The idea for “Persecuted” came to director Daniel Lusko in a dream.
“It sounds really strange, but I was inspired by God. I just saw this image of a man running through this forest for his life, for his values,” Lusko said June 12 at a forum for Varity's Family and Faith-based Entertainment Summit.
Variety’s summit is one of the biggest gatherings of faith-minded writers, producers, directors and other industry professionals exploring the relationship between faith, morality and entertainment.
Lusko and the rest of the panel who discussed “Persecuted” were there with a clear message: Films that carry a “faith” label don’t have to be limited by it.
The success of films like "Heaven is for Real" and “Noah” has changed the relationship between faith and Hollywood, which Lusko says has paved the way for smaller independent such as "Persecuted,” released July 18.
Like many independent films, “Persecuted” has a limited release — 600 theaters in the U.S. compared to blockbusters like "Noah," which opened in more than 50 countries in March and April — but Lusko sees this level of support as a victory for faith-friendly filmmakers.
Without the success of other high-profile faith-based films, Lusko said, his film may not have gotten this far. In the six years since he started developing “Persecuted,” Lusko said, the attitudes of distributors changed and became more open to a smaller film with moral themes and grittier subject matter.
“The times had to catch up with the movie we were making. When we were making it, we sent it to several studios who said no because [an evangelist being framed for political reasons] could never happen,” Lusko said. “In this last year, the first one to turn us down came back and wanted the rights. The pulse has changed in the last couple of years."
That change of pulse, PBS "Just Seen It" critic Lisa Johnson Mandell said, is partially the financial success of many faith-based movies, which Hollywood can’t ignore.
"One thing Hollywood and the media listen to more than anything is the ka-ching of the cash register,” Johnson Mandell said. “It’s becoming safe again to dip your toe into the Christian water as better films are being made that get good box office numbers."
Big dividends, changing expectations
Good viewership is something faith-minded audiences can provide, if box office profits are an indication. Variety reported that “Noah” took in $301 million worldwide. Christian News Service reported that films like “Son of God,” “God’s Not Dead” and “Moms’ Night Out” took in a combined $218 million at the box office in 2014, which the service called “The Year of the Bible.”
According to an American Insights survey conducted in May, two-thirds of all U.S. adults and 74 percent of U.S. Christians are likely to see a movie “related to God.” The poll explored how respondents felt about the presence of faith in films, and 55 percent said Christians should have a stronger influence in Hollywood, while 41 percent of Christians said they didn’t feel theaters showed enough faith-based movies.
But the poll suggests that certain criteria for faith films are highly important to Christians. The poll found that 79 percent of Christians and 71 percent of adults say that biblical accuracy is key to whether they’ll see a faith-based movie. For example, 80 percent of Christian respondents said they plan to see Ridley Scott’s upcoming “Exodus” film, but only 29 percent are willing to pay for a ticket if the movie is not true to the Bible.
Riding the success of recent larger faith-based films, Lusko saw an opportunity to take the genre in another direction: an edgy, contemporary thriller. “Persecuted” is the story of television evangelist John Luther (James Remar), who runs afoul of political leaders who hope to use his Christian message to power an unseemly piece of legislation. Luther is later framed for murder.
Lusko hopes that “Persecuted” will continue a trend of Bible and faith-based films that draw audiences with good production values while exploring new themes outside of non-controversial retellings of biblical stories or the life of Christ.
“What I see happening are a lot are faith-based movies [in the past] being this one beam of bright, white light, and you don’t have a battle between light and darkness,” Lusko said at the forum. “You’ve got to have that to let the audience decide which they choose. What I see is it generally being forced down the throat without choosing.”
In the wake of the big success of these films, audiences and Hollywood need to redefine what they consider a faith film, comedian and “Persecuted” actor Brad Stine said. Those films, Stine argued at the summit, need to translate that success into telling compelling faith stories for a modern audience — something he thinks Lusko’s film does.
“The point of Christ was to redeem culture. Now the way this is being done is through films. The biggest influencer in America is not politicians, it is not theologians, it’s television and motion pictures,” Stine said. “This was a watershed year. All of the movies that came out this year were telling the story, but we also want to break ground.”