If they're not careful, the Flaherty brothers could ruin the image of Hollywood bigshots.
They don't party with the Vanity Fair crowd or lunch at Spago with Matt and Ben. On one West Coast trip they drove around town to studio meetings in a rented Ford Focus the color of an unripe avocado.
''It was right out of an Elmore Leonard novel," says Michael Flaherty sheepishly during an interview at the brothers' Washington Street offices near Downtown Crossing.
Aside from their taste in rental wheels, says older brother Francis ''Chip" Flaherty Jr., studio executives are ''very supportive and respectful" of what the brothers are doing in the film business. ''And that's what really matters," Chip says.
What matters most in Hollywood, of course, is reputation and track record: the ability to get projects made that succeed commercially and artistically. And the Flahertys -- Arlington natives and partners in Walden Media, a Boston-based enterprise bridging the yawning gap between the cineplex and classroom-- are quietly building a portfolio of films that young audiences enjoy, critics applaud, and -- surprise -- authors and educators endorse.
Founded five years ago by Mike Flaherty and his Tufts University roommate, producer Cary Granat (''Spy Kids," ''Scary Movie,"), Walden Media is part of the team behind ''Holes," ''Because of Winn-Dixie," and other recent adaptations of popular kids' books. The company has distribution and production deals with several major studios, among them 20th Century Fox, Disney, New Line Cinema, and Paramount.
Currently in the pipeline are big-budget versions of C.S. Lewis's ''The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," and E.B. White's ''Charlotte's Web." ''Narnia" will be Disney's marquee release next holiday season, rolled out with all the fanfare of a ''Star Wars" or ''Lord of the Rings" installment.
Also in development are adaptations of Carl Hiaasen's novel ''Hoot" (Jimmy Buffett is a producer) and Lois Lowry's ''The Giver." Like many Walden properties, Lowry's novel is a Newbery Medal winner that regularly appears on recommended-reading lists and is frequently praised for its ability to excite grade-schoolers about reading. Prized especially by Walden are books with a strong pro-literacy theme, a la ''Holes" and ''Winn-Dixie."
''As paradoxical as it sounds, we want to be known as the film company that gets kids back to reading," says Chip, 40, neatly summing up the company philosophy.
If moviegoers walk out of one of their films saying it was OK but the book was better, says Mike, 36, ''We consider that a success." Reading is ''the gateway" to Walden's mission, he continues. ''It's central to everything we do."
With that goal in mind, the Flahertys and their Boston-based staff collaborate closely with authors to make sure their films are as faithful to their source material as possible. Much of Walden's field research takes place at teachers' conferences and librarians' conventions, where they poll educators on what books their students are reading and why. Last year they joined with the National Collaboration for Youth in supporting a nationwide after-school reading program.
Mike jokes that he's more likely to fly to a Texas librarians' conclave than the Cannes Film Festival. But it's no accident ''Winn-Dixie" got tremendous prerelease buzz after being screened for 10,000 teachers prior to its February opening. Or that ''Holes," with author Louis Sachar enthusiastically participating, went on a prerelease tour of 65 cities exposing the film to 20,000 schoolteachers.
''Winn-Dixie" author Kate DiCamillo knows how magical such synergy can be. Her coming-of-age novel debuted in 2000 and quickly became popular with readers in the 8-to-14 age group. Then it stormed back onto The New York Times's best-seller list this winter once the movie opened to friendly reviews and Walden flooded classrooms with film-related teaching materials. ''Genius" is the word DiCamillo uses to describe Walden's approach.
''In my industry, librarians are the powerful moving force," says the author. ''So it seems like a no-brainer that Hollywood would talk to them, but to my knowledge, nobody ever did before."
Yes, DiCamillo says, she did hear from fans upset that her novel was being made into a movie of any kind. As word got around about the cast and director, however, and audiences began seeing the finished product, ''Everything came up positive," DiCamillo avers.
A 'pro-social' enterprise
Who are the Flahertys, and how did they become Hollywood players?
They grew up in Arlington, the sons of a lawyer and a nurse, and went to public schools before graduating from Matignon High School. Chip, a Holy Cross alum, remembers being one of the first households in Arlington to get cable TV.
