Christian Film Industry Going Mainstream

The latest weapon in the cultural war is coming soon to a theater near you.

ANAHEIM, Calif., June 6, 2009— -- Hollywood can be hard to predict, but given the choice between last year's Woody Allen film, "Vicky Christina Barcelona," Sean Penn in "Milk" and a Christian film called "Fireproof," starring aging teen idol Kirk Cameron, not a single industry insider saw this dark horse coming.

"Fireproof," a Christian-themed film straight out of "Godlywood," buried them all as the top-grossing independent film of 2008.

What's the Christian film industry's next brainchild? A soon-to-be-released film called "The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry," a film about a 75-year-old man who motivates three young boys to fend off a bully by following the Lord.

The film took center stage last week at an international Christian ministry festival in Anaheim, Calif., where the faithful gathered to pray and to learn about new ways to reach their flocks.

Rich Christiano, the film's director, screened "The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry" to a pastor-filled crowd, hoping to get them to preach the goodness of his movie and send the faithful to the ticket counter.

Christiano's message was clear: Hollywood is corrupting America.

"Why is it we watch movies with nudity and all this stuff we know we shouldn't? I'll tell you why, because Hollywood rules, not Jesus," Christiano said to the crowd. "Pastors, I'm telling you, this is the fight, this is what's going to steal your youth group; this is what's busting up your marriages. This is the fight. I need you to stand with us."

The movie is becoming the latest weapon in a cultural war coming soon to a theater near you. Christiano, 52, describes himself as a "filmmaker with a message for the Lord."

"George Lucas supposedly said the church, which used to be all powerful, has been usurped by film. And he's right," Christiano said. "The devil knows all this, and he has used films to break down this country; it's a very powerful tool."

With the release of "The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry," Christiano is urging the church to start playing offense.

"The church normally plays defense," he said. "Hollywood does something we don't like and we react to it. I say forget about that. Quit complaining and let's go on the offense."

The film stars Gavin MacLeod, who is better known to most as Capt. Stubing from the "Love Boat." MacLeod, who turned to Christ in 1985 after a long career in Hollywood, said he "became essentially a different person."

Transitioning from Hollywood to the emerging Christian film industry, MacLeod said it's "humbling" to be "used by God" in the movie.

Christian Film Festival Rivals Cannes

While the Cannes Film Festival has celebrities, like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the Independent Christian Film Festival in San Antonio sports a large cash award for its top movie, which is $101,000. "The Widow's Might," a 101-minute film written and directed by 19-year-old John Moore of Kaufman, Texas, won the award in January.

As for "Fireproof," it's the story of a fireman's battle to save his marriage, and was the shot heard across Hollywood. Opening in theaters in late September, the film earned $33 million at the box office in 2008 on an almost unheard of $500,000 budget.

The film's 2008 gross revenue even beat out the Academy Award-winning "Slumdog Millionaire," which opened in mid-November.

"We were all sort of pinching ourselves and laughing and watching it as it did so well," said Cameron, star of "Fireproof" and former star of TV's "Growing Pains."

While the box office profits speak for themselves, the making of "Fireproof" is a story in its own right.

The film was written and directed on a shoestring budget by the brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who are pastors in Albany, Ga. Other than Cameron, the entire cast was made up of church members -- and everyone worked for free. The Kendrick brothers say God told them to make the movie.

"Basically, we'll take weeks at a time and say, 'God, what do you want us to do?'" Alex Kendrick said. "We've learned there's a difference between a good idea and a God idea. And we say, 'God, point us in the right direction.'"

Success took more than prayers. "Fireproof" turned to savvy grassroots marketing as a promotion tool; the brothers shared their vision with pastors across the country who, in turn, encouraged their followers to see the film.

"Fireproof's" impressive success has branded Cameron as the face of Christian films -- a title that was bittersweet, at first, for the former teen idol.

Cameron Comes to Embrace 'Fireproof' Role

"It used to bother me a lot more than it does now," he said. "I really don't care because I've come to a conviction in my own heart."

Cameron's conviction has grown stronger with the flood of e-mails from fans, who say "Fireproof" saved their marriages.

"I think that that's the most wonderful thing about doing the things that I like to do," he said. "Be a part of something God is doing to change the lives of other people."

Christian Flicks Get Grassroot Support

Whatever the content, Hollywood likes a winner. The Samuel Goldwyn film company, more accustomed to big stars like Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts, is the first major studio to embrace Christian films. "Fireproof," then a dark horse, was their release in collaboration with Christian film company Provident Films, and the genre of Christian film is on the horizon.

"It's an underserved audience," said Meyer Gottlieb of Samuel Goldwyn Films. "You know, you can say Christian or faith, that Hollywood is not serving that audience the level it should be serving it, and it's a huge audience. So, I think there are great opportunities, and I'd like to release one or two Christian films a year, or faith-based films a year."

While Christiano doesn't have the support of a studio behind "The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry," he's counting on churches to back him.

"What we're trying to do is get churches to sponsor this movie in their local theater, kind of a unique marketing plan," he told ABC News. "We actually charge the church $2,000 and then they pick the theater, we book the theater, when the theater pays us, first $2,000 goes right back to church."

It's not the standing ovation in theaters that matters to Christiano, but pastors' agreement to sign on and sponsor the movie.

"We are definitely sponsoring this movie, we want to put it in theaters and make sure that people have an opportunity to see not only this movie but movies like it," said Pastor Jerry Dirmann of the Rock church in Anaheim, Calif.

Get your popcorn ready -- no swearing, no violence -- just forgiveness, redemption and a church-approved happy ending.

The filmmakers, like Christiano, say it's important to know their audiences, as grassroots support from true believers can't be replicated by a slick Hollywood marketing campaign.

"Thank you for coming; the Lord bless you all," he said to the pastors." ... You won't lose on this and you won't lose with the Lord."