BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Christian-themed movies appear to be attracting large audiences these days. While none of the latest crop of religious-themed movies will come close to the box office numbers garnered by Mel Gibson's 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ – over $600 million combined domestically and worldwide -- nevertheless, these films are taking church goers out of the pews, and transporting them to local cineplexes across the country. A post-film-watching goal is to have patrons go and click on the film's website and order up an assortment of merchandise.
This year's successful crop includes Heaven is for Real ($91 million); God's Not Dead ($60 million); and, Son of God ($59 million). Noah, starring Russell Crowe, is a film that stirred controversy amongst some Christians for its lack of fealty to the Biblical tale, but nevertheless brought in nearly $360 million worldwide. According to thewrap.com's Todd Cunningham, "Grassroots and social media campaigns aimed directly at the Christian community had a lot to do with their success."
"Just as there's a whole niche publishing industry that does nothing but Christian books, this is a way to create that niche in the movie-making industry," says Michael Parnell, pastor at Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., and a commentator and film reviewer for APBnews/Herald. Organizers of the 168 Film Festival, which celebrates Christian movies, called the past year, "a stellar year for faith films at the box office ..."
More recently, faith-based films have hit some hard times in the past few months, Cunningham pointed out: "The box-office washout of The Identical made it four straight misfires for faith-based movies after an unprecedented run of success for religious films earlier this year."
Nevertheless, Paul Lalonde, the producer and co-writer of Left Behind, believes the climate is ripe to take another shot at turning the best-selling series of apocalyptic novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, into a franchise-worthy enterprise.
Despite the fact that none of the three previous "Left Behind" films did well at the box office, Lalonde, who is the CEO of Stoney Lake Entertainment, is hoping that a rebooted Left Behind, with a multi-million dollar budget, enhanced cinematic marvels, and the star power of Nicholas Cage, will draw legions of fans to its early October release. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Willie Robertson, a star of A&E's "Duck Dynasty," "has signed on as an executive producer" of the film.
"We took nearly 1 1/2 years and wrote a much better script with this one," Lalonde, told stcatharinesstandard.ca. "It was a big undertaking ... you have to stay true to your core audience and keep them happy. And at the same time, you don't want to chase away your everyday Nic Cage fan; you want them to see a great movie — not have them walk out and think they got tricked into attending a sermon."
Cage plays Rayford Steele who is piloting a plane during the Rapture when millions of people around the globe simply vanish. As the tribulation unfolds, Steele's daughter Chloe, among those left behind on the ground must reckon with the ensuing mayhem. (You can watch the trailer here).
While Jerry Jenkins is an able and prolific writer, it is Tim LaHaye, a major figure in the creation and development of America's New Religious Right, whose reflections made the novels so successful. The "Left Behind" novels have been published in 32 languages and have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. Fifteen additional novels, three movies, Left Behind: The Movie, Left Behind: Tribulation Force, and Left Behind: World at War followed the first book, published in 1995. In addition to assorted trinkets and tschokes, there were four video games: "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," "Left Behind: Tribulation Forces," "Left Behind 3: Rise of the Antichrist," and "Left Behind 4: World at War."
At leftbehindmovie.com, fans can buy clothes, wristbands, mugs, insulated tumblers, ministry tools, and purchase group ticket sales.
There doesn't appear to be any let up in Christian-themed films, whether or not the current iteration of Left Behind becomes a franchise as Lalonde and company hope. Small Christian-based outfits are producing lots of movies, and while they are sporting lower budgets, and they aim to more strictly interpret Biblical stories, they are largely dependent on a network of pastors to promote and market the films, a strategy used successfully by Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Other films hope to draw on a wider audience and tend to tinker with various aspects of religious lore.
"When you make a movie for a special interest group, be it a gay audience, political or environmental, you have to have the banner up to make clear what it's about," said Phil Cooke, a producer and best-selling author with a PhD in theology, who works with religious groups and media organizations. "I'd love to see more Christian values infused into mainstream movies more often, but the Christian film industry is evolving, and at this point you have to connect with your base first and foremost."