Holy Bankroller

Pious Phil Anschutz rides the light with Narnia, the latest in his movie quest.

The book on Philip Anschutz is that he can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse -- or, for that matter, water into wine. In four decades of hyper-aggressive entrepreneurship, Denver's richest evangelical Christian -- the banks say Diamond Phil is worth upwards of $7 billion these days -- has worked financial miracles with shrewd acquisitions in "underdeveloped" or "distressed" industries like oil, ranching, railroads, daily newspapers and pro sports.

Clearly, he's hoping to bring the same magic to Hollywood, which has endured another alarming nosedive at the box office this year. For now, forget those incursions by new technology. Anschutz is set on becoming, at 65, the Sam Goldwyn of squeaky-clean moviemaking, the paterfamilias of PG. Hey, in the semi-soulful box-office hit Ray, which he bankrolled, a real miracle came to pass: No 1950s jazz musician uttered a single four-letter expletive.

When The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe opens nationwide this Friday, Anschutz will have more than money at stake in the $150 million production of C.S. Lewis's beloved Christian allegory. On this, or any other subject, the famously elusive billionaire is as silent as Harpo Marx: He hasn't granted a press interview in thirty years. But his lieutenants at the Anschutz Film Group (its subsidiary, Walden Media, co-produced Narnia with Walt Disney Pictures) have had plenty to say recently about their boss's education-of-children, betterment-of-mankind agenda in the movie biz, and Anschutz himself shed light on it in a rare speech last year in Naples, Florida. He got into movies, he said, to stop "cursing the darkness" and because he wanted to make "some small improvement in the culture." Walden Media's own mission statement says the company hopes to "recapture young imaginations, rekindle curiosity and demonstrate the rewards of knowledge and virtue."

As for profit motive, it wouldn't do to underestimate the man Fortune magazine labeled the "Greediest Executive of 2002" after he raked in billions via his controlling interest in Qwest at the peak of the telecom boom. "Speaking purely as a businessman," Anschutz said in the 2004 speech, "it is of utmost importanceŠto try and figure out a way to make goods and products that people actually want to buy. I don't think Hollywood understands this very well."

Translation: Liberal, lascivious Hollywood ignores family values and scorns religious faith. Or at least it did -- until Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ came along to shake up the sleepy decadents of Bel Air and remind everyone who was sitting in the Oval Office. Gibson's self-financed epic may have been The Goriest Story Ever Told, but it obviously struck a nerve with Christian fundamentalists in the heartland who rarely go to the movies, and it gave rise to an entirely new marketing technique: the direct sales pitch to pastors and congregations.

Following suit, the Walden/Disney marketeers have been pre-selling Narnia to churches for more than a year. That's no guarantee of success -- for instance, the Christian-run review magazine Movieguide cautions viewers to be on the lookout for "theological errors and confusion" in the increasing number of new films "aimed at the faith-based audience." Odds are pretty good, though, that the Lewis canon -- he wrote seven Narniabooks -- could become an Anschutz-financed movie mother lode on the order of the Lord of the Rings (which evangelicals generally admire) and Harry Potter, the latest installment of which Movieguide typically scorches because of its "abhorrent, evil, occult worldview that is dangerous to both children and adults."

For Anschutz, the phrase "box office" will have a double meaning this week. Along with such holdings as the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, the recently reinvigorated San Francisco Examiner,L.A.'s Staples Center and five pro soccer teams, Denver's empire-builder also owns Regal Entertainment, the largest U.S. theater chain, with more than 6,000 of the nation's 35,000 screens. So he has a personal stake in every popcorn-muncher in the land.

The Kansas-born son of an oil-field wildcatter and a man known for his own good gambling instincts, Anschutz showed no sign of nerves when he addressed the audience at a local preview of Narnia last Wednesday. Of course, this isn't his first rodeo, cinematically speaking, just the biggest. He has already invested heavily in a dozen movies, starting with 2002's Joshua -- a contemporary New Testament fable complete with a gentle carpenter wandering into a small town in Illinois -- that was released through Crusader Entertainment, Anschutz Film Group's religious-film subsidiary. That company has since been renamed Bristol Bay Productions.

In the past three years, AFG's fortunes have run hot and cold. A lively screen version of the offbeat kiddie-lit fantasy Holes, about a summer camp where preteens are put to slave labor, was an outright hit. But last year's $115 million remake of the Mike Todd-produced classic Around the World in 80 Days gave audiences the feeling they'd actually been in the theater for three months, and it promptly flopped. The best thing about Because of Winn-Dixie, the sweet-tempered tale of a lonely ten-year-old girl who's adopted by a shaggy dog, was the bizarre scene in which a pet-shop owner, played by rocker Dave Matthews, serenades a monkey, a parrot, some rabbits and a goat. The 2002 IMAX hit Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey was a festival of chanting, clapping, yelping and banging that completely eschewed dialogue while endorsing universal brotherhood through music -- or at least the kind of music people make by smashing on industrial-strength water jugs, garbage cans, wooden crates and cereal boxes. If this giant-screen love-in represented Anschutz's devotion to what AFG CEO David Weil calls "a commercial and a societal need for product that brings families together and inspires individuals," some viewers wondered why he had to be so noisy about it. About last April's ludicrous, $100 million desert epic Sahara, the less said the better. There's a good chance star Matthew McConaughey didn't go to see it, either.

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