"Left Behind: World at War," the third movie based on the Left Behind series of novels about Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus, will open tonight on 3,200 screens across the country. But it will not be shown in a single commercial theater.
Although more than 70 million copies of the novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have been sold, the previous two movies flopped at the box office. So, this time, Sony Pictures Entertainment is leaving the multiplexes behind. "World at War" will break out exclusively in churches.
Marketing executives say the decision is part of a major trend. The entertainment industry has discovered there is power, power, product-moving power in selling movies, books and music through churches -- particularly the suburban megachurches that draw thousands of well-heeled worshipers.
Twenty-five years ago, there were fewer than 50 churches in the United States that attracted more than 2,000 people each week. Today, there are more than 1,200. Many boast professional-quality sound systems, large-screen projection systems and comfortable seats that rival those of any commercial theater. Most also have bookstores or gift shops.
"I can't tell you how many times people ask me for my listing of megachurches so that they can try to sell stuff to them," said Scott L. Thumma, a professor at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut who researches megachurches. He does not give out his mailing list.
In addition to about 150 megachurches across the country, hundreds of smaller congregations will show "World at War" this weekend. They include Reality Gospel Church in Alexandria, where the Rev. Richard Edgar expects to draw 300 viewers, twice his regular membership. Like most pastors across the nation, Edgar will not charge admission but will ask for an offering.
"We want to show Hollywood that there are enough people in the churches to support good, wholesome entertainment without all the blood and guts and sex and vile language," he said.
"World at War" will be shown at 115 churches in Virginia, 51 in Maryland and one -- Chevy Chase Baptist Church -- in the District, according to a list on the movie's Web site, www.leftbehind- worldatwar.com.
Last year, Mel Gibson successfully experimented with church-based marketing, selectively previewing "The Passion of the Christ" to religious audiences to build buzz in advance of its opening in commercial theaters. Walt Disney Pictures plans to use the same strategy in December when it releases "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on the first book in C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia."
The leading apostle of marketing through churches is the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, a much-emulated megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif. Since January 2003, he has sold 23 million copies of his book "The Purpose Driven Life" without any significant print, radio or television advertising, or even a conventional book tour.
He did it, he said, by creating "a whole new distribution channel," offering the book directly to ministers and congregations in bulk quantities, along with suggested sermons and study guides.
Although Warren calls his network of pastors "a stealth movement," his huge sales have registered on publishers' radar screens. "More than anything else, the success of Rick Warren's book has proved to a lot of marketing folks that tapping into churches is a profitable strategy," Thumma said.
Bill Anderson, president of the 2,200-member Christian Booksellers Association, said sales of Christian books, music, DVDs, apparel and gifts now exceed $4 billion a year. "More and more, churches have become gathering places that offer a panoply of services, and one of them is retail," he said.
Among evangelical Christians, the marketing rush often excites conflicting emotions: pride and excitement about the burgeoning Christian marketplace and how it might influence the wider culture, combined with anxiety about the commercialization of religion and how Hollywood might corrupt unwary churches.
"With 330,000 churches in America, it's potentially the largest distribution network in the country and probably in the world," said A. Larry Ross, president of a Dallas public relations and marketing firm with many evangelical Christian clients. "But most pastors are all about changing lives, so they're going to be resistant if it's a product that does not have an evangelistic message."
Peter and Paul Lalonde, the brothers who produced all three of the Left Behind movies, say their primary goal is to save souls, not to make money.
"I tell everyone, the most important 10 minutes of this movie is not on film. It's when the pastor gets up afterwards and shares the gospel with the people who are there and invites them to make a decision for Christ," said Peter Lalonde, an evangelical Christian whose own conversion occurred 22 years ago after seeing a Billy Graham film, "The Prodigal."
But while "I have my religious reasons" for releasing the film in churches, he added, "as a businessman, I also have reasons."
Starring Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr. as the president of the United States facing a World Government headed by the antichrist, "World at War" is the first film by the Lalonde brothers' independent production company, Cloud Ten Pictures, that has been fully underwritten by a major Hollywood studio. Peter Lalonde said Sony Pictures has spent less than $12 million to produce, promote and distribute the film, much less than for the average Hollywood release.
"In 2003, the average studio film cost $38 million to put in theaters. That's just for prints and advertising," Lalonde said. "The average [box office] take was $18 million, and the studio only gets half of that. So the average studio film in 2003 lost $29 million in theaters."
The reality of the movie business today, Lalonde said, is that "80 percent of studio profits come from DVD," and theater showings are a loss-leader that builds word-of-mouth to drive the all-important DVD and video sales.
"So how does the small guy compete?" Lalonde asked rhetorically. "While we're not making any money on the church release, we're not starting out $29 million in the hole either. Putting it in churches allows us to create a large national release and build interest in the DVD, which is where we'll make a profit, if we make a profit."
Thirty-two hundred churches, he noted, represents more locations, in more Zip codes, than all the major theater chains combined. By comparison, "The Fog," last week's No. 1 film at the box office, opened on 2,972 screens, while "Elizabethtown" opened on 2,517.
Lalonde said he hopes to follow on the success of "World at War" by distributing 10 movies a year through churches, reviving what was a common practice in the 1950s and 1960s, when many churches held a monthly movie night.
"When 'The Passion' came out, there was this great hope that Hollywood had discovered Christianity," he said. "But it hasn't happened. They are selling Hollywood films to the Christian marketplace, not making genuinely Christian films in Hollywood."
As an example, Lalonde cited the 2001 boat racing movie "Madison," starring James Caviezel, who played Jesus in "The Passion."
" 'Madison' was marketed to the Christian community on the sole basis that it had Jim Caviezel in it, but other than that, there was nothing particularly Christian about it," he said. "My conclusion is that, if we're going to have a viable system for the distribution of evangelical Christian movies, we have to build it ourselves."