Next Generation of Christian Filmmakers Seek to Reach Larger, Less Devout Audience

George Escobar is helping the next generation of Christian filmmakers hone their craft. (Photo: George Escobar)
George Escobar is helping the next generation of Christian filmmakers hone their craft. (Photo: George Escobar)


Nicolas Cage, panicked and bug-eyed, is once again fighting to avert disaster on the big screen, this time as airline pilot Rayford Steele. Fire spews out of a gash in the plane’s wing; a chisel-jawed young man attempts to subdue an unruly mob of passengers as a blonde flight attendant is tossed about in her seat. On the ground, cars crash, explosions rock the sky and civilization is engulfed in a wave of panic and anarchy.

“Looks like the end of the world,” a man remarks.

What it looks like is typical Hollywood apocalypse porn in the vein of “Deep Impact,” “The Day After Tomorrow” or “2012.” In this case, however, the end-times event isn’t a giant asteroid, catastrophic climate change or a Mayan prophecy come true, but the Rapture, with non-believers abandoned to fend for themselves after Christ’s true followers are beamed up to heaven. Based on the series of books by the same name, which were written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins and have sold over 65 million copies since 1995, “Left Behind” delivers all the titillation and destruction we’ve come to expect from a Hollywood blockbuster.

Yet, despite its A-list razzle dazzle, “Left Behind” was produced outside of Hollywood’s traditional orbit. The man primarily responsible for bringing it to the big screen is Paul Lalonde, a Canadian filmmaker who co-produced and co-wrote it. His Ontario-based production company, Stoney Lake Entertainment, is part of an emerging nexus of movie studios that are devoted to creating Christian films.

Movie-making may be synonymous with Los Angeles, but the Christian film industry is scattered across North America. There’s Pure Flix Entertainment in Scottsdale, Arizona, Kendrick Brothers Productions in Albany, Georgia, and Five & Two Pictures in Nashville, Tennessee. Culture warriors no less prominent than Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum are trying their hands at film production as well. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and GOP presidential candidate, became the CEO of EchoLight Studios, in Franklin, Tennessee, in 2013. Earlier this year, Beck announced that he had started renovating a 72,000-square-foot studio in Irving, Texas, which he plans to use for film production.

“I’m much more into culture than I am into politics,” the former Fox News host said at the time, “and that’s where I intend on making my stand.”

For decades, Christian films were defined as much by their shoddy, low-budget production values as by their religious themes and agendas. “Christian movies have historically meant very bad movies,” Lalonde said in an interview, “and I can say that as a guy who made some of them.”

“Left Behind,” by contrast, was produced and marketed to the tune of $31 million. It premieres Friday on 1,750 movie screens around the country. Lalonde hopes it will reach not just a churchgoing audience, but a secular one as well.

“You were just preaching to the choir, which was great, because the choir loved them and we were having fun doing them,” Lalonde said of earlier Christian films, “but they never really broke beyond the Christian audience, and that was something I always wanted to do.”

The premiere of “Left Behind” is poised to be a watershed moment for the Christian film industry. Not since Mel Gibson’s 2004 hit, “The Passion of the Christ,” has there been an independent Christian film with a budget comparable to those of Hollywood studio productions. And unlike “Passion,” “Left Behind” has a marquee star attached.

While show business is fickle, and the success of “Left Behind” is far from guaranteed, it certainly won’t be the last religious movie aiming to score big. Christian filmmakers now have the skills, tools and infrastructure necessary to produce more sophisticated films, and they hope to reach beyond their core fans to a larger, less devout audience. After years in the wilderness, they are finally a force to be reckoned with.

Jesus is ready for His closeup.

For Lalonde, 53, “Left Behind” represents the culmination of a decades-long career spent outside the Hollywood establishment — a career that in many ways mirrors the Christian film industry’s rise from creative and cultural obscurity.

He got his start in the late 1980s marketing short films and documentaries on his weekly Canadian television show, “This Week In Bible Prophecy,” which he co-hosted with his brother Peter. The Lalondes shot their first short film, set during the Rapture, in their office and cast their receptionist in one of the main roles. Another character “walked in and saw she was gone, but her clothes were still there,” Lalonde recalled.

The production values may have stunk, but the video turned into a hit. In 1995, the Lalondes founded their first studio, Cloud Ten Pictures, to help create and promote their films. In 1998, they were able to parlay the modest proceeds of their shorts and documentaries into their first feature-length film, “Apocalypse.” Unable to afford union actors, the brothers cast a host from a Canadian home shopping channel as the lead.

“He would sell Ginsu knives by day and shoot our movie at night,” Lalonde said. “We made this movie for $200,000, and it looked like a movie made for $200,000.”

In 2000, they produced a straight-to-DVD version of “Left Behind,” and followed it up with two sequels, aiming to capitalize on the books’ popularity. Though the films did well within their niche market, they never caught on with a wider audience.

Hollywood didn’t pay much attention to Christian films until 2004, when Gibson released “Passion,” his crucifixion-as-slasher flick. The major studios had all passed on the project, so Gibson and his production company spent an estimated $45 million to make and market the film themselves, and they promoted it through churches and religious leaders. The response was overwhelming. “Passion” grossed $600 million at the box office and became the most lucrative R-rated movie in cinematic history.

