Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Family TV makes a comeback.  Walmart and P&G Present Walden Family Theater launches on Hallmark Channel tomorrow night (Friday 3/15) at 8:00 PM (ET). The first film out of the gate is the world premiere of Return to Nim’s Island, a sequel to Walden’s 2008 theatrical hit (Nim’s Island) which picks up the story a few years later when fourteen-year-old animal lover Nim (Bindi Irwin) finds a human friend in Edmund (Toby Wallace) who helps her in her battle against resort developers and animal poachers.

Return to Nim’s Island is one of six original family movies that will headline the new franchise that will also include a wide variety of family-friendly films from the Hallmark library.  The second world-premiere movie will be Space Warriors (starring Dermot Mulroney, Danny Glover, Josh Lucas, Mira Sorvino and Thomas Horn) which is slated debut in May. The film series is the result of a collaboration involving Hallmark, Walden Media, Walmart, P&G and the fast-growing independent studio ARC Entertainment (founded in 2010).

Walden Media, of course, is known hit theatrical movies like Holes, Bridge To Terabithia, Amazing Grace, Journey To The Center Of The Earth and, of course, its immensely-popular Narnia films.  The company began 13 years ago when Michael and Chip Flaherty, two brothers from Massachusetts, decided to take it upon themselves to tell uplifting stories for a new generation of movie fans. They have since also launched a successful book division aimed at developing quality fiction for kids.

I recently spoke with Chip about the success of the company, as well as the genesis and goals of Walden Family Theater. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

JWK:  You and you’re brother launched Walden together.

CHIP FLAHERTY: Mike and I, we started the company 13 years ago in the hopes of telling stories that an entire family could enjoy

JWK: I didn’t realize until reading your bio that you’re actually a former assistant district attorney of Essex County in Massachusetts, as well as a former assistant attorney general in the state. How did the transition to movies and books come about?

CF: Well, at that time, in the late nineties the capital markets were booming. NASDAQ was like at 5000. So many people were getting venture capital and stuff. So, Mike and I got together and said it would be great to start a company. It was such a time of entrepreneurship…Mike and I always loved stories. We grew up reading comic books (and) telling stories at the dinner table. Which is, in some ways, kind of the genesis of this entire Walden Family Theater, really — family storytelling, sharing in stories and having a collective experience.

JWK: Did your Catholic upbringing influence you in wanting to tell stories with positive moral threads running through them?

CF: Exactly. I think, in the Catholic tradition we really realize the power of story. I mean when you see how Christ really transformed hearts and minds through evocative stories…I went to Catholic high school and the nuns would always say “God writes straight with crooked lines.” It was a comforting comment and I think it’s a true comment. So often in life, you get so caught up in the day-to-day and you don’t realize that, you know what?, there’s a bigger outlook than your plan. Something in the short run that seems like it’s catastrophic in your life might actually end up leading you to the right place. I think Rascal Flatts, which is a country band, they have that song God Bless the Broken Road That Led Me Straight to You which is kind of a popular version of “God writes straight with crooked lines.” So, it’s those types of stories that make you think, can motivate, can elevate and inspire, that entertain you during that time but really have a lasting impact on you…You’re able to kind of contextualize them and…incorporate them in your life. (They) can inspire you to not give up.

JWK: How did the deal with Hallmark, Walmart and P&G come together? It really does seem to be a perfect marriage.

CF: It really is.  They’re great collaborators in this initiative…People don’t realize that storytelling is such a collaborative process. You play a big role but you need other people…Procter & Gamble and Walmart really make and sell products to really make family lives easier and better. They really appreciate family and they really appreciate the roles the moms play in providing for the family and kind of setting the course for the family. They realize the power of good entertainment.

…And then you have Hallmark which is just such a great brand that stands for great storytelling and…they also have a great nationwide channel…It’s part of the collaboration of storytelling. Everyone brought something to the table which was just great. We all kind of had the same vision and aim. It became really easy.

…This is something we at Walden have been doing for 13 years, trying to tell these stories. It’s a natural progression because we started out making theatrical films — and we still do. A lot of our theatrical films are based on bestselling award-winning children’s literature. So, then we moved onto the next phase and we started our own publishing imprint called Walden Pond Press with Harper Collins. We’ve had a lot of successes in publishing those books…(Walden Family Theater) just seems a natural progression, just another way to reach families with our storytelling and kind of expand our footprint and to reach maybe a bigger audience.

JWK: How was Return to Nim’s Island chosen as the premiere entry of Walden Family Theater?

