A 60-year survey
Letters to God opened April 9. It is a film in which the characters talk in a matter-of-fact way about their Christian faith. Co-directed by David Nixon and Patrick Doughtie, it's inspired by a true story about a boy and a man, each with serious problems.
Mr. Nixon was a producer for two other explicitly "Christian" films, Facing the Giants and Fireproof. Both of these earlier low-budget films astounded critics by raking in millions of dollars at the box office, beating out many studio and better-connected independent films during their opening weeks at theaters. Thus, the producers have high hopes for Letters to God.
The film centers on Tyler Doherty, an 8-year-old boy who has what might be terminal cancer. He copes with his illness by writing a diary-like series of letters addressed to God. The letters reveal that he is as concerned for his angst-ridden mother and friends as he is for himself. The letters are placed in the Dead Letters section of the town’s post office, eventually landing in the hands of the unbelieving Brady, a mailman with deep troubles, including a bitter divorce and alcohol addiction.
What happens to all concerned will evoke many a chuckle and tear — and, the filmmakers hope, some thought on viewers' part about their own relation to God.
'Christian Coen brothers'
Letters to God is but the latest of a long line of entries into the "Christian film" market. Director/producer Nixon gave credit for the burgeoning market to the huge success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004. Against all expectations, Gibson’s film took in more than $370 million worldwide.
Wanting to cash in on the bonanza, studios like 20th Century Fox, Samuel Goldwyn Films and Sony set up "faith" subdivisions.
More than a year before Hollywood got " faith," and far from its mansion-laden hills, Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., had called two brothers as associate ministers. Alex and Stephan Kendrick were also very interested in filmmaking.
The later church raised $20,000 to produce an HD film called Flywheel, a story about the redemption of a dishonest car salesman. The tiny-budgeted film was well received by the congregation and drew large crowds at the local cinema.
Encouraged by this local success, church members raised $100,000, and with the brothers writing and directing their own script and congregational volunteers behind and in front of the camera, the football-themed Facing the Giants was produced and released.
To up the quality, they brought in experienced filmmaker Nixon as producer. This was the moment when Hollywood studios were most interested in faith-based films, so Giants was picked up and distributed more widely than most independent films. The film earned more than $10 million at theaters and also did very well on DVD.
Two years later the Kendrick brothers, now regarded by some as the "Christian Coen brothers," exceeded this with their film about a troubled Albany fire chief and his wife considering a divorce: Fireproof drew in over $33 million. Considering that Fireproof cost just $500,000 to make, that’s a very good return indeed.
Nixon has moved on to set up the new company Possibility Pictures, which in partnership with Mercy Creek Entertainment has produced Letters to God. His company is planning to produce several more films during the next few years.
Sherwood Pictures, the Albany, Ga-based company set up by the Kendricks' church, has announced that it will also release a new film next year: Courageous, the story of four lawmen dealing with tragedy and crisis.
A variety of approaches
Christians working in Hollywood have long been concerned with producing films that inspire, but the studio heads, wanting to draw the largest possible audiences, have usually placed constraints on any attempt to make the faith of a character too explicit.
The most famous case of such a constraint was in 1998, when novelist John Irving broke with the studio filming the movie version of his novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. The story was very Christological, the hero of which was stunted by a birth defect and might have had an immaculate conception.
The Christian faith of the book was so watered down that Irving would not allow the studio to use his novel’s title or its characters' names, so the film was released as Simon Birch.
Some studio-based filmmakers have been able to make explicitly Christian-themed films, such as Robert Benton, whose Places in the Heart concludes with a puzzling (to non-believers) but grace-filled Communion service.
Robert Duvall, who starred in the faith-infused Tender Mercies, was able to produce, write, direct and star in The Apostle, his film about a wayward Pentecostal preacher, but he had to raise his own money, no studio being interested in such a story.
But wealthy Christian conservative Philip Anschutz was very interested in films that inspire, so he stepped forward to found Walden Media.
Best known as the producers of The Narnia books of C.S. Lewis, the studio also has given us such films as Charlotte’s Web, How to Eat Fried Worms, Holes, Bridge to Terabithia and Amazing Grace. The last film is very much a Christian film, chronicling how hymn writer John Newton influenced William Wilberforce to stay in Parliament and fight the slave trade in 18th-century England.
Interest in reaching a mass audience with an explicit Christian witness is not new. In 1951, a rising young evangelist named Billy Graham teamed up with Dick Ross, who had made a documentary about his Portland Oregon Crusade.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Film Ministry, later to be called World Wide Pictures, produced a series of dramatic films, most of which followed the same formula: after being driven to their knees by trouble, the protagonist attends a Billy Graham rally, sees the Light and repents. These films, highly dependent on getting local churches to gather in the audience, often included an alter call right in the theater.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s Roman Catholics were active in Hollywood through the work of Father Elwood "Bud" Kieser, who founded Paulist Productions, named after his order of priests.
Kieser produced a series of half-hour films called "Insight Films" shown on TV for 23 years, several of which won Emmy Awards. He was able to get famous actors to work at low-scale wages. These included Carol Burnett, Ed Asner, Walter Matthau, Martin Sheen, Flip Wilson and Bob Newhart.
Kieser produced two successful theatrical films based on Catholic social activists — Romero, starring Raul Julia, and Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, starring Moira Kelly.
During this period, evangelical filmmakers were confined mainly to producing films about the apocalypse and "come to Jesus," distributed by "Christian" film companies, and shown by Pentecostal and conservative churches in 16mm format in their halls and sanctuaries.
Later, some of these, such as The Omega Code and Left Behind, both dealing with "the last days," were released in theaters. They achieved moderate success, though nothing like the Sherwood Baptist-produced films. Their hackneyed scripts and inferior special effects appealed only to the faithful, making them poor tools for reaching the uncommitted. The newer films are much better in this respect, with characters facing everyday problems, rather than end-of-the-world crises.
Christian involvement in filmmaking has taken many forms during the past 60 years, and no doubt will continue to evolve. (We should also mention at least the films of Tyler Perry, who seems to have the African American church market all to himself. In his widely shown theatrical series in which he dons a dress and wig to play the in-your-face matron Madea, he manages to mix comedy, drama, a bit of sex, naughty language and a large dose of Christian faith that attracts large audiences. Even without his beloved Madea in it, his latest Why Did I Get Married Too? grossed more than $21,350,000 on 20,011 screens during its opening week .)
Although some conservative Christians have denounced the film industry as opposed to decency and God, others have stepped forward to fill what they see as a void in mass entertainment. God and Jesus Christ are boldly affirmed in such films, even at the risk of turning off some audiences. Perhaps those turned away will be touched by other films in which the Christian message is more subtly presented.
Whatever the case, believers of all stripes can be glad that God and Christ are by no means confined to church sanctuaries, but often are an important part of the unfolding stories at our movie theaters.
Edward McNulty, a Presbyterian minister living near Cincinnati, reviews films for Presbyterians Today and visualparables.net. He has three film books published by WJK and numerous lesson plans available from Thoughtful Christian.