By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
ALBANY, Ga. -- Of the people who praise Jesus every Sunday at Sherwood Baptist Church here, none is what you would call a Hollywood type.
Folks have real jobs. "God bless," they say when parting. Outside of church productions, no one in the congregation had acting or writing or directing credits.
Yet three summers ago, a small group of churchgoers in this city of pecan groves and industrial plants believed that God wanted them to make a movie. They prayed every day to create a drama truer to the Gospels than the usual multiplex trash.
Now, "Facing the Giants," the low-budget feature film about faith and high school football they made with church donations and Bible-inspired moxie, is playing at more than 400 theaters around the country -- a gigantic release for any independent movie, let alone one created by near-novices.
The movie has made $2.7 million in 10 days, and ticket sales were good enough last weekend to place it 13th in the box office rankings, one notch below "Flyboys," a war movie with a $60 million budget and starring James Franco.
The "Giants" box office tally doesn't even include some of the nation's largest metropolitan markets, which distributors skipped over in recognition of the cultural divide in this country. For now, the movie is not playing anywhere near Washington (unless you consider Richmond nearby). According to Julie Fairchild, a spokeswoman for Provident Films, "There's a sort of imaginary line where Christian films don't play." Where it is showing, she says, is the "flyover country that Hollywood has been ignoring."
A world removed from the realm of most indie filmmakers, the cast and crew were for the most part completely lacking in experience, and in Hollywood terms, this makes for an appealing back story.
The female lead is a homemaker with no acting credits aside from being "part of the crowd" in a church production; the male lead is a balding associate pastor with a passing resemblance to Dan Aykroyd. One of the screenwriters sums up his artistic experience this way: "I wrote a poem in fifth grade."
"Every one of us felt overwhelmed in every role," says Stephen Kendrick, the co-writer.
Homespun innovation was their hallmark. Working within a $100,000 budget, the filmmakers could afford only one camera. For long tracking shots, they built their own track and dolly from PVC pipe and skateboard wheels. For crowd shots, they called for volunteers on a local Christian radio station. When they needed wind, they brought out a leaf blower.
A cadre of home-schooled kids, stay-at-home moms and senior citizens helped out behind the scenes, running errands, toting equipment, making lunch.
"This guy and this guy and this guy told us, 'You can't do it -- the movie business just doesn't work this way," recalls Alex Kendrick, an associate pastor at the church who wrote the movie with his brother and starred in it. "But we asked God to bless it and look with favor on it, and He did."
But however much they attribute its success so far to divine intervention, the church leaders also made some critical practical decisions and strategic alliances.
To get "Giants" done, the Kendrick brothers called in five film professionals to manage lighting, sound, assistant direction and other technical matters. Those five ran a "boot camp" for volunteers from the church and then offered their services at cut rates.
"They just didn't know what they couldn't do, or weren't supposed to be able to do," says Bob Scott, director of photography for the movie, who has also worked on "Friday Night Lights" and "Gridiron Gang."
Once the film was done, some distributors said they were uncomfortable with so many references to Jesus. One company wanted to take the film straight to DVD.
But the church wanted a theatrical release and, eventually, Provident Films, which is owned by Sony, bought in, as did Samuel Goldwyn Films, which handled the distribution.
"Facing the Giants" is in many ways a theological fantasy: God answers prayers.
The film's protagonist is a high school football coach who has never had a winning season, whose car won't start and who can't get his wife pregnant.
But then he alters the team philosophy to the biblical -- with Him all things are possible -- and the divine intervention begins.
University of Georgia football coach Mark Richt makes a cameo before the championship game to advise: "You won the big one when you accepted Christ."
Many critics have been savage, condemning the movie for proselytizing and a flimsy plot. (At one point, the wind changes direction to enable a field goal, an almost literal deus ex machina .) A review in the industry trade paper Variety scolded, "by preaching to the converted so heavy-handedly, the filmmakers fumble an opportunity to reach beyond their target demo of devout churchgoers."
Yet it may be that preaching is exactly what will make it successful. The industry considers the huge success of "The Passion of the Christ" a sign of the untapped Christian market. Last month Fox created FoxFaith, which will release as many as a dozen religious films annually. "Love's Abiding Joy," based on the novel about a frontier family by the Christian writer Janette Oke, is showing in four theaters in the D.C. area.
But for the appreciative and tearful crowds filing out of a theater here last week, none of that mattered. What they repeated over and over is that the script seemed so faithful to their view of the world.
"It was so real," said Linda Kile, 59, a school bookkeeper. "If you believe in the Bible, it's just so real."
"What I liked is that it didn't seem made up," said Adam Rodriguez, 28, a sales specialist at Sherwin Williams.
"Hollywood movies are fake," said Melissa Goodwin, 42, a sales rep. "Just a lot of cussing. That was a real movie about real life."
Alex and Stephen Kendrick say they recognize that God does not always answer prayers, as happens in the film.
But they defend the plot as representative of real events they have seen around southern Georgia -- a coach did receive a car as a gift, three infertile couples had babies after concerted prayer and a team that started off with a losing season wound up at the state championships.
The filmmakers are almost scornful of those who would see such events as merely coincidental.
After the couples got pregnant, "it was very interesting to see how their doctors tried to explain that away. We thought it was hilarious," Alex said.
Likewise, one day during filming, they prayed to ward off an approaching storm. It worked, they said: The storm held off long enough for them to finish filming.
"How else do you explain that?" Alex asked. "We were not just pulling things out of thin air. If you look at the movie and ask, 'Have you ever seen God do this or this or this?' The answer is yes."
Nearly the entire cast and crew for the movie came from Sherwood Baptist Church, a suburban congregation of nearly 3,000 that senior pastor Michael Catt describes as a "contemporary church with traditional values."
For Sunday services, people sit in movie seats, not pews, and two large video screens flank the speaker. The church operates a 24/7 prayer ministry, where people pray around the clock for submitted requests, and hundreds volunteered to help in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina struck. They decry the tolerance in contemporary culture for homosexuality, abortion, drugs and pornography.
The movie, they believed, would be a modern parallel of Jesus's parables, an opportunity to produce something that Kendrick said "wouldn't trample our faith and traditional values." The church may receive a small percentage of the profits, officials say, but only after the film companies have recovered their investment.
"It is a success in that it is doing any kind of business at all," said Brandon Gray, the president and publisher of Box Office Mojo, a box office tracking service. He noted that it is rare for an independently made, non-studio movie to open at more than 100 theaters -- while "Giants" opened on 441 screens.
Yet the movie's financial outlook, like its standing with critics, seems to many involved to be beside the point.
"We didn't make this movie to make money," Alex Kendrick said. "We want people to walk out of the theater and desire a closer walk with God."