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The Spirit Moves Them to Entertain

A few producers see potential in films that have Christian themes but don't preach.

April 28, 2002|ANDRE CHAUTARD

Frustrated with Hollywood, which has shied away from making films with spiritual themes or religious characters, a handful of independent producers are striking out on their own to make Christian-themed films that seek to entertain more than preach.

"There are a lot of people within the religious community that are just hungering for a high-quality film with a spiritual message," says Bob Beltz, a Presbyterian minister from Littleton, Colo., and co-producer of "Joshua," which will be released next month. Based on the novel of the same name (which sold 10 million copies), "Joshua" is a G-rated, modern-day parable about a mysterious stranger's effect on the lives of the residents of a small Midwest town.

Mitch Davis directed the recently opened "The Other Side of Heaven" (2001), based on Elder John Groberg's memoirs of his adventures as a Mormon missionary on the South Pacific island nation of Tonga in the 1950s. "It was never our intent to make a movie for Mormons," Davis says. "It was always our intent to make a movie for the world and for a general audience. We're not trying to proselytize with this movie at all, but we're not trying to hide what it's about, either."

The hope of these filmmakers and independent producers is that films such as "Joshua" and "The Other Side of Heaven" can build on a grass-roots support within the Christian community and cross over to a more mainstream audience, unlike past independent releases such as "The Omega Code" and "Left Behind: The Movie."

Thanks to evangelical moviegoers, those films were financially successful--"Omega Code" grossed $12.6 million and "Left Behind" sold 2.5 million copies on video, followed by $4.2 million at the box office--but were lacking in production values and were poorly reviewed in the nonreligious press.

Those films, "Joshua" director Jon Purdy says, were "kind of fear-based. They're post-apocalyptic." He says "Joshua" is more hopeful. "It's attempting to portray faith in a positive way. And I think there's a big question in there as to whether or not hope sells versus fear."

"The Other Side of Heaven" has already grossed $2 million since December from a regional release in Utah, Idaho and Texas--states with large Mormon communities--despite never having played on more than 50 screens at once.

That encouraged Excel Entertainment to give the film a national release April 12 on several hundred screens. The film, though panned by major critics, cracked the top 20 and has so far grossed $3.5 million. Artisan Entertainment, which is distributing "Joshua," also wanted to build word-of-mouth with an unorthodox release pattern. Before moving into larger metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, where advertising costs are much higher, it is releasing the film first in areas where religious-themed films have done well.

"Joshua" opened April 19 on 220 screens in 11 states, mostly in the South and Southwest. The film will widen to another 50 cities on Friday and will reach New York and Los Angeles on May 24. "Joshua" is reaching out to mainstream moviegoers with the usual television and newspaper ads, as well as targeting churchgoers with mailings, Web sites and screenings for religious press and leaders. A soundtrack with Christian artists such as Jaci Velasquez, Pete Orta and Point of Grace was put together, and best-selling Christian singer-songwriter Michael W. Smith was brought in to score his first film.

Other independently funded, spiritually themed films have found it a challenge to entice nonreligious moviegoers. The boxing drama "Carman: The Champion," from early last year, grossed only $1.8 million and the wholesome extreme-sports film "Extreme Days" managed only $700,000 last fall.

"Megiddo: The Omega Code 2" (2001), which carried a significantly higher budget--$22 million--than the first, finished with a disappointing $6 million.

Excel's first release, "God's Army" (2000), a drama about Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, grossed a profitable $2.6 million, but its director Richard Dutcher's darker follow-up, "Brigham City" (2001), made only $800,000.

One encouragement, ironically, has been the success earlier this year of a major studio picture: Warner Bros.' $40-million-grossing "A Walk to Remember," which featured a devout main character and was marketed, in part, to Christian audiences.

Yet, as much as Davis admired that film, "they didn't ever dare in the entire film to say what [the producer of 'A Walk to Remember'] called 'the J-word' and they never dared show anyone praying, because they were afraid to," Davis says.

Budgeted at $8.5 million, "Joshua" is based on the first in a series of novels by the Rev. Joe Girzone. Beltz, minister, co-producer and an author himself, first read the book in 1985 and optioned the movie rights when they became available two years ago.

The film was shot in 23 days near Chicago and briefly in Rome. Director Purdy, who has written scripts exploring religion but doesn't describe himself as religious, was brought in.

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