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Vince Valitutti
Nathan Derrick stars as Felix, Toby Wallace stars as Edmund and Bindi Irwin stars as Nim in "Return to Nim's Island."

When the Walden Family Theater series debuts Friday night on Hallmark Channel, it’s rather fitting that the first programming will be a movie with the word “return” prominently included in its title.

Because with the premier of the made-for-TV “Return to Nim’s Island,” Walden Media and Hallmark Channel won’t just be bringing young Nim back to her old stomping grounds she first traversed in the 2008 theatrical release “Nim’s Island,” which grossed $100 million in worldwide box office sales. In a broader sense, Walden and Hallmark will also be launching Walden Family Theater, the initiative they believe can return prime-time television to a bygone era of family friendliness — a time when the entire family could watch high-quality TV together without having to worry about encountering embarrassing or inappropriate content.

“Growing up I always loved ‘The Wonderful World of Disney,’” said Walden Media president Micheal Flaherty, who is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. “So I wanted to see if there was a way for us to do something where families knew if they got together every Friday night, they could see a great film. That was the impetus, and then we met the awesome people at Hallmark who wanted to do the same thing.”

In a separate conversation, Hallmark Channel CEO and president Bill Abbott conveyed similar sentiments.

“Dating back to the days of TGIF, which was on ABC many years ago, Friday night is really a key viewing night for families,” Abbott told the Deseret News. “Partnering with Walden Media presents a great opportunity for us to really work to recreate that (and) have high-quality content that all members of the family can watch together.”

Family value fare

Throughout the rest of the year, Walden Family Theater will air approximately 30 times on Friday nights. Following “Return to Nim’s Island,” Walden Media will contribute five additional new, feature-length films during 2013. The next original production will be “Space Warriors,” starring Dermot Mulroney and Danny Glover.

During the episodes of Walden Family Theater when an original Walden Media movie isn’t airing, Hallmark Channel will show a family-friendly film for which it owns licensing rights.

But the Walden Family Theater partnership isn’t limited to just Hallmark and Walden. Indeed, its full name is “Wal-Mart and P&G Present Walden Family Theater.”

“I think that one of the under-the-radar elements of this deal,” Abbott said, “is how unique it is because it is not only involving four very, very strong partners that bring different assets to the table in their own way — but also in a space that doesn’t have a lot of competition and is something that’s very unique.”

In concert with Walden Media, Wal-Mart created a unique TV-to-DVD distribution model for Walden Family Theater: After an original movie like “Return to Nim’s Island” premieres on a Friday night, the film’s DVDs will go on sale in Wal-Mart stores the following Tuesday.

“Wal-Mart is just so innovative,” Flaherty said. “We really like the idea of building this new business model with them, so while the film is still fresh in the audience’s mind and while we’re advertising it, it (becomes) available for people to get right away.”

Procter & Gamble finds Walden Family Theater to be an attractive partnership option because the programming not only targets families but also offers unique product-placement opportunities.

“In addition to our co-presenting role for Walden Family Theater, we are excited to have our brands strategically integrated into six new, original films produced by leaders in family entertainment,” Procter & Gamble Entertainment spokeswoman Lindsey Erdahl told the Deseret News. “P&G’s products all lend themselves in one way or another to helping care for families. The consumers we hope to reach with Walden Family Theater are the same families whose everyday lives our products can help improve.”

Building brand promises

Walden Media has been in the movie business for the past decade. During that time, five Walden Media films topped $100 million at the domestic box office: each of the three “Chronicles of Narnia” films as well as “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and its 2012 sequel, “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.”

Flaherty said Walden Media averages between one and four major theatrical releases per year. Although Walden will continue its current trajectory in terms of producing those bigger-budget films, the company aims to disseminate its brand promise — something Flaherty succinctly defined as, “We make things that entertain and educate” — via Walden Family Theater.

“One of the things we’ve always wanted to do here is build a brand, and it’s really hard to build a brand without a reliable and predictable stream of content,” Flaherty said. “For probably the last five years we’ve been trying to figure out a way to get on television so we can have a more reliable stream of content that families would love. …

“It’s all in the cumulative. We would like to look back at the end of the year and know that we’ve reached between 15 and 20 million people over the course of all those different Fridays.”

Last year Hallmark Channel and its sister station, Hallmark Movie Channel, combined to produce 36 made-for-TV movies. In that sense, Walden Family Theater fits nicely with Hallmark’s programming strategy and the new tagline it adopted six months ago, “The Heart of TV.”

“Certainly we’ll do an analysis with how we’re doing with (Walden Family Theater) and those titles, versus what typically we would do with other titles that are family-friendly but maybe not as young-skewing as the movies that we’re producing with Walden,” Abbott said. “At the end of the day, it is a ratings-driven business and … having high-quality content is important. For us, measuring success is really a combination of those two things.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.