Cinema Paradiso

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“We’re on a mission from God,” proclaims Elwood Blues in John Landis’s 1980 cult musical comedy The Blues Brothers. In the film, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd play brothers Jake and Elwood Blues who, on their path to redemption, wreak holy havoc throughout Chicago in order to save the Catholic orphanage where they were raised. In 1980, “faith-based” hadn’t been coined as a movie marketing term. Even if it had, would The Blues Brothers creators have cared what pious patrons thought of their film? Probably not.

But they do now. Ever since 2004, when Mel Gibson dropped a $600 million worldwide box office gorilla on Hollywood called The Passion of the Christ, entertainment companies have been awake to the profit potential of the faith-based market. And while The Blues Brothers may stretch even the most liberal description of a religious message movie, nearly 10 years after the release of The Passion of the Christ Hollywood is still looking for ways to lure the region’s faithful to the theater.

Like Jake and Elwood, Joe Boyd is on a mission. “Our mission,” he says, “is to tell stories that spark hope.” Boyd is president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, a Las Vegas- and Cincinnati-based independent film production company that has completed four features in the last eight years. Their latest, A Strange Brand of Happy, opened in 40-plus theaters across the country on September 13—a significant achievement for a movie that cost less than $500,000 to make. It’s a romantic comedy about the recently unemployed David—played by Boyd himself, a 40-year-old with an engaging acting style that owes a lot to Jimmy Stewart—who falls for the young woman hired to be his life coach. The movie was shot entirely in Cincinnati using a crew drawn largely from the region and a cast that includes the Grammy Award–winning Christian singer Rebecca St. James, Academy Award winner Shirley Jones (and her husband, comedian Marty Ingels), and two-time National Poetry Slam champion and author Anis Mojgani. While the film has a rom-com exterior, there’s a deliberate spiritual message driving the tale of a man struggling to find himself.

And yet Boyd and his creative partner, Brad Wise, do not want to be labeled as Christian filmmakers. “We purposely didn’t set out to make a Christian movie,” says Boyd. True, A Strange Brand of Happy doesn’t have a heavy evangelical vibe, but there’s no mistaking that it’s a story about a specific kind of redemption. “There’s faith stuff in it, there’s God stuff in it,” he says, “but we didn’t have to say, ‘This is a faith-based Christian movie’ to find an audience.”

Even so, their spiritual cred could be the very thing that opens doors in a Hollywood increasingly interested in getting people of faith into theaters.

Unlike the Blues Brothers, Hollywood is on a mission from the God of Box Office Receipts. And if Boyd and Rebel Pilgrim Productions are successful, that deity won’t be disappointed either.

 

Joe Boyd was raised just north of Columbus in Worthington and came south to study at Cincinnati Christian University. After graduating in 1995, he moved to Las Vegas to work for Canyon Ridge Christian Church—a megachurch in the northwest suburbs of the city. In additional to his pastoral duties, he was cast in a Vegas production of Tony & Tina’s Wedding and caught the improv bug. He got an agent, moved to Los Angeles, and landed roles that included supporting stints on General Hospital, all of which sparked a desire to produce. In 2005 Boyd partnered with Jim Nyberg, an accountant and Miami University grad, to form Rebel Pilgrim in Las Vegas. Boyd eventually made his way back to Cincinnati where he joined the staff of the 6,000-member Vineyard Church in Springdale as a teaching pastor. That’s where he met Brad Wise, a Tiffin, Ohio, native, who was working as the church’s creative director. Rebel Pilgrim opened its Cincinnati office in 2012. The Vineyard didn’t provide any cash funding for the current project—the production budget was raised through about 15 individual investors—but in-kind donations, like equipment loans and an extended personal leave for Boyd, Wise, and their unit production manager, Isaac Stambaugh (all church employees at the time), were significant enough to earn it 15 percent of the profits.

Wise wrote the script for Happy and directed; Boyd produced and starred; and it was shot on a bare bones budget (by Hollywood standards). Volunteers even provided food for the crew. And like countless indie filmmakers before, the production benefitted from a mixture of luck and dogged determinism. Luck: Marty Ingels, always on the lookout for comedic roles in his age range, sent in an audition tape; he and Jones wanted to work together, so both signed on. Determinism: Wise admits to stalking Mojgani on the internet until he agreed to appear in the film. Oh, and there is no advertising budget, so they’re engaging in a word-of-mouth campaign. As if all that weren’t enough, Wise’s top floor office in the Gwynne Building leaks when it rains.

