Forty years after the fact, Denny Wayman can still remember one of his first experiences with evangelism — and it took place in a movie theatre in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Wayman was still in junior high school when World Wide Pictures, the movie studio founded by evangelist Billy Graham, produced The Restless Ones (1965), a film about juvenile delinquents, teen pregnancy, and other social issues. The film ends with Graham issuing an altar call at one of his crusades, and just as the characters in the movie are encouraged to come forward, so too the audience in the movie theatre was invited to take a stand for Christ. And Wayman was one of the counselors who stood, waiting, at the front.
“It was pretty memorable, because it kind of takes you out of your comfort zone as a ninth or tenth grader,” recalls Wayman, who was one of over 30 counselors who had been trained by Graham’s organization prior to the film’s screening. “Back then, they sent out a team — I think it was three or four people — and they met with us for two weeks at the church, and they trained us in personal evangelism and how to lead a person to Christ.”
Wayman remembers praying with a boy three years younger than himself, taking the young man’s follow-up card, and referring him to a church. “I would not say that the films, as films, were a big part of my spiritual life; but I would say that that experience of evangelism training and being responsible for the film, and for a person’s soul, was dramatic,” he says today.
The Restless Ones marked a number of turning points in the history of World Wide Pictures. At a time when Hollywood films were becoming increasingly risqué — the industry’s morality code was abandoned and replaced with the current ratings system just a few years later, in 1968 — it became the first Billy Graham movie to be shown in regular theatres.
Wayman, now a pastor and a film critic for the Cinema in Focus website, admits that one of the reasons he wanted to work on this particular evangelistic team was because it would allow him to step inside a movie theatre. “Free Methodists, at that point in our denomination, were not allowed to go to movies,” he says. “It wasn’t a written rule, but it was kind of a social thing. For me, it was kind of like tasting the Turkish Delight.”
The film also marked a passing of the torch, so to speak, between two generations of Christian filmmakers — the creative forces who had guided World Wide Pictures in its early days, and those who would lead the ministry to some of its greatest successes.
The Restless Ones was the last World Wide Picture to be directed by Dick Ross. Ross, owner of Great Commission Films, had first met Graham in 1949 and began filming some of his crusades soon after, for documentary purposes. Some of this footage would be used years later in films like Wiretapper (1955) and No Longer Alone (1978), which dramatized the true stories of people who had become Christians at some of Graham’s earliest crusades.
The first dramatic film Ross directed for World Wide Pictures was Mr. Texas, produced during the Fort Worth crusade in 1951. It was followed by Oiltown, U.S.A. (1954), in which the climactic Billy Graham sermon is delivered not at a crusade but through a television broadcast; Souls in Conflict (1955), set during the London crusade in 1954; The Heart Is a Rebel (1958), set during the New York crusade in 1957; and Shadow of the Boomerang (1960), set during the Australia crusades in 1959.
All of these films concern characters who at first are skeptical of the claims of Christianity, openly living sinful lives, or sincerely looking for answers to their questions about the deeper meaning of life; and in the end, most of these characters come to Christ — assisted perhaps by the witness of friends or family, and usually after hearing Graham preach.
Barry Werner, director of operations at World Wide from 1992 to 2004, says their approach to these films was inspired by Graham’s technique of beginning his own sermons with quotes from local newspapers and celebrities. “He would become one of the community, which would give people a starting place to hear the gospel,” says Werner. “With the movies, he could do that dramatically. They were with him when the gospel was shared.”
On a Par with Hollywood?
These early films were made to be shown at churches and similar venues. But by the mid-1960s, World Wide was making a serious effort to produce films that would be shown in regular theatres and be taken just as seriously as regular Hollywood films.
While distribution was still handled from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s headquarters in Minneapolis, World Wide had its own sound stages and post-production facilities in Burbank, California — just one block away from the Walt Disney Studio.
Much of their artistic direction over the next two decades came from James F. Collier, who wrote the screenplay for The Restless Ones and directed many of the films that followed. In his films, he often looked for ways to push beyond the Billy Graham “formula.”
Two a Penny (1967) stars British pop legend — and committed Christian — Cliff Richard as a would-be drug dealer who is hostile toward his girlfriend’s newfound faith, and whose salvation, at the end, is still an open question. For Pete’s Sake (1968) puts the crusade at the beginning of the story, and then explores, with self-deprecating humor, the hurdles that a newly saved family must overcome as it puts its faith into practice.
The studio’s greatest success, on many levels, was The Hiding Place (1975), based on the autobiographical best seller by Corrie Ten Boom, whose Dutch family was split up and sent to concentration camps for hiding Jews in their home during World War II. The film has the look and feel of an epic, and it has a gritty realism that few other Christian films have matched. Jeannette Clift, who played Ten Boom, was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA awards, and there were rumors that the Academy considered her, too.
This was followed by Joni (1979), in which Joni Eareckson — the quadriplegic victim of a diving accident — re-enacted her own life story. Bob Buck, an electronics engineer who was involved with his church’s audio-visual program in Trumbull, Connecticut, served the BGEA as a “theatre manager” during this era, and he estimates he saw Joni 29 times.
“They were packed houses always,” he recalls. The BGEA booked theatres in advance, and gave Buck “great big boxes of tickets” to distribute to churches and other groups; admission was free, but the tickets were needed to ensure that the theatres were not over-crowded.
Buck says the BGEA also avoided showing its films in the multiplexes that were springing up around that time, “because they didn’t want to have competing crowds in the lobbies.”
