Are Evangelical Films Destined to Leave Secular Audiences Behind?

Five months before the big-budget Left Behind reboot hit theaters, evangelical movie producer Paul Lalonde was fighting with fans.

Lalonde was still editing the film. The score was still being written and foreign distribution deals negotiated. He had better things to do than take to Facebook and argue with Christians who had no clue about the business of movies but very, very firm ideas about how things should be done. Yet there he was, typing comments on an open thread on the film’s official Facebook page, pleading with people to give the movie a chance.

It was exasperating. He was getting testy.

Lalonde, who has been a believer in evangelical movies since he saw his first rapture movie as a kid in a church basement in the 1970s, was frustrated at accusations that the remake was just about money. He was exhausted by questions about whether Nicolas Cage could do a good job as an actor in an evangelical film, since he wasn’t “covered in the blood of the lamb.” He was exasperated at people telling him they liked the old Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron and couldn’t see anything good coming out of Hollywood versions.

Had he even asked Kirk Cameron to be involved in these movies?

Why did Hollywood have to ruin everything?

“Your accusations are insulting and unnecessary,” Lalonde finally wrote. “The reason for a remake, even though it may not be the answer you have pre-determined to be the right one, is to reach a wider audience . . . There is nothing wrong with ‘Hollywoodized’ if it means the same thing to you as it does to me. Christians deserve bigger movies too with great actors, and high production values.”

This has been the debate about Left Behind. Among evangelical Christians who like the franchise —which doesn’t include all of them—there are real differences about what the film should be. In this way, Left Behind represents a big question about the persistent problem of the market for faith-and-family films. The past few years have seen attempt after attempt to do what Lalonde wants to do: make quality movies that please evangelicals and also appeal to a wider audience.

Those who’ve tried, like Lalonde, often ended up very frustrated.

Both major studios and independent evangelical production companies have been trying to crack the formula of the faith-and-family blockbuster. The trick, it would seem, is to pull in two audiences. A big Christian film, to be really commercially successful, has to get church-goers into theaters, and get theater-goers to see a movie that might seem more suited to church. There are a few wildly successful examples of this, like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which broke box office records a decade ago. Some, like God’s Not Dead, create just the right sort of controversy to really drive ticket sales. Most evangelical movies, though, have done only well enough to convince others that it’s possible, even if the formula for success hasn’t quite been perfected yet.

If they’re not smash hits, faith films haven’t all been complete commercial misses either.

The first installment of The Chronicles of Narnia brought a big profit for Walt Disney and Walden Media—around $750 million globally. After a few films, the franchise stalled, though. Rising production costs, declining ticket sales and increasingly mixed reviews led to conflict between the various production companies. There’s currently a legal moratorium preventing a fourth installment.

Other major studio efforts haven’t cracked the code for commercial success either: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah earned a respectable $100 million, but cost an estimated $125 million to make. Son of God did okay at the box office, grossing $26.5 million its opening weekend, bolstered by support from American megachurch pastors including Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. But ticket sales quickly faded.

Independent studios have done better. Sherwood Pictures, the movie-making ministry of a Baptist church in Albany, Georgia, has had a number of commercial triumphs. Facing the Giants was made for about $10,000 and grossed $10 million. Fireproof was made for $500,000 and was the highest grossing independent film of 2008, with more than $33 million in ticket sales. The studio’s latest effort, Courageous, released in 2011, is the success people dream about. It was made for $2 million. It brought in $9.1 million opening weekend and earned, at final count, $34.5 million.

Sherwood Pictures productions are subsidized by a church, though, which keeps costs down. Without that support, other studios have tried to follow this model with only limited results. And even these commercially successful films haven’t been the cross-over hits dreamed of by people like Lalonde.

“I wanted to show the WHOLE WORLD what the day of the rapture might look like,” Lalonde wrote. “To have lots of people OUTSIDE OF THE CHURCH ask questions and open dialog . . . So, are we going to ‘Hollywood it up?’ Absolutely!”

Perhaps he felt a twinge of recognition when he wrote those words.

Lalonde had had this argument back in 2000, 2002 and 2005 when he made the first Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron. Only then Lalonde was on the other side.

When he and his brother Peter Lalonde first turned the best-selling books into movies, they argued it wasn’t possible to make Left Behind in a way that would appeal both to people who were waiting for the rapture and people who thought the whole thing was preposterous. You couldn’t do both. They made the movie cheap and released it to the home market. It only had a limited run in theaters the following year

Peter Lalonde said secular critics would “hammer us just because of the message” that Jesus is coming back. It made no sense to “Hollywood up” the movies with big budgets and a wide release.

