Christian Film Companies Break Into Mainstream

God goes Hollywood
( [email protected] ) Jul 06, 2003 01:56 PM EDT

A Few years ago an alternative America decided it was fed up with empty Hollywood rubbish. It did not subscribe to Hollywood values, took offence at characters cussin', smokin', drinkin' and killin' each other, and so scarcely went to the pictures any more. The alternatives were Christians in the United States, up to 100 million strong - easily enough to support a parallel cinema industry. And people with money, entrepreneurial drive and/or religious conviction recognised this.

So on 18 October, 1999, an obscure feature called The Omega Code, starring Michael York, opened on 300 US screens. A modest release for a major movie, an enormous one for a self- financed indy, produced and distributed entirely outside the Hollywood circuit and instantly hammered in the press. The storyline seemed a little far-fetched: this Book of Revelations-inspired tale involved demonic media-mogul York and a born-again Caspar van Dien chasing round the world after the "Bible Code".

How wrong the critics were. The first Christian breakthrough movie, The Omega Code entered the US box office charts at No 10, taking $2.4m in its first weekend (No 1 that weekend, Fight Club, on many more screens, took $11m). The Omega Code was first among independent films, and its per-screen gross, at $7,745, was No 1 overall. The picture had a theatrical career of 22 weeks, made more than $13m domestically, and sold a million VHS units. Considering the $8m budget, that's a good chunk of change left for a post-screening party. Low budget Christian fundamentalist pictures had been in production for decades, but distribution had been limited to church basements and parish halls. This picture took on mainstream movies in the suburban omnis, and scored points. How was it done?

Production values: someone twigged suburban omnigoers like nice, steady 35mm pictures, with well-mixed dialogue and big, steamboaty music. Resources were poured into digital special effects in the belief that spectacular effects would attract the masses. For the producers, it is a guarantee of quality; the makers of Megiddo included the number of Dfx effects (270) in their advertising campaign. This would seem to contradict the essence of films meant to be spiritual, which claim to reject the superficial for the significance of the content. But we are dealing with Christianity, not spirituality. The idea does conform to a fundamental belief, in which an entity - the devil, a miracle - must be as realistic as possible to be fully appreciated. Suggestion is for abstractionists, seeing is believing.

Big Stars: biggish. Burt Reynolds, Nick Mancuso, F Murray Abraham, Stacey Keach, Paul Sorvino, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah, and the Academy Award winner Lou Gosset Jr (still playing air force colonels) - why do they do it? There are only two responses, both articulated by the co-stars of Tribulation. Convert Gary Busey maintains: "I knew that God had prepared me through my entire acting career, and through the trials of my life, for the making of this very movie." Margot Kidder says: "I was broke." Christian filmmakers have learned how to reach actors, developing a reputation for dealing courteously, paying well and promptly, and overcoming the respectability barrier with agents, managers, and publicists. Doing a Christian film is now no big deal, no more worthy of discussion than going bankrupt.

Professionalism: although content is still tightly controlled, and writers come out of the Christian stable, many companies have learned they need help. To achieve the desired look of a "regular" movie they have relaxed control on key technical-creative posts - direction, photog raphy, design, editing, and effects supervisors -and committed dollars to attracting quality personnel. Most shoots now are full union.

Positive message: "We believe that gratuitous violence, use of drugs or smoking, sex and profanity will obscure the positive message we wish to impart" - the mission statement of Crusader Entertainment, whose marketing director, Bob Cotton, repeatedly told me about "quality" films, inspirational stories, sense of community and hope, and promotion of the "spirit of man". Mirroring the success of the Christian pop/rock/folk music industry, the sector's producers have been able to identify a gap in the market - tens of millions of people will pay to see positive films with Christian values.

Discretion: the films impart their message with increasing sophistication. Realising the public prefers to be entertained rather than preached to, and desiring to extend their reach beyond their flock, the creators learn classic story-telling techniques and structure, attempt to weave message into the story, employ humour, self-awareness, even irony. Producers avoid preachiness, cheesiness, etc. This remains aspirational, but acquiring the skill to sell Christian movies is only a matter of time and experience.

Parallel distribution: a critical discovery was that exhibitors were neutral and would show any film that would fill space. With enough capital, it was possible to bypass the major distributors and to strike deals with the exhibitors. Religious distributors were able to secure releases of hundreds of copies in multiplexes alongside major Hollywood releases. Outright ownership of many screens by some financiers (Phil Anschuts, the uncredited financier behind Crusader, is said to control more than 6,000 screens) means it is no surprise Christian producers could not be bothered knocking on Hollywood's door.

