Christian Movie Makes Money and Surprises Hollywood

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You can almost picture the Hollywood studio execs scratching their heads.

A film that was made for $500,000, relied more on word of mouth than television and print ads, and is headlined by an actor best known for a 1980s television show, opens at No. 4 in the country and rakes in $6.8 million in ticket sales.

"Where did this come from? We didn't see this on the radar," actor Kirk Cameron imagined the execs saying. "What is 'Fireproof?'"

After this week, few will be left wondering. The Christian-themed film, which stars Cameron as a firefighter whose marriage is on the rocks, is the latest aimed at the 80-million strong evangelical audience. And, like the instant popularity of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, it's a sign that the strength of the evangelical community has not waned.

"We just smiled," Cameron, the former "Growing Pains" star, told ABCNews.com, referring to himself and the filmmakers. "We knew that no one would expect it to do well."

The film exceeded even the filmmakers' expectations. They were hoping to make $3 million or $4 million and crack the top 10 when the film opened last weekend. Instead, they topped the Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading," with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, in its third week, and Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna," which made only $3.5 million in its opening weekend.

Even more impressive, "Fireproof" opened on only 839 screens, which makes its per screen average of $8,100 second only to last weekend's No. 1 movie, Shia LaBeouf's critically panned "Eagle Eye," which was in 3,500 theaters.

"That's reason to praise God," said Alex Kendrick, the director of "Fireproof."

Kendrick co-wrote the script with his younger brother Stephen, who also produced the film. Together, they've made three films and have become known as the "Christian Coen Brothers."

"We tried to make a movie that speaks to your middle-American family and couple facing all the common issues in marriage," Alex Kendrick said. "Hollywood is good at reflecting the values and lifestyles of people in California and New York. But there are so many of us who have a standard of morality and faith that is rarely reflected in films coming out of Hollywood."

For the Kendricks, "Fireproof" is more than a film, it's a mission. The brothers are ministers at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. Their production company, Sherwood Pictures, is actually a ministry of the 3,000-member church. And all profits from the film are funneled back into the church.

"Some people are out there to win an Oscar, and we're looking to win people's hearts," said Jim McBride, the church's executive pastor and executive producer of "Fireproof."

"We're in this for the ministry aspect of it."

It all started when Kendrick, who grew up making films with a bulky camcorder in his backyard, was hired as an associate minister at the church. Michael Catt, the senior pastor, who had a vision of reaching the world from Albany, asked Alex what he'd like to be doing in five years.

"I told him I hoped to make my first Christian film but I didn't know if it was possible at a church," Kendrick said. "He said, 'Why not?'"

In 2002, church members raised $20,000 and volunteered to work behind and act in front of the camera, so that Kendrick could make "Flywheel." Shown on DVD at a local theater, it stayed on screen for six weeks and was Albany's second highest grossing film.

The second film, "Facing the Giants," about a struggling football coach, enlisted more volunteers and cost $100,000. In 2006, the newly-formed Provident Films, which distributes Christian-themed movies, teamed with Samuel Goldwyn and released "Giants" in theaters. The film made $10 million at the box office.

After watching it, Cameron -- a Christian evangelist who runs an organization called the Way of the Master, comprised of a Web site and cable television show -- called Alex Kendrick and Catt and said, "If you ever do another movie, count me in."

Like other volunteers, Cameron received no money for the six weeks of shooting, although the church paid for his expenses in Albany. Instead, Sherwood Baptist Church made a donation to Camp Firefly, a charity Cameron runs with his wife Chelsea to give terminally ill children and their families a free week's vacation.

Cameron called the role of Caleb Holt "the most difficult I've ever done, for sure," but said the experience of making the film was by far his favorite. When a scene presented a challenge for the actor, Kendrick would ask 20 volunteers to pray.

"To know 20 people are praying for you is just alien to Hollywood sets," Cameron said. "You can hardly come in and say God and Jesus without everyone giving you dirty looks."

Cameron's wife also played a small but significant role in the film. Originally, the script called for only long loving looks and warm embraces between Cameron and his on-screen wife, played by Erin Bethea. That's because Sherwood Pictures has a policy that only actors and actresses married to each other can kiss on screen. It's the same policy Cameron has.

"I promised my wife that my lips are reserved for her only," said Cameron, who's been married to Chelsea for 17 years. They have six children.

"If that means I don't get a movie or TV gig, that's fine. I don't want to do anything to violate our marriage. Maybe there wouldn't be so many divorces in Hollywood if actors had a more sacred view of marriage."

Still, Cameron said the film cried out for a kiss. So Stephen Kendrick had Chelsea fly in to be a double for Bethea and they shot the kiss in silhouette.

The film is striking a chord with its viewers, judging by the e-mails that Cameron and Sherwood Baptist Church have received. They have heard stories of couples on the verge of separation renewing their vows after the film. Cameron heard about one man who stood up after the film and announced, "I am Caleb Holt and I need 10 men to pray for me and my marriage." He said 20 men walked over.

Building an audience for "Fireproof" took some unusual marketing methods. "The evangelical audience doesn't react as well to advertising," said Meyer Gottlieb, the president of Samuel Goldwyn, the distributor, along with Provident Films. "The outreach to the ministries and having them tell their followers were far more impactful."

Kris Fuhr, who heads marketing for Provident, began inviting ministers, Christian leaders and secular marriage experts to the set of "Fireproof" a year ago when it was still shooting. "It takes a lot of time to get the wheels going in a faith audience," she said.

Provident also held about 200 free screenings around the country to get people talking about the film. "We found over 90 percent of people would recommend the film to their friends and family members," Gottlieb said. "That's way above the norm."

Provident also encouraged churches to rent out theaters for their congregations to see the film and even suggested they provide babysitting for parents. The First Baptist Church in Nashville did just that last Friday.

"We felt it was significant enough to invest the money into the lives of our members," executive pastor Tom Crow said. "We thought this can make a difference."

And, to go along with the film, the Kendrick brothers spent 10 weeks writing "The Love Dare," which is based on the book the character turns to in the film. It lists 40 daring ways to demonstrate your love to your spouse. The book is already in the top 20 bestsellers on Amazon.com, with more than 800,000 copies printed.

"It's surprising to me what's happening," Alex Kendrick said. "But I'm not surprised about what God can do."

 

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