Inside ‘GodlyWood:’ A Day on the Set of a ‘Christian’ Movie

The players of Mom’s Night Out

Andrew Erwin
“Our first goal is to tell a good story”
Alex Kendrick
We want to present stories that would draw people to a relationship with the Lord.
Patricia Heaton
I don’t think of movies as Christian or non-Christian. I don’t think God categorizes us like that.
Sean Astin
My Christian faith takes a lot of time to unpack.
Sarah Drew
So much beauty and truth can be found in every show.
Mom’s Night Out
A day on the set of a “Christian” movie

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.

A still from Mom’s Night Out

 

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.

Next: How Alex Kendrick came to dominate the religious market.

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Interview: ‘Courageous’ and ‘Fireproof’ Director Alex Kendrick on Making Movies for God

The players of Mom’s Night Out

Andrew Erwin
“Our first goal is to tell a good story”
Alex Kendrick
We want to present stories that would draw people to a relationship with the Lord.
Patricia Heaton
I don’t think of movies as Christian or non-Christian. I don’t think God categorizes us like that.
Sean Astin
My Christian faith takes a lot of time to unpack.
Sarah Drew
So much beauty and truth can be found in every show.
Mom’s Night Out
A day on the set of a “Christian” movie

Alex Kendrick may not be the world’s best director, the most saavy scriptwriter, or the most accomplished actor. But if there is one thing he understands, deep in the core of his being, it’s the Evangelical Christian market.

And he’s taken that understanding all the way to the bank.

“Our distributors are happy,” he says, laughing, about his wildly successful – in profit terms – films Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous.

Using actors from the church and a mostly volunteer crew, Facing the Giants cost a reported $100,000 to make, but raked in over $10 million at the box office. That’s peanuts in Hollywood terms, but the cost of production to profit ratio is one to grab the attention of a studio executive. Courageous scored almost $35 million and Fireproof, starring controversial outspoken Evangelical actor Kirk Cameron, over $33 million.

The real money in this market, however, is in home viewing. DVD sales numbers are hard to determine, but the profit would likely rival the boxoffice take.

Not only are the distributors happy, but they’re actively trying to find the deeply religious market Kendrick and his partner, brother Stephen, seemingly pulled from the woodwork as if by magic with their first film. “They are still learning to understand this arena and why certain audiences will support these types of films, but I think that they have shown respect enough to say it’s worth continuing. We have had a number of calls from people in Hollywood that have asked a lot of questions. Because I don’t know that we are following any formula that they have followed in the past – and not that we were trying to break a formula – We really just didn’t know any different. We really just had to figure it out on our own. Once we found something that worked, I think they were very curious and came asking a lot of questions.”

Alex Kendrick in Facing the Giants

Alex and Stephen are not motivated by profit, quite the opposite. They are motivated by the same impulse that sends middle class kids to Africa, drives men and women to seminary, and causes people to call out to passerbys at busy street corners- the desire to save souls.

At Sherewood Pictures, and at the brothers’ new company, Kendrick Brothers Productions, “We want to present stories that would draw people to a relationship with the Lord and a greater depth of faith with God,” says Kendrick.

For Kendrick, this means deeply involving God in the process of filmmaking from the first concept meeting.

We go through the better part of a year, saying, ‘Lord what do you want us to focus on, what do you want the plot be?’ It’s usually near the end of that year. It could be eight months, ten months, or a full year… it’s almost like he downloads something to us.

It’s almost like the Lord wants us to seek him, seek Him, seek Him, seek Him, seek Him, and then He says, “Ok, here’s the direction.’ And when the direction comes, it’s very clear. When I try to explain to people how that works, I can’t put my finger on it except to say it became real obvious to me and my brother and those working with us, all of a sudden our hearts turned in one direction. The Lord starts opening doors that only He can open. That’s confirmation to us.

We try to lay that groundwork of prayer first and then the Lord says, “Ok this is the direction to go.”

We pray for that theme and when we fill like the Lord said boom here it is here’s the target, then we start aiming at the target.

When I look back, I can remember, each of the movies we’ve done was not the movie I wanted to do next but the more we prayed about it, and the more the Lord would shut this door over here and open this over here and also all our hearts turned that way. It wasn’t something where we sat in a room and said ‘What do you want to do?’ We’ve never done that.

For the movie Fireproof, Kendrick says his team heard God give them a theme of marriage. For the movie Courageous, fatherhood. And so on. He speculates that upcoming themes may be military faith, motherhood, or teen issues, but says he won’t really know until God downloads.

In the meantime, Kendrick knows what he feels his calling to be:

I know that for my brother and I, we do feel specifically aimed, as if the Lord wants us to aim, at least the types of movies that we make, first of all for reminding the church to be the church.

For example, Fireproof talking about marriage based on Biblical principles, Courageous talking about the role of fatherhood… If the church is not doing what the Lord told us to do, then what impact are we going to make on the rest of the world?

Do we need movies that do that? Yes.

Do we also need movies that are aimed at a secular audience with this message of hope? Absolutely. I don’t know that we’ll be able to hit every target audience. So we’re focusing primarily on the the church knowing that there will be spillover. We’re not even trying to ride the line and please both audiences. We’re trying to say ‘Alright church, let’s remind you what the Lord says about this area or this area and then show you a picture of it.’

 


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