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An Uncharted 'World'

Hollywood is agog that Anschutz invested $110 million in Verne saga remake without studio commitment

August 05, 2003|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Phileas Fogg, the betting Englishman in Jules Verne's 1872 novel "Around the World in 80 Days," staked 20,000 pounds on what today seems a hopelessly quaint notion: that he could circle the globe in 2 1/2 months.

Raising the ante considerably, Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz now has more than $110 million riding on his own notion that audiences, craving more family fare, are ready for another movie version of the Steam Age tour de force. But he's still waiting for Hollywood to take a piece of the action.

A movie community that lives by the rule "never play with your own money" is watching with fascination as Anschutz rolls the dice on what appears to be the most expensive U.S. independent film ever to proceed without a domestic distributor.

"Hollywood runs on 'OPM': other peoples' money," said media analyst Larry Gerbrandt, chief operating officer of Carmel-based Kagan World Media. "This is a Hollywood spectacle done outside the Hollywood system, and that's really unusual."

It's not uncommon for financiers or foreign companies to risk their capital on lower-budgeted independent films, hoping to score later by auctioning U.S. rights to American studios. Thus, the current hit "Bend It Like Beckham," which debuted in Britain, was picked up by News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Occasionally, more expensive movies have started production without a domestic distributor, as happened two years ago with Intermedia Film Equities' "K-19: The Widowmaker," which landed with Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures during the shoot.

But to invest well over $100 million in a picture that lacks a studio commitment appears to be without precedent, even for a businessman as wealthy as Anschutz, whose fortune has been estimated by Forbes Magazine at $4.9 billion.

"We have to go into the marketplace to prove to everybody what we know to be true -- which is how exciting this is as an event film," said Cary Granat, chief executive of Anschutz's 2-year-old Walden Media, founded to produce family entertainment and educational materials.

So far, Walden has made "Holes," which cost around $30 million and had $67 million in domestic ticket sales when Walt Disney Co. released it this year, and director James Cameron's 3-D, large-format documentary, "Ghosts of the Abyss, which was released by Disney to about $13 million at the U.S. box office.

A churchgoing family man born in 1939, Anschutz made his fortune in oil and gas, railroads, telecommunications, real estate and pro sports. On the entertainment front, he is bent on delivering positive messages through films, TV shows, live theater, books and interactive media that entertain, inspire and educate.

In addition to Walden, the entrepreneur -- whose holdings include Los Angeles' Staples Center and Kings hockey team, as well as the nation's largest collection of theaters -- owns Beverly Hills-based Crusader Entertainment, a family-oriented outfit headed by producer Howard Baldwin.

Anschutz's current crusade for more family films comes as Hollywood, after dabbling with softer offerings under political pressure in the last few years, has been shifting toward edgier material.

Walt Disney, for instance, had a summer blockbuster in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl," which was the first PG-13 rated film under its Walt Disney Pictures label. AOL Time Warner Inc.'s New Line Cinema also has done well with the similarly rated "The Lord of the Ring" series.

Still, such recent PG-rated hits as the "Harry Potter" series and "Scooby-Doo," both from Warner Bros., prove that softer fare can generate big numbers. And Anschutz and company believe viewers want more.

"Phil and I felt there was a gigantic hole in the marketplace," Granat said. He noted that Walden has other sizable family adventures in the hopper, including a planned screen adaptation of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to be directed by Andrew Adamson, one of the filmmakers behind "Shrek."

Financial Footing

More immediately, Anschutz's "80 Days," which is to carry a PG rating, has been struggling to find its footing.

Paramount pulled out of an "80 Days" deal before shooting began, as deals failed to materialize with prospective stars such as Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Mel Gibson, Sylvestor Stallone and Drew Barrymore. On the hook for $18.5 million under a so-called pay-or-play deal with actor Jackie Chan, Anschutz personally bankrolled a massive production, which wrapped last month after filming on sets in Thailand and Berlin.

So far, Granat said, Walden has commitments from foreign pre-sales, lease-back deals, rebates and government subsidies to cover more than half the picture's cost. But he now faces the ticklish business of winning support from one of the handful of studios big enough to provide the advertising and distribution dollars it will take to make "80 Days" a hit.

It won't be easy.

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