The Conservative Hand of Hollywood

The Christian leader of megaplex Regal Cinemas is trying to shape what audiences see — and don’t see — at the movies.
March 29, 2006  |

Consider the following scenario: It’s Saturday, and you feel like going to the movies. You see the latest installment of The Chronicles of Narnia advertised in your local Examiner newspaper, part of a chain whose name has been trademarked in more than seventy cities. You decide to go to your local theater — a Regal, Edwards, or United Artists. You sit through twenty minutes of advertising, followed by the film itself, which has been delivered from studio to theater by a fiber-optic line.

The underlying theme? Every stage of your moviegoing experience — from production to promotion to distribution to exhibition — was controlled by one man: sixty-six-year-old religious conservative Philip Anschutz.

Named Fortune’s “greediest executive” in 1999, the Denver resident is a generous supporter of anti-gay-rights legislation, intelligent design, the Bush administration and efforts to sanitize television. With a net worth of $5 billion, he is Forbes ‘ thirty-fourth richest American, two spots above Revlon’s Ronald Perelman. Anschutz heads a vast media empire whose assets include the Examiner chain, twenty percent of the country’s movie screens, and a sizeable stake in Qwest Communications, the scandal-ridden telecom giant he formerly directed. (Anschutz was accused of helping falsely inflate Qwest profit reports, then making millions by selling his own shares in the company — a claim he ultimately settled by paying millions to charity.)

Anschutz’s stake in Hollywood has been growing since 2000, when he began buying the bankrupt Regal, Edwards and United Artists chains and founded two film studios, Walden Media and Bristol Bay. In many areas of the country, the Regal Cinemas chain is the only option for seeing first-run films. Carole Handler, a prominent Los Angeles anti-trust attorney, says this gives Anschutz considerable leverage in his latest domain of conquest. “Anschutz is the person who went and bought the theaters out of bankruptcy,” she says. “Don’t think that passed unnoticed by the studios.”

Anschutz has gained considerable power in negotiating licensing agreements with the film studios, contracts which impact everything from where a movie is played, to how long it runs, how it’s marketed, which upcoming releases are given trailer time, and how revenue is split between the studio and the theater. It is a kind of power, says Handler, that harkens back to the early days of cinema, when studios, distributors, exhibitors and even movie star magazines were concentrated into the same relatively few hands.

There’s a twist, though: Anschutz’s politics. A heavy contributor to the Republican Party for decades, Anschutz helped fund Amendment 2, a ballot initiative to overturn a state law protecting gay rights, and helped stop another initiative promoting medical marijuana. More recently, he helped fund the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank that mounted a public relations campaign and financed “research” into intelligent design. He has also supported the Media Research Council, the group that generated nearly all the indecency complaints with the FCC in 2003.

Ironically, it was Hollywood that saved Anschutz. As a friend of his told Fortune, Anschutz “has a latent interest in doing something significant in American Christianity. He is working deliberately and diligently on it.”

Anschutz did not respond to my request for an interview, and he has given only a handful over the past few decades. This is not for lack of an opinion or a story to tell. A devout Presbyterian who grew up in Kansas, Anschutz is married with two daughters and a son. He inherited his father’s land investment and oil exploration business, but didn’t grow up wealthy; in fact, he gave up his plans to attend law school because the family business was failing.