Whatever Happened to the Family Film?

Phillip F Anschutz
Founder and President, The Anschutz Corporation

Philip F. Anschutz is president of The Anschutz Corporation of Denver, Colorado. The company’s major business interests are in the fields of communications, transportation, natural resources, real estate and entertainment. A native of Russell, Kansas, Mr. Anschutz graduated from the University of Kansas in 1961 and founded The Anschutz Corporation in 1965. He is currently vice chairman of the board of Union Pacific Corporation and sits on the boards of Regal Entertainment Group, Pacific Energy Group, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petroleum Council. He is an alternate governor of the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer; an executive member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; a trustee of the Kansas University Endowment Association; an emeritus trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; an honorary trustee of the American Museum of Natural History; and an advisory member of the National Board of the Smithsonian Institution.

The following remarks were delivered on February 24, 2004, at a Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar in Naples, Florida, upon receipt by Mr. Anschutz of the Adam Smith Award from Hillsdale College.

In today’s world of mass media and mass instant communication, movies still have an enormous effect on our culture and an even larger effect on younger Americans. Research shows that the average American child between the ages of two and 18 spends five hours and 45 minutes per day with media—mostly electronic media. Think about that in the context of these figures: Since the year 2000, Hollywood has turned out more than five times as many R-rated films as it has films rated G or PG or soft PG-13. No less than 2,146 films released since 2000 received R ratings, compared to 137 films rated G and 252 films rated PG.

Is this preponderance of R-rated films simply—as we hear so often—a response to the market? I would say not, considering that of the top 20 moneymaking films of all time, not a single one is rated R, and of the top 50, only five are rated R—with the remainder being G or PG. Don’t these figures make you wonder what’s wrong with Hollywood just from a business point of view? Why, in the face of these statistics, does Hollywood keep putting out so many non-family oriented movies?

Let me mention the ideas that I’ve run across in Hollywood and that define a kind of Hollywood mindset. One of these is that the way to be successful is to be hip and edgy. A second is that to be noticed and therefore successful, you need to utilize shock value to gain attention. A third is that sex, language, violence and bad taste always seem to find a market. Another is that you have to grow up in the film business in order to understand it and have the right creative instincts for it. Another is that to earn respect from your peers within the Hollywood community, you have to make at least potential Academy Award films—which in recent history have predominantly been R-rated.

My wife and I now have a number of grandchildren who are growing up surrounded by the products of this culture. So four or five years ago I decided to stop cursing the darkness—I had been complaining about movies and their content for years—and instead to do something about it by getting into the film business. Fortunately my wife said, “Phil, this is one of the nuttier things you’ve ever done, so at least keep your day job.” Which I did. But I knew that the best way to get to know a business—and maybe to affect it—is first to dive into it, and second to invest in it so that you get a seat at the table.

My reasons for getting into the entertainment business weren’t entirely selfless. Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn’t at times understand the market very well. I saw an opportunity in that fact. Also, because of digital production and digital distribution, I believe the film industry is going to be partially restructured in the coming years—another opportunity. But also, yes, I saw a chance with this move to attempt some small improvement in the culture.

Let me tell you a few things that I’ve learned about the movie business: First of all, you need a clear vision of the kind of movies you will make—and an equally clear vision of the type of movies you will not make. People in the industry need to know that they needn’t bring you certain kinds of product because you’re not going to be interested. Just as importantly, your own people need to understand the kind of movies they are going to be held accountable for producing. Our company, by the way, makes G and PG and, occasionally, very soft PG-13 movies. They are primarily family films—films that families can see together. We expect them to be entertaining, but also to be life-affirming and to carry moral messages.

The next thing I’ve learned is that if you are going to be in this business, you need to bring your own money and be willing to spend it. Otherwise, Hollywood doesn’t see you as a serious player. Nothing communicates with the people that make the real decisions in Hollywood like spending your own money and showing that you can make profitable films.

Another lesson I’ve learned is to keep firm control of the creative 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. 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. Then you have to control the way the film is marketed and watch over the distribution and exhibition sides of the business. Keep in mind there are three parts to the movie business: Production, distribution and exhibition. Being just a producer isn’t good enough. There are a lot of good movies that have been made but not seen because they couldn’t find distribution and they couldn’t find exhibition.

At the same time we set up a movie production unit, we set up a companion education unit. The movie unit, of course, is headquartered in Hollywood. But the education unit is headquartered as far from Hollywood as we could get it—in Boston. There is not a single movie-producer type that works for that company. They’re all educators—teachers and parents—who go out and interact with schools. We’re now in regular contact with some 10,000 schools and over 30,000 teachers. We ask teachers and parent groups several questions: What kind of movies would you like to see made? What are the important books that are being read in schools? What’s the best way that we can deliver life-affirming messages? How can we affirm the good, and de-emphasize the bad and the negative? We began an active outreach to all of these groups, gathering regular focus and feedback information. We showed one of our recent movies well in advance of its release to 20,000 teachers in order to see how they felt about it. Then we took their suggestions and re-cut the movie.

Speaking purely as a businessman, it is of utmost importance for a business to try and figure out a way to make goods and products that people actually want to buy. And as I’ve already suggested, I don’t think Hollywood understands this very well, because they keep making the same old movies—the same kinds they have been making for years—despite the fact that so many Americans are tired of seeing them. Why can’t movies return to being something that we can go and see with our children and our grandchildren without being embarrassed or on the edge of our seats? When I said that Hollywood can be insular, this is in part what I meant. I don’t think they understand the market and the mood of a large segment of the movie-going audience today. I think that this is one of the main reasons, by the way, that people don’t go to movies like they used to.

Here are a couple of concrete examples of specific movie projects that came out of the process I just described. One of our movies was Holes. A lot of our children and grandchildren were excited about this movie because they had read the book. There is also a strong moral message in it. It was screened for a number of teachers before we ever released it; and even after it was released, we did multiple interactive screenings in our theaters with young audiences. In one session alone we had 17,000 young people from across the country interacting with the director and the writer and some of the actors in the film, learning about acting skills, writing skills and what lessons could be drawn from the movie.

Another project that came out of this process was C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. These books were written some 60 or 70 years ago, and over 120 million of them have sold worldwide in some 80 languages—more than either Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I acquired the rights to make films from that set of books—there are seven of them—and the first will be released next year. We feel that this is a great responsibility and are determined that the film be very good.

We have found in our focus sessions that people also want movies that are simply entertaining—movies that are fun, the way movies used to be. Our very next movie will have some educational value, but that’s not really its purpose. Above all it has a great sense of adventure, and it’s funny and entertaining—it’s called Around the World in Eighty Days.

In closing, let me say that the movie business is not a very good business in many ways. No one with any sense would get into it. My friends think I’m a candidate for a lobotomy and my competitors think I’m naive or stupid or both. But you know what? I don’t care. If we can make some movies that have a positive effect on people’s lives and on our culture, that’s enough for me.