FORT WORTH, Texas – North Texas long has tried to capture the eye of mainstream Hollywood, luring a variety of TV shows and movies – to shoot in the region. But it’s in faith-based and family films that Dallas and Fort Worth might be poised to make their biggest mark.
Jennifer Hudson and Oprah Winfrey recently flew into North Texas as part of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ MegaFest – a family themed three-day extravaganza of conferences, concerts and sporting events in downtown Dallas that drew more than 50,000 people. Unlike previous MegaFests in other cities, this one introduced the International Faith & Family Film Festival, an event organizers hope to spin off from MegaFest into its own annual Dallas tradition.
Jakes, whose Potter’s House congregation is based in Dallas, is very involved in films, having produced the late singer Whitney Houston’s last movie, “Sparkle,” in 2012, and “Winnie Mandela,” starring Hudson, which screened at the festival before opening commercially this month.
That followed on the heels of the announcement in June that former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum had signed on as CEO of Dallas-based EchoLight Studios. The company’s first films, “The Redemption of Henry Myers” and “Seasons of Gray,” opened this month.
Another EchoLight production, “Hoovey,” was shot last spring in Waxahachie, Texas, by director Sean McNamara, is set for release in 2014. McNamara’s previous film, “Soul Surfer,” grossed $43 million.
Meanwhile, DreamVision Motion Pictures and Animation is moving its headquarters from Orlando, Fla., to Fort Worth. The firm, which announced its arrival with a free festival in June outside the Fort Worth Convention Center, has said it plans to build 80,000 square feet of studio and office space.
“I’d like to see Dallas and Fort Worth be to faith and family entertainment what Nashville is to music,” Santorum said. “It’s an alternative to the coasts.”
The reasons North Texas is poised to become a hub for faith-based films are varied. Santorum cited the friendly business climate.
“The people with the resources are more favorably disposed to issues of faith and family,” said the 2012 Republican presidential nomination candidate, who weekly has been visiting Dallas.
Others point to the plethora of megachurches.
“Dallas is the Bible Belt,” said Derrick Williams, executive vice president of T.D. Jakes Film and Entertainment and the man in charge of the film festival. “What better place to do it? There’s a built-in audience.”
Ya’Ke Smith, an art and art history professor at the University of Texas-Arlington and a local director, agreed.
“Faith-based companies can directly tap into that audience because (the audience) is here,” Smith said.
His films, like 2012’s “Wolf” and the upcoming “Heaven,” deal with such social issues.
“They can get that audience tweeting and Facebooking and getting other people interested in their work,” he said.
The uptick in faith-based projects in the area is part of a national trend, said Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, a division of the city’s Office of Economic Development.
“We’ve had activity here for some time in that genre,” she said. “But it’s gathering speed everywhere, not just here.”
It’s a niche – a potentially profitable one – that could add to North Texas’ allure as a place to shoot, she said.
“Fireproof,” the 2008 Georgia-shot film starring Kirk Cameron that had a $500,000 budget, became a word-of-mouth sensation that raked in more than $30 million.
The socially conservative North Texas climate has attracted faith-based film endeavors for a while now.
In 2004, Dallas was the birthplace of the conservative American Film Renaissance festival, which billed itself as “the world’s first-ever film festival featuring movies that celebrated America’s timeless, traditional and foundational values.”
DreamVision CEO Rick Silanskas said he decided to make the move after visiting the region.
“What really hit me and my brother,” he said, “was the preservation of values in Texas that I’ve not felt anywhere else.”
Some filmmakers are concerned that if the region becomes known for a narrow definition of what a faith-based film can be, it might make it harder to attract those who don’t fit that profile.
“If you have these faith-based companies coming in, more Christian-themed films will be made, but it might push others away,” said Smith, whose films focus on such issues as child sex trafficking. “I would really hope that people like Jakes would begin to broaden the horizons and really embrace Christian filmmakers who don’t make traditional Christian films but films that are challenging, films that put a critical eye on the church and the world.”