A rare profile of Philip Anschutz on the front page of the Wall Street Journal -- with an even rarer direct quote, and a line drawing -- portrays the billionaire financier and entrepreneur as a hands-on player in his film companies, which have $300 million committed to various projects. The lede of the piece by George Anders (free via link from Romenesko) tells of a late-night call from Anschutz to screenwriter Angelo Pizzo gushing with script ideas for an inspirational film about soccer's World Cup. The story goes into Anschutz's personal campaign to put out wholesome fare, a crusade that has produced mixed results. His Crusader Entertainment, which made the hockey movie Mystery, Alaska but no hits, was dismantled this week.
Passages from the piece:
"Hollywood is a very cynical place," he says. "It's pretty tough." On a wall in his Denver headquarters is a plaque, with a quote from writer Hunter S. Thompson, calling the film business "a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side."
Still, Mr. Anschutz is telling friends he has learned from his mistakes and is ready to step up his commitment to making wholesome films. He and Disney have paired up to develop C.S. Lewis's Narnia books into a series of movies, starting with a $150 million version of "The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe" for Christmas 2005.
Beyond Hollywood, Mr. Anschutz is taking his moral-uplift campaign into other areas as well. He is spending $5 million a year to cover America with thousands of billboards praising Abraham Lincoln, Kermit the Frog and other heroes. He has underwritten one of the most wholesome shows Las Vegas has ever seen, centered around pop singer Celine Dion. And earlier this year, he acquired the 139-year-old San Francisco Examiner for $20 million, explaining that he wants to revamp the free tabloid so that it once again becomes a respected mainstream newspaper.
In one case, Mr. Anschutz's insistence on wholesome film fare cost him a lot of money. He was offered an early chance to invest in Mel Gibson's stunningly popular film "The Passion of the Christ," but turned it down because the movie's graphic crucifixion scenes were sure to earn an R rating.
Mr. Anschutz began to wonder if traditional themes could make a Hollywood comeback. Encouraging this idea was Bob Beltz, a retired minister at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., where Mr. Anschutz worshipped. Mr. Beltz introduced Mr. Anschutz to a religious novel called "Joshua" and a wide array of uplifting books he thought could be adapted into movies. For a time, Mr. Beltz became a "special projects adviser" to Mr. Anschutz, with an office at Anschutz headquarters and free rein to read scripts, travel to film sets and scout for more movie projects...
Mr. Anschutz contributed to some of the early tumult, vexing directors with well-intentioned but hard-to-follow advice on how to make movies. For the religious film "Joshua," he arranged to have Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah contribute a song that he had written, "Everyday Heroes." By the time a finished copy of the song arrived, the movie's score was largely complete and there wasn't any obvious place to put it. "I managed to squeeze it in as background music during a pool-hall scene," director Jon Purdy recalls, "but it wasn't easy." The movie, which cost $8 million to make, took in $1.6 million at the box office.
Over time, Mr. Anschutz learned to make his influence felt more obliquely. He stopped visiting sets during filming, telling people: "I'm not doing this to meet movie stars." He reined in Mr. Beltz, the former minister, telling him he couldn't be the spokesman for the Anschutz Film Group. And when movie executives declared that a biography of singer Ray Charles couldn't be effective unless it documented his problems with drugs and women, Mr. Anschutz dropped some of his initial plans to soften the movie. The movie is scheduled for release later this year.
The piece doesn't make clear whether Anschutz broke his decades-long rule against media interviews, but there is the one quote. In Los Angeles, Anschutz owns most of Staples Center and the Kings, a piece of the Lakers, the Kodak Theater, the new soccer complex in Carson, and has actively sought to build an NFL stadium and a hotel and entertainment complex on land his firms control downtown.