Follow the money and the faith

Anschutz.jpgI sympathize with any reporter writing about Philip Anschutz, who has to be the most publicity-adverse tycoon in decades. That the self-made billionaire is now branching into buying newspapers and producing mostly family-friendly films makes him more a tempting target for journalists who believe, in the words of Slate‘s Jack Shafer, that “There’s got to be an angle.”

Shafer wrote about Anschutz in late March, and Ross Douthat wrote an Anschutz profile for the May issue of The Atlantic. Shafer concentrated on Anschutz’s ventures in the newspaper industry, while Douthat focused more on his gamble in producing films. But here’s the more importance difference between the two articles: Shafer referred to, and quickly dismissed, Anschutz’s Christian faith as sufficient reason for his interest in producing films, while Douthat took Anschutz’s faith more seriously.

Shafer wrote:

Nobody thinks Anschutz is a fool. An oil wildcatter raised by an oil wildcatter, he moved into the railroad business in the early 1980s and made billions by laying fiber-optic cable along his Southern Pacific Railroad track and purchasing Qwest Communications. According to one biography, his original $55 million investment in Qwest turned into a $4.9 billion profit when the company went public in 1997.

On the other hand, everybody recognizes that Anschutz is a conservative Republican ideologue and a devout Christian. In a February 2004 speech, he stated that he entered the movie business because he wanted to stop “cursing the darkness” (Hollywood’s violent and vulgar R-rated films) and start making family fare.

. . . Nobody dumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the movie and exhibition business — or newspapers — to uplift the masses. There’s got to be an angle.

Douthat, in contrast, did not dismiss the possibility that Anschutz could make a considerable profit on his films — especially depending on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (due in December) — but didn’t leave it at that:

On one level Anschutz’s Hollywood venture is of a piece with his earlier investments — the goal is to make money. But his film company is determinedly family-friendly; don’t look for Anschutz to make an R-rated movie anytime soon. He sees this as a moral question, but also as a sound business plan. In one of his rare public speeches, delivered last winter at a leadership seminar in Florida sponsored by Hillsdale College, a conservative school in rural Michigan, he commented, “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 Â… 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.”

His logic is sound: of the 100 all-time top-grossing movies, just thirteen were rated R. But is a Republican and a social conservative — rarer in Hollywood than a natural blonde — the right person to tap into this market? And is profit the main motive in his moviemaking ambitions? After all, just before Anschutz entered the movie business, an associate described him as wanting to be “doing something significant in American Christianity.”

Douthat closes his article with the delightful prospect — at least to Chronicles of Narnia fans — that Anschutz could spend the next decade making all seven of the Narnia books into films:

If the $150 million venture into Narnia flops, of course, it could be devastating to Anschutz’s Tinseltown venture. But if it succeeds — well, Hollywood loves a winner, and presumably there will be none of the lingering ire that has dogged Mel Gibson. A successful Lion would also mean that Anschutz could start gearing up for the next six Narnia movies — probably culminating around 2015 or so with The Last Battle, a Narnian Armageddon that features Muslim-like villains; subtle riffs on faith, atheism, and damnation; and a decidedly biblical Last Judgment.

It’s the best children’s story about the Apocalypse ever written, and it might just be the movie that Philip Anschutz was born to make. Beneath the flashbulb-shy exterior, one suspects, abides the soul of a dreamer. “My friends think I’m a candidate for a lobotomy,” he remarked at the close of his Florida speech, “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.”

Hollywood has long been a graveyard for such idealists. But most of them didn’t have $5 billion to play with.

In assuming that it’s only about making more money, Shafer missed the story that Douthat told with The Atlantic‘s usual mix of rewarding details and good humor.

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