Walden Media, the small production studio behind the holiday box office hit The Chronicles of Narnia, is something of an anomaly in Hollywood: a company interested not just in adapting books to the screen but, more significantly for publishers, encouraging reading in the process. Backed by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, Walden has a unique approach to moviemaking. While the company is far from a nonprofit, it's driven by two philanthropic ideals: to make kid-friendly movies that feature positive messages and to advance literacy.
Walden's output thus far has included eight feature films, four of which were adapted from popular children's titles. And while Holes (2003) and Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) helped establish the studio as a success in Hollywood, Narnia has turned Walden into an unexpected power. Now with six upcoming films based on bestselling children's books in the hopper and an abiding commitment to getting kids reading, Walden is proving itself to be a promising Hollywood partner for publishers: a movie studio that wants to promote its source material instead of merely using it.
With offices in Los Angeles and Boston focusing separately on film production and educational outreach, Walden brings its own dedicated book staff to each project. The company's commitment to the publishing world runs so deep that it has plans to partner with a yet-to-be-named major publisher to release its own books.
Debbie Kovacs, Walden's v-p of publishing, said that when the studio promoted Holes, one of its first big successes, to teachers and librarians, no one knew what the result would be. But after Holes became a hit, Kovacs said the company realized this marketing approach was a viable way to make money and to encourage reading in the process. Consequently, Walden has formed close ties with organizations like the ALA and various literacy nonprofits, from Reading Is Fundamental and Read Across America to the Girl Scouts, relationships the company relies on for choosing and promoting its projects. According to Kovacs, Holes "came to [Walden] because of [the feedback from] teachers and kids," and the company looks for recommendations from this community for all its book-based projects.
Focusing production on the kinds of books that inspire similar passion among educators, kids and parents, the studio, Kovacs said, made a decision early on to stay faithful to the titles it adapts. "I think everyone understands that a book can't be verbatim a movie," she said, "so we try to take the essence of a book, and what makes it beloved, and preserve that."
In addition to promising faithful adaptations, Walden's 14-person Boston staff creates educational guides and promotes its projects at library conferences, trade shows and with groups like the aforementioned organizations. For its forthcoming April release of Hoot, based on Carl Hiaasen's bestselling Newbery Award—winner, Walden has partnered with, among others, the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, and has created various educational materials for these groups and others.
Diane Naughton, v-p of marketing at HarperCollins Children's Books, said that Walden's presence in the educational world allowed the publisher to bring Narnia to schools in a concerted and significant way. Naughton noted that classroom kits made up one of the most important aspects of the house's outreach to schools, with Harper distributing 8,000 classroom kits while Walden did 60,000 Teacher Night Kits. In Naughton's view, Walden's access to educators allowed the house to "speak to that audience in much broader way than we do on our own."
At Random House, where efforts are gearing up for both Hootand How to Eat Fried Worms (another backlist bestseller from the publisher, scheduled for a summer 2006 release from Walden), v-p of marketing for children's books Daisy Kline said that the studio looks at the publisher more like a partner, which is unique in Hollywood. "Rather than distancing themselves from the book," she explained, "[Walden] works hard with the publisher to understand what made the book successful in the first place." Moreover, Kline said, Walden puts its own money behind promotions that heavily benefit the book, something most Hollywood studios would never do. "Their dollar allocation geared toward educators and teachers... marks a huge difference from other studios."
With a number of major book to film projects slated, including a live-action adaptation of Charlotte's Web scheduled for December along with projects based on bestsellers like Bridge to Terebithia, The Dark Is Rising and The Giver, Walden is primed to give publishers a reason to reevaluate Hollywood. Or, at the very least, the chance to feel a bit more appreciated in the journey from page to screen. As Kline summed it up: "You never have to ask Walden to say 'based on the bestselling book.' "