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Values-based filmmaker Micheal Flaherty takes the road less traveled

Published: Saturday, Nov. 19 2011 2:57 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) 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."

Micheal Flaherty, center, shares a laugh with President and CEO of Deseret Management CEO Mark Willes, left, and Cathy Stokes in Salt Lake City. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Micheal Flaherty, center, shares a laugh with President and CEO of Deseret Management CEO Mark Willes, left, and Cathy Stokes in Salt Lake City. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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.

Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in "Amazing Grace." (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

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.

Josh Hutcherson stars as Josh Hutcherson stars as "Sean" and Brendan Fraser stars as "Trevor" in New Line Cinema's release of Eric Brevig's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." (New Line Productions, INC. and Walden Media)

"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.

Scene from Scene from "Charlotte's Web," a Walden Media film produced in 2006. (Paramount Pictures)

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.

At the beginning, Micheal's older brother Chip pitched in to help get Walden Media off the ground. Less than a year after Walden's formation — and months before the first meeting with Anschutz — the elder Flaherty brother left his job as a prosecutor with the Massachusetts Attorney General's office to come aboard full-time at Walden Media, where he is now an executive vice president and general counsel.

"At its heart," Chip said, "I think the Walden Media mission made a lot of sense from a business standpoint and really filled a need that was out there. We all felt as if the family market was an underserved body out there — that there was a demand for the types of movies that the entire family could go to … (and) you could have those collective moments where after the movie you all talk about and extend the power of that story."

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) 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)

Asked to ascribe his brother's sustained success to a particular personality trait, Chip points to Micheal's generous nature — a genuine desire to put the needs of others before his own.

To illustrate the point, Chip recalls a Christmas in Boston more than a decade ago. The morning brought clear skies to Boston, but the deep freeze was in and all day long temperatures never rose above freezing.

Undeterred by the bone-chilling cold, Micheal showed up at Chip's house before daybreak to set up a train set. The youngest of three brothers, Micheal was still single at the time. But Chip already had a toddler daughter, Maggie, and for Christmas Micheal had purchased a train set for Maggie that she could sit on and ride.

"Mike's first inclination was to have bought some really nice presents, and come over early to set them up," Chip recalls. "It was just a generous way he could spend his time.

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) 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)

"I always think of that, because I always wonder if the shoes were reversed and I was a single guy, I don't know if I'd be hustling over at 6 a.m. to set things up. … He was just so generous with his time and everything else; it's kind of my favorite memory. Maggie is 14 now, and she still talks about that train set."

Living for One

There's no way to write about what Walden Media has become, and the unique place it occupies in Hollywood, without understanding the role faith plays in Flaherty's life. Flaherty was raised Catholic, but became a born-again Evangelical Christian in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings in 1999.

Survivor accounts quickly emerged that the shooters paused before pulling the trigger to ask two of the fatalities, Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall, if they believed in God. The story goes that Scott and Bernall, at different locations and independent of each other, both answered in the affirmative before being shot and killed.

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) 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)

The portrayal of Scott and Bernall as something akin to contemporary martyrs who died because they would not deny their beliefs caused Flaherty to look deeply at his own faith.

"I saw that Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall — high school teenage girls — had the courage to look down the barrel of a gun and say that they believed in God," Flaherty said. "I realized that I didn't have that same level of courage and confidence and even belief. At that point my fiancée and I both decided that we were going to put God back in the center of our life and stop trying to do things by our own will and our own initiative, and try to get a better idea of what His plan and purpose was for our life."

In the weeks and months following the Columbine shootings, however, police investigators and national media questioned the veracity of the accounts about Scott and Bernall. Regardless of what really happened at Columbine that fateful day, it wrought a change in Flaherty's heart that continues strong to this day.

"(It's great) knowing that there's a lot that we don't have to figure out for ourselves," he said. "When you live and breathe for an audience of One, and you realize that if that relationship is solid all the other ones will take care of themselves, it's pretty liberating."

The most striking aspect of Flaherty's religiosity — and a central part of the way he approaches his films — is that he doesn't view faith as a mechanism for separating people along denominational lines, but rather sees it as an inclusive force that can unify via common beliefs.

