Armed with today's digital technology, any special-effects wiz in Hollywood can squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle. But can the movies get a rich man into heaven?
Philip Anschutz, Denver's favorite billionaire, may be hoping they can.
Last month, Anschutz signed an acquisition deal that will make him the largest movie-theater owner in the country: His new Regal Entertainment Group will have 561 theaters and 6,000 screens in 36 states. And on April 19, Joshua, the first movie from Anschutz's big-budget venture in movie production, Beverly Hills-based Crusader Entertainment, will open in fifty U.S. cities, including Denver. By May 3, it will be showing on 600 screens nationwide.
Adapted from an international bestseller by a Catholic priest named Joseph Girzone, Joshua chronicles the sudden appearance of a charismatic young carpenter in a small American Everytown and the miraculous effect he has on its citizens. This cinematic Second Coming was shot in Chicago and little East Dundee, Illinois, but the parable means to lift hearts everywhere. Released through a Crusader subsidiary called Epiphany Films, the production, which cost between $8 million and $9 million to make, is aimed squarely at Christian audiences and fallen-away moviegoers fed up with sex, drugs and violence.
For Anschutz, the 62-year-old churchgoing businessman who's made billions in oil and gas, railroads, telecommunications, pro sports and real estate, the movie business is a new opportunity not just to turn another profit, but to influence the tides of popular culture and public taste. As always, the media-shy mogul is not talking. But last week, his Hollywood partner and a minister-turned-movie-consultant on the Anschutz payroll shed some light on their mysterious friend's calculations and motives.
Formed two years ago, Crusader will soon begin making four to six movies a year, only one of them under the religiously oriented Epiphany banner. A two-year distribution deal with Paramount Pictures will ease the product into theaters. "The point to emphasize is that the company will make mainstream movies," says Howard Baldwin, a fifteen-year Hollywood veteran who is Anschutz's junior partner at Crusader. "Joshua has a spiritual element, and we don't apologize for its strong spiritual overtones, but our other movies will be more mainstream." On August 23, look for Children on Their Birthdays, adapted from a Truman Capote story. In early November, Swimming Upstream, starring Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush -- a Chariots of Fire-style tale about rival brothers competing for Olympic glory.
A second Anschutz-financed company, New York-based Walden Films, has bought rights to The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis's seven-book series of spiritual fantasies for children. Bob Beltz, a former Littleton minister who once counted Anschutz as a member of his congregation at Cherry Hills Community Church, says Walden's Narnia movies will rival blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy in terms of production values and gargantuan budgets.
In light of that, Coloradans nostalgic for the glitz and glamour that former Denver oilman Marvin Davis brought to town in the 1970s and '80s, when he acquired Twentieth Century-Fox, may not have long to wait for a revival.
Just don't expect any dope, dirt or skin. Although his two colleagues say he's essentially a hands-off movie mogul, Anschutz wrote Crusader Entertainment's "mission statement" himself, and it mandates "inspirational, historical, sports and adventure films that offer compelling, positive messages to our audiences.... We will make only films that are G-rated, or, in some instances, PG or PG-13." Crusader wants to sign Jamie Foxx to star in Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story (with a budget somewhere between $20 million and $30 million), and in September, the cameras roll on Sahara (price tag: around $90 million), the first of several epics to be filmed from Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt adventure series. But the seamier elements of those properties don't daunt Baldwin at all. For better or for worse, they will conform to Crusader's moral code -- and not just for reasons of personal belief.
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"It takes a lot for people in [Hollywood] to get the message," Baldwin says, "but they're finally getting it. Audiences are changing. They're turning away from the unpleasantness they see every day on TV and on the street. They want to be entertained in a positive way. Last year, seventeen of the twenty biggest-grossing movies were rated G, PG or PG-13, but this is still an untapped market, at least in terms of consistency. There are a few movies every year -- The Rookie, Shrek, Lord of the Rings -- that are family-oriented, well-made and successful. But I think we can be cutting-edge in this market, because we are a company built to do it." The new Disney? Maybe.
Movieguide, a conservative reviewing magazine, recently reported to movie-industry executives that films "with a very strong Christian worldview" earned nearly twice as much in 2001 as movies it categorized as "humanist, pagan, Romantic, Communist, feminist, occult, homosexual or anti-patriotic." Beltz's own research tells him that 135 million Americans attend religious services regularly and that many of them have stopped going to the movies because "they're so alienated about what's available. All the major studies validate what our hunch about the attitudes of the moviegoing public was in the first place. Now we want to tap into that latent potential. We think the market is huge."
Apparently, so does Anschutz, who's got as much Goldwyn as God inside him. Illustration: He met future partner Baldwin, who's a part owner of the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins, a few years ago at an NHL social event, and they became friendly. After screening the Baldwin-produced movie Mystery, Alaska, a comic fantasy about a ragtag pond hockey team that plays a big game against the New York Rangers, Anschutz had one pointed observation, Baldwin recalls. "'Why was it an 'R'?' he asked, and he was absolutely right," Baldwin says. "We had a strong, inspirational story, a great director. We had sharp comedy. We even had Russell Crowe, who was hot. But the four-letter words hurt us at the box office. We shot ourselves in the foot by releasing an 'R' movie."
Therein lay the seeds of a future corporate mission, grounded as much in economics as in moral certainty. Rest assured that when Joshua returns next year in a sequel called Joshua in the Holy Land, Father Girzone's Christlike new-guy-in-town will be trying to make peace between warring Palestinians and Israelis -- not hitting the after-hours clubs or shooting up the joint.