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
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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).

Today the Anschutz Company is slightly more media-savvy. Anschutz's spokesman, Jim Monaghan, an avuncular man in his fifties, met me at a Denver bar and held forth genially on the subject of his mysterious employer. But even Monaghan, with his potbelly, checkered shirt, and graying whiskers, seemed more like an anti-PR man—the perfect spokesman, perhaps, for a boss who once complained to a reporter, "Why do you keep calling me 'billionaire Philip Anschutz'? My mother never called me 'billionaire'!"

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 … 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."

Anschutz Film Group executives in Hollywood, veterans of the entertainment business, dismiss the notion that the company has a religious mission. And indeed, thus far AFG's movies have been starkly nonsectarian, celebrating the overcoming of obstacles and the triumph of the human spirit. In several instances Walden Media has successfully mined high-quality children's novels: the film version of Louis Sachar's best-selling book Holes was Anschutz's first bona fide hit, and current projects (including Because of Winn-Dixie, which was released in February, and Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte's Web, which are in production) are aimed at a similar audience.

But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is different. For one thing, Walden Media and Disney, the film's distributor, are thinking really, really big; they have in mind the epic scale (and epic profits) of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. For another, the Narnia series is an explicit Christian allegory; the lion, Aslan, is an obvious Christ figure, and the climactic act of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe might be described as "The Passion of the Lion." Nor are Anschutz and company shying away from Lewis's Christian cachet: Disney will launch a marketing campaign of religious outreach to coincide with the movie's December release, and has retained a public-relations firm that specializes in reaching Christian audiences—and that did some of the marketing for The Passion of the Christ.

This plan is not without controversy, and for Disney in particular it's a gamble. The company has long avoided cultural conflict (for instance, it balked at distributing Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11), and some critics will doubtless view acknowledging the Christian themes in Narnia as a violation of some kind of unwritten establishment clause concerning the separation of religion and mass culture. On the other hand, if the marketing campaign (or the movie itself, which thus far has been kept tightly under wraps) tries to downplay the story's strong religious undertones, it may turn off a large number of Narnia's fans, who don't want to see the Christian content of Lewis's work diluted.

All this would probably cause some discomfort in the film industry even if the project weren't backed by a believer. But Hollywood hasn't hesitated to work with the new Christian in town. James Cameron, the director of Titanic and other big-budget mainstream fare, partnered with Walden on his recent undersea documentaries; the writer and director John Sayles, whose Silver City suggests that he's no fan of red-state tycoons, has signed on to script a project about the athlete Jim Thorpe; and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is directed by Andrew Adamson, whose work includes the two Shrek movies.

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.

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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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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