Faith-based films growing profits
Hollywood taking notice of 2 Bible Belt filmmakers who have grossed $80M on four films.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It's the Hollywood ending every studio wants: Low-cost production and high returns at the box office.
Filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick seem to have the formula down - grossing nearly $80 million on four films made for less than $4 million combined. Only thing is the Kendrick brothers work far from Hollywood and, outside the world of Christian-themed cinema, many have never heard of their films.
That could change.
Increasingly, major studios appear to be taking a leap for faith-based audiences with biblical epics such as Noah starring Russell Crowe, the planned December release of Exodus and a remake of Ben-Hur for early 2016.
At one point in April, there were four faith-based movies in the Top 20 at the box office, including Heaven Is for Real, about a 4-year-old boy's account of his trip to heaven. It has grossed more than $99 million on a production budget of $12 million by Sony Pictures.
"Hollywood has taken note," said DeVon Franklin, former Sony senior vice president of production, who oversaw Heaven Is for Real.
The Kendrick brothers - who just wrapped up filming their fifth project - are making movies that could see wider release as distributors pay attention to the box office trends in the traditional Bible Belt and beyond.
Their latest film, which has yet to have a title, centers on a family realizing the power of prayer.
"The point is not racing to see how many movies we can produce," said Alex Kendrick, in a telephone interview from Charlotte, N.C. "The point is to take the time, in prayer and research, to make a solid film and get the most ministry out of it before moving to the next one."
The Kendricks began with a tiny production company with their pastor at Sherwood Baptist, but decided to strike out on their own with their fifth film. In previous movies, the brothers mostly used volunteers from their church, though one movie, Fireproof, did include Kirk Cameron, known for his role in the 1980s TV sitcom, "Growing Pains."
The Kendricks - both ministers - grew up in suburban Atlanta and now live in southwestern Georgia. They are still part of the ministry team at the Sherwood megachurch. They scraped together $20,000 to put out their first film, Flywheel, in 2003 about a used-car salesman who learns integrity.
With a budget of $100,000, the company released Facing the Giants in 2006. That film ended up grossing more than $10 million. Then came Fireproof, a story about a couple struggling to make their marriage work, which cost $500,000 and grossed over $33 million.
The Kendricks are still in the shadows of faith-centric blockbusters like Noah, which has made more than $359 million at the global box office, but they have been able to move their lower-budget films to wider release mainly through a grassroots approach. It's this type of fan base growth that has gotten the attention of major studios.
"What people must understand is that Hollywood is a business," said Bishop T.D. Jakes, a megachurch pastor who produced Heaven Is for Real. "And while we have a message that we want to convey, we are conveying that message to an idiom of thought that is controlled by businesses and budgets."