Word of mouth: before The Omega Code was released, the producers organised screenings for 2,500 pastors, who were encouraged to speak of the film in sermons. By the time its prequel, Megiddo, was released in 2002, that number had doubled and 10,000 volunteers networked door-to-door through community and church journals and functions, bible study groups, websites, and emailing lists. For the distribution of Left Behind, Cloud Ten Pictures received contributions from church groups of $3,000 each for prints and ads.

BOTH The Omega Code and its prequel Megiddo were produced by TBN Films, a division of Christian cable-TV Trinity Broadcasting Network, founded by Paul and Jan Crouch in 1973, to provide programming to "over 3,171 television stations, 21 satellites, the internet and thousands of cable systems". The film division produced low budget features, mainly on video, before The Omega Code, which was co-produced by the spin-off company, Gener8Xion Entertainment, run by the Crouchs' son. In 2001 it was announced that Gener8Xion had signed a 10-year, 40-picture production-distribution deal (since upped to 60 pictures) with Good Times Entertainment, with films in budget from $4-30m. The first, Carman: the Champion (starring Christian pop idol Carman), was described by Variety as a "modestly engaging but thoroughly formulaic drama". It was directed by Lee Stanley, whom you might remember from his 1970s traffic films, such as Bicycle Safety, Check Your Car and Walk Safe, Young America.

Another major mover has been the Canadian company Cloud Ten, headed by brothers Paul and Peter Lalonde, which has made its mark in the "end-times" sub-genre since its creation in 1994. The films were mainly co-written by either or both brothers, and directed, with one exception, by André van Heerden. Another film broke the market open for Cloud Ten: Left Behind, directed by Canadian cinematographer Vic Sarin, and budgeted at $17m, was based on novels by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins that have sold more than 50m copies. The film, and its sequel Left Behind II, followed an unusual distribution course - released first on video, "to generate word of mouth". After selling 2.5m copies, Left Behind was released on 874 screens, with a take of $4.2m at the domestic box office. In the context of indy results, that is respectable. Megiddo finished No 2 on the overall US indy charts for 2001 at $6m. Mulholland Drive took $5.6m; Billy Elliot $4.9m; and the Golden Bear winner Intimacy $400,000.

Besides the end-times films, and the Bible re-enactments, the other main category covers morality tales and stories of personal redemption, often difficult to distinguish from family films, and recalling teen-oriented television dramas, except that they must specifically promote the teachings of Christ rather than humanistic values. Cloud Ten's Waterproof is a good example, as is Road to Redemption, a thriller complete with car chases ending in a Montana town called Redemption: it was made by World Wide Pictures, controlled directly by Billy Graham, who has been turning out films since the 1950s. It was an exceptional theatrical release for WWP, which explains: "Right now, God has called us to produce made-for-television movies."

God is quite active on the distribution circuit. Hollywood disaster films were delayed or shelved after 11 September 2001, but Megiddo producer Matt Crouch, faced by a 21 September release date for his $20m apocalyptic picture was saved by divine intervention: "It was not God's breath that blew those planes off course and into those buildings, but when He knows that things like that are going to happen - because I believe God sees from the beginning to the end of all time - He positioned [Megiddo] to be the answer for a question we didn't even know would be asked."

Crusader Entertainment's debut project, Joshua, a what-if tale about the second coming of Christ in modern America, is based on a multi-million selling series of novels. The director, Jon Purdy, had four indy features to his credit. He was at a lull in his career when offered the picture. He said that shooting was much like any studio picture, except that a producer, a practising minister, was permanently on set (and present in the cutting room and throughout the script development process) and could call Purdy up if he thought there were unacceptable deviations. One occurred when Joshua was meant to kiss a female character, and the take, and kiss, lasted longer than deemed appropriate. Purdy had to provide a crash course in editing to convince his minder the sequence would not take so much screen time.

