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 almost $80 million on four films made for less than $4 million total. The only thing is the Kendrick brothers work far from Hollywood and, outside the world of Christian-themed cinema, many never have heard of their films.
That could change.
Major studios increasingly 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 recently wrapped up filming their fifth project – are making movies that could see wider release as distributors pay attention to the box office trends nationwide.
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,” Alex Kendrick said in a telephone interview from Charlotte. “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, who began with a tiny production company with their pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church, decided to strike out on their own with their fifth film. The brothers said the separation was amicable and necessary for them to grow as filmmakers and recruit actors and crew nationwide.
In previous movies, the brothers mostly used volunteers from their church though one of their more popular movies, “Fireproof,” did include Kirk Cameron, a veteran actor memorably known starting in the 1980s for his youthful role in a popular TV sitcom, “Growing Pains.”
“The people we’ve gotten to meet who have expertise in areas that we have needed help have come to the table,” Stephen Kendrick said. “And we’re growing as filmmakers.”
The Kendricks – both ministers who sport salt-and-pepper beards – grew up in suburban Atlanta and now live in Albany, Ga. They still are part of the ministry team at Sherwood Baptist, a megachurch in Albany. Along with the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Michael Catt, they created Sherwood Pictures in 2002 and scraped together $20,000 to put out their first film, “Flywheel,” in 2003 about a dishonest used car salesman who learns integrity.
With a budget of $100,000, the company released “Facing the Giants” in 2006. That film – about having courage amid adversity – grossed more than $10 million and appeared in slightly more than 400 theaters, primarily in the South.
Then came “Fireproof,” a story about a couple struggling to make their marriage work. The movie was made with a budget of slightly more than $500,000 and grossed more than $33 million.
“That was what I would call the dawning of the new era of independent Christian films,” said Ben Howard, senior vice president of Provident Films, a division of Sony Music Entertainment that focuses on the Christian audience.
“Courageous,” a film about fatherhood, was released in 2011 and made more than $34 million on a $2 million budget. The fifth Kendrick brothers’ movie is expected to cost at least $3 million.
Box office expert Paul Dergarabedian said the Kendricks’ earlier movies “weren’t what anyone would consider blockbusters in the conventional sense of the word.”
“But the success of those films probably influenced filmmakers, studios, producers, distributors, to look at this genre as a viable, potentially money-making genre,” said Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak.
Faith-based entertainment is not new territory. The Bible has spawned dozens of films dating back to the 1920s and Broadway has found enduring hits in shows such as “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
While the Kendricks have found success, they’re still in the shadows of faith-centric blockbusters such as “Noah,” which was released in March and has made more than $359 million at the global box office on a production budget of $125 million.
However, the Kendricks and others like them have been able to move their lower-budget faith-based films from limited theaters to wider release mainly through a grassroots approach more reminiscent of community theater. It’s this type of fan base growth, which brings in millions in revenue, 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 other faith-based movies. “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.”