That opened Hollywood executives’ eyes to the mainstream potential of Christian films. “You can’t ignore those numbers,” Mark Johnson, a prominent film producer, told The New York Times in 2004. “You can’t say it’s just a fluke. There’s something to be read here.”

Over the past decade, Hollywood studios have tried to replicate the success of “Passion” with films like “Amazing Grace,” “The Book of Eli,” and the “Narnia” trilogy, which Johnson produced. But those films represent just a small fraction of Hollywood’s overall output. These days, the film industry depends largely on foreign box office proceeds, and studios have focused on films with universal appeal — resulting in endless revamps of movies like “Transformers” and “Iron Man.”

Christian viewers haven’t exactly responded enthusiastically to the films Hollywood studios have produced for them, saying they watered down theology or misrepresented it entirely.

Religious audiences directed a great deal of scorn at this year’s Old Testament thriller, “Noah” — so much so that an ill-informed onlooker might assume that outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins had been cast in the titular role. Glenn Beck derisively called the movie “Babylonian Chainsaw Massacre.” The film’s domestic gross was around $100 million.

“If it was biblical, it would have made $400 million,” said veteran Christian filmmaker Dave Christiano. “But because they messed around and made an un-biblical movie, the churches passed on it.”

Kevin Sorbo, who is best known for playing the beefcake title character on the TV series “Hercules,” has starred in a number Christian films, including the recent hit “God’s Not Dead.” He says Hollywood remains disconnected from the Christian film industry’s primary targets, who live “between California and New York.”

“I don’t think Hollywood does it on purpose,” Sorbo said. “I just don’t think they understand their audience.”

Beck has been more pointed in his critique of the mainstream movie industry. “Hollywood is missing this moment to reconnect with the American people because they don’t speak the language,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in April. “Some of it is out of spite — they might not like people of faith.”

In the past decade, Christian filmmakers have stopped waiting for a second coming of “Christ.” Instead, they’ve used their own studios and production companies to push out a torrent of movies themselves. The last three films from Kendrick Brothers Productions alone have grossed a total of over $75 million at the box office, despite running on a fraction of the screens typically reserved for major studio films.

Recent movies like “Courageous,” “God’s Not Dead” and “The Son of God” are proof of the new system’s potency. Each was produced for under $5 million and grossed tens of millions of dollars — a result that would be impressive for any independent movie, Christian or not. “Facing the Giants,” about an underdog high school football team, was a particularly successful effort. Made for a paltry $100,000, the film grossed $10 million.

And whereas prior Christian films resembled the Lalondes’ earliest efforts, with boom mics seeming to make as many cameos as the filmmakers’ families, today’s Christian movies increasingly look like their mainstream counterparts. While they can’t boast the bloated budgets of Hollywood’s biggest franchises — or even the $31 million spent on “Left Behind” — technological advances have allowed filmmakers to produce quality films on relatively small budgets. Social media has also allowed Christian filmmakers to successfully promote their work without the massive marketing budgets of mainstream films.

The rise of Christian film studios comes with heightened expectations, however. Like traditional Hollywood studios, their backers aren’t philanthropists. They want to see a profit. That means angling for as big an audience as possible. And given the increased competition, Christian film purveyors predict that simply making films with religious messages will not be enough.

“I think securing funding for faith films based on the message will become more difficult,” said Kyle Idleman, a pastor at Southern Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, whose City on a Hill Productions was behind “The Song,” released last week and produced for under $3 million.

“It was exciting and felt a little bit novel initially, but it is show business,” Idleman said. “You’ve got to be able to have a viable business model if you want to keep doing it.”

While some movies still serve up their Jesus in great, heaping dollops, many of today’s faith-based films are more sparing. There are thrillers, romantic comedies, dramas — movies aimed at every possible subset of the filmgoing public. Websites like Christian Film Database enable visitors to browse movies by subject, such as Heaven, Hell and Bible History, and genre, like Adventure, Horror and Sci-Fi.

“Moms’ Night Out,” for example, is a milquetoast, PG caper about a group of mothers just trying to let loose while having to deal with incompetent babysitters and aloof husbands. Or, for younger audiences, there’s “Believe Me,” a raunchy, Judd Apatow-ish comedy — replete with towel-whipping banter, an indie rock soundtrack and a cameo by no less a paragon of bro-dom than Nick Offerman. It could just as easily entertain a stoned 17-year-old looking for a chuckle as it could an abstentious student at Bible college.

Christian filmmakers “are creating a connection to religion that is not immediately recognized by a viewer as an attempt to proselytize,” said Jeanine Basinger, professor of film history at Wesleyan University. “They’re folding the message in, they’re learning to make subtext more powerful, and thus they’re becoming better propagandists.”

Though not all of today’s Christian films succeed in their attempts to fuse salvation and entertainment, their producers recognize the need to make films that aren’t overbearing morality tales. “There is a tendency among faith films to sanitize the story, and I don’t think that’s consistent with Scripture,” said Idleman, who believes the Bible is as much a source of romance, drama and action as any comic book. “There are a lot of broken stories in the Bible,” he said.

Ultimately, said George Escobar, a Christian filmmaker and educator, there’s an audience for Christian films of every stripe. “There’s a spectrum, and different audiences are going to gravitate to different ones,” he said. “I think it’s healthy. People are in different stages in their walk.”

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SOURCE: The Huffington Post
Eliot Nelson

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