BURLINGTON — In a world in which individual screens are programmed exactly to the tastes of the eyeballs watching them, Chip and Micheal Flaherty harbor an almost quaint hope: They want to bring back family viewing time.
To this end, the brothers, who head the Burlington-based company Walden Media, have created a series of TV movies presented as “Walden Family Theater,” airing Fridays at 8 p.m. on Hallmark Channel. It’s a mission inspired by their own upbringing in Arlington.
“We were a very tight family. We did everything together,” says Chip, 49. “We had the traditional family room with the wood panel, and we had a TV down there and we’d always watch stuff together.”
“We were the ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ family,” Micheal, 45, recalls.
Gathering at home for an evening of TV viewing is an experience that has largely fallen out of family life. So, says Chip, “Here’s the dream: First, we want to give them that shared experience, and then, second, to ask the big questions.” Instead of unpacking uncomfortable double entrendres, the Flahertys would rather viewers come away discussing the deeper issues their films raise.
Friday night’s installment, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” based on the Newbery Medal-winning Christopher Paul Curtis book of the same name, poses plenty of those tough questions.
The family drama, directed by Kenny Leon and starring Anika Noni Rose (“Dreamgirls,” “The Princess and the Frog”), is set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young girls on Sept. 15, 1963. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of that event, Walden Media held a screening and participated in a candlelight vigil and march with the Salvation Army to benefit the Kroc Center at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester this past Sunday.
The film bears the company’s signature: a combination of drama, humor, and history lesson.
Founded in 1999, Walden Media — backed by sole investor billionaire Philip Anschutz and named for the Concord pond, with a tip of the cap to Thoreau — is not a household name but has been making waves in the feature film business. The company takes beloved, and oftentimes award-winning books, and adapts them for the big screen, including “The Chronicles of Narnia” films, “Holes,” and “Nim’s Island.”
Since the mid-2000s, the company has branched out into books and published 41 titles for middle schoolers, ten of which have been optioned by Walden or other companies to be adapted into films. (While the company has experienced great success, Walden has not been immune to the vagaries of business, laying off 12 employees last month.)
“We saw such segmentation in terms of media when we first started,” says Chip, sitting in the conference room of Walden Media’s colorful offices in a Burlington office park, where the halls are adorned with posters of their hit films and whiteboard walls show various projects in development everywhere from Warner Brothers to Sony. (The Flahertys split their time between this office and one in Los Angeles.)
Micheal says they found a “coalition of the willing” for the family movie series in producing partner Arc Entertainment — headed up by fellow Bostonian Trevor Drinkwater — and sponsors Walmart and Procter & Gamble. He says the group then pitched Hallmark.
“We want to make family films, particularly the kinds of films that Walden is used to, which are films based on books that people love and aren’t afraid to tell a story that will get people talking,” says Micheal. Hallmark bit, and since mid-March, every Friday night has featured a Walden Media film, or temperamentally similar films such as “Flicka,” licensed by the network under the rubric of “Walden Family Theater.”
Hallmark chief executive Bill Abbott — who coincidentally overlapped at Holy Cross with Chip Flaherty — is bullish on the prospects of the series, noting that there is a vacuum in the marketplace for this kind of programming and there is a real appetite.
“We have seen a tremendous influx of new audience which is a little bit younger for us, quite frankly,” says Abbott of the network popular for its heartwarming films for adults. “I think we’ve attracted over 5 million new different viewers through all of the projects to date.
“We’re really offering something completely unique in a world that’s filled with a lot of reality content, a lot of different organizations looking to be edgy or sexy or violent and appeal to the 18-34 year-old rather than the family and quality content,’’ he adds. “We’re really proud of this association.”
“I think their stories always have heart but they also have those elements that still remind you that it’s entertainment,” says Tony-nominated director Leon, who has spent time in Boston working at the Huntington Theatre in the past. “The industry tells us, ‘People don’t want to see drama,’ but that’s not true. Folks want to see a good story told well, and I think Walden is mindful of that. You can’t hit them too heavy with the issues, you have to integrate the issues into the story and not everybody can do that well.”
The producers of “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,’’ Nikki Silver and Tonya Lewis Lee (who is also the co-screenwriter), had been shepherding the project for almost 10 years and are grateful to have aligned with a company that shares their philosophies on family entertainment. The duo’s company, ToniK, will team with Walden again — along with the Weinstein Company — for a big-screen adaptation of Lois Lowry’s best seller “The Giver,” which begins shooting with Jeff Bridges in South Africa next month.
Silver says “One of the things we’re most excited about is not just the film itself, but the whole curriculum that they’ve created surrounding the film.” As with all of its films, Walden Media also produced lessons plans to be used by educators in conjunction with “Watsons.”
“Awesome, awesome” says Ali Matthews, summing up her reaction to the lesson plans she used in her eighth grade English class at McCall Middle School in Winchester. Matthews worked with Walden Media to screen the film for the entire school last Friday, since the book had been required summer reading.
“It’s hard as an English teacher because they take all my favorite books and turn them into movies,“ says Matthews with a laugh. “But it’s a way for kids to access them and get to the books and I appreciate that, and I think they do it really responsibly.”
And that is exactly what Chip and Micheal Flaherty hope to do with Walden Family Theater and potentially a TV series in the future.
“If you look thematically at everything we’ve done,” says Chip Flaherty, “there are two messages: There’s nothing that’s been broken that can’t be fixed; and the second thing, and the “Watsons” really reflects this I think, is how in life the common and cosmic intertwine, and you never know when it’s going to happen.”