The gamble they’re taking can be summed up in one question: Will their hybrid brand of spiritual/indie comedy resonate with religiously-inclined as well as mainstream viewers? Only the Magic 8 Ball knows for sure, but one thing is certain: their timing couldn’t be better.

Despite an R rating and a lack of A-list on-screen talent, The Passion of the Christ proved that faith audiences would come out in droves for the right movie. The indie film Napoleon Dynamite, picked up by Fox Searchlight Pictures at the Sundance Film Festival and released in 2004, became its own cultural sensation for the way it captured the awkwardness of adolescence without the crassness that traditionally typifies the teen genre. Directed by Jared Hess and starring Jon Heder, both of whom credit their Mormon beliefs for the film’s tone, Napoleon Dynamite proved to be quirky enough for mainstream audiences and clean enough for faith folk. With Napoleon Dynamite, the independent film world seemed to get its own wake-up call. In 2006, the Tribeca Film Festival presented a panel called “What Would Jesus…Direct?” And then came Fireproof.

With a budget of half a million dollars, Fireproof told the story of a firefighter whose marriage is going down in flames. It starred former teen idol (and evangelical Christian) Kirk Cameron, who, like the rest of the cast and crew, reportedly worked for free. Its director, Alex Kendrick, is a pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, which also financed the film. Made specifically for the evangelical market, Fireproof was a phenomenon: the highest-grossing independently produced movie of 2008, topping both Slumdog Millionaire and Milk, and making over $33 million in total box office. 

While A Strange Brand of Happy doesn’t wear its Christian message on its sleeve, it is not hard to notice. So how do you sell it to mainstream audiences? “It’s been harder than I thought it would be,” says Wise. “People who have reviewed the film look at the poster and description and think, Quirky romantic comedy. Faith-friendly. How can those things live together? No one else is doing that. We have this fine line to show people it’s not what they think it’s going to be, but not go so far that we turn off the core.” 

To reach the faithful, Rebel Pilgrim is smartly hewing to a grassroots marketing campaign. They’re screening the film for core audience influencers, and Boyd spent the summer speaking at churches around the country, asking for support in the form of advance ticket reservations. To that end, Rebel Pilgrim has teamed with Seatzy, an online crowd-sourcing tool similar to Kickstarter and a funding resource used by many independent filmmakers. Seatzy helps faith-friendly titles make it to theaters by allowing people to reserve tickets for movies they want to see far in advance and not get charged until the theaters are filled. “As soon as 500 seats are reserved, the movie can open for a week,” Boyd explains. Thanks to Seatzy, Happy’s initial theatrical release of 30 theaters increased to more than 40.

When he’s speaking to church groups, Boyd explains that this isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Christian flick like Fireproof. “It’s a movie anybody can go see, so invite your friends who might not go to church,” he says. “If you want to have a spiritual conversation, it might happen, it might not.” He likens the effort to a church festival. “They’re for everyone. Drink a beer with a priest, play bingo. Those festivals need the parishioners to help pull it off and we need the church people to help us.”

 

They’re not the only ones reaching into pews. In the years since The Passion of the Christ, entertainment companies in Hollywood and beyond have focused on acquiring, creating, and marketing to this historically ignored audience segment. Sony Pictures bought Provident Films (the acquisition company behind Fireproof and the pro-life drama October Baby) and has added Affirm, a faith-based distribution arm. And in 2011, Sony’s mainstream theatrical release company, Columbia TriStar, had success with surfer Bethany Hamilton’s religion-heavy biopic Soul Surfer.

