God’s Not Dead was a big hit at the box office two years ago. Produced for only $2 million, it grossed over $60 million in North America alone — nearly double what any independent faith-based movie not directed by Mel Gibson had done by then.
And where there is money, lawsuits tend to follow.
The Hollywood Reporter says Pure Flix Entertainment and producer/actor David A.R. White are being sued for at least $100 million in damages over allegations that they copied the storyline for God’s Not Dead from two other Christian filmmakers — and the names involved in this case will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog.
First, the suit was filed by director Michael Landon Jr and screenwriter Kelly Kullberg, who says she had developed a story called Rise based on her 2006 autobiography Finding God Beyond Harvard: The Quest for Veritas. I have never met or interacted with either plaintiff, but there was a bit of a kerfuffle nine years ago when Landon responded on a radio show to a critique that I had written of one of his films.
Second, Kullberg names “Dr.” Ted Baehr — whose Movieguide publication represents pretty much everything that is wrong with Christian film criticism these days, but set that aside for now — as one in a series of individuals who, allegedly and perhaps inadvertently, passed her story idea along to the folks at Pure Flix:
Kullberg says it’s clear how Pure Flix got her story, but the others involved might not have realized what they were doing. First, she described her story to Woody White, the president of a faith-based group at Harvard, hoping he might invest in the project. Then, according to the lawsuit, White was so excited about Rise that he passed the information on to Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission. Next, Baehr discussed the plot with God’s Not Dead actor-producer White at a time when Pure Flix was working to develop a Christian apologetic project but struggling to conceive a story.
“The theme, set-up, opportunity, turning point, change of plans, complications, setback, final push, climax, and aftermath of the Rise screenplay and the God’s Not Dead motion picture are the same,” states the complaint. “By producing God’s Not Dead, defendants destroyed plaintiffs’ prospects for producing a motion picture based on their Rise screenplay.” . . .
The film and Kullberg’s story both depict “a young college student who has to confront a popular and charming atheist professor in three debates, who struggles in the first debate, but succeeds in the next two after encouragement from supporting characters, including an unmarried local pastor, a rural married couple, the atheist professor’s wife who is also the professor’s former student (a lapsed Christian who questions her own beliefs and observances) and an international student ally, and manages to persuade many others, including the professor, that God does exist,” according to the complaint.
The clincher, of course, would be if Kullberg’s script had shown the atheist professor getting killed in a hit-and-run accident on his way to a Newsboys concert.
The Hollywood Reporter says God’s Not Dead has taken in “more than $140 million in international revenue”, but Box Office Mojo says the film grossed $64.7 million worldwide during its theatrical release — less than half of the amount stated by the Reporter. I assume the rest of the money came from video sales, etc.
Update: Nate Fleming reminds me in the comments that White and Pure Flix were previously sued for $10 million by John Sullivan and Brad Stine, who claimed that Pure Flix had ripped off their idea for a story called Proof, which was described as a sort of faith-based Dead Poets Society. So that’s two lawsuits over this film.