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Christian Films Target Mainstream

Entertainment: Movies with a moral message try to break out of the bush leagues with upcoming productions.


In recent years, Christian authors and musicians have enjoyed major-league hits with books and albums that have broken out of evangelical retail channels to achieve a wider success.

When it comes to movies, though, Christian films have remained a bush-league operation, known for low-budget, limited-release productions like last year's "Left Behind: The Movie," and this year's "Joshua." Both were critically panned and failed to connect with mainstream viewers.

But all that may be changing.

This fall, "Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie," the first feature-length project from the makers of the best-selling "Veggie Tales" children's videos, will make Christian movie history by opening on more than 1,000 screens nationwide.

And early next year, viewers will get a chance to see "Hangman's Curse," based on a youth-oriented suspense novel written by best-selling Christian author Frank Peretti.

"There have been zillions of Christian movies, and they have all been terrible," said Peretti, who has been visiting the Spokane, Wash., set where his book is being turned into a film.

"Historically, Christians have had a really strong bias against films and Hollywood. And when they have tried to make movies, these have been more like evangelistic tracts than the kinds of things people want to spend their money to go see."

Christian films have largely been made by Hollywood outsiders, some of whom claim their distance from mainstream pop culture helps keep them pure from its corrosive effects.

But the people producing "Hangman's Curse," a mystery film with spiritual elements about the unintended consequences of teenage cruelty, are entertainment industry veterans. All are more intent on telling a good story well than on securing viewers' salvation as the final credits roll.

"Our goal is to produce family-based, morally based entertainment that is on par with what secular audiences are used to seeing," said Joe Goodman, co-owner of Namesake Entertainment in Louisville, Ky.

Namesake, which has produced TV films for the Disney Channel and USA Network, had its feature film baptism by fire with "Left Behind: The Movie," a project co-produced with Cloud Ten Pictures, a Canadian company.

That film generated more media coverage for its contentious off-stage disagreements and an ongoing lawsuit than for anything appearing on screen.

"That was a great step in the process for us," said Goodman, struggling to put a positive face on a project he would rather forget.

For "Hangman's Curse," Goodman and Namesake partner Bobby Neutz, who met at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, recruited veteran actors, including David Keith ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Behind Enemy Lines") and Mel Harris (TV's "thirtysomething").

Behind the scenes, their co-producer is Ralph Winter, who shared production duties on five of the "Star Trek" films and "Planet of the Apes" and is currently in Vancouver, Canada, helping produce "X-Men II," a sequel to the recent Hollywood blockbuster.

"I hope we will not make a 'Christian movie,' " Winter said. "Our intent with 'Hangman's Curse' is not to have an agenda or to push something on people. It's to make a movie that tells a good story and does justice to Frank Peretti's novel.

"Once Christians stop making movies with agendas, they will start reaching audiences outside the middle-class, churchgoing, well-behaved crowd."

Namesake did not conduct litmus tests to ensure that others working on the project share its faith commitment.

Director Rafael Zelinsky, who was born to Roman Catholic parents in Poland, now says he has "open horizons" about matters of spirituality. "All religions at their core speak the same language," he said.

Still, Zelinsky is pleased to have a role in the continuing evolution of Christian filmmaking.

"When people try to preach through films, it takes people out of the experience," he said. "But if Christian films are more universal in their appeal, they will attract people of other religions."

Produced on a budget of $2 million, "Hangman's Curse" won't contain the high-tech Hollywood thrills and chills of "X-Men II," which will cost more than 50 times as much to make.

But after the first few days of shooting on "Hangman's Curse," Goodman is hopeful about the movie, which is expected to have at least a limited theatrical release early next year.

And he thinks the project is a step in the right direction for Christian filmmakers as they work hard to transcend failures of the past and press on to a brighter and possibly more star-studded cinematic future.

"We're doing the best we can to learn from the past and to work with a talented group of people," he said.

"At the end of the day, the proof will be in the final product. Hopefully, we will make a good film and things will begin to turn around."

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