Hollywood studios are embracing star-powered, faith-based films

By Susan King

Los Angeles times

Published: Friday, Oct. 14 2011 3:49 p.m. MDT

In subsequent decades, Hollywood largely lost its appetite (and budgetary nerve) for such films. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was a hit in 2004, but he made it on his own. After that and "The Blind Side," which earned $256 million in the U.S. and for which Sandra Bullock took home the lead actress Oscar last year, studios and independent filmmakers are taking a fresh look at spiritual stories.

Just last month, Gibson's production company inked a deal with Warner Bros. for a film about the life of Judah Maccabee, the warrior whose ancient victory is celebrated at Hanukkah. Warner Bros. also has a Moses movie in development, and producer Peter Chernin ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes") has a separate Moses project in the works for 20th Century Fox. Meanwhile, "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky is developing a film about the biblical figure Noah.

Rich Peluso, vice president of Affirm Films, the Sony Pictures division that acquires faith-based and inspirational films, said some in Hollywood still believe that the audience for religious-themed movies is limited to the Midwest and South.

"The reality is that the Christian population in Los Angeles, based on pure population size, is one of the largest populations of Christians in the country," he said. "In Seattle and Portland, we do extremely well with the faith-based populations there. And Chicago and New York. Faith-based films tend to do well where Christians are, and they tend to be everywhere."

Sony's TriStar division released "Courageous," the latest movie from the Christian filmmaking team of Alex and Stephen Kendrick.

The brothers are ministers at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. As kids, they loved making movies and decided films were a perfect vehicle to deliver their evangelical Christian message to a wider audience. In 2002, they founded Sherwood Films with $20,000 in donations from the church.

They made their debut in 2003 with "Flywheel," a drama about a shady car salesman who becomes a Christian after reaching a turning point in his life. They continued with 2006's "Facing the Giants," about a high school football coach in crisis who prays to God for help. In 2008, their film "Fireproof," a drama starring Kirk Cameron as a firefighter with a flagging marriage and an addiction to Internet porn who becomes a born-again Christian, was the highest-grossing indie film of the year, making $33.5 million.

"Our target audience is the faith audience first," said Alex Kendrick, who directs, edits and stars in the movies, while his brother produces; the two share writing duties. "But we realize with each of our previous movies there is a good bit of bleed-over and we do have a significant number of viewers who may not have a faith of their own."

"Courageous," which cost about $2 million to produce, revolves around four police officers and their commitment to their wives, children and God after one officer experiences a tragedy.

Alex Kendrick said that the filmmaking is "not so much a business but a way to reach people. We take two years to develop and we spend a great deal of time praying over it. Our church provides most of the volunteers to help make it happen."

Affirm, the Sony division, was actually born after Sony Pictures Home Entertainment acquired the Kendricks' "Facing the Giants" and released the film in theaters. "Giants" ultimately earned $10 million.

"With the success, it really got execs at Sony Pictures across the team to see this would be a space it would make sense to get into," Peluso said. Now, Affirm has a library of 20 films that it has acquired or produced.

Since completing "Courageous" last year, Alex Kendrick and his brother have written two books related to the drama, a novelization and a book addressing men's responsibilities as husbands and fathers.

"We are now praying about the next project," Kendrick said. "We're in a season of prayer where we say 'God, what do you want us to do next?'"