Purdy, struggling to tone down the Christian element, seems to have played into the hands of the producers, who may have desired this yet were too close to the subject and too ideologic ally implicated to do it themselves. He attempted to find somewhere he could work, where, though "not exactly where I live and believe, morally and dramatically", he could explore a common ground to Christians and artists of "healing and hope". Joshua, made for $8-10m in a short 23 days, was released in the Bible strongholds of Dallas, Denver, Charlotte, North Carolina, New Orleans and Memphis, on 40-60 screens per area. Gross box office was $2m, a disappointing result. However, good word-of-mouth has led to a video and DVD career, and the film was nominated for most inspirational movie of the year by the ultra-conservative Movie Guide Group. In March, it was broadcast seven times in the UK on Sky Movies.

Crusader is an ambitious company whose goal is to produce mainstream pictures indistinguishable from those of the major studios, but still containing a positive message. The words Christ or Christian do not appear on its website. But the Christians' dilemma is that by making their films palatable to a mainstream audience, they lose their identity and message. What prevents Carl Dreyer's Jeanne d'Arc or DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation from being hailed as Christian prototypes? Probably only the cultural insularity of US Christians, unconcerned with the art of cinema. Or, applying the definition of Christian Filmmaker Ministries ("A Christian film is any film where the main storyline or ending deals with or is based on Biblical Christian principles, morals, or beliefs"), would not Samuel L Jackson's conversion in Pulp Fiction qualify that film?

As the films become more expensive, sophisticated and popular, new challenges appear. Studios are now seen as potential partners and channels to a larger market. The studios watch developments with interest, motivated by a potentially huge and untapped market. Crusader has recently signed distribution and coproduction deals with Paramount and Lion's Gate, and Warner has already coproduced and distributed A Walk to Remember, financed by a Christian backer, EK Gaylord II, which grossed $41m very quickly and became the first Christian picture to go on general release in Europe. It is a Hollywood picture with a lead character who is a Christian, and was not really accepted by other Christian filmmakers, perhaps because there are profanities or blasphemous utterances. Still, Christian movies have gone Hollywood and achieved their goal of being considered a legitimate genre.

AESTHETICALLY it is exciting to watch the emergence of a new genre, something that has not happened for decades - to watch it mature, solve problems, create a new film language. It will be impossible to cross fully the mainstream barrier on production values alone, and before anything of merit comes along, the producers will have to lure more creators like Purdy, who have a genuine love for cinema. But watching Cloud Ten pictures, one is immediately struck by the unevenness of the acting, direction and writing: a lack of creative talent. At times they rise to the level of a middle-of-the-road TV drama, then suddenly veer into a risible Sunday school session. Writing for secular audiences about characters who undergo complete changes in faith is a minefield, and the result falls short of the most modest expectations. The non-believers come across as one-dimensional. Of all the companies, Cloud Ten has perhaps retained tightest creative control, but to break into the mainstream, the Lalondes as producers will have to sacrifice the Lalondes as writers, a choice they do not seem willing to make. Nor do they seem ready to separate themselves from regular co-producers, all ministers, who ensure their on-screen presence through evangelical messages shown over strategic TV sets.

Politically, under whose authority could it be stopped? Christians have every right to express their own culture and beliefs through film. That is what culture is about. For a filmmaker such as Purdy, is there any difference between selling your soul to God or Disney? Is it not politically naive to consider there is a neutral Hollywood and an independent religious sector?

There is a sinister aspect, particularly in the "end-times" "Rapture" films. According to interpretations of scripture, the Rapture is the moment, seven years before the Apocalypse, when God calls good Christians to heaven, allowing for sublime sequences where people disappear out of airplanes and driverless cars plough into each other on freeways. According to Revelation (the film), there are 187 million people raptured across the world. Bad folks and unbelievers, along with a few chosen Christians, are left behind to face the Anti-Christ, who is taking control of the world. He stages his own death, then rises again, at which point he is recognised by the Jews as the Messiah. After the Anti-Christ kills the prophets sent by God to convert the Jews, the Jews flee Jerusalem, and suffer the worst persecution of their history. As the New Yorker points out, in these films, "The conversion of the Jews is what the Rapture, the seven years of Tribulation, the rule of the Anti-Christ, and Jesus' Second Coming all lead to." The Anti-Christ in the films is a lawyer, media mogul, movie executive, or United Nations leader (never an oil executive), areas perceived as under Jewish control. Distrust of centralised government is an element the Christians share with the US far right, and armed resistance is evoked as a option. It is difficult to say if such positions in mass-marketed films endanger tolerance and democracy.

**Jeremiah Cullinane is a Paris-based filmmaker.