Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
The Wonderful World of Walden. At one point or another (and under various titles), The Wonderful World of Disney aired on each to the then Big-3 broadcast networks from the fifties into the nineties. By the time the 2000’s rolled around, the broadcasters (including, ironically, Disney-owned ABC) deemed themselves way to hip for non-edgy family-friendly fare. That, however, doesn’t mean that audiences stopped wanting intelligent, heartfelt storytelling that they each member of the family could enjoy — even if sometimes at different levels.
It was about the same time (2001 to be exact) that Michael Flaherty and Cary Granat, with backing from Anschutz Entertainment Group, launched Walden Media, a film production company with they deemed the “double bottom line” of producing not just profitable and entertaining films but stories with strong moral underpinnings (i.e. Holes, Bridge to Terabithia and the Narnia series). It wasn’t too long before Michael’s older brother Chip was recruited to launch the company’s publishing division which focuses on high-quality fiction aimed at young audiences.
Now with the family-friendly brand firmly established, the company is busy launching the second season of Walden Family Theater, a Disney-style mix theatrical films and world premieres with moral themes that, though universally accepted, sometimes seem to be at odds with a television filled Seinfeldian shows about nothing. The franchise is sponsored by Walmart and P&G and airs every Friday at 8:00 PM on The Hallmark Channel.
Season Two kicks off tomorrow night (9/6) with the comedy Dear Dumb Diary. Based on the best-selling books by Jim Benton, the film stars Emily Alyn Lind as Jamie, a disgruntled diarist and student of Mackerel Middle School as she contends with her chief nemesis, an effortless named Angeline, vies for the attention of Hudson (aka the eighth-cutest boy in school) and works to save Mackerel art program for fellow average students like herself. The movie is executive produced by Benton, along with Jerry Zucker (Airplane!) and his wife Janet Zucker.
Before I saw the film (which I’ll review in this space tomorrow), I had the opportunity to speak with Michael and Chip Flaherty about the new season of Walden Family Theater and the future of their relationship with The Hallmark Channel.
JWK: So tell me about the new season of Walden Family Theater. How many original films are you planning?
MICHAEL FLAHERTY: We have four coming out between September and December. Two right now, Dear Dumb Diary and The Watsons Go to Birmingham (set for 9/20). Dear Dumb Diary was definitely a dream come true. When we got cable TV the first thing that we watched as a family was Airplane! which we watched over and over and over again. So, to be able to make a movie with the Zuckers and get to talk to them every day was a total out-of-body experience.
JWK: So, this one is a straight-on comedy.
MICHAEL FLAHERTY: It is. It has some great stuff in there. My daughters love it.
JWK: How was Dear Dumb Diary chosen to kick off the new season of Walden Family Theater?
CHIP FLAHERTY: It’s perfect for back to school because it’s about a girl in middle school and she’s like everyone that age. She deals with the pressures of school, relationships — she has a crush on a boy — you know, the aspirations that kids at that age hold. It really is a fantastic book series from Scholastic. Jim Benton is the author and the illustrator and he’s an incredible talent. I think there’s something nine-million copies of the entire series in print. It’s a monster property and it brings us right back to what Mike and I do at Walden…which is if kids like a story they want to experience it in all formats. They want to read about it, they want to watch it on film and nowadays saying they want to watch it on film that can mean anything. That can mean television, that can mean video streaming. The technology is really (such that with) the film adaptation there are so many ways to consume that.
You know, Mike’s exactly right because (as kids) we were the first guys with cable in the neighborhood and we saw our popularity skyrocket until everybody else’s house got wired — and then we went back to our banal existence. You appreciate the convening power that television still has. When Hallmark, Walmart and Procter & Gamble approached Mike with this idea (for a weekly family film franchise) based on the Walden brand and our ability to pick great stories ,we jumped at it because we thought, wow!, along with book publishing (and) theatrical films this is a great place to tell great stories (to the whole family).
CF: That’s right and The Watsons Go to Birmingham will be our fourth.
JWK: Of the four films so far, Watsons looks to me to be the most rooted in reality. You’re really grappling with a piece of history in that one.
