It’s been six years since “The Passion of the Christ” made history with its $611 million world-wide box office gross, its groundbreaking church-based promotional roll-out and its rendering of proof that there was an audience for a great Christian film. After that, there was a spurt of activity toward faith-themed movie and TV productions in Hollywood. So what’s happened?
Some things did indeed get made. “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” became a roaring success for Disney with a $745 million worldwide box office take, sequels and merchandising galore. New Line’s “The Nativity Story” took in $604 million.
Then there are the film and TV productions that don’t have Christian themes, per se, but do express faithful ideals and might not have gotten made – or made quite the same way – had it not been for the industry’s recognition that there is an underserved segment of the audience out there hungry for inspirational fare. “Amazing Grace,” the historical film about British abolitionist William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), counts church regular Patricia Heaton among its producers.
Tyler Perry’s comedies contain the family values he and his devoted audience, made up largely of African-American churchgoers, hold dear.
The Christian film niche market is busy, with dozens of active production companies bringing forth a stream of product. The most successful of those in terms of box office is Kirk Cameron’s “Fireproof,” which surprised everyone with a domestic gross of more than $33 million in 2008 – the highest of any independent film that year, followed by $28.5 million in DVD sales.
David Nixon, who was one of the producers of “Fireproof” as well as its popular predecessor, “Facing the Giants,” has “Letters to God” now in release.
He directed the film, based on a true story, about a cancer-stricken boy named Tyler (Tanner Maguire) whose daily prayers to God take the form of letters that have a profound effect on the mailman who ends up with them (Jeffrey S.S. Johnson), a man facing his own demons in life. His decision about what to do with the letters, in turn, inspires a whole community.
Robyn Lively plays Tyler’s mother. The actress, whose credits range from “Teen Witch” and “Twin Peaks” to “Saving Grace” tells us that “There was a whole different vibe on the set from any I’d been on before, from the start of the day to the end.”
How so? “Well, starting the day off with prayer, for one thing,” she says.
“One night, my nephew had an accident and was being rushed to the emergency room. I was panicking and so upset, and then one of the producers came up to me and asked, ‘Would you mind if we prayed for you?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh – thank you.’ A whole group of people came over and were praying for my little nephew. It was amazing. My sister-in-law was so touched when I told her about it.” Her nephew is fine, she adds.
More films of interest to Christians are on the way as well, including Roland Joffe’s “There Be Dragons,” for which a full-fledged church-based marketing campaign is already being planned for next year. Set at the time of the Spanish American War, it’s about a journalist who is investigating a candidate for sainthood, and discovers a personal tie to the prospective saint, as well as dark family secrets. Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley and Dougray Scott star in the film, which will show the Catholic Opus Dei organization in a different light than it was in “The Da Vinci Code.”
The true-life saga of a band of courageous Dutch WWII heroes will get a fresh look in “Return to the Hiding Place,” which is due to shoot in July in the Netherlands, Texas and Michigan. It revisits the story of Corrie ten Boom and her family, who hid Jews in their home until they could be smuggled out of the country via the underground –from the vantage point of one of the resistance fighters.
And coming up on Easter for NEXT year is “The Resurrection of the Christ,” planned for shooting in Israel, Morocco and Europe for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films (which also brought us “Amazing Grace,” “Fireproof” and this year’s “To Save a Life,” by the way). Indie producer Billy McKay — whose credits include “Billy: The Early Years,” the Billy Graham biopic — told Variety that the movie “is as much about the key players as it is about Jesus.” Expect to see more about Pontius Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas and Judas. Plus, according to McKay, “We want to bring in the Gladiator dimension of the first century against the political milieu of the time.”
Gladiators, good idea. Always good for box office. – Stacy Jenel Smith