Past the Popcorn: Walden Media’s The Giver

by Greg Wright

Does Walden Media have a hit on its hands again with The Giver? If it does, it’s been a long time coming.

Up until the time that Walden punted away the Narnia franchise after the “disappointment” of Dawn Treader (which itself came the heels of the meltdown of Walden’s distribution deal with Disney), Walden Media’s release schedule has been in steady decline.

But there was  a time when the production company was churning out hit after hit: Nim’s Island (2008), Bridge to Terabithia (2007), Charlotte’s Web (2006), Amazing Grace (2006), Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), Holes (2003).

cflahertyinsetWalden Media is hoping for a return to form with The Giver, released today:

In an insular society known as The Community, a culture of “sameness” is embraced. Pain and suffering have been eradicated from daily life, along with any notion of individuality or choice. Members of the Community lead a seemingly perfect existence, unburdened by the harsh realities of the “real” world. A lone man among them has been designated to retain all memories of the way life once was. Now the time has come for that man to pass his knowledge to another.

The film is coming out with pretty good word of mouth, with a 69% positive audience rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Critics aren’t very happy with this novel adaptation, though, with the critical consensus that “Phillip Noyce directs The Giver with visual grace, but the movie doesn’t dig deep enough into the classic source material’s thought-provoking ideas.”

Walden’s focus has never been on pleasing critics, though. Part of the brilliance of Walden Media’s success is that they have been very incisive about figuring out what the central message is of any given film, and then connecting that message with the appropriate audience.

A few years ago, I had a chat with Walden co-founder Chip Flaherty and talked with him him about the complexities of film production vs. distribution. He replied with the following, which sheds some insight into what Walden is trying to do:

Even when it’s within the same company, you’ve got two very distinct phases of filmmaking. In the first phase, it’s just that: production, making the product—in this case, a film. In the second, distribution, it’s marketing—making the audience aware of the fact that this film is coming to the marketplace; and it’s also making the prints, getting them to the movie theaters, and having relationships with the exhibitors. So you’re exactly right. Whether it’s two different companies or the same company, it really doesn’t matter. There are always different people associated with both pursuits.

One of the reasons, I think, that Walden Media has been successful is that we’ve tried to break down that distinction, and seen it as all part of an integrated process of storytelling. We always go back to the fact that we’re storytellers. In each step of the way, we are attempting to tell a story. So it always starts with the story, and we’ve had a lot of success with going to best-selling books, books that have already connected with audiences across generations—Because of Winn-Dixie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia. You say, okay, we’ve got a great story; now let’s make a faithful adaptation—and that means hiring the right scriptwriter with the right sensibility. And then we shoot the film. But in order to market it—moving into distribution—we stick with the Walden Media brand. People will think, “We know it will be faithful to the book,” and that will help us from an educational standpoint. If we’re educators, we can always drive kids back to the book in an attempt to get them to appreciate the written word and literature, and hopefully make them into life-long readers.

But the second thing is that when you’ve got a book that’s connected with an audience and with families, it’s almost like a focus group. You know that there might be challenging material in there, but you know that there’s nothing offensive, that’s it’s something the whole family can kind of rally around. So part of our marketing, and it’s becoming easier as we’re building hard-earned credibility with our audiences, is we say, “Look. This is another film by Walden Media, and in some ways you should know what that means—that we see ourselves as storytellers, and if the film is based on a book it will be a faithful adaptation.” So we try to get that story out.

We’re building awareness in channels where we have relationships, but we’re also doing something that’s good both as a goal and as an end in and of itself. It builds awareness, and if they see the movie, that’s fantastic. But at the end of the day, there are a lot of books in a library that wouldn’t otherwise have them; and we’re real proud of that.

If that kind of goal sounds appealing to you, you might consider going to see The Giver… and never mind the critics!

The Giver opens today at the AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again?

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