Christian Cinema

by Mike McGranaghan - Gamut! Film Critic

The article you have just started reading really began back in October 1999. I was vacationing in Tennessee and decided to check out some of the local theaters. A film called The Omega Code had just opened and was playing at multiple cinemas. As a film critic, I pride myself on knowing all the new movies that come out. Somehow, I had never heard of this one, yet here it was playing at a dozen cinemas throughout the city. My surprise was even greater the following Monday when I checked out the box office numbers and found that The Omega Code had opened in the top ten.


Michael York and Casper Van Dien star in The Omega Code, which grossed a $12.6 million at the box office - a record for a Christian film
 
A quick internet search explained everything. The movie had been made by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a company devoted to Christian entertainment. All advertising had been done via Christian channels - in other words, there were no previews for The Omega Code attached to prints of Fight Club or shown during commercial breaks on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It had been pitched to a Christian audience, and that audience had responded. The film's performance rocked Hollywood: Christian cinema was making its move. And I, as a critic, was awed by The Omega Code's success.

The Backstory

It used to be that Christian movies were ultra-low budget affairs that played only in church basements. I grew up in a small Pennsylvania town; occasionally the local newspaper would run an ad when one of the churches brought a picture to our area. Many times, the movies seemed to be about people trapped in the wilderness. There was always some faded star (like "Grizzly Adams" Dan Haggerty) and the ad usually mentioned that the film contained "a very special message" from a well-known televangelist. From time to time, one of the local theaters would even show the movie on the big screen, albeit usually as early as 10:00 in the morning to avoid affecting the day's revenue from the main feature.

Films with Christian themes always seemed to be outside the mainstream. When Hollywood dared to tackle religion, it was usually through satire (Wholly Moses, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), horror (The Exorcist and a dozen other demonic possession movies), or Catholic bashing (Monsignor, Priest). There was a time when Biblical epics were popular, but that time has long since past. In recent years, a number of major motion pictures have tried tackling religious themes again: Stigmata, for all its flaws, did have an underlying respect for faith, and Kevin Smith's Dogma used scatological humor to suggest that God loves us despite our flaws. Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ speculated about the duality of Jesus. But these movies had the disadvantage of angering many people of faith over controversial material contained within the story.

Who can blame Christians for getting upset? For years, believers have been the subject of ridicule on screen. How many movies have you seen in which the religious character is portrayed as a narrow-minded judgmental creep? Or a closet pervert? If the Christian community has been upset over the state of Hollywood movies, maybe there is a reason why.

A Christian "New Wave"

A concerted effort is now underway to create films with a solid Christian message, but if you think these are just modern versions of those old church basement flicks, you're drastically mistaken. The makers of these movies are intent on raising the level of production values, getting big stars, and playing on as many screens as the latest Hollywood blockbuster. They want to reach secular audiences as well. The Omega Code made $12.6 million at the box office - more than certain titles with big studio hype behind them.


The logo of Cloud Ten Pictures, the leading force in the Christian filmmaking movement
 
Perhaps the leader in this new wave of Christian entertainment is Cloud Ten Pictures, an Ontario-based company run by brothers Peter and Paul Lalonde. Having chalked up some success in the Christian video market, Cloud Ten is now aiming its sights a little higher. Last February, they launched a grassroots theatrical release for Left Behind, an end-times thriller starring Kirk Cameron. Although it didn't match the box office gross of The Omega Code, the picture played on an impressive 874 screens, earning $2.2 million in its opening weekend. The video/DVD release was dubbed "the sleeper hit of the fourth quarter" by The Hollywood Reporter. In its first week of release, Left Behind was the best selling video in the country, beating out such heavyweights as The Green Mile and Toy Story 2.

With a performance like that, it's clear that Christian cinema is here to stay. The question is: will it remain popular in a niche market, or can it break out into the mainstream? Will there be a film that opens the door for Christian films, as Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It did for African-American themed films, or Rose Troche's Go Fish did for gay/lesbian themed films, or Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi did for Hispanic themed films? Just as importantly, what will it take for this to happen?

For answers, I turned to Andre van Heerden, the "in-house" director at Cloud Ten who helmed the $1 million-budgeted Apocalypse as well as the company's current entry, Judgment, an $11 million courtroom thriller starring Corbin Bernsen ("L.A. Law") and former "A-Team" hero Mr. T. van Heerden says that breaking out into the mainstream is "definitely a goal" for Cloud Ten. The company is "always looking to go a little bit higher" in terms of production values.

