For Them, Filmmaking
Is An Open Book
With their innovative production company Walden Media, Tufts graduates—and former housemates—Cary Granat and Micheal Flaherty have merged entertainment and education.
Micheal Flaherty's October 1999 wedding was the start of a very successful partnership. Actually, make that two—both the personal partnership between Flaherty and his wife and the professional one between Flaherty and fellow Tufts graduate Cary Granat, then the head of Miramax's Dimension Films. As the founders of innovative production company Walden Media, Flaherty and Granat—housemates during their junior year at Tufts—have bridged the gap between education and entertainment with films including "Holes," "Ghosts of the Abyss" and the soon-to-be-released "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."
"Cary and I started [Walden] literally on the back of a cocktail napkin at my wedding. Cary had the experience in film, and I had the experience in education," says Flaherty, who had spent the years since his 1990 graduation from Tufts working to improve the Boston public school system. "To my wife's dismay, I started to work on a business plan during our honeymoon!" he laughs.
Granat achieved great success at a young age. As Dimension's top dog, he launched multiple $100 million-plus film franchises, including "Scream," "Scary Movie" and "Spy Kids." But he still found himself entering what he describes as "a deeply pensive phase."
"I started thinking, 'How could we use the skill sets we've learned in the entertainment business, at Tufts, at other places, to combine and do something more than just make films?'" Granat recalls. Starting with those scribbles on a napkin, Granat says, "we started coming up with a way to merge education and entertainment."
And in an industry where it often seems that "family-friendly entertainment" is code for movies that are appropriate for kids but either bore or annoy the rest of the family, they've accomplished that in a unique and interesting way.
"When we were getting into this, too often, family entertainment was defined by what it didn't have—no swears, no violence, no sex, no drugs," Flaherty says. "But you can still tell incredible stories and get people excited and also be provocative without using that. So we like to define ourselves by what we have."
What they have are films that brim with humor and mystery and adventure—and learning programs that extend each movie's reach beyond the big screen. "When we make films that are about great books, or we make films about science or math or history, what Micheal then does is build all these wonderful programs so that kids and their families have many avenues to explore those things," Granat says.
Flaherty's interest in this area dates back to his tenure at the Massachusetts State House in the 1990s, a period of heated debate over school choice and charter schools. "A lot of educational issues can get divisive, so I tried to focus on the things that unite people," Flaherty says. "The one thing I think everybody agrees on is that we've got to get back to making learning exciting for kids and that we've got to get them to ask the big questions. What's truth? What's friendship?"
Flaherty discovered an effective way to elicit those questions while teaching a class of inner-city kids through the Steppingstone Foundation, a program that helps prepare low-income students for entry into top-notch public and independent placement schools. In order to connect with his students, Flaherty would ask them what they did over the weekend. "It was always movies, movies, movies," he says.
Until one movie—James Cameron's blockbuster, "Titanic"—prompted a different response. To Flaherty's amazement, "the next weekend, they said, 'We went to the library and got out books about the Titanic,' and then a couple of weeks later, they said, 'Oh, we went to an exhibit about the Titanic—we were able to stick our hands in water that was the same temperature as what people were stuck in,'" Flaherty recalls. "I just thought, 'Wow, I can't believe this one movie has done so much more than a textbook to get these kids excited and engaged.'"
And now Walden's movies and programs are doing the same thing—sometimes, even with the same director: Cameron was at the helm of Walden's IMAX documentary "Aliens of the Deep," as well as its 2003 Titanic documentary, "Ghosts of the Abyss." To tie additional educational opportunities into that film, Walden teamed with Tufts' Center for Engineering Educational Outreach (CEEO) and organized a robotics competition for fourth through eighth graders.
"Those guys were unbelievable!" Flaherty says of Tufts' CEEO. "We got to work with really young kids, and they were building robots out of LEGOs to search through a [scale] replica of the Titanic. That was awesome." And utterly in keeping with Walden's mission: "The tagline we came up with is the whole concept of recapturing imagination and rekindling curiosity," Granat says. "The whole notion of curiosity—to me, that's what we're all about."
