'Fireproof' makers prepare for next film
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Director Alex Kendrick and his movie team at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., believe they know what the plot of their next movie is going to be, but they're keeping it to themselves for the moment.
After all, Kendrick says, God may change their mind.
The target budget for that yet-unnamed film is $2.5 million, a price tag that may not get you far in Hollywood but could do wonders for a movie made by Kendrick, his brother Stephen and everyone else associated with Sherwood Pictures. Keep in mind that their 2006 hit "Facing the Giants" had a price tag of $100,000 but made $10.1 million at the box office, while the 2008 sensation "Fireproof" cost $500,000 to make but grossed $33.4 million. And those figures don't even include DVD sales.
Some in the movie industry are still trying to figure out how they did it.
"Our next movie will be a bigger budget [and,] God-willing, better quality," Alex Kendrick told an audience Feb. 9 during a session at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville. "We're taking what we learned from the three previous movies and applying it to the next one. ... We think we know [the plot of the next movie], but we're still in a season of prayer. And we're not going to proceed until we know."
Kendrick's approach to movie-making is incredibly refreshing. He prays for a plot. Once he has a plot, he writes the end of the movie first, envisioning how a moviegoer will be impacted when walking out of the theater. The story, he says, "is everything." Then, during casting, he and the team ask prospective actors and actresses tough spiritual questions, knowing full well that everyone seen on screen will become a semi-celebrity and recognized in public -- and that their every move will be scrutinized. The goal is not simply to cast Christians, but mature Christians.
Kendrick realizes that, historically, Christian movies haven't received good reviews. But he believes the industry -- with high-definition cameras and advanced editing software readily available -- is improving. He likens the current state of Christian films to the then-budding Christian contemporary music industry of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the quality of the music was lower than the quality of mainstream music.
"I feel like that's where we are with that medium.... We're taking baby steps," says Kendrick, who believes God is raising up another generation of Christian filmmakers to impact the world.
The Christian film industry, he says, is "in the early stages of what is becoming a more experienced film outreach."
Even Fireproof -- which some Christians consider one of the most inspiring films they've ever watched and which won the Epiphany Prize as the most inspiring film of 2008 -- didn't fully live up to his expectations. It was 80 percent of what he wanted it to be, Kendrick says.
"We are not content to stay where we are with the quality and acting and things like that," he says. "We are striving to get better and better and better."
Kendrick, though, says he would rather see his films succeed spiritually than artistically. If that's the case, he and his team have been hitting them out of the park.
To date, countless marriage have been impacted by Fireproof, the film that spotlights a firefighter whose marriage is headed for divorce. It set a first-week record for DVD sales in Christian bookstores, and its companion book, "The Love Dare" (B&H Publishing), was a New York Times bestseller for paperback advice and has nearly 2 million copies in print.
Kendrick has heard hundreds of testimonies about marriages impacted by Fireproof, but two stand out.
There was the husband who took his mistress to Fireproof, thinking it was a run-of-the-mill action movie. About halfway through it, they realized it was a Christian film and they grew -- it's safe to say –- incredibly uncomfortable. The man went home and confessed the adulterous relationship to his wife. She grieved, yes, but forgave him and they have since received counseling and renewed their vows.
Then there was the story of the divorced couple living several states apart who were urged by friends to watch Fireproof. Their paths crossed, they watched it, and now they're re-married.
In film circles, Sherwood Baptist is known as the "church that makes movies." Kendrick likes to compare the church to the Old Testament character of Gideon. Movies that use amateur actors and actresses aren't supposed to open in the top 5 nationally, as Fireproof did.
"Gideon should not have been able to have the success that he had -- were it not for God's hand," he says.
Kendrick has seen God's hand at work on Sherwood's films from the beginning, with doors opening time after time.
They set out in 2002 to make their first film, "Flywheel," on a $20,000 budget and with the goal of showing it in a local theater. Why $20,000? That was approximately the price of a new movie camera, the Canon XL-1S. They bought the lights for the set at Home Depot.
