When Hollywood director Jon Erwin and his brother Andy decided to make a film featuring the true story of the Woodlawn High School football team giving their lives to Christ during desegregation in the 1970s, they never could have imagined the kind of impact it would have on the United States.
Released in theaters Oct. 16, "Woodlawn" stars Jon Voight, Sean Astin and Caleb Castille and brings to life the extraordinary account of how the faith of a chaplain and a star football player sparked a spiritual awakening and eased the racial tensions plaguing a high school team in Birmingham, Alabama in 1973.
The film has already seen the kind of success unprecedented in the faith-based film industry. It outperformed industry predictions in its opening weekend box office, taking in an estimated $4 million, earned a staggering A+ CinemaScore rating, and won the praise of mainstream critics.
But most importantly, the film has ignited a revival in high schools throughout the country. In an exclusive interview with the Gospel Herald, Jon Erwin, who both co-directed and co-wrote "Woodlawn", revealed that thousands of teenagers have accepted Jesus Christ and committed themselves to spreading love in their schools and communities after watching the film.
"It's been incredible; when the movie was first released, there was a mass buyout for football teams in California, and in one night, in one theater, there were 900 decisions for Christ," Erwin said. "Pastor Ronnie Floyd, who is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, last night had 1,200 high school kids from their region to see the movie, and 280 of them came to Christ. I was at a pre-screening at a church in Dallas, and they'd invited a lot of high school football teams. I've never seen the stage of a church not be big enough for the amount of young people that were flooding it; 500-600 kids gave their lives to Christ that night."
Erwin believes that the massive success of "Woodlawn" is proof that it is possible to make a film that both boldly presents the Gospel and is also well received by the entertainment industry.
"It shows that the industry is beginning to recognize what we're doing - the film is entertaining, and it is a great experience in the theater, obviously the CinemaScore rating speaks to that," he said. "But, in entertaining people, we have the chance to do so much more. It's so cool to see the stories of what's happening as young people in particular experience the film all over America; that's what makes the job so special."
"Woodlawn" also stars Sherri Shepherd and is produced by Kevin Downes. Roma Downey and Mark Burnett were executive producers under their Lightworkers Media banner.
Below is the exclusive interview with Jon Erwin.
GH: You and your brother have made a number of faith-based films, including "October Baby" and "Mom's Night Out". "Woodlawn" is a bit different than your other films.
AE: This is a very special movie because it's a true story that happened in my hometown of Birmingham, AL. My dad, Hank Erwin (played by Sean Astin) was the chaplain of the Woodlawn High School football team at that time. I heard this story as a child; I remember hearing my dad share it with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the University of Alabama. It's one you have to see to believe. If it weren't true, it wouldn't be right to try to manufacture this narrative. It's just that good. It's a very personal story and an incredible true story, and Andy and I have found our voice with this film. It's amazing to tell a story of Christians that do amazing things because you can't argue with the truth.
GH: So, your father is one of the key components in the film - he's the sports chaplain that preaches a message that the team needed to hear. Do you think chaplains are needed today in the same way?
EW: I think chaplains are essential. Sean Astin said at Liberty University - and I was proud of him for being so bold about his faith - he said, "I'm a proud Christian because of Christ's teachings on forgiveness, peace and love. Those three things will change the world." I think anytime someone is willing to take time and work with younger people - it's essential and has great results.
We should be asking in America, 'What works?' We're struggling with the same things that they struggled with back in the 70's. Here we are again - shouldn't we be asking what works? In the Civil Rights movement, it wasn't politicians that championed the movement - it was pastors like Martin Luther King Jr. Yet there's this crazy notion that in today's social climate, we should eliminate chaplains - that's a terrible idea. The core tenets of Christianity are forgiveness, love and peace. We need more of these things in the public square and schools. Eliminating them would be a huge mistake in America today.
GH: The themes of racial reconciliation and unity in "Woodlawn" are so timely right now for the United States. Was that intentional?
AE: Not at all. It was amazing the timing of this film. Pastor Mike Skor of New Hope Wesleyan Church told me, "You guys need to go and make Woodlawn right now, America is ready for it."
Who would have known how relevant that statement was. Ferguson was happening while we were shooting the movie, and then all the things that happened afterward. We need this today; we need stories of hope. We need to understand that this worked in Birmingham, Alabama - Christ did what police and politics could not. If it worked in 1973, maybe it can work again today.
