How Christians Are Building Their Own Hollywood

Nicolas Cage, panicked and bug-eyed, is once again fighting to avert disaster on the big screen, this time as airline pilot Rayford Steele. Fire spews out of a gash in
10 Oct 2014 08:24
How Christians Are Building Their Own Hollywood

Nicolas Cage, panicked and bug-eyed, is once again fighting to avert disaster on the big screen, this time as airline pilot Rayford Steele. Fire spews out of a gash in the plane’s wing; a chisel-jawed young man attempts to subdue an unruly mob of passengers as a blonde flight attendant is tossed about in her seat. On the ground, cars crash, explosions rock the sky and civilisation is engulfed in a wave of panic and anarchy.

“Looks like the end of the world,” a man remarks.

What it looks like is typical Hollywood apocalypse porn in the vein of “Deep Impact,” “The Day After Tomorrow” or “2012.” In this case, however, the end-times event isn’t a giant asteroid, catastrophic climate change or a Mayan prophecy come true, but the Rapture, with non-believers abandoned to fend for themselves after Christ’s true followers are beamed up to heaven.

Based on the series of books by the same name, which were written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins and have sold over 65 million copies since 1995, “Left Behind” delivers all the titillation and destruction we’ve come to expect from a Hollywood blockbuster.

Yet, despite its A-list razzle dazzle, “Left Behind” was produced outside of Hollywood’s traditional orbit.

The man primarily responsible for bringing it to the big screen is Paul Lalonde, a Canadian filmmaker who co-produced and co-wrote it. His Ontario-based production company, Stoney Lake Entertainment, is part of an emerging nexus of movie studios that are devoted to creating Christian films.

Movie-making may be synonymous with Los Angeles, but the Christian film industry is scattered across North America.

There’s Pure Flix Entertainment in Scottsdale, Arizona, Kendrick Brothers Productions in Albany, Georgia, and Five & Two Pictures in Nashville, Tennessee. Culture warriors no less prominent than Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum are trying their hands at film production as well. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and GOP presidential candidate, became the CEO of EchoLight Studios, in Franklin, Tennessee, in 2013. Earlier this year, Beck announced that he had started renovating a 72,000-square-foot studio in Irving, Texas, which he plans to use for film production.

“I’m much more into culture than I am into politics,” the former Fox News host said at the time, “and that’s where I intend on making my stand.”

For decades, Christian films were defined as much by their shoddy, low-budget production values as by their religious themes and agendas. “Christian movies have historically meant very bad movies,” Lalonde said in an interview, “and I can say that as a guy who made some of them.”

Left Behind,” by contrast, was produced and marketed to the tune of $31 million.

“It premieres on Friday on 1750 movie screens around the country. Lalonde hopes it will reach not just a churchgoing audience, but a secular one as well.

“You were just preaching to the choir, which was great, because the choir loved them and we were having fun doing them,” Lalonde said of earlier Christian films, “but they never really broke beyond the Christian audience, and that was something I always wanted to do.”

The premiere of “Left Behind” is poised to be a watershed moment for the Christian film industry. Not since Mel Gibson’s 2004 hit, “The Passion of the Christ,” has there been an independent Christian film with a budget comparable to those of Hollywood studio productions. And unlike “Passion,” “Left Behind” has a marquee star attached.

While show business is fickle, and the success of “Left Behind” is far from guaranteed, it certainly won’t be the last religious movie aiming to score big.

Christian filmmakers now have the skills, tools and infrastructure necessary to produce more sophisticated films, and they hope to reach beyond their core fans to a larger, less devout audience. After years in the wilderness, they are finally a force to be reckoned with.

Jesus is ready for His closeup.

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