There's a strong reason why our movies should not work as well as they do. —Alex Kendrick
In most transactions, $20,000 buys you a lot of stuff.
Like a brand-new Toyota Corolla.
Or eight large leather sectional sofas.
Or 455 pairs of white Levi's Skinny Jeans.
Twenty thousand dollars, however, is barely a drop in the bucket when it comes to making motion pictures. So to say Alex Kendrick made 2003's "Flywheel" on a shoestring budget doesn't begin to do justice to just how little his $20,000 outlay bought him.
"That basically covered one camera, one microphone, some lights from Home Depot, and just various small pieces of equipment that we needed," said Kendrick, who co-wrote, directed and starred in the redemptive story of a used car salesman seeking to win back his family.
"Flywheel" was the first offering from Sherwood Pictures, a ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. And for Kendrick, it also marked his first foray into feature-length filmmaking.
But against all odds, "Flywheel" launched Sherwood's string of religiously themed successes that includes "Facing the Giants" (2006), "Fireproof" (2008) and "Courageous" (2011).
"There's a strong reason why our movies should not work as well as they do," Kendrick said. "We don't have major stars; we don't have major money; we don't have big special effects. … But God kind of surprises me each and every time."
With the recent release to DVD of "Courageous" — which grossed more than $35 million against a budget of "only" $2 million — Sherwood Pictures is proving to Hollywood that movies with powerful Christian messages can indeed thrive when precise marketing propels the niche product into the hands of an underserved religious demographic starving for wholesome entertainment that speaks to its values.
'Pray for the story'
Kendrick mentioned his desire to make Christian films when he interviewed in 1999 to be an associate pastor at Sherwood Church. He landed the ministerial position, but several years passed before he got his opportunity to make a movie.
When the chance to make what would become "Flywheel" did eventually materialize, Alex Kendrick didn't have to have to navigate uncharted waters by himself — he teamed with his brother Stephen, who contributed as a producer and co-writer.
"We say Stephen gathers all the ingredients together and brings them into the kitchen so that I can cook," Alex Kendrick said. "For me, (directing) is very easy. What's hard for me is the structure of pulling together all the necessary resources to shoot a movie, so I've left that to him."
The first-time filmmakers made sure to invoke divine direction in the planning process.
"Our model has been 'pray for the story,'" Alex Kendrick said. "We spend a lot of time in prayer and we look for the Lord to open doors and to shut doors, and we try to follow them in unity. … Then after we feel like we have the story and that God is honored with it, we begin shooting and we cast and pull crew out of our church."
After making "Flywheel" with a zealous cadre of volunteers, Kendricks & Co. splurged by hiring five professionals to work on "Facing the Giants" (budget: $100,000). For "Fireproof" (budget: $500,000) and "Courageous," the number of paid crew increased to 12 and 28, respectively.
One aspect of the Sherwood Pictures process that has steadily progressed with time and growing budgets is the quality of the action scenes. For example, whereas action in "Facing Giants" is basically limited to some mediocre football tackling as a high school team rises from underachievers to champions, "Courageous" employs two gripping, full-blown action sequences. In the first, a law enforcement officer hangs out of the driver-side window of a fast-moving pickup truck while attempting to avert a carjacking. The other action sequence occurs near the end of the film and believably portrays a five-person gunfight replete with flesh wounds and glass shattering in slow motion.
'Courageous' focuses on fathers
Kendrick doesn't much care for the conventional wisdom that says films need to be consciously marketed to as large a demographic as possible in order to succeed. In fact, from the get-go Sherwood Pictures defined its target audience with a laser-like focus.
"Our primary audience is the church, to build them up and to remind them of their responsibility and ministry," he said. "If we can get them stable, then we think the result of that will be more people drawn to faith."
By way of illustration, religiosity is on full display in a scene from "Facing Giants" when Alex Kendrick, playing a football coach at a private Christian high school, delivers a rousing motivational speech: "I want you to know I serve a big God, and He can do whatever He wants to do. He can open what he wants to open and shut what he wants to shut. And a team that plays for his honor and glory will have His blessings following that team."
With "Courageous," the Kendrick brothers chose to point a laser-like focus on the preeminent importance of fatherhood. The story is told through the lens of four police officers and a Hispanic factory worker. Three of their families feature a husband and wife raising children together, but non-traditional arrangements like taking responsibility for being a father after divorce or for a child born out of wedlock are also addressed.
"'Courageous' is focused on dads," Alex Kendrick said. "Don't just settle for being a good-enough dad; don't call yourself a Christian and then have a ton of compromise in your life. Either you're honoring God or you're not.
"A lukewarm attitude is the worst — because when the world looks at us, if they just see a lukewarm attitude then why in the world would they be drawn to our faith?"
While the success of Sherwood Pictures is foundationally grounded in the religious themes of its films, that's far from the whole formula.
"The team at Sherwood continues to hit the cover off the ball," said Micheal Flaherty, president of film production company Walden Media and a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. "They make powerful and influential films, they market them as good as anybody in the business and they work very hard."
Indeed, an exquisite expertise is in play behind the scenes at Sherwood Pictures, fueling grass-roots efforts that funnel its films to thousands of Christian congregations across the country.
"They excel at making message movies about popular themes for a proven audience in a programmatic style," said Erik Lokkesmoe, a partner in the film-marketing agency Different Drummer whose résumé includes "Amazing Grace," "Tangled," "The Tree of Life" and, most recently, George Lucas' "Red Tails."
"What they do right," he continued, "includes long-lead outreach and publicity, integration of merchandise, small budgets, brand cultivation, a steady flow of new movies and a masterful understanding of their audience."
Lokkesmoe harbors no doubt that Hollywood executives are salivating at the chance to mimic the success of Sherwood Pictures by green-lighting films with low budgets and big religious themes.
"Sherwood Pictures is part of the democratization of Hollywood," he said. "Hollywood is no longer simply a town — it's a term, as good films are coming out of places like Lexington, Ky., and Grand Rapids, Mich."
David Craig, a senior lecturer at the USC Annenberg School of Communication, believes Sherwood Pictures "will be one of the few to thrive in the near future whereas broader artistic, independent film distribution companies are struggling to maintain their theatrical business and develop successful direct to consumer, in-home distribution models."
However, Craig cautions that if Sherwood seeks to significantly expand its audience, trouble could follow.
"The risk … is that they either violate their 'implied' contract with their audience by producing a film outside of their interests and/or they become mesmerized by talent and mainstream projects with bigger budgets," he said. "There is a cap on the value of these audiences with limited cross-platform and global distribution opportunities, so they must be careful to not become too ambitious."
Whatever the future may hold for the Kendricks and their cohorts at Sherwood, the successes they've already achieved will resonate for years to come by catalyzing a whole new generation of self-starting filmmakers.
"Throughout it all," Flaherty said, "they have built a trustworthy brand and are inspiring a new generation of storytellers to transition from the 'talking about making movies' business to the 'making movies' business."