To find the most effective ways of piquing that curiosity, Granat and Flaherty stay in close contact with the educational community. "We don't want teachers just giving us ideas about how to use our movies; we want ideas from them on what movies we should make. They have to be there from the first decision," says Flaherty.
Incorporating teachers' and librarians' input into studio decision-making, Flaherty says, is an entirely new—and, for the studio, often surprising—endeavor. "People in the studios aren't necessarily all that aware of what kids are reading nowadays," he says. "They're always amazed to see how much kids love things like [Lois Lowry's] 'The Giver' and [Katherine Paterson's] 'Bridge to Terabithia,' which are so provocative—and at some points, so dark." (Film adaptations of those two young-adult novels are two of the projects on Walden's slate.)
A scene from "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."
Both Granat and Flaherty say their success with Walden Media is rooted in their Tufts experiences. "Tufts was unbelievable," says Granat, who has chaired the Experimental College's Communications and Media Studies Board and remains in close touch with University Professor (and former Provost) Sol Gittleman.
"One of the most gratifying things that happened to me over the last few months was, I was talking to Sol, and I said, 'Have you seen the documentary that we did, 'The Question of God'?'" Granat says, referring to Walden's television documentary on the conflicting views of "Narnia" author C.S. Lewis and father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. "Sol said, 'You did that? I loved that documentary—and I never watch TV!' That," Granat says, "said it all for me."
It wasn't just influential individuals like Gittleman who made Granat's time at Tufts so formative; it was also the University's approach to educating its students.
"That was what I loved about Tufts, the idea that you're here to learn to become a critical thinker and find out what really excites you and what really engages you," Flaherty says. "It had that Thoreau vibe of marching to the beat of a different drummer."
And for Granat and Flaherty, "that Thoreau vibe" is so valuable that they named their company after Walden Pond—which they visited many times while at Tufts. But a house and a love of Thoreau weren't the only things Flaherty and Granat shared: as juniors, they each taught Explorations courses through the Experimental College. Flaherty's course focused on the evolution of American family life; Granat—an international relations and drama major—taught one about the growth of the extreme right-wing as a business and as a political movement.
Granat went on to become an executive at Universal Pictures, where he worked on films such as "Babe" and "Casino." From there, he made what he describes as his "biggest leap": working with Miramax head Bob Weinstein and soon becoming president and chief operating officer of the company's Dimension division.
"Cary was at the absolute top of his game at that point," marvels Flaherty. "What was unbelievable was, he was so committed to [the idea of Walden] that he was willing to leave all of that." And now, as CEO of Walden, Granat has set his sights characteristically high: his ultimate goal, he says, is "to build a new brand in the business, a trusted brand—something that no one has done in years."
"We want to demystify the filmmaking process and really start to look at film as a new text," Flaherty adds. "I was at CVS the other day, and there was a $30 disposable video camera, which is pretty amazing. Kids are going to start telling stories this way, and that's going to be the next phase for us—really starting to work with the directors and use our website to help kids learn more about how they can bring stories to life through film."
For Granat and Flaherty, that next phase is key to carrying out Walden's mission.
"The mission is simple: it truly is to recapture imagination and to rekindle curiosity," Flaherty says. "And the 're-' is the key there. Cary has three children that are a little bit older than my three children, and his oldest daughter, Arielle, who's beautiful and brilliant, is always asking these big questions.
"The problem is," he continues, "there seems to almost be this calendar date where kids just stop asking those questions. That's why we're talking about recapture, rekindle—we want to make sure those questions don't stop; that it's an infinite ladder that kids keep climbing up; that there's no stopping."
Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006
Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at last July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.
"Narnia" stills courtesy of Disney. Granat and Flaherty wedding photo courtesy of Walden Media. Top photo of Flaherty by Aaron Schutzengel ('07).
This story originally ran on Dec. 5, 2005.