MF: Exactly and for us it’s like one of the things that we’re doing at Walden — and Dear Dumb Diary squares into this too — is getting back to the basics of making films based on really popular books and also important historical events. You get both of those with Watsons. We’ve been trying to do Watsons for ten years and we were finally able to figure out a way to do it with ARC Entertainment, Walmart, Procter & Gamble and Hallmark. It’s really been a team effort to get this one off the ground. I had just finished a book by Diane McWhorter — a Pulitzer Prize-winning author — about everything that was happening in Birmingham in 1963 and the critical role it played. So, we decided to take some of the actual historical events and put them into the great book that (Christopher Paul Curtis) wrote to make a really powerful film that we think is gonna really change the way that kids learn about civil rights in middle school and high school.
JWK: The film is set to air just five days about the 50th anniversary of the church bombing in Selma, Alabama. Is the timing intentional?
MF: It was because, you know, when you think of those four little girls you don’t want their lives to be in vain…We wanted to make sure that that awful tragic event at 16th Street Baptist Church — that people really paid attention to that…and what a seminal event that was.
CF: We always talk about the best stories where the common and the cosmic intersect. That’s the unbelievable thing about this movie because you have a family on a family vacation going to visit relatives in Birmingham, Alabama…It presents as kind of like a family road trip type thing but little do they know that they’re heading into the event that really will be the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. In some ways it almost metaphorically shows that that, number one, you never know where life is going to take you (and), number two, that you can be living a “common existence” but then God calls you and puts you in a situation of utmost importance to a country, to a movement like the Civil Rights Movement…Especially when you’re dealing with young readers and viewers, (we need) to make them understand. You know, they are slowly coming into the world and are gonna have opportunities to really make a difference. (We need) to let them always know (and) to be aware of that because you never know when those moments come. I think the book and the movie — which is beautifully done — did a very good job of taking something that seems very common and really bringing it into the cosmic.
JWK: This generation really knows very little about the Civil Rights Movement.
MF: I think kids really respond to kids. So (it has an impact) when they see what a critical role children played — beginning with the Children’s March. Dr. King understood the importance of getting kids front and center — that that rally galvanized people’s attention…We developed a great curriculum with Harvard focused on social and emotional intelligence. The basic question for kids is “What do you care enough about that you’d be willing to go to jail and risk your life? What are the things that are so important to you?” We just started to test the curriculum with kids and screen it for kids and it really is getting them thinking. It also helps them realize that were it not for all of those brave people — and people who paid with their lives — that they wouldn’t have everything that they have right now.
JWK: So you’re making four original films under the Walden Family Theater banner this season — the first two being Dear Dumb Diary and The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Have you chosen the other two yet?
MF: We can tell you what the one right after Watsons is. That one is called Pete’s Christmas. We got Bailee Madison who is in two of our movies. I’m proud to say we put her in…Bridge to Terabithia. She was fantastic in that as little May Belle. She then went on to do Parental Guidance for us. Now, she’s doing Pete’s Christmas. It’s (sorta like) Groundhog’s Day (on) Christmas Day. Zachary Gordon who plays Greg Heffley in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies plays somebody that has to keep repeating Christmas until he gets it right. He learns the basic message of Christmas which we all know is it’s not about you.
JWK: I know Hallmark is getting into series. I’ll be interviewing Martha Williamson (Touched by an Angel) soon about a new show she’s producing for the network called Dead Letters.
MF: Yeah, I’ve talked to Martha about that. That’s gonna be awesome.
JWK: Much like Walden Family Theater, it looks like the kind of show the broadcast networks used to do but just aren’t too interested in doing anymore.
JWK: Now that you have this relationship with Hallmark, will you be working with the network to develop new series — or perhaps spin one of these films off into a series?
MF: We really hope so. They’re a total class act. My brother’s a Holy Cross grad so he shared that with (Hallmark President and CEO) Bill Abbot. Bill and (Executive V.P. of Programming) Michelle Viccary (have) created an amazing team over there and the programming is fantastic.
JWK: That’s interesting. Because from books to the theatrical films to, now, TV movies, you guys have pretty much done it all. It’s almost surprising to me that you haven’t been in the series arena.
MF: I’ll let Chip speak to this since he’s heading up the television efforts for us but what was fun about these TV movies is a year ago we didn’t have anything. We now have six of them made in under a year — versus some of these features that take three or four years. So, it’s exciting for us, With a double bottom line to also make an impact with the culture, the greatest way to make that impact is to have a set time where every week somebody’s watching a television series or a television show. We really want that to be our next step.
JWK: Besides the length of time it takes, what’s the big difference between a theatrical film and a TV film? How is the approach different? How do you decide which property is developed for which medium?
