One Alabama May morning, film director Andrew Erwin preps his crowd of extras for the day’s movie shoot in the parking lot of a bowling alley.
But this isn’t just any Hollywood set.
After instructing the children and mothers on where to stand, where to walk, and what noise not to make, Erwin hands the mic to the reigning godfather of Evangelical subculture moviemaking and force behind religious blockbusters Fireproof and Courageous, Alex Kendrick.
The pastor-turned-movie-mogul steps into the center of the circle to give an old-fashioned Southern Baptist homily before filming begins.
“You are the leading actor in God’s story of your life,” he thunders, pausing for effect as the crowd blinks in the hot sun, “And He has a plot for your life. And He tells me in scripture that He’s the director and the writer.”
Some heads nod in agreement as others stand politely and stonily silent. But everybody clasps hands and bows heads for a prayer for safety and creativity before the cameras start rolling.
That’s how they do in Alabama.
This movie set sits two thousand eleven miles from Hollywood in physical space and a million in tone. Daily devotions replace boozy after-hours clubbing. Earnest, self-important Liberty University interns replace arrogant, self-important personal assistants. And nary an f-bomb is audible on set from the local crew manning lights and cameras.
Yet this next generation of faith-based film is also miles away from the films Kendrick and his brother Stephen produced as ministers of film at Shrewood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.
For one thing, this new motion picture, Mom’s Night Out, bears the backing of Sony Entertainment’s Faith and Family division Affirm Films. They greenlit the stay-at-home mom comedy and provided it with a respectable budget. Professional level funds enabled Erwin to land a recognizable cast: Emmy-winner TV star Patricia Heaton, Sean Astin of Lord of the Rings and Rudy, Country Music star Trace Atkins, and Grey’s Anatomy cast member Sarah Drew.
This time, Alex Kendrick is on set to lead devotions and for a bit part only.
This movie belongs to Jon and Andrew Erwin. Their mentors the Kendrick brothers turned to moviemaking as a means to save souls, but the Erwin brothers journey to film director sounds more similar to aspiring directors in the secular world. Entranced by filmmaking as teens, they practiced for fun and learned at summer camp, paid their dues and learned their profession at ESPN before breaking away to focus on music videos, commercials, and, eventually, feature films.
Since Mel Gibson blew up boxoffices with his astonishingly profitable The Passion of the Christ in 2004, Hollywood has been looking to cash in on faith-based markets. Some efforts are successful, such as this year’s record-breaking miniseries The Bible from Survivor producer Mark Burnett and Touched by an Angel alum Roma Downey.
Others, not so much.
For every Fireproof, there is a Letters to God, a religious genre movie that fails to make enough at box office to even cover its production costs.
Turns out, faith-based audiences are as difficult to predict as secular ones.