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Commentary Last Updated: Nov 7th, 2007 - 01:31:44

Philip Anschutz: Transforming the culture one Hollywood blockbuster at a time
By Bill Berkowitz
Online Journal Guest Writer

Nov 6, 2007, 00:47

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He's a Denver, Colorado-based billionaire whose net worth was recently tabbed by Forbes magazine at $7.6 billion; his corporate holdings include the nation's largest movie theater chain, Regal Entertainment, some of the world's most prominent sports and entertainment venues, and a stack of professional sports teams, including the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings, and several soccer teams, including the Los Angeles Galaxy. He heads Clarity Media Group, which owns the Examiner chain of free conservative-leaning newspapers.

The native-born Kansan made his first fortune in the oil business before moving into railroads and then telecommunications. In 2005, Waldon Media, his Hollywood production company -- in partnership with Walt Disney Pictures -- released "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a $200 million dollar film adapted from C.S. Lewis' children's book of the same title. "The Chronicles" has earned more than $700 million worldwide.

The vast majority of Americans have never heard of him -- which is just the way he prefers it.

He's Philip Anschutz and he's dead set on transforming Hollywood and the American cultural landscape. "Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn't at times understand the market very well," he told an audience at the conservative Hillsdale College in 2004. "[I] saw a chance with this move to attempt some small improvement in the culture," he explained.

And he is clearly making his mark. In mid-October, Variety reported that Waldon Media was "set to unleash seven pics during the next year aimed squarely at the moviegoing demographic that Disney used to own: kids and families."

The marketing of "The Chronicles" was savvy, deliberate and a pivotal moment for Anschutz's production company. The film's pre-release promotion campaign was modeled -- sans controversy -- on the pre-release efforts employed by Mel Gibson while publicizing "The Passion of the Christ," which became a worldwide box office phenomenon.

Promotion was geared toward churches and conservative evangelical groups. The Christian Post reported that "several influential Christian organizations," including Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, "endorsed and promoted" the movie.

"Narnia Sneak Peek" events were held in churches around the country. "At the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., members of the 20,000-plus congregation viewed exclusive clips, received free gift bags full of outreach material, and were treated to a special live performance by [Christian music star] Steven Curtis Chapman," the Christian Post reported. "In addition, C.S. Lewis' stepson and co-producer of the film, Doug Gresham; Walden Media President and film's visionary Michael Flaherty; and other Narnia filmmakers discussed the making of the movie."

Although Anschutz tends to not crave media attention personally, and he hasn't dropped buckets of cash on right-wing enterprises as the Coors and Scaife families have, he nevertheless is a longtime contributor to both conservative and Christian causes. He's also a Republican Party donor and a George W. Bush supporter.

Over the years he has: helped fund the notoriously anti-gay Amendment 2, a ballot initiative designed to overturn a Colorado state law giving equal rights to gays and lesbians, and helped fund the Discovery Institute, a conservative philanthropy supported "think tank" based in Seattle, Washington, that promotes intelligent design and critiques some theories of evolution.

He has bankrolled such notable conservative groups as the Media Research Center, a group responsible for nearly all indecency complaints to the FCC in 2003, the New York-based Institute for American Values, another conservative philanthropy supported organization that campaigns for marriage and against single parenting, Enough is Enough, whose president and chair of its Board of Directors is Donna Rice Hughes (the major figure in the sex scandal that ended the 1987 campaign of Gary Hart, in the Democratic presidential primary), and which claims to be "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."

More recently he has provided the funding for television advertisements, billboards, and Regal Cinemas ads for his "For a Better Life" campaign. The campaign, while not explicitly religious, promotes "faith" and "integrity," using characters such as Shrek and Kermit the Frog. The ads were produced by Bonneville Communications, a Salt Lake City agency connected to the Mormon Church.

Anschutz is not only out to change the culture of Hollywood, he intends to transform the geographic landscape as well. On Sunday, October 14, "hours before the bill-signing deadline," the Sacramento Bee recently editorialized, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 1053, "mak[ing] it easier" for Anschutz "to obtain state housing bond funds for a mega project he is spearheading in Los Angeles."

Those funds had been previously reserved for use "by developers, nonprofits and agencies with a mission of building [affordable infill] housing," the editorial noted. AB 1053 "alters that formula by allowing Business Improvement Districts -- entities often controlled by retail and office developers -- to compete for these funds. Not surprisingly, Anschutz [who owns the Staples Center, home to the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team] belongs to a business district that wants to redevelop a corridor near the Staples Center, one of his many Los Angeles holdings."

The Los Angeles Times pointed out that the bill allows Anschutz "to tap millions of dollars in state housing funds to improve the streets near the downtown arena and the company's $2.5-billion L.A. Live development . . . allow[ing] Anschutz's firm, through a business improvement district in the area, to partner with the city to apply for tens of millions of dollars earmarked for street improvements to support affordable housing."

The Times also noted that "Companies affiliated with the Denver businessman have donated $225,000 in the last three years to Schwarzenegger's California Recovery Team." A month earlier, the Times reported, "Companies owned or controlled" by Anschutz were "major donors to politicians and their ballot measures."

Anschutz companies donated $927,000 "to political causes in California since 2005, including $100,000 to Rebuilding California (now known as Leadership California) the [Senate President Pro Tem, Democrat Don] Perata-controlled committee that funded several infrastructure bond measures on last November's ballot."

Wikipedia points out that the Examiner newspapers -- a name that has been trademarked in more than 70 cities -- "pioneered a new business model for the newspaper industry. Designed to be read quickly, the Examiner is presented in a compact, tabloid size without story jumps. It focuses on local news, business, entertainment and sports with an emphasis on content relevant to local readers. It is delivered free to targeted homes . . . and to single-copy outlets throughout [the] market area." (For more on Anschutz's newspaper ventures see Jack Shafer's "The Billionaire Newsboy."

In a story, titled "Conservatives in Hollywood?!" published in the Autumn 2005 edition of City Journal, a quarterly magazine of urban affairs published by the conservative-philanthropy supported New York City-based think tank, the Manhattan Institute, Brian C. Anderson wrote that "Like an old-time film mogul, Anschutz has nailed down the distribution side," of the movie-making process.

"Many things happen between the time you hatch an idea for a movie and the time that it gets to theaters -- and most of them are bad," he told his Hillsdale listeners. "So you need to control the type of writers you have, the type of directors you get, the type of actors you employ, and the type of editors that work on the final product."

He successfully exercised that type of control over the 2004 Ray Charles biopic, Ray, "toning down the film's focus on the performer's drug problems and sexual exploits," Anderson reported. "The movie -- funded entirely by Anschutz, after every major studio had rejected it -- garnered six Oscar nominations, winning two, including Best Actor for Jamie Foxx, riveting in the title role."

Although he's had some notable box-office failures, Anderson concluded that Anschutz was "off to a gangbuster start."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement and a frequent writer for Media Transparency. He documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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