MF: It’s 100% about the P&A. We’re proud of these films and we think that they’re theatrical quality but the average ticket price for getting a movie out to the theaters is about 30 million dollars in prints and advertising to get it a proper release. So, that’s the part that people rarely talk about when they talk about movie budgets. There still has to be that additional commitment of 30 million dollars to give the film a proper launch.
CF: I agree. we’re very, very pleased with how all of our films have come out with our collaboration with Hallmark, Walmart and Procter & Gamble. As Mike said, the only difference is not in the quality of the film — which could have been a theatrical releases — but in the decision that we’re not going to go out and have a huge advertising budget and have it in the theater but rather it’s going to go right to television. If you look at all of the films we’ve done so far in terms of quality, those are films that, if you paid in money went to a theater, you would feel as if you got your money’s worth in terms of production value and quality of story.
JWK: What’s it like working as brothers to bring these projects to fruition?
MF: Our mother’s the tie breaker. But, if she’s not around, (laughs/let’s say) the older brother always wins.
CF: It’s kind of like Back to the Future though too. I’m four years older (I remember) but reading comic books and going into Harvard Square and reading comic books and trading comic books and talking about the different stories. Back then you’d wait for the next one to come out and everything else. You know, in some ways it’s still kind of reading stories (before) talking about directors and development and everything else…I think deep down inherent in both of us is (the fact that) we love stories and we’re storytellers. So, to be able to have that be kind of the product that we’re always kinda talking about, you know, the best way to tell a story and the best way to get it out to folks and, hopefully, impact lives is a fun, constructive pursuit to be a part of.
MF: Chip started an imprint with Harper Collins and where it gets really exciting is Chip’s working with baby writers — people who are just starting to get their sea legs. Working with his publishing team, they’re creating great books. Right now we have a book that Nickelodeon is developing into a television series. One of our books is being developed by Peter Chernin for an animated feature.
JWK: Will Walden be involved the production of the projects? Is that sort of automatic?
CF: Not automatically. Mike and I are so pleased that so many great studios and producers love our stuff and are wanting to make films out of them and succeeding (with them). We only have so much bandwidth…so we have make a decision for the resources we have available (as to) which ones we’re getting in on…We’ve optioned a couple of our own things..but, you know, no matter if we do or if we don’t, (we’re happy with) the pedigree of the film folks that are interested in our stories and have decided that with their available resources and bandwidth that they’re going to spend their time, talents and treasures to make a movie. It’s a kick to see that.
And we just had in the New York Times Book Review an unbelievable rave review of one of our books called Sidekicked which is about middle school kids who are training to be sidekicks for superheroes. It’s really, really well written. It’s a great story and we’ve had a number of producers call us up with that too. So, there’s always the decision. Do we have the available resources to jump in? But to see that kind of interest is so affirming and gratifying.
JWK: Is there anything else you’d like say?
MF: My only thing that I’d like to add — it’s one the reasons why we’re really excited about doing Watsons — is that I think that the role that people of faith have played in every social movement that we’ve had in this country gets underplayed a lot. And so one of the reasons why we’re excited (about) Watsons Go to Birmingham is that it shows how central 16th Baptist Church was and also how central, for example, Dr. King‘s faith was to him. (Imagine if) we didn’t have those kinds of people going back to Scripture and realizing what God commands us to do — to love all people. If we were just relying on man’s law we’d be in much worse shape. So, that’s one of the (reasons) that we get excited about Watsons — is to (help this generation) understand the central role that people of faith played. And, by the way, that’s all faiths. When you think of how brave so many Jewish folks were and how (some of them) paid with their lives to go down south and to work on civil rights. And, of course, the African-American church was absolutely fearless and upstanding through all this. So, we hope that Watsons will play a role in making sure that faith continues to be a part of the discussion.
JWK: I think that’s great because I think that is something that does tend to get downplayed — and you’ve opened up a can of worms there. Let me ask you, do feel that people of faith being fairly represented in the popular culture, particularly on television?
MF: Or not represented at all. I think there’s plenty of people who talk about the negative depictions. I’ll leave that up to them. It amazes me because you’ve been in all these story meetings and people sit down and when they talk about great stories they talk about great characters. Great characters are made by great characteristics. Regardless of where you are in terms of the faith spectrum, the idea that people are so motivated by their faith that they would give their lives rather than compromise their faith, that’s a great characteristic (for) great storytelling. And so what’s puzzling for me — leaving all the cultural war nonsense aside for a minute – is how could people not use that to help create great characters and great stories. I think they’re handicapping themselves by not having that be in consideration.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11