Citizen Anschutz on a mission

The loaded words appear early and often in articles about entrepreneur Philip Anschutz of Denver.

The list includes "elusive," "reclusive," "mysterious" and many others. Most writers then note that Anschutz has not granted interviews since 1974 and the image is complete -- he is a ghost worth billions of dollars.

Nevertheless, Anschutz does have ideas and, on rare occasions, he shares them in public. Consider this statement about movies and the bottom line.

"Speaking purely as a businessman, it is of utmost importance ... to try and figure out a way to make goods and products that people actually want to buy," he said, in a speech last year. "I don't think Hollywood understands this very well, because they keep making the same old movies. ...

"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."

This speech received little, if any, attention when it was delivered at a Hillsdale College forum. Once again, Anschutz avoided the mainstream-media radar.

But this is changing, in part because he is backing a big-bucks entertainment project that cannot escape attention. The man Fortune once called "the billionaire next door" is changing his public non-image.

Atlantic Monthly described the old Anschutz this way: "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. ... 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."

Now the Anschutz story has a new lead. His Walden Media studio is working with Walt Disney Pictures to create a franchise that could catch "The Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars." The goal is to film all seven books of the 20th Century's most beloved work of Christian fiction -- "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis. The $150 million production of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" arrives on Dec. 9.

The scandal of an evangelical mogul has mainstream Hollywood whispering a nasty word that begins with the letter "p."

It isn't "profits." It's "proselytizing."

After all, the studio's mission statement -- yes, a movie studio with a "mission statement" -- declares: "Walden Media believes that quality entertainment is inherently educational. We believe that ... we can recapture young imaginations, rekindle curiosity and demonstrate the rewards of knowledge and virtue."

Eyebrows are up in power pews as well as corporate boardrooms, especially after two years of passionate debate about faith and film.

As evangelical activist Charles Colson said: "If you happened to stumble across a devout Christian in Hollywood, you'd likely assume he was one of two things: He must be Mel Gibson, or he must be lost." On the other side, Jack Shafer of said bluntly: "Nobody dumps millions of dollars into the movie and exhibition business -- or newspapers -- to uplift the masses. There's got to be an angle."

Anschutz has heard the curses and hosannas. But he told the Hillsdale forum that the edgy Hollywood elites will, ultimately, respect someone who brings his own money to the table and succeeds.

"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," he said. "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. ...

"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."