Christian Cinema

Hollywood has long profited from dramatizing Christian stories. Classic films from the golden age include “The Ten Commandments,” “Samson and Delilah,” and “Ben Hur.” However, in recent years a rift has opened between the mainstream movie industry and many conservative Christians.

“Most of Hollywood clearly has an agenda,” said J.J. Jasper, an on-air personality for American Family Radio. According to Jasper that agenda includes strong messages about sexuality and lifestyles that are at odds with conservative family values.

That’s why Jasper and other evangelicals are excited about a trend of low-budget, independent Christian movies that are making big waves in the entertainment world. Jasper said the movies represent a kind co-opting, or “taking back” of the movie industry on behalf of Christians.

“Years ago, in Hollywood, there were advisory boards that included Christian ministers, people who were called upon to assess the decency of films,” said Jasper. “We’ve gotten pretty far away from that, but these movies are something new and exciting. And, their success is getting a lot of people’s attention.”

In November of 2007 Jasper worked on the set of “Fireproof,” a movie depicting a young fireman’s struggles in a culture in which half of all marriages end in divorce.

“Fireproof” became the number one independent film in theatrical release in 2008 and subsequent DVD sales have soared. The movie was the third produced by Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Previous movies include “Flywheel,” and the wildly successful “Facing the Giants” which debuted in 2006.

Jasper, a friend of the pastoral staff at Sherwood that produced the films, said the formula for success is pretty simple. “The whole project was bathed in prayer,” said Jasper. “Each morning everyone on the set gathered for a devotion, and the spirit of Christian fellowship was great.”

Jasper said Sherwood’s venture into movie-making started “almost as a kind of Passion play.”

“They had some equipment and they wanted to explore ways of evangelizing the media culture,” said Jasper. “It would be an exaggeration to say they used a home-video camera, but not much of an exaggeration.”

Using largely volunteer actors, “Flywheel” and “Facing the Giants” were created for a fraction of the costs of large, Hollywood movies. The total budget for “Flywheel” was only $20,000. Sherwood relied on grass-roots lobbying efforts, such as support from church youth groups, to convince theater chains to carry the movies, and it worked.

The Rev. Frank Newell, pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Tupelo said members of his church went in groups to see “Fireproof” when it came to town last year.

“We even conducted a couples’ Bible study as a follow-up to the movie,” said Newell. “I think ‘Fireproof’ and its message have really helped build stronger marriages.”

Jasper said that as opposed to Hollywood’s top-down method of contracts and bureaucracy, Sherwood Baptist has approached movie-making from the bottom-up.

“Mel Gibson did something similar with ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” said Jasper. “He kind of broke the glass ceiling. Rather than relying on a studio-driven model, he included the input of pastors and other faithful Christians to make his movie the best it could be.”

Magnolia connection
Following the successes of Sherwood Baptist, another Christian production company is about to debut a movie which features performers from the Magnolia State.

The film, titled “C Me Dance,” features performances by Ballet Magnificat, a Jackson-based Christian arts organization. “C Me Dance,” follows the journey of an aspiring dancer and her struggles with illness and faith.

“C Me Dance” is the first movie from Uplifting Entertainment, a faith-based production company in Pennsylvania. Founder Greg Robbins, an actor whose credits include a recurring role on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, said his film carries an important message.

“It’s a theatrical experience that reminds us that our purpose can be found when we open our hearts to the grace of God,” said Robbins.

Keith Thibodeaux, Ballet Magnificat’s executive director, who also has a small part in the movie, said he was happy to have his dancers help.

“Our company is unique because of our explicitly Christian mission,” he said. Thibodeaux, who is best-known for playing “Little Ricky” on the television series “I Love Lucy,” said in addition to honing their dancing skills, Ballet Magnificat students take courses in discipleship training and other spiritual studies.

Like Sherwood Baptist, Robbins is relying on grass-roots efforts to win his movie a showing. He recently visited Tupelo to promote “C Me Dance” on American Family Radio and so far the movie is set to open in 200 theaters nationwide, including Tupelo’s Malco Theater April 3-5.

“It all depends on how much interest we can create,” said Robbins. “We feel strongly that, based on the success of movies like ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ there’s a real interest and market for quality, Christian entertainment.”

Robbins is also following the lead of Sherwood Baptist in giving something back. The Georgia church has used almost all the profits from its movies to create an 82-acre community recreation park in Albany. For “C Me Dance” Uplifting Entertainment is sponsoring an essay contest and, based on the success of the movie, it’s donating a minimum of $5,000 to the Leukemia Foundation, as well as contributing to other organizations Robbins supports, like Worldvision and Compassion International.

Thibodeaux, who worked extensively as a child in Hollywood prior to his conversion to Christianity, said although show-business has changed, Christians should continue to approach creative endeavors, such “C Me Dance,” with faith and confidence.

“Hollywood has to understand that there’s a segment of society that really appreciates these movies,” he said. “These are not only entertainment but, in a communication-driven world, with seemingly no boundaries, these are really tools of evangelizing.”
Robbins is excited about his new role in the burgeoning world of Christian movie-making.

“There is a movement going on and it’s becoming powerful,” said Robbins. “Every year more people buy a movie ticket than go to all the sporting events put together. That makes the movie screen one of the most powerful and influential forces on the planet.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.

Galen Holley/Daily Journal