The Lalondes’ approach angered the authors of the books, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, for the same reasons Lalonde would later be angered by fans who questioned his big budget production.

Jenkins dismissed the productions as cheap, church-basement movies. LaHaye sued for breach of contract, saying the sale of the rights to make the film had been contingent on making a good film. The point of making a Left Behind movie was to reach a wider audience. The books had reached a wider audience, selling millions of copies and reaching the top slot of the New York Times bestseller list. The films should be able to appeal to anyone who liked a good thriller, which would require higher production values, actors known more for their acting than their religious commitments, and a real understanding of the business of movies.

The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court. Paul Lalonde got the rights to make the movie again and decided to reboot the franchise, this time taking the approach LaHaye and Jenkins had recommended originally: a big-budget, wide-release, Hollywoodized version of this evangelical version of the apocalypse.

This time, Left Behind would be a commercial triumph.

This time, Left Behind would achieve the trick so many faith-and-family films have struggled to pull off.

This time, Left Behind would be the kind of movie that brought Christians to the theater and theater-goers to Christianity.

This time didn’t work out as hoped. Left Behind isn’t a flop, but it’s not a huge success either. The opening weekend saw sales of more than $6 million in tickets. That’s the kind of number that will inspire others to try and figure out the formula for the faith-and-family blockbuster. Yet, with the cost of the film reportedly exceeding $30 million, it’s an open question whether or not the Left Behind reboot will get a second installment.

The marketing problem of evangelical movies is still, stubbornly, a problem.

The general audience doesn’t seem interested. The evangelical audience, meanwhile, is deeply divided on what a faith film should be. This, it would seem, is the site of a deep division within American evangelicalism. There’s a serious difference of opinion over what values should be paramount in making movies. Left Behind could have been the vehicle for showing how this problem could be solved, but it didn’t work. The fight that Lalonde had with authors of the book and that Lalonde had with fans of the movies who were anxious about the remake will continue.

And it does continue.

The official Facebook page for the film is mostly filled with praise of the film the week after it was released. After mainstream critics universally panned the film—it got an aggregate rating of 2 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—the studio started claiming secular bias and promoting fan reviews. Many evangelicals view cultural elites as condescending and hostile to begin with, so negative reviews met certain expectations. Even as fans of Left Behind talked about how great it was, however, the old divisions were apparent.

There were those who talked about how the film is a great evangelizing opportunity. One woman reported buying more than 20 tickets for her extended family and another said she planned to return to her theater to pass out tracts. Others griped that they didn’t hear the name “Jesus” mentioned very much in the movie.

More than a few expressed disappointment, but then seemed to feel the need to defend their Christian identity, affirming that while they loved the message and believed Jesus was coming back soon they just weren’t totally convinced by the film.

There’s also more than a little concern about Nicolas Cage’s soul.

A video of Cage giving an interview to Fox News got scores of comments from viewers upset that Cage apparently didn’t get the point of the film, since he didn’t accept Jesus as his personal savior. Fan after fan pleaded for prayers that Cage might be saved, until Lalonde commented again.

“I am honestly so upset and embarrassed by some of these comments,” he wrote, “that I was thinking of just deleting the video and going home. How about ‘Thank you Nick for taking on a project like this?’”

Elsewhere, the internal clash over the idea of evangelical movies was more fierce.

Christianity Today wrote a very negative review of the film, reporting it didn’t deserve to even be called a Christian movie. This was a “run-of-the-mill disaster flick” with little to no connection to faith or the theology the story is supposed to dramatize. The magazine got noticeable pushback from readers whose objections were loud enough the magazine’s film review editor, Alissa Wilkinson, responded. She ended up arguing that, at the very least, Christians aren’t bad Christians if they want their movies to have good acting and high production values.

“I believe it is vital for Christians to recognize that they are a massive market segment who are only going to see themselves marketed toward more in the future,” Wilkinson wrote. “And I believe that it is important for Christians to realize that they can use that power to ask for better entertainment, things that actually do explore the deep, complex questions that have animated our faith for millennia.”

Interestingly, that’s not very different than the argument Lalonde made before the film was finished, and it’s similar to the argument Jenkins and LaHaye made when they were angry at Lalonde’s earlier versions. But Left Behind just underscores the broader conflict between art, faith and commerce. Whether it’s possible to make a good, commercially successful evangelical movie that appeals to different audiences remains to be seen.