Francis X. "Chip" Flaherty, Jr., co-founder of Walden Media, stopped by Ringling College of Art and Design Tuesday night to discuss filmmaking and creating cutting-edge, family friendly entertainment.
For Francis X. "Chip" Flaherty, kids stuff is big business. Along with his brother Flaherty co-founded the Walden Media group out of his apartment in 2000. The Boston brothers would venture forth from those humble beginnings to create an entertainment company that to date has grossed over $3.3 billion worldwide with films such as "The Narnia" franchise, "Holes" and "Charlotte's Web." However back in 2000, creating a film company solely interested in adapting popular children's stories and characters into films was a radical idea. But over the last 15 years, the entire Hollywood infrastructure orbits around family entertainment and created record-breaking franchises on popular children's books such has "Harry Potter," "The Hunger Games" "The Hobbit." Flaherty stopped by the Ringling College of Art and Design to talk to students about the importance of story, translating books to film and how to start their own potential film companies.
What drew you to start this entertainment company out of your apartment?
Chip Flaherty: Growing up in Arlington, Massachusetts, a suburb outside of Boston, I always understood the power of stories and also movies. I grew up with two other brothers, and we were the first family to get cable television in 1979. We went from somewhat liked to the most popular people in the neighborhood because everyone would come hangout and watch the movies. That’s when I first understood the power of movies. It’s interesting back in 1999 and 2000 there was a lot of venture capital out there and a lot of people had a lot of good ideas. We unwittingly stumbled upon a great business model, which is the fact if you have a built in audience and an established intellectual property, you’re half way home.
You at least have a focus group and that the story has connected with someone on one platform. “Holes” was our first movie. Our development office in New York, one of the young guys who now runs Original Films at Nickelodeon, he got a letter from a fourth grade Pennsylvania teacher who said, "My kids love this book. The year before the kids loved the book. I’ve never seen kids respond to a book like this." And all her kids signed the letter saying you should make this into a movie. We dove into it and we did it. One of the things that I always like to say to Ringling students is really demystify it and realize that we’re all innately storytellers. We love a great story ever since we were little kids on the playground. We sparked to that and connected to that. We’ve always honed that skill. It started with a lot of different ways, but it really started with that letter from that teacher.
Did you feel like you hit on something with the children literary adaptations or did you just feel like there was this ingrown market to kids who were exposed to these books?
Flaherty: It was more of the latter that we were thinking of, but we did really catch that wave of "Harry Potter" and fantasy stuff really coming back. Part of it and why what Ringling does in their animation department is so great is that to tell those fantastical stories started to get easier with special effects and all the advancements that had been made. We took Andrew Adamson, and we had taken him after he had just directed “Shrek,” and he’s going to direct the first “Narnia,” and when you see Aslan’s mane move and you realize that if the movie had been made five years before, you wouldn’t have had that same visual impact. Not only did it start to explode, but anytime you have a huge craze like that, you need a number of factors to feed into it at once. The fact that technology had caught up with the vision so you could actually do these movies, that was unbelievable. I think that’s the convergence and the confluence of all that stuff that really made it just explode.
What do you think is next and what are you excited about?
Flaherty: I think it’s visual reality and augmented reality technology. The stories that connect with an audience will continue to connect with it, but the different ways it will be told is just staggering. That’s really at its heart what it’s all about. What I love about Ringling College is that a lot of times at other schools, the faculty and professors are always behind the trend. But here Ringling is ahead of the trend. When I'm here I have to be on my A-game because people are bringing up stuff like augmented reality. Students asked me, "What do you like better: VR or AR?" Good lord, I like any R. I think that’s what it’s going to be. Those more fantastical stories that you’re able in your mind’s eye to see and see it on a screen with VR and AR technology. You’ll become immersed in it and the types of stories where you’ll be able to be completely immersed and engaged, those will just explode.
Do you think those lines between how you experience a book and how you experience a movie are slowly dissolving into each other?
Flaherty: That’s some deep theory on a Tuesday afternoon. I think you’re exactly right. I think those lines will continue to kind of blur. The main thing that will blur is the lines between conscious and subconscious reality and what is reality. If you’re able to put on some kind of head gear, you’ll feel like you’re climbing Mt. Everest.
In your opinion, in the movies you’ve helped make, what’s essential in insuring that the heart of the story in the books transfers over to film?
Flaherty: You always have a protagonist and you always have some type of confrontation that he or she has to get through. You can always stay true to that and what has ever made that protagonist relatable and accessible to the book audience. If you’re able to translate that to the screen and realize the incredible odds he or she is up against, I think that’s huge. In the first 10 pages of a script, which is basically the first 10 minutes of a movie, you have to hook an audience by then no matter what bells and whistles you have technology-wise or you’re all done. It’s all that phenomenon of primacy and connecting with someone right away. It’s the opening argument. I was a DA for a while and people would stay up till five in the morning and I would steal cases and win them. I would just catch them in the opening argument. People are loathed to change their mind over the course of a two-week trial because it’s going to make them reevaluate everything in their life. I could stumble around. I could forget names. But in that first 20 minutes, if I could make the jury and the court like this guy and stick with this case, I would win.
Do you find it daunting to get these characters right that people are so personally connected to?
Flaherty: What you really have to do is get to that core of the character. When people read the book, they already have an image of the character in their mind’s eye, so if you give them that core experience, people are still going to see and process in their mind’s eye what they thought unless there is a complete divorce between what they’ve read and what they’re seeing. The audience is very forgiving especially when you love something. Audiences want to be lost in that experience. Audiences, sophisticated as they are, are very forgiving. People want to escape when they go to a movie. I think audiences always want that escape. If you get it close enough to its core, then the audience is forgiving and they’ll process it in its mind’s eye the way they wanted to see the character all along.