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Billionaire Behind 'Narnia' Could Start Planning for Franchise Finale in 2018

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May 12, 2008 | 8:47am EDT

In December of 2005, Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe became a box office sensation with a $65.5M opening weekend en route to a $291.7M domestic gross and nearly $750M worldwide. With the popularity of the first film, Red State-friendly Christian themes, organized outreach via churches and Disney’s expertise at delivering the family audience, this Friday’s Narnia sequel Prince Caspian, will likely exceed the franchise-starter’s opening weekend, becoming the biggest opener ever for Walden Media and its billionaire financier Phillip Anschutz.

Prior to Narnia, Walden had previously scored a hit with the 2003 film adaptation of Louis Sachar’s popular children’s novel Holes ($67.4M domestic), but the following year’s disastrous Around the World in 80 Days, a remake of the 1956 Best Picture winner, could have been Waterloo for a company with less fortitude (and money).

With a reported budget of $110M, 80 Days was only loosely based on the Jules Verne novel with Jackie Chan as the leading man. The family-friendly adventure managed only $7.5M on opening weekend and a meager $24M domestic. By the time the film flopped, however, Walden Media was already in production on the first The Chronicles of Narnia film in New Zealand. It also helps that billionaire Phillip Anschutz is behind Walden.

Anschutz, worth at least $5 billion, began as an oilman before moving on to railroads and telecommunications. He has invested heavily in sports and entertainment for the last decade. His Anschutz Entertainment Group now owns more sports teams and events than any company in the world, and AEG also owns stadiums and arenas like Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Nokia Theatre in Times Square and the O2 in London. The maverick also bought up troubled movie theatre chains United Artists, Edwards Theatres and Regal Cinemas, and he now controls more movie screens than any other company.

He is well known as conservative Christian, and, although he has never granted an interview, in one of his rare public speeches he announced that, “The movie business is not a very good business in many ways.” He explained his philosophy about Tinseltown in that same speech at Florida’s Hillsdale College. “It is of utmost importance for business to try and figure out a way to make goods and products that people actually want to buy. I don’t think Hollywood understands this very well, because they keep making the same old movies, despite the fact that so many Americans are tired of seeing them.”

There is a clear Christian theme in the C.S. Lewis Narnia Chronicles, but most of the movies from Walden Media and Anschutz’s other production company, Bristol Bay, are wholesome, life-affirming and uplifting, but decidedly secular. It is interesting, however, that Bristol Bay was originally named Crusader Entertainment. Given his reclusive nature, it is difficult to gauge just how much of a moral ‘crusade’ Anschutz might be on. According to Atlantic.com, prior to jumping into the movie business, he told an associate that he wanted to be “doing something significant in American Christianity.”

The Narnia series is certainly significant, and it will be more so with the guaranteed success of Prince Caspian. Industry tracking shows that the Narnia sequel compares favorably to last summer’s Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix at the same point in its marketing cycle. Order of the Phoenix had slightly stronger numbers with 16 percent-11 percent in Un-Aided Awareness, 48 percent-42 percent in Definite Interest and 17 percent-14 percent in Overall First Choice, but 25 percent of Females 25 Plus, including a lot of Moms, name Narnia compared to 20 percent for the Potter film.

The mysterious Anschutz will be celebrating after an opening weekend of at least $60 million-$70 million. (I will publish my final prediction on Thursday.) That should guarantee at least five more Chronicles of Narnia films (Lewis wrote seven books, in all), with the finale, The Last Battle, potentially arriving in the summer of 2018.

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