The Moral of Ray's Story

Like Ray Charles, who overcame all that life threw at him, the movie's maverick producer helmed an Oscar contender by refusing to give up

By Ronald Grover

Phil Anschutz is a man of faith. The 65-year-old Denver billionaire, who made a fortune in real estate and telecommunications, used to teach Bible class in Highlands Ranch, Colo. And for a while, his goal was to clean up Hollywood -- one G-rated movie at a time -- with a steady stream of uplifting family fare.

So he produced a religious movie, Joshua, suggested to him by his minister, in 2002. It reaped just $1.6 million at the box office. That same year, he made Children on Their Birthdays, based on short stories by Truman Capote. That grossed a pathetic $54,000. Between these two bombs, Anshcutz spent some $18 million of his own money.


  But Anschutz, whose holdings include several soccer teams and the Los Angeles Kings hockey squad, didn't make his $6 billion fortune by giving up easily. And it looks like his faith in making inspiring movies has been rewarded. Anschutz, as it turns out, is the money behind Ray, the Oscar-nominated film biography of Ray Charles. The movie has already won two Golden Globes -- for best picture and best actor -- and oddsmakers are betting that Jamie Foxx, who portrays the late singer, will add an Oscar to his Golden Globe on Feb. 27.

In truth, Ray may be a long shot for the Best Picture Oscar. It's up against strong contenders The Aviator, Million-Dollar Baby, and Sideways, as well as super long shot Finding Neverland. But if there were an Oscar for guts and perseverance, it would surely belong to Anschutz. After every studio in Hollywood turned down Ray, which director Taylor Hackford struggled to get made for 12 years, Anschutz covered the entire cost himself.

"Every studio we brought it to said it was too narrow -- a biography and black film that wouldn't play well with some audiences and had no overseas value," recalls producer Stuart Benjamin, who made La Bamba with Hackford in 1987. Benjamin had been hired in 2000 to work at Anschutz' production company, Bristol Bay. "When we went around the table asking who had projects, I put up my hand and told him about Ray," recalls Benjamin. "To his credit, Phil wanted to hear more."


  It turned out that Anschutz was a big Ray Charles fan. He had been on the board of the Kennedy Center in 1987 when it gave the blind singer a lifetime achievement award. Anschutz agreed to front $3 million out of his own pocket to develop the project and then put up the entire $35 million when no studio would share the production costs.

"Phil consults with a lot of people, but at the end he liked Ray, and he made the decision to put his own money in," says David Weil, CEO of Anschutz Film Group, which is making family-oriented films with several studios. "It was inspirational, and Phil thinks we need inspirational films."

Still, Anschutz had certain conditions that had to be met: No foul language, and a PG-13 rating that forced Hackford to soften scenes showing Charles as a womanizer and drug user. That pushed Hackford to redo some scenes and rethink location shooting, but he got the job done. Anschutz, though a spokesman, declined comment for this column.

Hackford and Benjamin might have been taking risks as well. After all, Anschutz' batting average hadn't much improved since 2002. He was forced to pay the entire $110 million freight for a remake of the 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days, starring Jackie Chan, when Paramount (VIA ) pulled out of the project. Disney (DIS ) eventually picked it up, releasing what turned out to be one of the largest bombs of 2004, grossing only $24 million.


  With Ray, Anschutz' luck finally changed. Both New Line (TWX ) and Universal (GE ) bid to distribute the film, says Benjamin, after seeing the final version. Universal mounted a hefty marketing campaign that has so far helped the film gross more than $75 million in the U.S. and its just-begun foreign run. The Oscar buzz will likely push it to $90 million, even though Universal released it on video and DVD Feb. 1.

Universal also convinced the producers to change the title from Unchain My Heart. Charles, who died just before the film was released, was given a braille copy of the script. According to Benjamin, he "saw" a near-final version and only made minor suggestions. Anschutz got what he wanted -- an uplifting tale about a blind man who overcame his handicap to become an American institution.

Ray is by far Anschutz' greatest success, although he has a couple of large-budget projects in the works, including one for Disney based on the C.S. Lewis classic The Chronicles of Narnia. Until now, his only other film that approached the "hit" standard was a Disney 2003 film, Holes, which cost $30 million and grossed $67 million.


  Ray is also Anschutz' first brush with the accolades of an industry whose business practices he is said to generally dislike. In his Denver office, where he has more than 30 people working on all kinds of high-tech and other ventures, sits a plaque that quotes Hunter Thompson describing the music industry as "a crude and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs."

Until now, the man who started Bristol Bay might have said the same thing about the movie industry. But even if Anschutz and his movie don't collect much hardware on Feb. 27, the billionaire who tried to bring morality to Hollywood is still a winner. He helped make an inspiring film that's also a critical and commercial success.

Grover is BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau chief

Edited by Patricia O'Connell