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'Fireproof' = Surprise Mini-Hit!

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Sep 30, 2008 | 2:14pm EDT

“I’m not impressed with Hollywood in general. They don’t make a lot of movies that lift our standards and morality.” That’s what director Alex Kendrick told me in a telephone interview on Monday after his new movie Fireproof (IDP Films/Samuel Goldwyn) opened with a downright shocking $6.5M opening weekend.

L.A. and New York are filled with talented film professionals who spend countless hours and millions upon millions of dollars making movies. The cost of development, production, a director, actors and marketing make the craft of filmmaking prohibitive. So how did a little church in Georgia score the 4th-best gross of the just-completed weekend?

The answer, according to director Kendrick, is prayer. “Before we shot a tough scene, we prayed. This movie was bathed in prayer.” He is serious. Although Alex and his brother, co-writer and producer Stephen Kendrick, “grew up making silly movies in the backyard with a video camera,” they have no formal training in the business. They are both Associate Pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, 3 hours south of Atlanta. They are in “the prayer business” full-time.

About seven years ago, the Kendrick brothers approached Sherwood Senior Pastor Michael Catt with the idea that making movies should be part of the church’s ministry. Their church has about 3,000 members with about 1,500-1,700 attending services on the average Sunday, so Sherwood is not one of the so-called mega-churches, but Catt agreed to let them try their hand at filmmaking.

Their first effort was the 2003 movie Flywheel about a car salesman with a crisis of conscience. The movie was made for $20,000 and shot on a Canon XL1 digital camera with a cast and crew made up entirely of church volunteers. The Kendricks intended to sell the DVD online with the proceeds being pushed back into the church’s ministries. “We thought it’d be neat to show the movie at the local movie theatre,” Alex Kendrick told me, and Carmike’s Wynnsong 16 Theatres in Albany agreed to a limited four-day engagement. The movie proved to be very popular playing for six weeks and expanding to two other Carmike locations. The newly-minted, non-profit Sherwood Studios hoped to sell 10,000 copies of Flywheel on DVD, and to-date the movie has sold 200,000 units.

Based on that relatively modest success, Alex and Stephen Kendrick proposed a movie about a Christian high school football coach called Facing the Giants. They raised the stakes with a budget of $100,000, mostly to pay for a 5-person professional crew from Orlando and the equipment necessary to shoot a “real” movie. Still, there were no paid actors and the bulk of the crew was untrained volunteers from the Sherwood Baptist Church congregation.

When the Kendrick brothers finished a rough cut, they approached a Christian record label called Provident Music Group in order to license some music for Facing the Giants. When the record people saw the movie, they got parent company Sony involved, and, faster than you can say an “Our Father,” the movie had a distribution deal with IDP Films/Samuel Goldwyn. The picture rolled out on 441 screens in September of 2006 and delivered $1.34M on opening weekend for a $3,046 Per Theatre Average. Giants showed great playability and finished with $10.17M domestic.

What did the church do with the profit from Facing the Giants? No perks for these mini-moguls. It was funneled into the building of an 82-acre sports park for the Albany community with baseball and softball diamonds and soccer fields.

Emboldened by box office success, the two Associate Pastors began working on their third movie. They chose marriage as a subject. Alex told me, “We saw so many marriages struggling. 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, 70 percent of second marriages end in divorce, and first responders, like firefighters, police officers and military men and women, have an even higher divorce rate than everyday Americans.” So, their movie Fireproof is about a firefighter who is working to save his struggling marriage.

Shot on just a $500,000 budget, with that same crew from Orlando (slightly expanded), and plenty of help from their congregation, they made their movie. This time they had a star. “Kirk Cameron saw Facing the Giants and called us and said, ‘I gotta help you guys do this,” says Alex Kendrick, but he auditioned like everyone else. Ultimately he was cast as the lead, and in Sherwood Studios tradition, he was not paid anything. No salary. No residuals. Nothing. They paid his travel and hotel and made a donation to his Camp Firefly charity.

I was curious about what Alex had up his sleeve next, but he says that his flock needs his attention, “The movie business can’t take the place of what we do in church. We would never want to do these movies at the expense of our members.” The plan is for Sherwood Studios to make a movie every 2 years, and they have not even started thinking about the next one, but when Alex and his brother make movies in the future, he tells me that they “will tell stories that middle America can relate to. America has two cultures. There’s New York City and California - and there’s the way the rest of the country lives.”

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