CF: The original Nim‘s was a theatrical release that we did and it did very well. So, it was a story that we thought, Number One, had already connected and there was an awareness with families — and we had a great script…So, it was just a perfect sequence of timing where we had the next progression in telling the story and, wow, what a natural and a great first story for us to tell because it really tells the Walden Media story. It celebrates the fact that we have done theatrical movies — and we still will — but it also goes to the fact that there’s another way to tell stories too — through this great collaboration of Walmart and Hallmark and Procter & Gamble.

JWK: Return to Nim’s Island stars Bindi Irwin, the 14-year-old daughter of the late Steve Irwin, known to TV audiences as  The Crocodile Hunter. I was in on a press conference call with her, that you took part in as well. I was very impressed with how articulate she is.

CF: She’s just a delight and she’s so much about family…I think it really gives you an idea about how gracious that family is when the mom was like “Bindi and I will hold, finish the questioning and everything else and we’ll hang out here.” There was none of that “Oh, we gotta be out in five minutes!” It’s those quiet moments, I think, where you can tell a lot about someone’s character, their temperament and their upbringing.

JWK: Does this partnership with Hallmark, P&G and Walmart signal that Walden Media will be doing more television projects?

CF: We’d like to. We’d love to see where this goes — just like when we expanded into publishing with Walden Pond Press…Our plan is to say “Wow, this is real fertile ground and a great way and a great other platform to tell stories. Just like with publishing, we started out and one of our first ones out of the gate, Savvy, won the Newbury Honor. So, you say “Wow! This is a nice fit with the skilled folks we have here and another way to tell stories.” So, we’re hoping for the same thing here with this initiative and this venture — that it connects with the audience and people understand and get what we’re trying to do. It gives families that kind of Destination Television,  that collective family event that they can begin to kind of hardwire into their weekly schedule and kind of get everyone together. We’re hoping that that occurs and…if it does, we obviously have the resources and the skilled folks to keep on producing stories to feed that demand.

JWK: Any backdoor series pilots among the group of original films being produced for Walmart Family Theater?

CF: As you know, because you work so much with that, people are always looking for compelling stories (and) compelling characters in a setting where it’s ripe to continue to tell stories about that characters and about that settin…There’s always a chance that, if it really connects with the audience, that we’ll be like “Wow! Let’s try to spin this off and do a lot of stuff.”

JWK: I would imagine that the books you’re developing at Walden Pond Press are also potential movies both for Walden Family Theater and theatrically.

CF: You’re exactly right. That’s the exciting thing…We have a great book called The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom which Fox Animation and Peter Chernin picked up. A lot of our books are scooped up by our own company and sometimes other producers in Hollywood to make features and theatrical films out of. By the same token, we have a number of stories that would work great for series off of this venture. So, among the things that we’ve looked at going forward as this initiative continues is to try to take some of the Walden Pond Press stories and make movies of them…There are a number of things that we’re looking at now.

JWK: Talking about Walden Pond Press, are there any books you’d particularly like to talk about?

CF: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is kind of like Shrek meets Tangled. It’s the four Prince Charmings and what their stories are like with their princesses…It’s really getting a lot of traction in Hollywood. I think the New York Times called it one of the best books of 2012 for children…It’s a great, great book.

JWK: Anything else you’d like to say about Walden Family Theater?

CF: I think really what it is is it’s the natural next step of what we’ve tried to do in the last 13 years of Walden which is tell great stories and give families an opportunity for a shared experience, to share a great story together where kids, teens, parents (and) grandparents all will get something out of the story — things they can talk about later, that have great values of redemption (and) inspiration.

JWK: There aren’t too many things on television anymore that really do appeal to the entire family.

CF: It’s funny, John…Now, with so many cable channels and everything else, you don’t blame anybody but really the game is getting your niche loyal audience and making sure you kind of deliver those numbers…Sometimes you drive home and if you’re at a red light and you’re looking around, you look at a house and you see like four blue, glowing kind of squares…Everyone’s home in that family…but (members) of the family are in four different rooms watching four different things. It’s great to celebrate individual interests and everything else, don’t get me wrong. But it’s nice every once and a while to have that kind of collective experience because it’s in those quiet moments where family stories are made. It’s not necessarily the (lavish) vacation that you go to but it’s when you get the flat tire and you go to a diner with the whole family and you’re waiting for AAA. Those are kind of the funny stories and those are kind of the collective experience that becomes part of the family folklore. And I think it’s the same thing here. I think it’s the kind of quiet moments where everyone’s together and they’re sharing an experience they can enjoy then and talk about later. That’s really what I think the promise of this venture is.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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