The Mogul, the Movie and the Man on a Mission
After more than two fabulous weeks at the box office, Philip Anschutz, the conservative Christian billionaire whose company co-produced the first major film adaptation of C.S. Lewis' popular children's book, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is sitting in the catbird seat.
With so many Americans weary of both the long hard slog in Iraq and President Bush's scandal-plagued administration, some would have thought that Christian conservative leaders would have turned the premiere of The Chronicles into another culture war battle.
However, with the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel consumed with a phony battle with those out to "destroy" Christmas, little airtime has been given over to The Chronicles and its religious and political implications.
Despite the fact that Lewis' book has "a frankly religious element" to it, reporter Charles McGrath pointed out last month, The Chronicles didn't spark the type of hullabaloo associated with The Passion of the Christ, actor/director Mel Gibson's ultra-violent portrayal of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, which made its screen debut last year.
The Chronicles of Narnia contains "not just an undercurrent of all-purpose, feel-good religiosity but a rigorous substratum of no-nonsense, orthodox Christianity. If you read between the lines -- and sometimes right there in them -- these stories are all about death and resurrection, salvation and damnation," McGrath wrote in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
Last year, The Passion of the Christ stirred up a hornet's nest. Fundamentalist Christian leaders, privy to a series of pre-release private showings arranged by Gibson, embraced the film and local churches gave away thousands of tickets to parishioners. Jewish organizations worried that the movie's emphasis on Jews as the killers of Christ would result in an up-tick in anti-Semitic violence.
There was no discernible rise in anti-Semitic violence. And, The Passion helped revive a faltering box office, taking in more than $370 million in the U.S. and another $200-plus million overseas. (The Passion ranks in the top 10 of all-time box office blockbusters.)
While The Chronicles will not achieve Passion-like numbers, the movie's producers followed Gibson's lead in terms of generating pre-premiere buzz. To be a box office blockbuster, an extensive pre-release promotional campaign is essential. In early November, The Christian Post reported that "several influential Christian organizations" including Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, "endorsed and promoted" the movie.
Abram Brook, editorial writer for Leadership Magazine, pointed out that, "The marketing machine" was "getting cranked up." Brook voiced his concern that Disney might be using Christians merely as a promotional tool: "There is a ponderable difference between supporting a movie about the Crucifixion that had input from a broad range of Christian scholars, and endorsing a film that will be seen by some as Christian allegory, or, eventually, nice movies that have vague Judeo-Christian underpinnings."
In the run-up to its early-December premiere, "Narnia Sneak Peek" events were held in churches around the country. But taking steps to avoid a controversy that could hurt box office receipts, Disney -- the film's co-producer, which last year refused to release Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 -- was careful.
It "issued two separate soundtrack albums, one featuring Christian music and musicians [playing music inspired by the film] and another with pop and rock tunes," the New York Times' McGrath reported. EMI Christian Music Group released its album in early October as an early promotion device.
Christian Billionaire's Plan for Hollywood
The Chronicles is a collaboration between The Walt Disney Company and Walden Media, a production company owned by Philip Anschutz, an oil magnate, the owner of several professional sports franchises, and the head of the Regal Entertainment Group, which operates nearly 20 percent of all indoor screens in the U.S. and is the largest motion picture exhibitor in the world.
Born in Kansas in 1939, Anschutz later moved to Denver, Colorado and established the Anschutz Corporation, whose operations focused on the oil industry. By the mid-seventies, he owned oil fields in Montana, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming as well as uranium and coalmines, and cattle ranches.
After selling a large part of his findings in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Mobil Oil, the company diversified. He currently heads up Clarity Media Group, which owns the San Francisco Examiner, and the Washington Examiner, a free conservative-oriented tabloid in the nation's capital. In mid-October, the company announced plans for a spring launching of the Baltimore Examiner. (Clarity has trademarked the Examiner name in 69 cities.)
Recent reports have Anschutz negotiating for control of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, the second largest newspaper publishing company in the U.S., which owns 32 dailies including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald and Kansas City Star.
During negotiations for the purchase of London's Millennium Dome, the BBC dubbed him a "corporate vulture."
Anschutz is also the founder of the telecom company Qwest Communications International, Inc. According to the OC Weekly's Nathan Callahan, in 2000, the company "encouraged employees to keep their retirement savings in company stock even as senior executives were bailing out, selling shares worth hundreds of millions of dollars." SEC filings showed Anschutz had "unloaded 6.1 million shares during that period."
After peaking at 64 dollars per share, "six months later, the same share was valued at 1.95 dollars." Anschutz made over 200 million dollars in profit, and was branded "the greediest executive in America by Fortune magazine... topping a list that included... Gary Winnick, founder of Global Crossing."
Qwest eventually reached a settlement that required a 4.4-million-dollar payout to charity.
Anschutz is no stranger to philanthropy. In addition to generous gifts to a host of mainstream charities, Anschutz-related entities have helped bankroll a number of conservative groups including Colorado for Family Values (CFV), the organization that sponsored Amendment 2, Colorado's notorious anti-gay constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1992 and later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anschutz money also supported the Institute for American Values, which campaigns for marriage and against single parenting; Enough is Enough, which claims it is "Lighting the way to protect children and families from the dangers of illegal Internet pornography and sexual predators"; and Morality in the Media, established in 1962 "to combat obscenity and uphold decency standards in the media."
Between 1995 and 2000, according to OpenSecrets.org, a website tracking political donations, the Anschutz Corporation, and assorted members of the Anschutz family, donated nearly 700,000 dollars to the Republican Party and its candidates.
"We expect them [movies] to be entertaining, but also to be life affirming and to carry a moral message," Anschutz told an audience at the conservative Christian Hillsdale College last year. While "Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn't at times understand the market very well," he also "saw a chance with this move to attempt some small improvement in the culture." With last year's critically acclaimed film Ray -- the biopic based on the life of the late great Ray Charles -- Anschutz already made his mark on Hollywood. The success of The Chronicles of Narnia will make him a powerhouse to be reckoned with for years to come.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Thanks to Laura Ross for her research assistance.
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