You can get a speaking role in the next “Left Behind” movie for $7,500. You can name a character for $5,000, or appear as an extra in the background as the heroes figure out End Times prophecy for $2,500.
“I’m asking you to be more than a fan,” Lalonde says in the promotional video explaining the campaign. “I’m asking you to be a partner in this vision.”
More than 130 people contributed in the first three days, giving nearly $40,000.
The 2014 reboot of the franchise was funded in the traditional way with big investors who expect a return. But the movie did not do very well, critically or financially. It received 2 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning critics generally did not give it a stamp of approval.
Made with a healthy budget of $16 million, it earned $14 million in the United States and another $5.6 million internationally, doing moderate business in Brazil, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. It is difficult to attract investors to a sequel with such small profits.
For dedicated fans, though, money is not the point. The point is spreading the message.
“As Christians we all know it can be difficult sharing your faith,” Lalonde said. “How are we supposed to reach these people who don’t even want to hear what we have to say? Well one of the best ways I’ve found is through movies.”
Lalonde himself became a Christian after hearing that Jesus was coming soon to save his followers before the Antichrist rose to global power, and human history ended at the battle of Armageddon. Lalonde was greatly influenced by the 1972 film, “A Thief in the Night,” which popularized that evangelical Christian vision of the End Times.
“A Thief in the Night” was never shown in theaters, however. It was a church-basement movie. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the 69-minute horror film about life under the Antichrist was screened more than 1,000 times per month to church camps and youth groups across the country. It was widely influential, but rarely shown to someone who wasn’t already involved with an evangelical church.
The “Left Behind” franchise, which started as a novel in 1995, was designed to reach beyond the church basement.
When the two co-authors met for the very first time in a Chicago airport hotel to discuss the project, this is what they talked about. Jerry B. Jenkins recalls in his book “Writing for the Soul” that he was skeptical of the idea. “A double-minded book,” he quipped, “is unstable in all its ways.” Tim LaHaye was insistent, though, and persuaded Jenkins to try.
It was a financial problem as much as anything else. Evangelical novels were sold only in Christian bookstores at the time. “Left Behind” changed that. It was sold at Wal-Mart and then at other retail outlets, eventually sprawling into a 16-part series with more than 65 million copies in print.
The film versions of “Left Behind” have struggled to replicate that success.
Lalonde produced the first film version starring Kirk Cameron in 2001 on a relatively tiny budget. Costs were kept down in any way possible: Scenes set in Israel were shot in Ontario, for example, with camels on loan from the Canadian zoo. The $2 million production couldn’t get a wide release in theaters, though, and was marketed mainly to fans of the books. The film made money, grossing $4.2 million, but did not become the amazing evangelical tool that backers hoped.
The 2014 reboot of the series was supposed to be different.
With a real budget and stars with real name recognition, it was thought that “Left Behind” could be a big hit — if not financially, than evangelically.
“We were really trying to reach beyond the choir,” Lalonde said, “and share the Word with people who might not hear it anywhere else.”
The most committed fans were critical of the whole process, though. They expressed strong opinions about the right way to make a Christian movie.
Some questioned why Nicolas Cage had been cast instead of someone publicly identified as an evangelical. Others were upset that the film, which only dramatized the first few pages of the first book of the series, did not clearly present the message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Some critiqued even minor deviations from the source material, asking, for instance, why the film was set in Louisiana while the novel’s story takes place in Chicago.
Even before he was done editing the film, Lalonde was fighting with fans on the “Left Behind” Facebook page.
“Your accusations are insulting and unnecessary,” he wrote at one point. “The reason for a remake, even though it may not be the answer you have pre-determined to be the right one, is to reach a wider audience … There is nothing wrong with ‘Hollywoodized’ if it means the same thing to you as it does to me. Christians deserve bigger movies too with great actors, and high production values.”
Trying to fund the sequel, Lalonde is now taking a different tact. For $75, fans can be on an advisory panel, giving input on casting, plot development and artwork. For $2,500, they can spend a day on the set with a producer, offering advice in person.
Lalonde’s strategy reflects a larger trend in film financing. The Internet makes it possible for a dedicated fan base to fund a film, even if it doesn’t appeal to a broader audience or convince many big-budget film financiers of its commercial potential. The campaign to fund the sequel to “Left Behind” is very similar to the successful campaign to fund the “Veronica Mars” movie. The economics of funding films are changing.
At least somewhat.
The sequel to “Left Behind” might also end up being a throwback to the church-basement film. At Indiegogo, the producer is offering digital downloads of the film for $25. For $250, you can host a premiere of the film in your home. A church can host the film for $1,000, and a hometown theater screening for up to 100 people is available for $5,000. Like “A Thief in the Night,” it will be screened in places where the film can be followed by an altar call.
And those who hear the call already can pay $750 to have their picture in the film as one of the people Jesus has saved and raptured, one of the faithful few who didn’t get left behind.
Daniel Silliman is an instructor of American religion and culture at Heidelberg University and an associate editor of “Religion and the Marketplace in the United States.” You can follow him on Twitter @danielsilliman.