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The Contrarian of Narnia
By Ed Driscoll · December 29, 2005 06:04 PM · Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal · Hollywood, Interrupted

Chris Weinkopf has a great profile of Philip Anschutz, the man who brought you The Chronicles of Narnia this Christmas:

Anschutz is a spectacularly successful oil/railroad/fiber-optic/sports/entertainment magnate. He is also an evangelical Christian and father of three children who got so fed up with the tawdry state of Hollywood fare that he decided to get into the business himself by launching two film companies. He has spent a reported $150 million to $200 million to turn the first book in Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia series into one of the biggest film releases of this holiday season. The plan is to eventually translate all seven books into high-quality films.

* * *

A few years ago, Anschutz started gobbling up movie-theater chains, a move that had industry analysts baffled. Cinema attendance had been in steady decline for years, and the survivors were in cutthroat competition with each other, as well as with cheap DVDs and digital cable that had audiences staying home. Experts had declared the business all but dead.

Anschutz disagreed. During the 1990s, he had bought old railroads cheaply, then coaxed a golden new revenue stream out of them by selling rights-of-way for new fiber-optic lines alongside his trackbeds. Now he saw the same technological innovation—fiber optics—giving movie houses a fresh hold on profitability. He poured more than $700 million into buying three theater chains that had filed for bankruptcy: United Artists, Regal, and Edwards, giving him control of 6,273 screens, or 18 percent of the market, the country’s largest string of cinemas.

Anschutz’s master plan is to convert all of his theaters to digital technology—eliminating the cumbersome celluloid film reels that have to be shipped across the country, manually operated, then shipped back. If theaters could simply download their films as computer files and then project them through computer-controlled routers, there could be large cost savings. This scenario is especially practical for Anschutz, given that his company, Qwest, already owns a significant chunk of America’s backbone of fiber-optic lines. (High-resolution films require large telecom “pipes” to travel from locale to locale.)

Taking a higher road

But Anschutz’s big movie gamble is based on more than just fresh technology. The cause of declining ticket sales, Anschutz reasons, isn’t just the ease and convenience of home viewing. It’s also the deteriorating content of Hollywood’s products—which are too often vulgar, violent, sexualized, dark, and depressing. For many American families, especially religious ones (who are a much bigger fraction of the population than entertainment executives have ever acknowledged), the movie theater is no longer a pleasant or even safe place to bring children. This major bloc of the market has been ignored by Hollywood.

Producers have “misread what audiences want,” says Craig Detweiler, professor of mass communications at Southern California’s Biola University. “Audiences have proved more discerning of quality than Hollywood expected.” Thus, the repeated syndrome of movie elites underestimating the public appetite for higher quality and family-friendly entertainment, while overestimating the appeal of R-rated dross. (See “Stupid Hollywood,” SCAN, TAE, July/August 2005.)

Enter Anschutz, the man who’s made billions by spotting missed economic potential. In his Hillsdale speech, he asked: “Is this preponderance of R-rated films simply—as we hear so often—a response to the market? I would say not, considering that of the top 20 moneymaking films of all time, not a single one is rated R, and of the top 50, only five are rated R—with the remainder being G or PG.”

While conservatives have groused about Hollywood’s cultural pollution for decades, Anschutz is putting his money where his convictions are. “You need to bring your own money and be willing to spend it,” he told the audience at Hillsdale. “Otherwise, Hollywood doesn’t see you as a serious player.”

Anschutz’s aim is not to promote a political agenda, but to make good movies. His two film companies are “not political in any way,” concludes Govindini Murty, an actress, screenwriter, and co-director of the Liberty Film Festival. “They hire liberals and conservatives. Art is their foremost priority, making movies that everyone in the public can enjoy—not niche movies only for young males, or people on the extreme left or right.”

In other words, Anschutz’s companies are targeting the vast mainstream audience that Hollywood has increasingly alienated over the last four decades. This is no charity exercise. Anschutz is looking to make a buck—lots of bucks, actually. As author and film critic Michael Medved puts it, he’s “testing in a wonderful way…the theory that it is possible in Hollywood to do well while doing good.”

Worldwide, Narnia has grossed $261,978,192, according to Box Office Mojo. Meanwhile, Mary Catherine Ham looks at the box office returns of what, for Hollywood, qualifies as more traditional, conservative fare.

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