Hollywood Finds Jesus: Movie Industry Banks On Christian Crossover Films

From the cast, you’d think it was an Oscar contender. There’s Melissa Leo, who took home an Academy Award last year for portraying the brash, hair-sprayed matriarch in “The Fighter.” And then there’s Robert Duvall.

“Mr. Duvall,” Leo says with a schoolgirl sigh, is the reason she joined the Christian film “Seven Days in Utopia.”

The story follows a fledgling pro-golfer played by Lucas Black (the wide-eyed lead from “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”), who, after a very bad couple of holes, contemplates leaving the sport forever. Leo is a buttoned-up widow with limited screen time, and Duvall plays the pious sage with a slightly sordid past.

“They didn’t know which way they wanted to go with this film,” Duvall said. “I said, ‘There’s only one Jesus Christ, [so] give me some faults, give me some obstacles.’ "

Duvall pushed the writers to add in his character’s past faults. But the question remains, why would one of the most respected actors of all time take a chance on a lackluster faith film?

“It was a good deal,” he said. “They were going to pay me good money.”

Mel Gibson’s 2004 “Passion of the Christ” loudly proved that box office success and faith are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, after “Passion” raked in a staggering $370 million, it sent a clear message to film execs: God is good.

A certain subset of filmmakers have begun tapping the sizable Christian audience. Hoping to attract interest from evangelical communities, they churn out preachy films that masquerade as mainstream pictures. The jig doesn't always work. “They miss the mark because you can’t just call a picture a faith film and think that the faith audience is going to show up,” Meyer Gottlieb, the president of Samuel Goldwyn Films said.

While established Hollywood directors who moonlight as devotional auteurs might produce mixed results, some of the most across-the-board popular films have had low-budget, grassroots origins.

In 1999, Alex Kendrick took the position of associate pastor of media at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. His job was to take the content of the pastor’s sermons and, through the use of multimedia, spread the Word. He suggested making a small, local movie.

“And [the pastor] said, ‘if you think God is in this, you ask God to give you the money,’” Kendick said. “And people started giving me money without me asking them.”

With $20,000 and performances by church members who were “interested in drama,” Sherwood Church’s first film was born. Kendrick asked the local movie theater in Albany to show “Flywheel,” a story about a used car salesman. Believing that at least Churchgoers would come, the theater agreed to host a weekend screening. Soon the film began selling out.

"We [had] people coming to our church, just checking us out after watching the movie. And we were thinking, ‘This is an interesting way to reach out to the community and beyond.’ ”

Rich Peluso, Vice President of AFFIRM Films, the faith division of Sony Pictures World Wide Acquisitions, said that venturing out into the world of multimedia is not exclusive to Sherwood Church. Across America, other ministries have become “more technologically savvy.”

Peluso explained that Christian music facilitated the growth of media within churches. “People in church wanted to sing more contemporary, powerful songs, not just the old hymns. And with that came instruments and lighting and staging.”

When “Flywheel” was released on DVD, it was soon picked up by Blockbuster Video. The film ended up grossing over $10 million. Since then, Kendrick has made three other films, including “Courageous,” which opened this past weekend and held the fourth highest weekend gross, over $9 million.

“Every movie we sit around and we pray and we say, what should the theme be? How should it be made? What do we really want to say with this movie?”

In 2008, Kendrick’s third film, “Fireproof,” a story about saving a dying marriage, grossed over $33 million at the box office. “This is not supposed to happen this way,” Kendrick said. “And I know that.”

Gottlieb, who headed up the distribution for “Fireproof,” said despite Kendrick’s almost accidental success, the audience has always been there. He said the evangelical community has been dramatically under-served by traditional Hollywood movies.

The life of a faith-based film is very different than that of a studio film, which is promoted on billboards and late-night talk shows. The movies are geographically targeted to evangelical communities, and the premieres are concentrated in the Midwest and the South, instead of in New York and Los Angeles.

Once in the theater, evangelical-targeted films function differently than Hollywood movies as well. Whereas large mainstream productions open in around 5,000 theaters nationally, faith-based movies begin on about 500 screens and then expand to 800 or 900 as the buzz begins to grow, potentially running for up to 16 weeks.

In Kendrick’s case, the money his films have brought in is funneled back into the church community. In addition to expanding Sherwood’s ministry, the church was able to build a crisis pregnancy center and a community sports park, fund missionary programs and feed the homeless. With such large moves within the community, the town took notice of Kendrick’s projects and joined in. “Courageous” was made entirely by volunteers -- 1,600 in all.

While his stars may be unknown, Kendrick is, not surprisingly, morally discerning about his cast. He asked those who audition, “Do you believe God would bless your work and is there anything in your life that you think would prevent God from blessing your work?" Kendrick said. "In other words, we don’t need a guy in ‘Fireproof’ trying to be an honorable, godly husband when in real life, he’s hooked on pornography and sleeping around on his wife.”

Like many of these Christian films, “Seven Days in Utopia” also began as a grass-roots success. The film was based on David Cook’s “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days on the Links of Utopia.” Unable to find a publisher, Cook decided to put the manuscript on the Internet for free. “It took off like a wildfire,” he said. Eventually, the book was sold in packs of 10 and rose up on the bestseller list.

Cook hoped for the same traction with his film, which despite its modest release plan, is “holding up really well, because people are coming out of theaters and they’re telling other people, ‘You gotta see this, it’s really, really good,’ ” Peluso said.

Directed by Matthew Dean Russell, who did the visual effects for the Bruce Willis thriller “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Final Destination 3,” “Seven Days in Utopia” has a kind of high-gloss shine, something uncommon for faith-based films.

“I think it’s important because if it does well, people will realize the Christian community has that voice and does need quality projects,” Russell said.

Recently mainstream movies have also been embracing evangelical themes. In August, Vera Farmiga made her directorial debut with "Higher Ground," an account of a woman's struggle with religion. A few months earlier in April, "Soul Surfer" swept the box office, telling the story of a young girl whose faith helps her to bounce back from a tragedy.

For the uninitiated, this community can sometimes seem worlds apart. Leo, who was raised without any religious doctrine and was wary of defining a higher power, felt that division when she accidentally said “Damn it” on set.

“Couldn’t hear a pin drop in Utopia,” she said. A woman, “the town matriarch” chided, “Oh, you are a saucy one.”