October 8, 2008
Sustained By Faith, Film Reaches Top 5 at Box Office
By Julie Bloom
An almost all-volunteer cast and crew, including a star who was an '80s teen heartthrob, and a plot about a firefighter who saves his marriage by turning to God - it hardly sounds like a recipe for box office success, let alone a best-selling book. But that's what the film "Fireproof" has spawned.
The movie features Kirk Cameron, an alumnus of the television show "Growing Pains," as the firefighter, and it cost just $500,000 to produce. Yet it opened in the United States two weekends ago with $6.5 million in ticket sales, good for No.4 at the box office, just a few spots behind the No.1 big-budget action thriller "Eagle Eye" and five spots ahead of Spike Lee's World War II epic, "Miracle at St. Anna." This past weekend "Fireproof" made $4.1 million more and so far has about $12.5 million total, according to estimates by Media by Numbers, a box office tracking company.
The movie is the benefit of a highly targeted marketing plan and the latest success for Sherwood Pictures, a tiny production company affiliated with Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. It was directed by Alex Kendrick, 38, and written by Kendrick and his brother, Stephen, 35, with the church's senior pastor, Michael Catt, serving as an executive producer.
In the film Cameron plays Caleb Holt, a Type A firefighter who rescues children from burning buildings but whose marriage is close to ruin. As he is about to go forward with a divorce, his father steps in and gives him a book called "The Love Dare," a 40-day challenge that teaches married couples to use Scripture to learn to love unconditionally.
The film has received mixed reviews from critics in the mainstream media. Chris Willman in Entertainment Weekly rated it a C, while Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times wrote that the film's positives included "that rarest of creatures on the big (or small) screen: characters with a strong, conservative Christian faith who don't sound crazy." Some religious groups, however, were supportive. Mitch Temple, writing on the Web site for Focus on the Family, said that "the brilliantly produced film radiates messages of authentic determination, faith and hope."
Just as Cameron's character seeks God's help, Alex Kendrick said that in 2005 "we were praying for an idea, and I was jogging around the block and was inspired to do a movie inspired by marriage." He jogged to his brother's house with the idea.
The two weren't entirely novices; they had made movies as children. After college and seminary they approached Sherwood Baptist, where they are associate pastors, about making movies for the ministry.
Their first Sherwood film, "Flywheel," was released in 2003, and their second, "Facing the Giants" (2006), about an underdog football team, eventually earned more than $10 million.
"For us, most of what is coming out of Hollywood does not reflect our faith and values," Kendrick said, "and so this is one way to throw our hat in the ring."
Catt, who has helped lead the church since 1989, said he has supported his ministry's involvement with filmmaking because Christians are often critical of mainstream entertainment without adding something positive to it. "It's easy to point fingers," he said in a phone interview from Albany, "but what we need to be doing is offering realistic alternatives."
As in Sherwood Pictures' previous films, the 1,200-member cast and crew was culled mostly from the church's 3,000 members. (There was a handful of paid professionals like editors.) "We just announced: 'We're going to start on a movie, and if you'd like to volunteer we'll take you though a boot camp. There's a sheet outside in the atrium, and you can sign up,'" Catt said. The volunteers included his own family. His wife, Terri Catt, served as the casting director and was also in charge of costumes, while his daughter Hayley was the on-set photographer, and his other daughter, Erin Bethea, played the wife of Cameron's character. The amateurs were trained by professionals in lighting, sound, makeup and camerawork.
Even the leading man was a volunteer. Cameron's personal faith and acting career have become intertwined in recent years through his roles in films like the "Left Behind" series. He approached Sherwood Pictures after seeing "Facing the Giants."
"I'm not on a professional crusade to inject Jesus Christ into every project that I do," Cameron said by phone from Los Angeles. "But when a good project comes up that is about marriage and is based on what I think is really going to help marriages, and is worthwhile, I'll jump in with both feet."
Cameron, who has been married for 17 years and has six children, also said that his faith had helped him survive in Hollywood. "As a teen idol who makes it to 37 without being a crack-smoking transvestite stuck in a drug-rehab center over and over, I'd say, wow, those values have served me pretty well," he said. Some of the proceeds from the film will go to Cameron's children's charity, Camp Firefly.
The movie is one of the more successful examples of a marketing strategy used for other faith-based films: taking the movie directly to its target audience. "It's an audience that has to feel and touch the fabric rather than 'take your word for it,'" said Meyer Gottlieb, president of IDP/Samuel Goldwyn Films, which released the film at 839 theaters and plans to expand it to more than 1,000 by Friday.
The marketing was handled by Sony's Provident Films, which seeks out Christians at the grass-roots level. Ministry leaders and members of the Christian media were invited to the set in Albany, and private screenings were held around the country. Advance sales also helped; on the first weekend of release 98 theaters were in communities where at least 1,000 tickets had been presold, said Kris Fuhr, Provident's vice president for theatrical marketing.
The private showings also served as a catalyst for the early publication of the book "The Love Dare," which was at first merely a plot device. The brothers decided to write the book while they were working on the script and this year signed a contract with B&H Publishing Group, a Christian publisher. Still, they had no plans to publish it until the movie was released on DVD. But at the early screenings, moviegoers requested copies of the book, so B&H decided to speed up publication and rush out a paperback edition to coincide with the movie's theatrical release.
The book, as in the movie, is structured as a 40-day plan for revitalizing a struggling marriage. Each day starts with a quotation of Scripture and a short lesson like "Love is patient" or "Love is not irritable."
Marketing for the movie as well as heavy promotion at chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders have helped fuel sales of the book. It is also selling strongly at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, said John Thompson, senior vice president of marketing for B&H, who added that there were 600,000 copies in print. "The Love Dare" will be No.4 on The New York Times advice, how-to and miscellaneous paperback best- seller list on Oct. 12.
For Kendrick, there is only one explanation for the successes of "Fireproof" and "The Love Dare.""We're not trained and smart enough to make successful movies and write best-selling books," he said. "The only way that this could happen is if after we prayed, God really answered those prayers."
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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