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Taking a Leap of Faith on Film

Movies* In a rare move for Hollywood, the lead character in 'A Walk to Remember' is a Christian. Religious leaders and studio execs are closely watching.

January 23, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"A Walk to Remember" is not just another teen movie. It doesn't follow the well-worn path that leads to lost virginity, slashers on the loose, scatological humor or just plain silliness.

Instead, the film, which opens Friday, took the road less traveled. "A Walk to Remember" is one of the first mainstream movies of its genre to feature a heroine who is a likable, intelligent, spunky Christian.

Pop singer Mandy Moore plays the role of Jamie, a Baptist preacher's daughter who isn't ashamed of her faith and wears frumpy clothes and no makeup.

In "A Walk to Remember," based on a Nicholas Sparks best-selling book, she becomes the unlikely love interest of Landon (Shane West), the biggest man--and jerk--on campus.

And the movie contains a feminist-friendly twist: The bad boy makes himself over to get the good girl. Landon changes his life--and risks losing his friends--to be more like Jamie.

Recent evangelical Christian films such as "The Omega Code," and "Left Behind: The Movie"--produced and released by a religious organization and a specialty production house, not by Hollywood studios--have shown that movies with overtly religious content can be modestly successful.

"The Omega Code," funded by Trinity Broadcasting Network in Orange County, opened at No. 10 at the box office its first weekend in 1999 and eventually took in $12.5 million, the highest gross for a Christian film. "Left Behind," produced by Cloud Ten Pictures, sold more than 2.5 million video copies in 2000 before its theatrical release early this year.

But "A Walk to Remember," released by Warner Bros. for a pre-teen and teen market, is different, producer Denise Di Novi said.

"This is not an 'Omega Code.' This is a film for young people with a Christian character. I want this film to reach everyone and inspire everyone on a spiritual level."

The risky subject matter has the movie's executives and religious leaders eagerly awaiting the box-office results, which some see as a viability test for mainstream films with unapologetic religious themes.

The film's spiritual content has led the studio to launch what's believed to be the largest marketing campaign for a mainstream movie targeted at the Christian community. Previously, Hollywood has made small marketing forays into the same territory with films such as "Pay It Forward," "K-PAX" and "The Family Man."

Devoted fans of Sparks' novels and Moore's records and MTV appearances will give the movie a marketing boost, as will the spiritual message that's delivered within a hip teen movie, said Dawn Taubin, president of domestic marketing for Warner Bros.

"Kids have an antenna for something that's good for them," and they don't like something "that feels like medicine," Taubin said. "['A Walk to Remember' comes] in a package that's really appealing."

An early version of the film was shown to, along with traditional test audiences, Christian groups, which led to the elimination of some of the profanity, including a "Jesus Christ!" outburst. And while members of the faith-based media are mostly ignored by the industry's publicity machine--often having to buy a ticket to review a movie--this time they were courted.

Earlier this month, the studio flew in Christian journalists from around the country for a weekend junket. The studio also sent 10,000 study guides--with film clips and posters--to high school youth pastors across the country. The packets asked pastors to take teenagers to the film on opening weekend (the guide contains group ticket sales information) and on Sunday engage them, as the booklet says, "in a conversation about how their faith can have a profound influence on the people around them."

The campaign has generated an early buzz within the Christian community. "This is the first major Hollywood production I have reviewed in the past 15 years that featured a Christian who didn't turn out to be a hypocrite, a bigot or a crazed killer," writes movie reviewer Phil Boatwright of the Baptist Press.

CCM magazine--the Christian world's version of Entertainment Weekly--called the movie "a supreme creation--edgy, smart and in another league altogether." Another influential magazine, Christianity Today, said it was "a remarkable film."

During a recent interview, Moore, a 17-year-old Catholic, said she's also curious about whether the "low- to medium-budget movie" (Warner Bros. isn't disclosing the exact cost) can draw large audiences.

"I'm kind of anxious to see if it does start a new trend because it's always been such an off-limits topic," she said.

Di Novi said she thinks the movie's spiritual overtones helped "A Walk to Remember" test higher in focus groups than any of her previous 17 films, including "Edward Scissorhands," "Little Women" and "Message in a Bottle."

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