Better production values mean more realistic sets and films that look like the secular films mass audiences are used to. Revelation, the company's first film, was shot on video. Judgment, by comparison, was photographed by Academy Award-nominee George Tirl. The budgets have grown at Cloud Ten, and while money is important, van Heerden feels it will take a combination of elements for a Christian film to truly be accepted into the mainstream. In addition to bigger budgets, he cites the need for "a big name actor" to help attract audiences to these films. (His wish list of actors includes Cuba Gooding, Jack Black, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Rene Russo. Of course, should Harrison Ford ever wish to make a Christian-themed film, he would be warmly embraced as well.)

Cloud Ten has not been able to attract any superstars yet, although they have had some familiar faces. In addition to Cameron, Bernsen, and Mr. T, actors who have worked on Cloud Ten films include Gary Busey, Carol Alt, Howie Mandel, Margot Kidder, and Jeff Fahey. And while suburban multiplex patrons may not be eagerly lining up for the newest Gary Busey/Howie Mandel movie, the celebrity presence does help raise the films' profile by showing that Christian productions are a legitimate place for actors to practice their craft.


Corbin Bernsen and Jessica Steen star in Judgment, a film by Andre van Heerden
 
To my surprise, the actors who star in Cloud Ten productions are not necessarily Christians. van Heerden says the stars who are believers "may be more open" to dropping their salaries to appear in one of the films (as Busey did for Tribulation). But many of them sign on simply because they are enticed by the roles. Their beliefs - or lack thereof - can even work to the movie's advantage. Judgment stars Bernsen as a lawyer who slowly rediscovers his faith in Jesus Christ after being forced to take part in a "scripted" trial. The actor, according to van Heerden, is "not a Christian but admits that he is seeking something." Jessica Steen plays another attorney who is an open atheist. The actress is also not a Christian. The director says the fact that Steen's beliefs matched those of her character lent the movie truth because "she really believed the things her character was saying." Mr. T plays a renegade trying to bring faith in Jesus back into a world that has been taken over by Lucifer. The actor "is a Christian" and understood his character's motivations quite well.

Crucial Elements for Success

Stars and budgets undoubtedly help raise the level of respectability of Christian films. However, some feel it will take more than that for the movement to reach its full potential. Michael Elliott (a colleague of mine in the Online Film Critics Society) runs the Movie Parables website at www.christiancritic.com. He says companies like Cloud Ten would be well served to follow the example of the Christian music industry, where "the music that is being put out by many successful Christian artists has achieved a level of competence that is every part the equal of secular artists." He adds: "In my opinion, the Christian film industry has not yet reached that particular plateau. And so, further development of storytelling skills and improvement in the fundamentals of filmmaking is needed. One thing that I believe Christian filmmakers must do is to learn how to incorporate their Christian beliefs into the fabric of the story they desire to tell, rather than making the story entirely out of the whole cloth of their beliefs."

When asked to comment on Elliott's point, van Heerden replies, "I totally agree with him." Although the Christian market demands certain elements in its films, the director feels future movies need to be "character driven rather than just telling a sermon." He envisions Cloud Ten making something like American Beauty, but with a Christian element added. (It's not a stretch to imagine Lester Burnham asking God for forgiveness when he makes his realization at the story's end.) In other words, it will be essential to tell a good, accessible story that just happens to have Christian characters.

Both Van Heerden and Elliott point out that this is easily done. "The films that I've most enjoyed during the past two years were films which I thought demonstrated strong Christian principles," Elliott says. "October Sky, Finding Forrester, Men of Honor, Remember the Titans, The Winslow Boy, Spy Kids. These are films not marketed as being 'Christian' and yet they were filled with tremendous biblical principles." In our interview, van Heerden mentioned Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou as a mainstream movie that had Christian principles at its core. Under different circumstances, it could easily have been a Cloud Ten film; it is the kind of picture the director aspires to make at the company.

Up until now, many of the Christian films (including a few from Cloud Ten) have had end-times plots. Van Heerden says these end-of-the-world plots constitute "a very marketable genre" in both Christian and secular circles. (Major Hollywood studios have tackled the theme in End of Days, Lost Souls, and Stigmata among others.) "There are some incredible stories when you have the end of the world. You don't get higher stakes than that," the director observes. While he has a point, future releases will need to address the everyday types of matters that Christians deal with, rather than focusing on the Apocalypse.

