As Hollywood crowns its favorite movies and actors at the Oscars on Sunday, another group is trying to create a rival movie industry. Fed up with sex and violence in mainstream entertainment, conservative Christians are turning out their own films. And they've made surprising inroads.
If you don't believe us, take this quiz: What was the biggest grossing independent film in 2008? No, not Slumdog Millionaire. Not Milk. It was a movie you've probably never heard of.
Fireproof, starring former teen idol Kirk Cameron, was all the talk of some 2,000 Christian movie fans gathering at the San Antonio (Texas) Independent Christian Film Festival in January. This crowd was markedly un-Hollywood, the men wearing jeans and Polo shirts, the women in high necklines and low hems. The lights had hardly dimmed for opening ceremonies when Doug Philips, the festival's organizer, told the audience they were drawing a battle line in the culture wars.
"We're here to send a message to the world that we no longer want our children immersed in toxic media which is in opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ," he announced to the cheering crowd. "Christian filmmaking is coming of age. Christian filmmaking is coming of age!"
Building An Industry Around Faith
Instead of just complaining about sex and violence, Phillips says, Christians must make films that reflect their own values. He says he started the film festival five years ago when he realized that Christians were losing the hearts and minds of the young.
"What is the single biggest influence on our families?" he asks. "I wish I could tell you the biggest single influence were churches, but that regretfully is not the case. The truth of the matter is, it is the media the people take in which are shaping and forming ideas."
If Christians want to compete in the world of ideas, he says, they have to make great movies. This festival is putting up a $101,000 top prize — the largest in the United States, and larger than Cannes or Sundance — to help them get there. Phillips says this is only the beginning.
"I think we're going to see significant production houses that will be funding $200 million films done by Christians," he predicts. "We're going to have our own Steven Spielbergs. We're going to have our own filmmakers that can tell great stories, produce tremendous films, but they're going to be doing it with a Christian world view, and they're not going to be embarrassed about that."
'You Can't Mimic Christ'
These Christian directors will make movies about subjects that evangelicals care about, Phillips says, the kind that were finalists at the San Antonio festival: dramas about abortion, documentaries about creationism and home schooling — and even a musical about taxation.
The Widow's Might tells the story of a woman about to lose her home to tax foreclosure, and the two families that help her with her lonely battle against the government. There is much singing and talking about courage and standing up to oppressive powers, and the right of people to remain in their own homes.
"It was awesome," said Jeff Reins of Fort Worth, Texas, after the movie's screening in San Antonio. "A lot of good biblical principles and messages in there."
Nearby, Becky Dorough from Kaufman, Texas, said she wishes Hollywood would turn out movies like this. But, she said, Hollywood has a tin ear for the Christian audience.
"I don't think they'll ever get it," she said. "They will try to mimic it, but you can't mimic Christ. They'll never get the love part. They'll never get the forgiveness. They don't get any of that because they don't think they need it."
"I think anything can be redeemed by the power of Jesus Christ," says John Robert Moore, the 19-year-old writer, director and leading man in The Widow's Might. "But I believe that the path [he] has set before us — which can be seen by the blessing he's put on this industry so far in this very short movement -– I think that is evidence for the fact that he wants us to work in an entirely new industry from the ground up."
An Audience Waiting To Be Tapped
Steve Morales concurs. "There's just a hunger. This is a market that has not been tapped with high quality media," he says. Morales is the executive director of Franklin Springs Family Media Fund, a group that invests in Christian films.
Morales was in San Antonio scouting for talent. He says because the emphasis is more about wholesome stories than big stars and budgets, Christian movies are cheap to make — and quickly turn a profit through box office and DVD sales.
"We're out for good, strong, economically viable films which serve a purpose, which fill a niche that is unmet right now," Morales says. "Blockbusters are great, but that's not the end goal. The end goal is to glorify God with our skills and talents."
And, whenever possible, make the young ladies swoon -– as did Julia Spence, when asked what her favorite movie at the festival was.
"Oh! Fireproof!" gasped the 18-year-old freshman from Louisiana Baptist University. "This is my fifth time to see it!"
She's excited to explain why. "Because, first of all, it presents the plan of salvation in an amazing way, and in a way that could touch everyone's heart. And also because it's romantic, and it's special and sweet and I just love it."
Fireproof touches all the bases for this audience — the raw emotion of a marriage on the brink of divorce. The conversion experience as the father tells his son — Kirk Cameron, the teenage idol of TV hit Growing Pains — that Jesus died on the cross for him. Cameron's efforts to win his wife back. And finally, forgiveness and redemption.
Marketing Outside The Mainstream
Fireproof earned $33 million at the box office, and cost only half a million dollars to make. It was written and directed by two brothers who are pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. The cast was made up of church members, with the exception of Cameron, who is an evangelical Christian. All the actors, including Cameron, worked for free.
"It was the heart of people who made the movie," Cameron said, "combined with their ability to tell a story with redeeming values in it, [that] made me want to be a part of the team."
Fireproof opened at No. 4 in the nation last September, beating out Spike Lee's Miracle of Saint Anna.
"Monday morning after the opening weekend of Fireproof, we got a call from one of the guys at the Hollywood Reporter," recalled Stephen Kendrick, who co-wrote and produced Fireproof. "And he said, 'Who in the world are you, and what in the world is Fireproof?' Of course he used much more salty speech."
"I told him we're a church and he says, 'You're a church?' He says, 'Do you realize what you just did? I've been tracking every movie that's coming out. That's my job. I know how much they cost. I know who's in them; I know the calculations as to what they're probably going to do in the theaters. Fireproof was not even on our radar screen.'"
How did they do it? By flipping Hollywood marketing on its head, said Ben Howard, who runs Provident Films. Provident, which is owned by Sony, conducted the grassroots marketing of Fireproof. Howard says instead of spending millions on advertising, Provident gave sneak previews to 200 select groups.
"We did a lot of screenings showing the film to 'influencers,'" he explained. "That would be pastors, ministry leaders, those would be people who speak to the audience."
And so, like the blockbuster book, The Purpose Driven Life, which sold 17 million copies before it was reviewed in the mainstream press, Fireproof became a topic of sermons, Bible studies, radio talk shows -– and an inspiration for the young Christian filmmakers in San Antonio.
At the grand finale of the San Antonio festival, awards were presented for the film that best explains biblical creation, the movie that best upholds family values, the best musical score. Four great-grandchildren of Captain Von Trapp, the inspiration for The Sound of Music, yodeled away with no wardrobe malfunctions. Finally, Doug Phillips announced the winner of the $101,000 grand prize: The Widow's Might.
This is a "moment in history," Phillips said after the 19-year-old winner accepted the award, a moment that can spark a new generation of filmmakers. Ones that will produce movies that are "truly meaningful to the kingdom of God."