Evangelism techniques had changed by then, too, Buck notes. “In those early movies, after the movie was over, there was a guy at the front of the theatre who gave an invitation — but by the time they got to The Hiding Place they had stopped doing that, so a clip was added to the end of the movie with Billy Graham addressing the audience,” he says.
Sometimes, materials explaining Christianity were handed out to audience members; these included response cards that were mailed directly to BGEA headquarters in Minneapolis.
By then, changes in the broader culture and in the distribution of films had caught up with World Wide Pictures. Churches were planning their own big events, and many stopped having Sunday night services, where some of these films had been shown. There was less demand for 16mm films, and most churches did not yet have video projectors. World Wide sold off its Burbank studio, and focused on making films for the TV and direct-to-video market, which people could watch with their friends in their own living rooms.
Werner recalls some of the challenges World Wide faced as it looked for independent contractors who could produce good, watchable, evangelistic films. Some producers objected to the studio’s basic formula. “They’d say, ‘Cinematically, that doesn’t work. Billy Graham preaching on screen doesn’t work.’ Well, hello, who’s paying for this? So we had a challenge to come up with independent producers and still have an evangelistic event.”
The other challenge World Wide faced was how to adhere to its formula without making its films too similar. All of their films had to show a person’s “lost condition” or “fatal flaw,” the sufficiency of God, the person’s decision to follow Christ, and evidence of a change in the person’s life after he or she makes that decision.
“Now if you have that criteria for every movie you produce, oh my goodness that would be boring,” says Werner. “They’d all be clones and that would be boring.”
The solution World Wide found? To make each film in a different genre. “If you make a western and you make a love story and you make a comedy and you make an action film, they look different just by the nature of how they’re produced,” says Werner.
“We also tried to find different writers for every single movie, and in most cases we tried to find a different director for each film — and by doing that, you change the way the movie is lit, you change the camera angles, and the films look totally different.”
In addition, as Graham got older, there were less opportunities to base entire films around crusades; so instead, Graham’s preaching was often heard on the radio or seen on television. Occasionally, his son Franklin even stepped in to do the preaching.
Some of these films had limited theatrical releases; most were shown on national television in the quarterly time slot that normally went to one of Graham’s crusade broadcasts.
The Ride (1997), a cowboy movie starring Michael Biehn, was one of the first to be shown this way, and “it actually drew a bigger crowd than if Dr. Graham had been speaking on TV,” says Werner. “It had slightly higher decision results. It was good enough that it was determined that we would produce one movie every year that would do a limited theatrical release, and then it would go on television as part of the Billy Graham television series.”
This was followed by: A Vow to Cherish (1999), a love story about middle-aged empty nesters coping with mental illness; Something to Sing About (2000), an “urban” film about an African-American ex-con who joins a church choir; Road to Redemption (2001), a comedy about a woman who gets in trouble with the mob; The Climb (2002), an adventure film about a clash of personalities in the Andes mountains; and Last Flight Out (2004), about a pilot who rescues a Latin American mission from a villainous drug lord.
In 2003, World Wide moved with the rest of the BGEA to Charlotte, North Carolina. World Wide manager Larry Bower says there are no films “in the hopper” right now, but they are looking at releasing more of their older films on DVD and selling them to churches in packages that would include promotional materials and response cards. “For us,” he says, “the really important thing with the DVD is the broad reach that we can have with it.”
Billy Graham movies have had a mixed reception over the years. Some Christians have appreciated them for expressing the gospel in new ways, and for avoiding the sensationalistic tactics associated with, say, end-times movies. Others have criticized the films for cheating dramatically and sticking too closely to their evangelistic formula.
Cheryl Forbes, reviewing Time to Run (1973) for Christianity Today, said the film failed in its attempts to be “with it,” and she had a mixed response to the scene in which the unsaved main characters turn off their TV set or drive away from the stadium parking lot when they hear Billy Graham’s altar call. “This realistic touch does not entirely compensate for the contrived effect of introducing the crusade scenes in the first place,” she wrote.
Similarly, in a review of The Prodigal for the same magazine, Harry Cheney praised the “lush photography” and “superlative cast” but took issue with the film’s reluctance to flesh out the title character: “It is a sanctified view of sin that doesn’t always ring true. He remains an object lesson viewed from the outside.” He also took issue with the conclusion at the crusade. “An encounter with Christ should propel the action, not end it,” he wrote.
Others say the films have proved their worth, through the number of people who have come to Christ after seeing them. Guy Dowd, author of Molder of Dreams and winner of the National Teacher of the Year award in 1986, has traced his conversion to a screening of The Restless Ones that he attended when he was a student; so has Kathie Lee Gifford.
Over 120,000 conversions were reported in connection with that film within a year of its release, and World Wide Pictures claims on its website that over two million decisions have been recorded altogether, as a result of people watching their films.
As Collier said in 1983, “A friend who saw Time to Run said, ‘There are holes in the story, Jim.’ But as a result of that production, over 400,000 people indicated some sort of first-time commitment to Christ and have been contacted by the Billy Graham follow-up offices. That’s what makes it all meaningful and gives purpose to what we attempt to do.”
Werner credits Graham with having the vision to recognize the power of film to spread the gospel at a time when many would have preferred to avoid the medium altogether.
“This whole thing is based on his vision,” he says. “None of this was created by some manager with some idea; Dr. Graham put wheels on that. I would attribute every decision, whether Dr. Graham preached in person or commissioned a film, to Dr. Graham. He was trusted by the church. When we made calls, doors would open for us.”
— A version of this article was first published at Christianity Today Movies.