Religion

Christian films find fans at the multiplex

Explosions rain down during the Apocalypse in 2000's Left Behind: The Movie. Based on growing popularity of Christian films, a remake is in the works.
Explosions rain down during the Apocalypse in 2000's Left Behind: The Movie. Based on growing popularity of Christian films, a remake is in the works.

NEW YORK — Left Behind: The Movie is filled with drama: sudden disappearances, a vitriolic Russian Antichrist bent on global domination, and fireballs raining down during the Apocalypse.

"The future as foretold by the Bible has come to pass," a grandiose voice proclaims in the trailer. "Seeing is believing."

Its producer, Cloud Ten Pictures, a Christian film company in Ontario, Canada, called it the most ambitious Christian movie of its time. From 2000 to 2005, the company poured roughly $12 million into three profitable Left Behind movies, which are based on the best-selling novels of the same name.

But this year, Cloud Ten is quadrupling down on Left Behind. It plans to spend roughly $15 million to remake just the first of the series, nearly four times the budget of each of the original three. Not many movies get a complete reboot at four times the original cost just a few years after being released.

The move by Cloud Ten reflects an appetite for Christian cinema that has grown significantly during the past five years.

"We really just wanted to be reaching a wider audience," said Andre Van Heerden, the company's CEO. The first films had a "movie-of-the-week" feel, no big-name stars and focused myopically on religious themes, he added. He thinks a sleeker, refocused film could cross over to the mainstream.

During the past five years, independent Christian movies — films with overt proselytizing — have been among the most profitable independent releases across all genres. Several "faith-based" movies from major studios — films with redemptive messages or Christian characters — also have reaped larger-than-expected profits, causing the big studios to take greater notice of the market.

Todd Juenger, a senior analyst at New York City-based Bernstein Research, said that after the major studios reduced their production slates to focus more on big-budget franchise films, the door opened for a variety of smaller budget religious films.

"Faith-based films offer the benefit of an identifiable, relatively efficient-to-reach target audience, which provides marketing advantages," Juenger said.

The boomlet in Christian films dates to 2008. Fireproof, the story of several firefighters struggling with marriage and religion, was that year's highest grossing independent film, taking in $33.5 million on a $6 million budget. That is tiny compared to a major studio blockbuster, but it is still a tidy profit.

Things picked up with last September's Courageous, a redemption story with inspiration from the Bible about policemen reconnecting with their families. The film brought in $35 million on an $11 million budget. Then in March, October Baby — a heavily pro-life film, which opened on only 390 screens — placed in the top-10 its first weekend, beating out mainstream fare that played in 10 times as many theaters.

October Baby, Courageous and Fireproof featured no stars. In fact, Courageous and Fireproof relied largely on volunteers from the church affiliated with the films' producer, Sherwood Production Co.

"Religious audiences have felt marginalized by cultural changes," said Craig Detweiler, director of the Center of Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. "Rallying around a particular film is a way to vote with their feet and say, give us more."

The surge has not been missed by major Hollywood studios, which have seen mainstream audiences increasingly gravitate to "faith-based" movies. The Blind Side, a film about a Christian family taking in an impoverished and talented high school football player, was a surprise hit in 2009. It grossed more than $300 million, was nominated for the best picture Oscar and won for best actress (Sandra Bullock).

Recently, all six major movie studios started divisions dedicated to acquiring and producing overtly Christian movies, as well as more mainstream "faith-based" films. Affirm Films, a division of Sony Pictures, was founded in 2007 to acquire Christian movies for distribution on DVD. But the success of Fireproof and Courageous, which Affirm acquired, led Sony to expand the division into production.

"There was some trust and desirability to stretch a little bit and see what else we could do," said Rich Peluso, Affirm vice president.

Last year, Affirm developed Soul Surfer, based on the true story of a teen who returns to competitive surfing after losing an arm in a shark attack. The film starred Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt and AnnaSophia Robb, who starred in the popular children's films Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Bridge to Terabithia. It was released on 2,000 screens — more than double the exposure most independent films get — and grossed nearly $44.5 million on a $37 million budget.

"If we can just get these movies in the theaters and put them in front of people, they will respond because they're hearing about it and they want it," Peluso said. "They just can never find it."

Which is why Van Heerden of Cloud Ten is targeting 2,500 screens and is aiming to land a name director and star actors for the new Left Behind film, slated for 2013. The 16-book series — hugely popular in the Christian community but largely unknown outside it — follows people battling with their faith during the Apocalypse. First, Christians and children ascend during the Rapture, then an Antichrist rises in the form of a United Nations dictator. Van Heerden sees the remake less as a Christian parable and more like a mainstream end-of-the world flick like Armageddon.

But Ted Baehr has seen it all before. He might even be the most well-versed authority on the history of Christian cinema. In 1986, he founded the Christian Film and Television Commission, which encourages media outlets to produce wholesome content, and Movieguide, a publication and now Web site that reviews movies based on their Christian-friendly content.

"These things always go in waves," he said. "They're going to get tired of it eventually."

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