Christian moviemakers aim at film niche

Posted: Friday, February 02, 2001

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- When the makers of the new movie ''Left Behind'' wanted to generate some advance word-of-mouth, they sent a video copy to the youth group at Tulsa's First Presbyterian Church.

About 30 teen-agers gathered around a television set to watch the story of a reporter who uncovers a conspiracy that gives rise to the Antichrist.

They mostly liked it. ''I've seen Christian movies and a lot of them are ... low-budget. But this one you can compare with other movies,'' said 16-year-old Cal Findeiss, standing next to a pingpong table piled with empty pizza boxes.

Starring Kirk Cameron of the 1980s sitcom ''Growing Pains,'' the movie -- opening in theaters Friday -- is part of a new wave in evangelical films: ones aimed at spreading the Gospel without seeming preachy.

While evangelical films have tended to go straight to video, more are now also playing in theaters. Some are trying to broaden their themes and raise production values to reach a bigger audience.

''This is a very large niche market I think the studios have missed,'' said Peter Lalonde, co-founder of Toronto-based Cloud Ten Pictures, which produced ''Left Behind'' with Namesake Entertainment of Louisville, Ky.

Films with religious messages have been around since the dawn of cinema, and a spate of evangelical movies arrives every decade or so. But the numbers are growing., a Web site selling Christian films, lists more than 100 titles, including ''The Cross and The Switchblade'' and ''Chariots of Fire,'' which Christians have adopted as their own.

The latest Christian films are, in part, an answer to a perceived anti-religious bias in Hollywood movies, which traditionalists complain have too much sex, violence and profanity.

''Don't protest what you don't like; buy a ticket for what you do like,'' said Matthew Crouch, president of Gener8Xion Entertainment, and a co-producer of 1999's ''The Omega Code'' and its upcoming sequel, ''Megiddo.''

Christian filmmakers were inspired by the success of ''The Omega Code,'' about a supposed Biblical code that reveals specifics about the end of time. The movie starred veteran actor Michael York as the Antichrist, and Casper Van Dien.

It was named the No. 1 limited release that year by Daily Variety based on box-office sales, and was among the top 10 box-office draws the week it opened on just 304 screens.

Some even say its success could lead Hollywood to back production of Christian movies.

''It really made people sit up and take notice when a little film, 'The Omega Code,' showed up in the top 10,'' said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that tracks box-office results in North America.

Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, said, ''Hollywood in general will produce anything that makes money.''

But he added: ''Overtly religious pictures are not generally moneymakers.''

Critics have generally panned evangelical movies -- particularly the apocalyptic ones, about end-of-time Biblical prophecies -- as cheap, made-for-TV fare with simplistic story lines.

''The Omega Code,'' which cost $7 million to make, doesn't come close to the average Hollywood film in production quality, said Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide, a magazine that reviews films and places a premium on moral content.

But he thinks it was a step forward and that ''Left Behind'' compares more favorably.

Budgets for Christian films remain tiny by Hollywood standards but are increasing. And digital technology gives new tools to small-budget filmmakers.

The Trinity Broadcasting Network, founded by Crouch's father, Paul, financed ''The Omega Code'' and promoted it with the help of church congregations. Its sequel will cost $17 million, not including promotional expenses, says Crouch. The better Hollywood features can start at $30 million.

''Left Behind'' -- a modern interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation, adapted from a best-selling book by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins -- cost more than $17 million, including promotion. Lalonde declined to give the actual production budget.

''I think that in the past, the term 'Christian film' brought along with it the idea of low production value, and that's certainly not the case for this,'' said Cameron, its star.

He, York and Van Dien are among more prominent actors appearing in the niche faith films. Gary Busey and Margot Kidder starred in ''Tribulation,'' also from Cloud Ten.

Such films' box-office success still seems to hinge on targeted marketing to churches. Cloud Ten released ''Left Behind'' on video four months ago. Tulsa-based Impact Entertainment, a Christian movie promoter, sent tapes to churches and signed up more than 700 congregations to sponsor theater showings.

''We can create a grass-roots army in support of this film,'' said Lalonde.

At Tulsa's First Presbyterian, George Lemmon, a lanky 15-year-old, said after the screening that he didn't care for Cameron and thought a scene on an airplane ''looked a little cheesy.'' But he added: ''There's a really strong Christian message that's good for people who want to go see a Christian movie.''

Several atheist friends probably wouldn't go see it, he said.

Upcoming storylines in Christian films go beyond apocalyptic plots.

Impact Productions, parent of Impact Entertainment, is producing ''Man Maker'' about a man who goes to live among the South American Indians who killed his missionary father.

World Wide Pictures, an arm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and a Christian movie pioneer that produced ''The Hiding Place'' in 1975, is releasing a comedy, ''Road to Redemption.''

Christian filmmakers have produced a coming-of-age film titled ''Extreme Days'' that's due out in the spring. ''Mercy Streets'' is about a wavering minister and his ex-con brother; it stars Stacy Keach, Eric Roberts and David White, a Christian who also directed it.

''You're going to see films that never depart from the faith, but they're going to be more broad,'' said Victor Vanden Oever, chief executive of Providence Entertainment, a Christian company that distributed ''The Omega Code'' and ''The Amati Girls,'' which is not an evangelical film.

Some moviegoers recoil at overt proselytizing, and the apocalyptic movies anger many Christians.

The plot of ''Left Behind'' is a study in ''dispensational premillinialism,'' the belief that true believers will be whisked away from Earth in the Rapture before a period of tribulation in which the Antichrist rules. The period ends with the return of Christ.

Other Christians believe many of the prophecies were already fulfilled in the events leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

''The books are bad theology and the movies are therefore bad theology,'' said Gary DeMar, president of Atlanta-based American Vision, an independent ministry.

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