR. FLAHERTY: But no. Really, the biggest challenges with a lot of the faith-based stuff are lapsed Catholics and Protestants. They’re the ones that say let me tell you how this world works. I grew up in this world. Let me tell you how it goes.
That’s the biggest challenge, you know, to faith-based films, are sort of lapsed Christians.
MR. CROMARTIE: People who’ve abandoned their past faith, ex-fundamentalists, people like that.
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Carl Cannon.
CARL CANNON, RealClearPolitics.com:Can you tell us, getting away from the faith part of it for one second, how it works? I was thinking of a movie. You did Winn-Dixie? That’s you?
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah.
MR. CANNON: Okay. So that’s, if memory serves, that’s a novel by Kate DeCamillo.
MR. FLAHERTY: Kate DeCamillo, yes.
MR. CANNON: I see you get—so how does it work? I mean, tell us, just walk us through the process. You get a director, you get a writer, you get a novel, you get the property. Then you—how do you do that? How do you find the director? How do you get the screenplay written? How much input does Phil Anschutz have? Just walk us through how you make it.
MR. FLAHERTY: If you—if there’s a book that you like, you first find out if the rights are available and then you option the book and the option price is, to make the math easy, there’s a price just to take it off the market for a period of time.
MR. CANNON: Can you talk about the details for that movie I named?
MR. FLAHERTY: For Winn-Dixie?
MR. CANNON: Yeah.
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. So, you know, Kate DeCamillo, this is before she won the Newbury for Tale of Despereaux, so it’s a new book, it hasn’t been out there that long, and then there’s an option price you take to take it off the market. Joan Singleton is the woman that wrote the screenplay. It was Joan’s daughters that read it at school and they loved it and so Joan got this idea and Joan, you know, she had produced Rambo, so she knew how to make a warm and cuddly movie about a dog, and she then optioned this and she wrote the screenplay and it was fantastic.
Then the thing is just to get the budget down to the—
MR. CANNON: She wrote the screenplay before coming to you?
MR. FLAHERTY: She wrote the screenplay with Fox and so then Fox had it and then they needed to bring on a director and the—
MR. CANNON: Who was the director?
MR. FLAHERTY: Dan, you’ve been the one that’s good with the quick answers here.
MR. CANNON: Who was the director?
MR. FLAHERTY: Was it Wayne Wang?
MR. CANNON: Yes, it was.
MR. FLAHERTY: Yeah. And so he came aboard and then they had to find the girl to play Opal and again an eight-year-old girl, she’s in every frame of that film. So the movie lives or dies on who you find for that and then the Fox casting people found this great actress, AnnaSophia Robb, who then went on to do Bridge to Teribithia for us, as well, a girl from Denver, great girl. She was home schooled at the time. She’d been in one McDonald’s ad or something. She hadn’t done much.
Then it was a movie about Florida. So we shot in Louisiana and when it came out, I think people were really surprised because it had a huge opening weekend.
MR. CANNON: But you didn’t even say when you got involved.
MR. FLAHERTY: Oh, okay. So we find out that Fox has the rights. We call Fox and we say would you guys, like a partner, with this film and at that point they have a script and they’re about to cast it and they say, yeah, we’d like one because we think this is risky and we don’t know how big the audience is for that one. Generally people will let you in if they’re nervous about the movie. They’re not going to let you in on Harry Potter and if you think you can have something to add to it.
So we come aboard in that situation which was a little anomalous at the script phase. Normally, it’s more common for us to find a book, call the author and the agent, negotiate book rights, hire the screenwriter ourselves, cast it ourselves, hire the director ourselves, and then there’s the ones where we’re along for the ride, like Winn-Dixie, and then Waiting for Superman is a particularly, you know, different example because that movie was done. We had absolutely no influence in that one, other than helping them market it and pay for it.
So it’s a real wide sort of gamut from, you know, Amazing Grace, you get one line, and those are the funnest ones obviously, and you get to go from this one single sentence idea about how to make a movie into seeing it on the screen. Then there are the other ones that you just love, you know, like Waiting for Superman and you’re just happy that you were able to help them financially and then there’s all kinds of different layers in between.