Director Brian Baugh’s teen film “To Save a Life” may be many things, but one thing it’s not, he says, is a “Christian” movie.
The upcoming film about a star basketball player who copes with a friend’s death is edgier than others — with violence, marijuana and a brief sex scene. Conservative friends who’ve screened the movie worry it doesn’t have enough faith in it, while others think it may have a bit too much.
“That’s what makes it fun,” said Baugh, a film photography director whose new movie will be distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films. “Can we walk that line? It’s a great challenge.”
Five years after the stunning box-office results of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Christian filmmakers are trying to develop higher quality movies that will attract a faith-based audience without alienating nonchurchgoers.
Craig Detweiler, director of Pepperdine University’s Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture, said he generally splits movies into two basic categories: good or bad. Most colleagues, he acknowledged, tend to put Christian movies in the latter category; one fellow
filmmaker even compared their quality with the average pornographic film: “It has bad lighting, lousy acting and you know how the story’s going to end.”
A small but growing movement is trying to change that image, highlighted most recently by “Fireproof,” a movie about a firefighter struggling to save his marriage, and produced by a Southern Baptist church in Georgia, that ended up the No. 1 independent movie of 2008.
“The profitability of a film like ‘Fireproof’ will inspire a spate of imitators,” said Detweiler. “What I’d rather see is a wave of originators who have such a level of artistry, craft and originality that audiences and critics stand up and take notice.”
Filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, the writers and producers of “Fireproof,” are working with new Christian-film subsidiaries of media giant Sony and paying careful attention to the script — even as they aim squarely for a churchgoing audience without being too churchy.
In fact, they deleted one scene — but included it in the DVD’s deleted scenes — that featured firefighters debating the existence of God over a plate of chicken wings at the fire station.
“We didn’t want to present the medicine, if you will, before they understand what’s been diagnosed,” said Alex Kendrick, an associate pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga.
His younger brother, Stephen, also an associate pastor at the church, is brutally honest about the image they were trying to overcome.
“Part of the reason … people have turned away from Christian movies is because historically they’ve been very cheesy and painful to watch,” he said.
As they have worked with Sony to improve the quality of their films — casting actor Kirk Cameron in ‘Fireproof’ instead of relying solely on volunteers — there’s been a box-office payoff.
Their first film, “Flywheel,” was shown in three local theaters. “Facing the Giants,” opened in 441 theaters and ‘Fireproof” in 839, with both ending up in more than 1,000 theaters during their runs. The Kendrick brothers will begin filming a new movie next year.
Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, said her company aims to find scripts that primarily tell a good story.
“If you put story first and then ask yourself, ‘How can faith feel like an organic part of this story?’, then you have a formula for success,” said Fuhr, whose company is a subsidiary of Sony BMG Music Entertainment.
“I think too often people start with ‘OK, I’m going to start with the faith part and then I’m going to cobble something around that, and you can’t.”
Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, thinks unofficial rules about not having a church-related scene too soon in a movie are “foolish,” but he’s nonetheless grateful that secular companies are paying more attention to Christian movies.
“I think the good news is that Sony has decided to give a break to some of these people,” said Baehr, whose organization publishes “Movieguide.” “And that’s ‘cause we keep telling them there’s money in them thar hills. There’s an audience out there.”
In addition to “To Save a Life,” other upcoming 2010 Christian movies include “Letters to God,” a Possibility Pictures film about a cancer-stricken boy who writes to God in letters carried by a troubled postal worker. “The Revelator,” a Pure Flix Entertainment production
about a terminally ill orphan who tries to save his doctor’s marriage, also is scheduled for release next year.
Observers of the Christian film industry hope that Christian moviemakers will follow the model of contemporary Christian music, which matured in quality in the last two decades and spawned crossover acts.
“Contemporary Christian music provides a cautionary tale to not limit your audience or pre-identify your reach,” said Pepperdine’s Detweiler, “but to be open to being genuinely surprised by how many people are hungry for your film.”