Hollywood's Leap of Faith
Is this really a "Leap of Faith?" – W

HOLLYWOOD'S LEAP OF FAITH

By James Hirsen

Producers show interest in 'overtly Christian' movies, but A-list stars remain reluctant.

A special report from NewsMax Magazine.

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Today's Hollywood understands that "faith is in." That's the conclusion of John Ware, founder and executive director of the 168 Hour Film Project, an enthusiastic gathering of up-and-coming Christian filmmakers.

"This is good and bad," Ware says. "But the door is open for the army of filmmakers of faith out there to leave the nest and just do it." Larry Frenzel, whose background includes working as an attorney for Christian musicians, is a co-founder of Carmel Entertainment Group, the company that oversaw the distribution of the watershed film "Facing the Giants." He sees the audience for faith-based films defined in terms of worldview.

"There is a broad spectrum of people, different denominations, different theologies and different doctrinal beliefs," Frenzel tells NewsMax. "'Faith-based' refers to a very broad, diverse audience."

One individual's contribution to the faith-based film genre consistently comes out on top: Mel Gibson's 2004 film, "The Passion of the Christ," which shocked Tinseltown insiders by grossing more than $370 million domestically and over $610 million internationally.

Prior to "The Passion's" success, the entertainment industry had written off the notion that modern-day audiences would pack the seats to see a movie with traditional religious themes.

"'The Passion' was a ‘lightning in a bottle' event, not duplicatable per se," Frenzel says. "The tendency is to take something like that and generalize it, which can't be done. But it did serve as a wake-up call to Hollywood."

Indeed, many decision makers did experience a wake-up call after seeing Gibson's success and observing the box-office triumphs of other faith-oriented films that followed. Of particular note was the adaptation of C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" and its $291 million domestic take.

The industry also couldn't help but notice when Reuben Cannon produced the film adaptation of Pastor T.D. Jakes' "Woman Thou Art Loosed" for less than $1 million. It ended up bringing in nearly $7 million. Cannon followed up with writer-director Tyler Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion," which brought in $50.6 million and $63.1 million, respectively.

Other notable faith-based releases added to the trend including "One Night with the King," an adaptation of the Old Testament story of Esther that was distributed by Fox Faith; "End of the Spear" (that did less than expected at the box office), which tells the story of Christian missionaries killed by tribesman from the jungles of Ecuador and whose surviving wives and children go on a mission to teach the tribe about God; New Line Cinema's first faith-based product, "Nativity," a movie which depicts the birth of Jesus Christ, was savaged by critics but still earned $37 million; Walden Media's "Amazing Grace," a film that wowed critics and grossed almost $20 million. It tells the story of William Wilberforce's fight to end the British transatlantic slave trade in 19th century England.

Another film that managed to shake things up on the left coast was "Facing the Giants." It was made by amateur volunteers on a shoestring budget, and woven throughout its plot, characters, and dialogue was unabashed evangelical Christianity. Not only was the film successfully distributed, it scored incredibly high on the profit meter. Senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church Michael Catt believed his church could "reach the world from Albany, Georgia."

The church started a movie ministry and gave it a corporate sounding name, Sherwood Pictures. It was run by a couple of associate pastors named Alex and Stephen Kendrick.

"'Facing the Giants' is another phenomenon film," Frenzel says. "It showed that a low-budget independent film made outside of Hollywood that defied conventions of traditional filmmaking could succeed."

As far as it could be from a Hollywood studio production, "Giants'" cast was made up of volunteers. Alex Kendrick plays the role of Grant Taylor, Shiloh Academy's head football coach. Shannen Fields, real-life wife of Sherwood Academy's high school football coach, portrays Taylor's wife, Brooke. And University of Georgia football coach Mark Richt makes a cameo appearance.

Using rented equipment, the movie was shot in six weeks. Even the extras that made up the large crowd scenes were volunteers. Production costs totaled a mere $100,000.

It was Carmel Entertainment's first feature film acquisition project. Frenzel calls it "an example of overtly Christian content." "Giants" ended up being another watershed moment in the relationship between Hollywood and the faith-based market. To say the box-office receipts exceeded industry expectations is a "giant" understatement. It took in more than $10 million.

Carmel currently is involved in coordinating the distribution of "Secret of the Cave," a feature film based on a 1920s children's book of the same name and created by Southern Adventist University with the help of students and faculty.

Similar to "Giants," film professionals held key positions while students participated in every other aspect of the film's production.

Because 20th Century Fox, Sony, Lionsgate, and Disney profited with faith-based productions, the trend in Tinseltown studios is to establish faith-oriented divisions. Even the Weinstein brothers, who previously ran the very irreligious Miramax, are in the process of setting up a faith-based unit.