''Our popularity skyrocketed," he says, smiling.
After Tufts, Mike worked for The National Review, then joined Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger's staff as a speechwriter and aide on education initiatives. His partnership with Granat dates to 1999, when Mike was working for
''I was teaching part time in Manhattan, and all kids wanted to know was: Who was the killer in 'Scream 3' and did I know J. Lo," recalls Granat by phone from his Southern California office. Recognizing that his industry had spawned ''this very narcissistic group of young kids, mostly 8- to 12-year-olds," Granat adds, he was eager to engage in a more ''pro-social" enterprise.
Enter Mike Flaherty, who had watched schoolchildren run to libraries after seeing James Cameron's ''Titanic," wanting to learn more. He realized then how popular entertainment could ''foster academic interest rather than inhibit it," Mike says. At Flaherty's wedding in October '99, he and Granat casually discussed how they might combine film production with classroom outreach. While honeymooning in Greece, Mike kept firing off e-mails to Granat, refining the idea. A few months later, he left IBM to work full time on a business plan. By the summer of 2000, Chip was on board and Walden Media -- Mike conceived the name during a sojourn to one of his favorite haunts, Walden Pond -- went looking for a deep-pocket backer. They found one in Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, whose business empire comprises several entertainment, sports, and technology ventures.
''Phil told us, 'You're only going to get one shot at this. There can't be any false steps,' " recalls Mike, who like both his brother and Granat is the father of three young children and thus has a personal stake in Walden's mission.
Anschutz is known for his Republican politics and support of conservative causes. According to a profile in the current issue of BusinessWeek, there has been much media speculation that Anschutz plans to use his media and entertainment properties to promote a conservative agenda. However, both Flahertys claim they've never discussed politics or religion with Anschutz and that Walden's educational agenda is strictly apolitical.
''I get asked all the time, 'Are you a red-state or blue-state company?' " Mike says. ''And my answer is, 'Neither. We're purple.' "
With Anschutz providing seed money, the Boston office began hiring staff and networking with educators in earnest. Maintaining a Boston identity was also key strategically, according to Granat. ''If you're going to be taken seriously in the education world, not having an office in Boston is a huge mistake," he says, citing the staff's close ties with Harvard and MIT.
One thing the Flahertys are not is the Farrelly brothers, who write, produce, and direct their own features. Rather, they toil on the front end of film production by acquiring properties outright or partnering with films already in production, as was the case with ''Winn-Dixie." At the back end, the Walden staff designs and distributes materials that give educators the tools to spark interest in both movie and book. For ''Winn-Dixie," for instance, Walden published a full-color, 18-page activity guide that includes six lesson plans, an author profile, and a real-life story about a 10-year-old girl's love of reading.
Mike concentrates on acquisitions and script development. Chip, who previously worked in the state attorney general's office, serves as executive vice president and general counsel. The Boston office, which also runs a website (www.walden.com) geared toward teachers and librarians, manages the educational outreach side while Granat oversees the company's Los Angeles office, where he is more directly involved in actual film production.
''Personally, Mike and I are a little different," Granat says. ''But we have great discussions, even when we disagree, and there's a kind of shorthand we've developed over the years that money can't buy. In many respects, Mike is my audience, my focus group."
Coincidentally, the first Walden production was a collaboration with Cameron on the 2003 documentary ''Ghosts of the Abyss." Mike planned to produce more historical documentaries, he says, but shifted course when ''Holes" came along and proved successful. Still, the Flahertys hear from skeptics that no matter how good or faithful a movie version is, turning a beloved kids' book into a movie is a bad idea.
''What's thrown in our face is, if it ain't broke don't fix it," Mike acknowledges. But what often drives that complaint is dismay with the way books have been filmed in the past. With ''Holes," for example, Walden executives were warned that Sachar would be disappointed. ''When we told them Sachar was writing the screenplay, they started to listen to us," Mike says. If an author doesn't see the potential of making a quality film, he continues, ''We'll stay away from the book."
Says Chip, ''Teachers realize this isn't a zero-sum game. Look, we live in a visual age. If a film can get kids interested in a book, we think that's great."
Apparently a lot of Hollywood bigshots agree.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.