God in the flames

400px Firemen h0171Nice job, Julie Bloom of the New York Times, for an article about a successful God-themed film written and produced by three Baptist pastors from Georgia. You tackled the interplay between faith, commerce and art, which can be a minefield, clearly and without condescension. Readers may already be familiar with the Kendrick brothers, associate pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga.

Tmatt covered the flap over their last movie, "Facing the Giants."

The story of a troubled coach who turns gives his life to God, the movie, which apparently features such salicious acts as Bible Study and evangelism, garnered a "PG" from MPAA -- causing a bit of an uproar in Washington.

After her engaging lede, Bloom immediately gives the reader some numbers to demonstrate the new movie's success --

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 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

While the next few paragraphs allude in passiong to the savvy marketing plan that apparently helped attract the attention of religious viewers, Bloom seems content to let this rather remarkable story tell itself before getting back to the business angle.

Her quotes from the filmakers illuminate the story -- no "gotcha" or satirical journalism here.

Just as Mr. 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," Alex Kendrick said, "and so this is one way to throw our hat in the ring."

Mr. 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."

Eventually Bloom circles back to the way the movie, and the tie-in book (at first, simply a plot device) written by the Kendrick brothers was creatively marketed directly to influential church leaders (and the religious press) by a sub-division of Sony, Provident Films.

She closes with another quote from Alex Kendrick that focuses the reader's attention back on the possibility that the movie and book's success is due to divine, as well as human, intervention:

For Mr. 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."

In short, Bloom tells a complicated story in a way that is balanced and nonjudgmental -- opening up different perspectives rather than closing them down.

P.S. If you want to know more about "Fireproof" from a Christian perspective you may want to read a thoughtful review from "Christianity Today."

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