"Woodlawn" is a story about one team making a decision to love God and love each other. What if what we see now began to multiply and what if everyone made the decision to love God and love each other - what difference would that make in America today? If we lived out the sentence that Jesus said 2, 000 years ago - "Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love each other as yourself."
It's relevant today because we're facing so many of the same challenges. This is a story of hope, a story of how to live differently and make changes to your community. These changes were real because it is a true story.
GH: "Woodlawn" has already made such a huge impact within a very short amount of time. In the future, from a national perspective, what do you hope will come from the film?
AE: I hope that it will continue to grow in theaters; entertainment is America's second largest export, the more popular films are in America, the more they're seen. So, you were going to see the movie ensures that five others will because that's how the business works. My dream, and I think we'll see it in 5-7 years, is a day when there are Christian blockbusters - films competing with things like "Jurassic World," not other Christian movies.
I hope people will discover "Woodlawn," I hope that anyone with the influence over the life of a young person will use this opportunity and seize this moment. Change requires action; we're losing a generation - we want to get them back, and this opens the door for Christ. If you change the way someone feels, about seventy percent of the time they are very open to changing the way they think. "Woodlawn" can change the way young people feel about a decision, for Christ. Pastors, parents, and coaches can come on the heels of this movie and encourage them to make that decision. We see it working all over America, we hope people seize this opportunity while it's still possible.
GH: On that note, what was it like working with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett who are also pioneers in the faith-based film industry?
AE: It's amazing to work with Mark and Roma, they are such incredible people. For them to come on board with "Woodlawn" and give their voice to push this movie has just been phenomenal, and we're so grateful. Roma saw the film and was so moved by it and loved it, and Mark was as well - they had to be part of it. They are incredibly successful people that are putting it all on the line for the Gospel as well. We should support their work, and we're s glad they're supporting ours. We want to do a lot together in the future.
GH: Do you have examples of answered prayers during the making of "Woodlawn"?
AE: Oh, there were so many answered prayers, in fact, "Woodlawn" is a miracle, there wouldn't have been a movie if it weren't for the prayers answered. From the weather to the financing of the film, that came through right at the very end.
The greatest answered prayer is to hear these stories of young people receiving Christ, that it is being used as a tool to bring kids to Christ. That is the ultimate answered prayer. We're just so excited to see them responding. I never thought the numbers would be this high regarding a number of people in the room that respond to the Gospel. We're so grateful it's happening.
GH: During the 2015 Dove Awards, you made the comment that there is a "revival happening in the movie theater." What did you mean by that?
AE: I got a note from one of our marketing teams: "I've never seen an altar call during movie credits - and that's happening all over America." "Woodlawn" is a story that took place during the Jesus Movement, which was the last great revival in our country. We hope and pray that that will happen again, and that we will see a sweeping movement of God in a generation of young people. That's why we do what we do. We believe that God can work in hearts and lives today in a way that He hasn't in a long time, and we'll see something happen all across America that will be spectacular and unprecedented. That's my hope and my prayer. "Woodlawn" opens up people's hearts to hear the Gospel, and you can see that across America.
GH: Do you think the success of your movie and other faith-based films shows a thirst among both secular and Christian audiences for positive and uplifting films?
AE: Yes, absolutely. The success of the faith-based films that we're seeing shows an enormous market and opportunity. We want to help Hollywood understand this opportunity; this is not a niche audience, this is over 100 million people. We say that when the core values of Christianity are properly presented, they are immensely appealing. You just can't argue with love, hope, forgiveness, faith, and peace. This generation is craving these things on an incredible level, and I hope to be a small part of that.
Sean Astin told me the other day he sees me frontiersman. I said, "Thank you! I want to lead the trail for others to follow." He said, "Trouble is Jon, most frontiersmen die on the trail!" (laughs).
I don't know what role God has for us in the future, but this is a way to get the Gospel to the world through the infrastructure of the movie theaters. We're trying to create a place where there is a legitimate industry for the next wave of talent.
GH: What's next for the Erwin brothers?
AE: In terms of what's next for us - I think "Woodlawn" has its power and I think it's being praised and legitimized by our critics is because it's true. You can't argue with the truth. Andy and I have fallen in love with true stories of Christians doing real and heroic and amazing things. You could spend ten lifetimes telling these stories and not even scratch the surface of Christians doing amazing things because of their faith and conviction. I think that's where we'll stay for a little while. It's fun to say, "We're just the messenger here, but this really happened, and it's really cool." I think that's the value of "Woodlawn".