In a 2010 interview with The Integrated Catholic Life magazine, for example, Flaherty didn't correct the journalist talking to him when she assumed he's still a practicing Catholic. Instead, he spoke candidly and enthusiastically about the roles the saints and the Holy Mother have played in his life — the kinds of topics that would be anathema to most Evangelicals.

"We need a motley crew to change the world," Flaherty says of his belief in uniting believers of different faiths. This idea is an overarching theme gleaned from "Amazing Grace," a 2007 biopic film about the 18th century evangelical Christian and abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Flaherty says "Amazing Grace" is his favorite Walden project to date.

"Wilberforce partnered with all kinds of people, from what we would call the far left and the far right," Flaherty says. "He partnered with believers and non believers. He had companions for the common good (whom) he liked to call co-belligerents. If people could get together to be for something, or to fight against something, there was no end to what they could succeed in."

Reading matters most

While Flaherty is mostly known today for his movies, he's never stopped feeling the pull to help children who come from poverty. After college he worked in education public policy, and immediately prior to Walden he worked for the education-minded non-profit Steppingstone Foundation. He believes literacy is an integral component for properly educating America's youth, and that belief has even extended to affect the evolution of Walden Media — a company that first launched to produce feature films, but that now has its own imprint, Walden Pond Books, to publish approximately 10 fiction books per year aimed at readers ages 8-12. One of Walden Pond's first books, "Savvy" by Ingrid Law, received the coveted Newbery Honor.

Debbie Kovacs is Walden's vice president of publishing, and Chip serves as the publisher of Walden Pond Books. In 2006, both Flaherty brothers and Kovacs threw their weight behind an endearingly delirious idea: use a 150-word passage from "Charlotte's Web" to set a world record for most people reading aloud simultaneously. They set the date for the world-record attempt as Dec. 13 — two days before the theatrical release of the Walden film based on E.B. White's book.

To spur competition among children and schools in different regions, Micheal had Walden set up a website that displayed in real time how many people had signed up to participate by state, city or ZIP code. For the passage, he chose the scene where Wilbur the pig first meets spider Charlotte.

More than 600,000 people signed up for the event and attempted to participate at the same time on the specified day, but because of the high bar Guinness on-site for monitoring and verification of how many people had actually participated, less than half of the readers ultimately counted toward the final figure Guinness would recognize.

Ultimately, Guinness counted 223,363 readers at 909 venues simultaneously reading the "Charlotte's Web" passage — a record that still stands to this day.

Flaherty's passion for education reform in some ways eclipses his love for making movies. In fact, he considers fixing America's public education system to be his divinely appointed mission in life.

"In our Bible study, we're trying to figure out what is our true purpose," he said. "It's something that we've been talking about a lot. For me, in terms of the connecting of the dots … it's the idea that we still have two school systems out there — there's one for people who can afford it, and there's one for people who can't afford it. And the folks that can't afford it are largely poor and minority. To draw more attention to that inequality so that all kids can have more access to a fair and equal education, that's the thing that really drives me and where I see my purpose."

Not only has Flaherty written several op-ed pieces for the Wall Street Journal about education, but he also gave the green light for Walden Media to team up with Participant Media on the production of "Waiting for Superman," a 2010 documentary that seeks to identify practical solutions for remedying a broken education system. The film depicts the heartbreaking plight of poor kids in public schools — children who statistically have little chance of even graduating high school. "Waiting for Superman" roiled the national debate about public education while also earning critical acclaim with the Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Beating dragons

It's an unusually warm fall day in Salt Lake City and Micheal Flaherty is standing in the Deveraux House, a red brick mansion that is one of the city's oldest landmarks. Standing under an old chandelier, Flaherty is talking about the power of good stories to change the world in a presentation to the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board, of which he is the newest member.

Dressed in a blue blazer with an open-necked shirt, Flaherty exudes a gravitational sort of energy, as if the optimism that has come to define his movies has infused who he is. The way he sees it, the world isn't a dark and fallen place, where light can no longer shine. Hollywood, as he sees it, isn't the enemy. It's just a place hungry for good stories, and the success of Walden Media has shown that the marketplace is hungry for the kind of good news his company is putting out there.

"Kids are starting to grow up and realize life isn't perfect, that we're going to face big challenges," Flaherty says. "What I love is the hope that's in all these stories.

"There's a great (G.K.) Cheseterton quote (about this). 'Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.' "

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com

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