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The Screen Is Their Classroom

The Screen Is Their ClassroomFor the Tufts roommates who co-founded educational film production company Walden Media, there's no reason why movies can't teach kids a thing or two.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.25.05] Five years ago, a film executive and an educational software developer – friends and roommates at Tufts –began talking about the academic potential of movies. The conversation sparked an idea, which has grown into the thriving entertainment company Walden Media. Today, the venture has some successes under its belt and some blockbuster projects on tap, all without straying from its core mission of creating opportunities for both education and entertainment.

"[Walden Media is] quietly building a portfolio of films that young audiences enjoy, critics applaud, and -- surprise -- authors and educators endorse," The Boston Globe wrote in a profile on the company and its founders. Some of the films produced by the company in recent years include "Holes" (an adaptation of the Louis Sachar book) and "Because of Winn-Dixie" (another children's book adaptation). On deck are big-budget productions like "Narnia," interpreting C.S. Lewis' classic work "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" for the big screen, and a new take on E.B. White's classic "Charlotte's Web."

While some view toying with a beloved children's book as playing with fire, Walden Media often works closely with the authors – Sachar wrote the screenplay for "Holes" himself – to assure their quality, the Globe reported.

Mike Flaherty and Cary Granat – both from the class of 1990 – founded Walden Media in conjunction with Flaherty's brother Chip, aiming to improve the quality of films geared towards children.

''My father strongly believed in a liberal arts education and reading,'' Flaherty told the Chicago Sun-Times. He previously worked as an educational software developer and education aide to former Massachusetts State Senate President William Bulger, and his background comes through in the films produced by Walden Media.

"There's a thread through all of them," Flaherty explained to the Sun-Times. "'Holes' has a literacy message, 'Winn-Dixie' tells how a girl went to a library to read to a woman, 'Bridge to Terabithia' is about a shy boy who becomes friends with an avid reader, 'The Giver' is about a totalitarian regime where books are banned. Both [of the latter] are Newberry medal winners."

"[Reading is] central to everything we do," Flaherty added in the Globe, which noted that much of Walden Media's research is done at "teachers' conferences and librarians' conventions."

Granat, who produced films such as "Spy Kids" and "Scary Movie" as the CEO of Miramax/Dimension, wanted to work on projects that had a weightier impact on their viewers.

''I was teaching part time in Manhattan, and all kids wanted to know was: Who was the killer in 'Scream 3' and did I know J. Lo," he lamented to the Globe.

So he opted for a change. As he told the Sun-Times, “[I] wanted to make films that would capture the imagination and rekindle [children’s] curiosity.”

Flaherty began to see where film and education intersected.

"The more I got into what made children learn, the more I saw the impact that television and movies had on them. It all comes back to asking the big questions: What makes children excited about learning? How can we create material for them without it tasting like medicine?" he explained to the Sun-Times.

In 1999, Flaherty and Granat began talking about what would become Walden Media, discussing the blend of filmmaking and educational outreach. Within a couple of years, they would quit their jobs, pool their assets, find a financial backer and put their ideas into practice.

The company's name evokes Henry David Thoreau's beloved Walden Pond, and the founders believe their regional identity is key.

"If you're going to be taken seriously in the education world, not having an office in Boston is a huge mistake," Granat told the Globe.

Walden Media works on both film production – finding both existing film projects to work on as well as purchasing and developing new scripts– and developing educational materials that work in conjunction with the movies, such as the activity booklet that accompanied "Because of Winn-Dixie."

Granat heads the company's Los Angeles office and film production efforts there while Flaherty handles rights and scripts.

''Personally, Mike and I are a little different," he told the newspaper, pointing out similarities between being business partners and being roommates. ''But we have great discussions, even when we disagree, and there's a kind of shorthand we've developed over the years that money can't buy. In many respects, Mike is my audience, my focus group."

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