Committed Christian Ralph Winter is one of Hollywood's top film professionals. His blockbuster credits include the "Star Trek" films, "Fantastic Four," and the "X-Men" films. But Winter has also played a key role in Christian fare including the films "Left Behind" and "The Visitation."

Winter also is producing smaller projects for Fox Faith, 20th Century Fox's branded distribution label that is dedicated to faith-based programming. The projects are slated to go direct to DVD. According to Steve Feldstein, senior vice president of Fox Home Entertainment, there are now dedicated Fox Faith sections in more than 1,000 Christian retail stores.

Partnering with DirecTV, Fox Faith is offering free satellite-TV connections to churches to give them the opportunity to screen upcoming movies in advance.

Winter's current pet project is an adaptation of C.S. Lewis' novel, "The Screwtape Letters." The film is being developed by Fox and Walden Media. Winter is co-producing the movie with Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham, who, incidentally, also oversaw the production of "Narnia."

Winter told Infuze Magazine that Fox acquired the rights for "Screwtape" in the 1950s. First published in 1942, Lewis tells a tale via letters exchanged by two demons, the elder Screwtape and the younger nephew Wormwood. Wormwood receives advice from his Uncle Screwtape on the fine art of encouraging sin. If all goes heavenly, the film will be released in 2008.

"We've been talking to Randall Wallace ['Braveheart'] about writing and directing. We need to have more discussions with Fox and Walden about that, and make sure that Randy's still available. Everybody wants to make this movie; I think it's going to happen, I just don't know what the timetable is right now," Winter explains.

"One Night with the King" was the first Fox Faith film released on a national scale. The movie features such mainline stars as Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, and John Rhys-Davies. It was produced by Gener8Xion Entertainment, which is headed by Matthew Crouch, former vice president of TBN. Its $13 million take was somewhat disappointing considering its $20 million cost.

Since Sony Pictures Home Entertainment sold and marketed titles in the Left Behind series, Sony BMG launched Sony Provident as a Christian-based distribution label. Provident was one of the companies that distributed "Facing the Giants."

The Weinstein Company's first two projects under development are adaptations of the books "The Penny," co-written by televangelist Joyce Meyer, and Christian author Max Lucado's "The Christmas Candle." Faith-based DVDs will be marketed through the Weinstein Company's home video arm, Genius Products, headed by Steve Bannon.

Lionsgate recently formed a new partnership with Thomas Nelson Publishing, the largest Christian book publisher, and will distribute films and DVDs in the Christian retail market. Lionsgate also acquired distribution rights to three DVD documentaries based on Christian nonfiction author Lee Strobel's apologetic works: "The Case for Christ," "The Case for a Creator," and "The Case for Faith." Produced by Frenzel's Illustra Media in association with Carmel Entertainment, the first DVD, "The Case for Christ," will be released in the fall of 2007.

Lionsgate had already established a powerful presence in the faith-oriented market through its partnership with Tyler Perry's previously mentioned feature films "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion," as well as "Daddy's Little Girls," all of which scored big box-office revenue. The company has plans for future theatrical releases including "Church Boy," a film based on the true story of inspirational gospel music icon Kirk Franklin, and "The Christmas Cottage," a feature adaptation of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Many in the faith-based entertainment field have expressed concerns about whether Hollywood really understands what the faith market wants. Executive Mark Joseph worked on the marketing of "The Passion of the Christ," "The Chronicles of Narnia," and "Facing the Giants." According to Joseph, the studio decision makers have a misconception about religious-minded filmgoers.

"Their biggest mistake is a condescending attitude," Joseph says. "They are servicing the ‘crazy' people, those who they perceive as a small niche. This small niche actually is America."

Joseph believes Hollywood big wheels have things backwards. "Hollywood executives think they live in France," he says. Joseph also is concerned that films are being made by studio faith divisions, which gives the impression the products are solely for Christians. "A-list talent will not sign up for a project they perceive will be marketed to Christians," Joseph explains.

Joseph, Frenzel, Ware, and others have expressed concern about the language that Hollywood seems to reflexively insert into every film. Fenzel warns that although studios are trying to promote secular films to the Christian audience, "churches won't recommend content with offensive language."

"To me, edgy for edgy's sake is a four-letter word," Ware tells NewsMax. "If film festivals really want to be relevant to the needs of this country, they will give us something besides ‘edgy.' Families might just come if they knew that they could take their kids and have them be entertained and not shocked."

Text © 2007 NewsMax. Image © 2008 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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