Elliott expands on this idea: "Films by Christian filmmakers do not have to be about Armageddon or Satan's army trying to take over the world. They don't have to be Revelation-inspired end of world tales. And they don't have to be 'in your face' evangelistic, where the filmmaker feels obligated to design his every film so as to lead the audience to salvation. They can be simple stories (comedies, dramas, romances, farces, adventures, etc.) where Christian ethics and principles are merely a part of the characters' lives. The focus should be on the story. The impact will still be felt. And felt most strongly."

While both men agree it is necessary to move away from the "preachy" storylines that Christian films have had in the past, others feel it will take something more. One of those is critic Steve Rhodes, another fellow OFCS member who has reviewed Christian movies. He says: "I'd like to think that it is just quality of the production that would enable one of these Christian movies to break out, but I guess I'm too cynical/realistic to believe that. I think it will take good box office and a known studio that is willing to put their marketing dollars behind it in order to make it happen." Cloud Ten has established itself as the premier home of Christian filmed entertainment, but Rhodes suggests that a major studio may have to commit its money before a Christian film is released on the same level as, say, Planet of the Apes.


Director Andre van Heerden and Mr. T on the set of Judgment
 
The bottom line seems to be that, for a Christian film to break the glass ceiling, it will have to look and feel like a secular film without sacrificing its moral point of view. That is a big challenge, but Cloud Ten seems like the studio to accomplish it. The company realizes that, by positioning their movies in the mainstream, they can spread God's word to bigger audiences, including those who may not think they want to hear it. Some members of the crowd "may not even realize there was a Christian message there" - as van Heerden put it - but may be touched by the truth of the Lord anyway.

If this is true, Christian filmmaking could turn out to be revolutionary. Movies are meant to make people feel good. If the Christian message can cross over, audiences might walk out of theaters feeling good in a whole new way. Also, through the power of our most accessible art form, the gospel of Jesus Christ could be spread to those who have not yet found it.

Some in the motion picture industry have written off the success of Omega Code, Left Behind, and Judgment as a fluke - the proverbial case of preaching to the choir. I think this assessment is way off base. As part of my research for this article, I watched the films in the Cloud Ten library, as well as The Omega Code. What I see is artistic growth. I am particularly impressed with Judgment, an ambitious and thoughtful film that uses the always-intriguing courtroom drama genre to tell a story of faith regained. It is much more accessible to mainstream audiences than those church basement films of yesteryear. There's still a lot of room to grow (The Omega Code, despite its success, was incomprehensible to me) but today's Christian filmmakers are up to the challenge.

The Future

So what lies ahead? For Cloud Ten, it will be a continuing move into mainstream territory. Their release slate includes Deceived, a science fiction epic with a Christian message, as well as Waterproof, a film the company recently acquired starring Burt Reynolds and Orlando Jones (of this summer's Evolution). So far, they have taken their successes where they can - playing on a certain number of screens, a good box office take, etc. The next step, according to van Heerden, is to spend extra money on big stars and good scripts so that - on the surface at least - audiences won't see a major difference between Christian films and secular films. The difference, hopefully, will be noticed afterward.

Rhodes is all for the Christian film movement, but remains cautiously optimistic. "I definitely think that it is possible, even if unlikely to happen. There is a flourishing black cinema, i.e. films with almost all black actors, which get a large cross-over audience. On the other hand, Asian and Hispanic films have had much less success. Where Christian films end up depends on studios, quality, luck and a lot of other factors. The bottom line is that I'd love to see it happen, but I worry that it is unlikely."

Elliott, meanwhile, feels mainstream success is a real possibility if the new Christian filmmakers play their cards right. "I believe that Christian filmmakers who take this approach - one where the Christian message is not delivered with the bluntness of a baseball bat but rather is layered throughout the film - will receive the acceptance of the mainstream audience. And with acceptance comes influence. And with influence comes change."

All the points are good. Regardless of anything else, it is safe to conclude that Christian filmmaking is a force to be reckoned with. It is, perhaps, the most independent voice in today's cinema. As a Christian who also happens to be a film critic, I find this an exciting time. The great thing about film in the past 10-15 years is the diversity of voices that has emerged. When I go to the movies now, I can see stories about the African-American experience, the gay/lesbian lifestyle, the Asian or Hispanic culture. These are not movies that get made because someone wanted to make $100 million at the box office. Instead, they are told because the filmmakers had the passion to tell their stories. And that, too, will be an important element of the Christian New Wave - a passion to tell stories and to make the audience respond.

A number of talented people - including Andre van Heerden - are determined to make it happen. We are witnessing the birth of a major revolution in cinema.


Special thanks to Melisa Richter and Jessica Parker from Cloud Ten Pictures. Their assistance in this article was valuable beyond words.

Return to the Front Page