There are marketing firms that specialize in connecting with the faith-based audience as well. Grace Hill Media, for example, was enlisted by Warner Bros. to draw faith audiences to its gore-free, nudity-free, profanity-light summer horror hit The Conjuring. This summer, Variety sponsored its second annual Purpose summit, a day of panels and speakers dedicated to growing the faith and family markets. The keynote speaker: Survivor series producer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey. In June, former Pennsylvania senator and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was named CEO of EchoLight Studios, a faith-based financing, production, marketing, and distribution company located in Dallas (the company’s first theatrical release, The Redemption of Henry Myers, arrives in theaters this fall). And in July, Darren Aronofsky screened a trailer for Noah, his forthcoming biblical epic starring Russell Crowe, at Echo Hub, a conference for designers, media makers, writers, and other creative types who work for churches and ministries. Lest you think that this Old Testament bio-pic is just a bid for boffo box office, the man who brought us such intensely dark cinematic acid trips as Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream told Echo Hub’s assembled faithful that Noah has long been a “patron saint” in his life. Who knew?

 

There was a time when the blending of Hollywood and homily might have been viewed as an unlikely, if not outright unholy, alliance. But anyone who’s been to the Christmas show at Crossroads Church in Oakley knows that many of today’s megachurches mount productions that rival some Broadway shows. And their multimedia-enhanced ministries have become proving grounds for young talents like Rebel Pilgrim’s Brad Wise.

Wise was a graphic design student at DAAP in the late 1990s and early 2000s  when he took a creative writing course. “I realized what I’m good at is being a visual storyteller,” he says. When he joined The Vineyard as creative director, “it kind of combined all my stuff. I could do graphic design, video, and lead teams.” But it didn’t prepare him for directing a Hollywood veteran and Oscar winner like Shirley Jones. It was only his second film, and he was giving orders to The Partridge Family’s mom. “I was super nervous and intimidated,” says Wise. “I grew up watching her.”

Boyd has been schooled in both preaching and performing—skills he needs as he evangelizes for his film. He expects that Happy will earn its money back primarily through DVD sales and rentals, not from the box office. But being in theaters, even less than 50—a pretty small run by industry standards—gives the movie a certain stature. “A theatrical release means Walmart will order more, Redbox will order more, and Netflix gives us a higher rating,” Boyd says. And all that could combine to give Rebel Pilgrim more clout when putting together future projects. So, just like in the rest of Hollywood, it comes down to selling tickets. “I don’t always want to be seen as the guy who’s asking for something, but this is a cool thing, the world needs this,” says Boyd. “And if you reserve a ticket for 10 bucks we can play in Omaha.”

Aside from counting box office receipts, studios love to pigeonhole and movie ideas can raise or dash enthusiasm by their one sentence pitches. It’s Little Miss Sunshine meets Driving Miss Daisy! It’s Top Gun meets Priscilla Queen of the Desert! It’s Juno meets The Blair Witch Project! Or as Rebel Pilgrim describes A Strange Brand of Happy, it’s Office Space meets Napoleon Dynamite. Time will tell if viewers—believers and nonbelievers alike—are attracted to that depiction, but Rebel Pilgrim’s mission to bring hopeful, inspiring stories to the screen marches on. They’ve just wrapped Hope Bridge, a drama about suicide prevention with Kevin Sorbo of TV’s Hercules and Booboo Stewart of The Twilight Saga. Now they’re working on financing for the three or four scripts they hope to make over the next two years.

Despite a roster of faith-friendly projects, any worries Boyd and Wise have about being branded “Christian filmmakers” may be premature. It’s old Hollywood wisdom that you don’t get pigeonholed for the first feature you make, but for the first one that makes money. “I want to make all kinds of films,” says Wise. “When I see a preview for The Way Way Back or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I want to make that.”

“I want to make Avatar,” Boyd chimes in, laughing, “with a $600 million budget.”

Actually, Boyd says, if his only motivation was to make money, then he’d be wise to stick to movies like Fireproof—films custom-made for Christian viewers. “We really want to make movies that have mass appeal,” he says. “The problem with that is then you’re competing with X-Men. Once you step out of your safety net, it’s hard.”

Boyd took these concerns to one of his mentors, Ralph Winter, who just so happens to have produced X-Men, Fantastic Four, and some other big budget films. “His advice was, just show you can do it,” he says.

The real message? Whether you’re secular or religious, Hollywood works the same way. “Make a few movies that don’t lose money,” Boyd says, “and everyone will want to work with you.”

 

Originally published in the October 2013 issue.

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