Micheal Flaherty is best known as co-founder and president of Walden Media, which created the Narnia movies and others like Amazing Grace, but he’s an education reformer at heart. Before founding Walden in 2001, Flaherty developed innovative curricula in the Boston Public School System that helped some poor students succeed.
What were your favorite movies when you were growing up? I loved It’s a Wonderful Life. Another movie, The Warriors, was banned in theaters for inciting violence, but it was a modern-day retelling of The Odyssey about a gang trying to make its way back, and all the different obstacles. The Warriors got me interested in books like The Odyssey, that I never would have learned about otherwise.
How did you learn about God? It started when we tried to get school vouchers in Massachusetts and failed. I started to realize the injustice that because of the ZIP code some kids were born into, their chances of succeeding were greatly diminished. I wrote a curriculum for the Stepping Stone Foundation, because the one way out in Boston at the time for poor kids, before charter schools, was the exam schools.
These who score well on exams get in ... We had good success. I thought that’s where I would spend my time, until on April 20, 1999, two students walked into their high school in Littleton, Colo., and murdered 12 of their classmates and one of their teachers. When I read about that, I was shocked and depressed. I read about Rachel Scott, the first person murdered, who wanted to go on to become a missionary. I read about Cassie Bernall, who a year earlier was into the occult and was even considering murdering her parents—and she became a Christian. I read all this stuff about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and I had never heard that expression before, so I did what all the great theologians did: I googled “personal relationship with Jesus.” Then I went to the Christian bookstore, bought a fish, and put it on the back of my car. That felt great and I did what all obnoxious born-again Christians do: I learned one passage of Scripture and I put it on everything.
Your verse was ...Philippians 4:4-Whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is praiseworthy, concentrate on these things. Anybody who has a powerful conversion experience, the Holy Spirit just makes you completely fearless. I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life and said, I’ve always liked movies, why don’t I start a movie company?
You associated Philippians 4:4 with movies? At Columbine, the students watched Natural Born Killers over and over again before they went in. They even declared that day Natural Born Killers day. They also watched a movie called The Basketball Diaries with a scene where Leonardo DiCaprio had a trench coat on, went in with a shotgun, and fantasized about murdering his classmates. Those movies had an impact on the way these kids viewed the world.
So you wanted to make other types of movies? More movies like Braveheart, movies that celebrate heroism against impossible odds. I don’t think censorship is ever the answer—shake your finger and say, you shouldn’t have made these movies. We should present alternatives that are just as entertaining with just as great a cast. The problem was I didn’t know anything about making movies and I flunked macroeconomics and microeconomics, which is the reason why I was an English and History major. But my roommate at Tufts College, Cary Granat …
Cary Granat, not Cary Grant ... Cary Granat, who to this day is one of my greatest friends, was president of Dimension Films, which was making the spiritual and educational classics Scream, Scary Movie, Children of the Corn 8, 9, and 10. A perfect alliance for the kind of company we were trying to make. But history and Scripture show it takes these kinds of odd couples to do interesting things.
John Newton and William Wilberforce. Yes. Cary and I wrote a business plan. We got laughed out of every venture capital and private equity firm from Boston to San Francisco. Finally, the last meeting we could afford, after throwing in our 401(k)s and everything else, was with Phil Anschutz in Denver. Fifteen minutes into the meeting he said, “I understand what you guys are trying to do and I want to support it.” I said, “You’re kidding.” I still have the black-and-blue on my shin from when Cary kicked me under the table.
Did you have to propose specific films? Phil Anschutz asked me, “What movies do you want to make?” I said, “We have an extensive list, we’ve done focus groups, why don’t we talk about that after lunch?” I called my wife and said, “I haven’t thought it out this far: What movies should we make?”
My wife, a teacher, said, “Hold on, let me take out my reading list. She says, “Here are the books my kids love: Charlotte’s Web; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; Holes; Bridge to Terabithia.”
I went back and said, “These are the books our focus group is showing us.” Those films have become our biggest successes.
How do you decide on projects? After our initial success we got super cocky and made Around the World in 80 Days: Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger in a hot tub, you can’t miss. It was a disaster. We learned to outsource decisions to librarians, teachers, pastors, and parents, people who know best. When we rely on our own understanding, that was Around the World in 80 Days and other disasters. We’ve been humbled plenty.
What should these Patrick Henry students take away from how you started Walden Media? Back to Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” If I didn’t have that strong belief in providence I never would have gone out and thought to do this. When I speak to students, they’ll say, “It’s amazing you were able to start this company and you’re so down-to-earth.” I express a little false modesty and they say, “No, you’re really unimpressive. It makes no sense that you would be able to start this company. It gives me hope.” I say, “I’m glad I can inspire you with my inadequacies.”
So, these students should work hard and think big? When in doubt, get in the ring. Get in there and learn. Don’t doubt your own potential, but also don’t be too proud and figure you deserve success or you’re entitled to it. Through trial and error you have to discover what the Lord’s plan is for you. Each thing is just a step in a larger part of God’s plan. As Paul said, keep running the race until it’s over.
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Micheal Flaherty: