Values-based filmmaker Micheal Flaherty takes the road less traveled

Published: Saturday, Nov. 19 2011 1:00 p.m. MST

Micheal Flaherty is a former educator who is now the head of Walden Media, which produces films and books with moral and educational value.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty miles northwest of Boston, in the town of Concord, there is a lake called Walden Pond.

One-point-seven miles around, surrounded by hundreds of acres of red maple and river birch trees, and 102 feet deep at its center, Walden Pond always had a strong gravitational pull on Massachusetts native Micheal Flaherty. In the late 1980s, for example, the filmmaker would recur there for reflection and perspective while a student at nearby Tufts University.

"Walden," the memoir transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau wrote about his two-year stint living on the shores of Walden Pond from 1845-47, holds indelible sway in Flaherty's soul — especially what he terms "the whole idea that we need to march to the beat of a different drummer."

When Flaherty and former college roommate Cary Granat founded a film company in 2001, they called it Walden Media. Their organization differs from traditional movie studios because it produces family-friendly films that Flaherty describes as "entertaining but (that) also demonstrate the rewards of knowledge and virtue." In his capacity as Walden's president Flaherty insists on turning value-driven stories — the kind children can learn from — into movies.

In the decade since its 2001 founding, Walden Media has produced 34 films that grossed more than $2 billion in worldwide box office sales thanks to hits such as "Charlotte's Web" and three "Chronicles of Narnia" installments. That success, coupled with an ability to consistently march to a different beat, makes Micheal Flaherty one of the most compelling figures in Hollywood.

A generous nature

Walden Media is a company unlike any other operating in the American film industry. For starters, it's not based in Hollywood. The offices for senior management and the publication division are in Boston, where Flaherty was born and raised.

Looking back, it may make sense that he would name his film company after Walden Pond. But the company's name, like Flaherty's entrance into Hollywood, came about by accident.

In 1999, Flaherty was newly married and working on developing curriculum to help disadvantaged kids successfully test into Boston's public exam schools. Itching for a new challenge and broader reach, he and Granat plotted to start a company with a novel paradigm: produce movies suitable for families and, especially, children. In the beginning, they etched out their strategy on the back of a napkin. Then they hired a product naming company to help brand their new venture, but the paid consultants yielded nothing of promise.

"They came up with crazy names like Tangerine and Nutritional Voyage," Flaherty said. "We realized we were going to have to name this thing on our own. I was re-reading Walden at the time, and when I was driving home I saw the exit for Walden Pond."

At that precise moment, the synapses in Flaherty's brain made the connection between his and Granat's atypical business model and the passage in "Walden" where Thoreau writes, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

"That's what we were trying to do in Hollywood," Flaherty said. "So Walden seemed like a perfect name."

The next step was securing financing. Eventually, Flaherty was able to get a meeting with Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Flaherty ruefully recalls that, by the time they met with Anschutz in Denver to pitch the idea of Walden Media, he and Granat "had been laughed out of every office from Boston to San Francisco." But Anschutz shared Flaherty's and Granat's vision that Walden could churn out movies that were both profitable and uplifting — so he signed on and now owns the company.

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