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2 Bible Belt filmmakers expand box office horizons

By Lucas L. Johnson II

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, Aug. 4 2014 12:44 p.m. MDT

In a June 26, 2014 photo provided by AFIRM Films/Provident Films, Stephen, left, and Alex Kendrick, pose outside The Gem Theater after shooting several car scenes along the main drag in downtown Kannapolis, N.C., for their fifth movie. The theater manager thought it be cool to put all their previous films on the marquee to serve as background and they agreed. The Kendrick brothers, who just wrapped up filming their fifth project, are making movies that could see wider release as distributors pay attention to the box office trends in the traditional Bible Belt and beyond.

Provident Films, Kevin Peeples, AP Photo/AFIRM Films

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It's the Hollywood ending every studio wants: Low-cost production and high returns at the box office.

Filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick seem to have the formula down — grossing nearly $80 million on four films made for less than $4 million combined. Only thing is the Kendrick brothers work far from Hollywood and, outside the world of Christian-themed cinema, many have never heard of their films.

That could change.

Increasingly, major studios appear to be taking a leap for faith-based audiences with biblical epics such as "Noah" starring Russell Crowe, the planned December release of "Exodus" and a remake of "Ben-Hur" for early 2016.

At one point in April, there were four faith-based movies in the Top 20 at the box office, including "Heaven Is for Real," about a 4-year-old boy's account of his trip to heaven. It has grossed more than $99 million on a production budget of $12 million by Sony Pictures.

"Hollywood has taken note," said DeVon Franklin, former Sony senior vice president of production, who oversaw "Heaven Is for Real."

The Kendrick brothers — who just wrapped up filming their fifth project — are making movies that could see wider release as distributors pay attention to the box office trends in the traditional Bible Belt and beyond.

Their latest film, which has yet to have a title, centers on a family realizing the power of prayer.

"The point is not racing to see how many movies we can produce," said Alex Kendrick, in a telephone interview from Charlotte, North Carolina. "The point is to take the time, in prayer and research, to make a solid film and get the most ministry out of it before moving to the next one."

The Kendricks began with a tiny production company with their pastor at Sherwood Baptist, but decided to strike out on their own with their fifth film. The brothers say the separation was amicable and necessary for them to grow as filmmakers and recruit actors and crew nationwide.

In previous movies, the brothers mostly used volunteers from their church though one of their more popular movies, "Fireproof," did include Kirk Cameron, a veteran actor memorably known starting in the 80s for his youthful role in a popular TV sitcom, Growing Pains.

"The people we've gotten to meet who have expertise in areas that we have needed help have come to the table," said Stephen Kendrick. "And we're growing as filmmakers."

They're also giving back. The brothers are using the fruits of their success to help up-and-coming filmmakers with projects, as well as mentor a younger generation of hopefuls. During their recent filming, they brought in about 20 interns from different universities who worked under professionals involved in the making of the film.

"We believe every generation needs to be pouring into and investing in the next generation," Stephen Kendrick said. "Hopefully, they'll be able to stand on our shoulders one day and make even better movies."

The Kendricks — both ministers who sport salt-and-pepper beards — grew up in suburban Atlanta and now live in Albany in southwestern Georgia. They are still part of the ministry team at the Sherwood megachurch. Along with the church's senior pastor, Michael Catt, they created Sherwood Pictures in 2002 and scraped together $20,000 to put out their first film, "Flywheel," in 2003 about a dishonest used car salesman who learns integrity.

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