Brief Lives May 2005

The Apocalypse, Rated PG

Can a socially conservative Christian Republican succeed in Hollywood? By investing millions in a movie of C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Philip Anschutz is betting he can

When Jamie Foxx bounded onto the stage to accept his Golden Globe for Ray, in January, he thanked his grandmother, and then he thanked his "Caucasian" director, Taylor Hackford, for "taking a chance on this beautiful black film." Finally, and effusively, he thanked Philip Anschutz.

If this prompted a few of NBC's 16 million—odd viewers to wonder Philip who?—well, that's probably just how the elusive Mr. Anschutz wanted it.

Here is what we know about Philip Anschutz: He is worth more than $5 billion—down from $18 billion at the height of the 1990s boom, when Qwest Communications, which he founded, was one of the highest of the high-flying tech stocks. He is a devout Presbyterian and a staunch Republican who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to right-leaning candidates over the past decade. He lives with his wife of thirty-five years in Denver, in a modest-by-billionaire-standards house he built more than twenty years ago, and has three grown children. He owns oil fields, railroad lines, the country's finest collection of western art, a network of farms and cattle ranches, five Major League Soccer franchises, Regal Entertainment (the country's largest chain of movie theaters), and two daily newspapers—the revived San Francisco Examiner and the newly launched D.C. tabloid of the same name. (He has also secured the rights to the name Examiner in more than sixty other cities.)

And all this may have been merely a prologue to his newest career—as a Hollywood mogul, a champion of "family-friendly" entertainment, and the man behind both Ray and the much anticipated film version of C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which rolls out in the fall as a lavish, $150 million production of Anschutz's Walden Media (the child-centric division of his Anschutz Film Group) and Walt Disney Pictures.

Here's what we don't know about Philip Anschutz: everything else.

It's not only that Anschutz doesn't sit for interviews, which he has assiduously avoided since 1974. It's that he has managed to maintain an almost perfect anonymity (broken only by the occasional "Who is Philip Anschutz?" article that appears in whatever region is graced with his latest business venture) despite having attained a level of wealth and influence notable even by the rarefied standards of the American billionaire class.

Anschutz was anonymous in the late 1990s, when high-tech entrepreneurs were regularly fêted and profiled and hailed as heroes of the age—and he was still anonymous in 2002, during Qwest's messy post-bubble slide, when names like Kozlowski and Ebbers and Lay were synonymous with corporate chicanery. He's unknown on the streets (though presumably not in the boardrooms) of Beverly Hills, where he out-negotiated several other studios for the rights to Lewis's Narnia books. And he's even relatively unknown in Denver, where he reportedly runs in marathons without being recognized—this in a metropolis whose skyline is dominated by the blue Qwest sign emblazoned on one of the tallest skyscrapers downtown.

Whether this invisible-man routine will survive Anschutz's venture into Hollywood is uncertain. Not only has he jumped—with both feet and hundreds of millions of dollars—into the most publicity-happy business arena in the country, but he's a Republican and a devout Christian making movies in a left-wing town and a polarized nation. In the era of red states and blue television, of Janet Jackson and Mel Gibson, Philip Anschutz's bid to become a big-time moviemaker would at first blush seem doomed to founder.

That is, if it didn't appear to be going—quietly, quietly—so very well.

Anschutz was born in 1939, in the small town of Great Bend, Kansas; he attended high school in Wichita and college at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Upon graduating, he passed up law school to follow his father into the oil business, and became a wildcatter, drilling dozens of holes in hopes of a big score. In 1967 he hit the jackpot at a field in Gillette, Wyoming—but shortly after he had bought up all the surrounding land on credit, his new field was accidentally set ablaze.

Out of money and facing ruin, Anschutz came up with an inspired solution. Universal Studios was just then filming a John Wayne vehicle based on the life of Red Adair, the famous oil-fire fighter, and Anschutz quickly talked the studio into paying him $100,000 for the privilege of filming Adair putting out his oil-field fire. The footage went into the movie, and Anschutz's investment was saved.

A decade later he and his father uncovered a billion-barrel oil pocket in northern Utah, and in 1982, just before oil prices collapsed, he sold a significant portion of the pocket to Mobil for $500 million. Anschutz then formed an investment group and began going after publicly held companies. Among his acquisitions was a small Colorado railroad company, which he later used in a leveraged buyout of the much larger Southern Pacific Railroad. Southern Pacific eventually merged with Union Pacific, forming a railroad goliath and earning Anschutz around a billion dollars.

But the railroads themselves weren't the real prize—it was their right-of-way privileges, negotiated with the federal government during the nineteenth century. These allowed Anschutz to lay the thousands of miles of telecom cable that would make Qwest Communications an Internet-boom powerhouse.

Through it all Anschutz cultivated his low profile and his "billionaire next door" habits: churchgoing in a local Presbyterian parish, marathons and mountain climbing, his daily drive to work in a used Buick. He didn't even maintain a public-relations outfit. When the Internet bubble burst and the SEC began investigating Qwest executives (though not Anschutz himself), reporters' calls were often redirected to the office of Anschutz's legal counsel. The ensuing publicity was predictably awful: in 2002 Fortune dubbed him the country's "greediest executive" for stock sell-offs that netted $1.5 billion (though he lost nearly $10 billion on the stock he didn't sell).

Presented by

Ross Douthat is an Atlantic reporter-researcher and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, which has just been published.

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