By Kendrick's own admission, they did everything wrong. They did not hold auditions. They did not have organized shooting days.
"It was chaos," he says.
Even his wife didn't like the first clip he brought home and showed her. "She looked at me and she said, 'This is no good.' And I agreed with her."
Things got worse several days before Flywheel was scheduled to open in a local theater when a friend of Kendrick's walked into the room and tripped over a computer wire, sending the hard drive -- and all of the movie's edits -- to the floor. They overnighted the broken drive to a recovery company, but it was unsalvageable. Kendrick did still have the raw footage, but countless work hours had gone down the drain. Not wanting to delay the film's opening -- local media, after all, had advertised it -- Kendrick and his crew worked around the clock and finished re-editing the movie at 6:30 a.m. the day of the opening. Their first viewing of the edited version of Flywheel came in the theater, on opening day, with everyone else.
The only thing they did right on that first film, he says, was pray. And God blessed the effort. People who had come to the theater that night wanting to see how bad a church film could be instead left impacted and even crying. Flywheel played on several other local theaters and ended up grossing $37,000, and even was distributed nationwide on DVD through Blockbuster.
"It just blew us away," Kendrick says.
Facing the Giants -- based on real-life events that happened in and around Albany -- was the church's big breakthrough, but it took another act of God to get it going. Kendrick finished the movie in the spring of 2005 with the hopes of seeing it play in perhaps 40 theaters across Georgia. That, though, didn't happen -- at least not immediately. The local theater was again interested, yes, but Kendrick had bigger dreams. No doors were opening, though.
Months later, on one providential day and with Facing the Giants still not in theaters, Stephen Kendrick told his brother that they had failed to get permission to use a song in the movie by the group Third Day. They agreed to make a request for usage of the song to its owner, Provident Music, not knowing that Provident was owned by Sony, a major movie distributor. They sent the DVD to Provident -- simply wanting permission for a song -- and instead found a movie partner. Officials with Provident and Sony liked Facing the Giants so much they decided to screen it for pastors and Christian leaders for a year and open it nationally on 400 theaters in fall 2006.
Two years later, Fireproof opened in 800 theaters and shocked the movie industry by finishing No. 4 in total gross and No. 2 in per-theater gross its first weekend.
Sherwood's story is itself a Hollywood tale.
"I've just watched God do stuff that I can't explain," Alex Kendrick says.
One such time came during the shooting of Fireproof, when the crew was working to get a wrecked car on and off railroad tracks for the movie's train scene. With frustration mounting and daylight burning, someone suggested that a forklift would work best. But they were filming in Shellman, Ga. -- population 1,100 --– and nearly an hour away from a store where they could rent one. So they prayed. Soon, a man who lived in the house closest to the railroad tracks and who had been listening to their conversation from his porch made his way slowly over to the crew. He told them he had a forklift on his property, and he volunteered to operate it for them.
"What are the odds?" Kendrick says, still amazed. "We had a better chance of getting struck by lightning twice than a man who lives closest to the tracks in a itty-bitty tiny town having his own forklift.... [But] that's the God we serve."
From that point forward, when faced with a dilemma, Kendrick and others would say, "God knows where the forklift is."
When Sherwood Pictures releases its next movie, there will be detractors. Kendrick knows that. He just hopes that the movie impacts people's lives. The films have had so much success that Kendrick now devotes nearly all his time at the church to them.
"We're not trying to ride the fence and please the Christian market and the Hollywood market," he says. "... We are trying to equip the bride of Christ for Christ's return.
"... We've been criticized for, 'Oh, it's not artistic enough,' or 'It's not artistically impressive.' I can live with that," he says. "Now, we want to get better at that. But I want to know what's going on with people spiritually when they watch the movie."
Michael Foust is an assistant editor with Baptist Press.