REBECCA WINTERS KEEGAN Friday, Oct. 03, 2008
Hollywood veterans will tell you that if a low-budget movie makes it into theaters, it's a miracle. But when Alex and Stephen Kendrick say that, they mean it literally. The Kendrick brothers, ministers at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., are the writers, producers and directors of the surprise hit Fireproof. Shot on a $500,000 budget with an all-volunteer cast and donated sets and locations, their drama about a fire captain trying to rekindle his marriage made $6.8 million in its opening weekend at the box office, coming in fourth overall, between a Samuel L. Jackson thriller and a Coen brothers farce. On Oct. 10, Fireproof's distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films will add another 200 theaters to the movie's initial 850-theater run.
A relationship drama with no spectacular special effects or A-list stars, Fireproof has succeeded by speaking to an audience that has often eluded studios — devout Christians. The subject — saving a marriage — is universal, but the film's themes are decidedly theological.
Kirk Cameron plays fire captain Caleb Holt, who is preparing to divorce his wife of seven years, a hospital publicist who has become more roommate than sweetheart. Caleb's dad asks him to wait 40 days before proceeding with the divorce and gives him a book called The Love Dare, a collection of daily scriptural quotes and marital suggestions, the underpinning of which is that only God can teach a person how to love. "The Lord did a work in us," Caleb's father explains, of how he turned around his own struggling marriage. In case that's too subtle an endorsement of the great marriage counselor in the sky, the father-son conversation takes place in a field beside a giant wooden cross. If the scene works for audiences, it's because everyone involved — the director, Cameron, the rest of the cast, even the church ladies who served the tuna casserole at the craft services table — sincerely believes it. "Marriage has been attacked and watered down and called a piece of paper," says Alex Kendrick. "We wanted to say, Hey, marriage is a beautiful thing and it's worth fighting for."
Since Fireproof's release Sept. 26, audiences have sent hundreds of e-mails to the filmmakers describing renewed vows and reconsidered divorce plans. The Kendricks also wrote The Love Dare book, which was originally just a plot device in the movie, and rushed it into print in time for Fireproof's release. The book is now No. 12 on Amazon's best-seller list.
Ever since Mel Gibson proved with The Passion of the Christ in 2004 that church-goers are also movie-goers, Hollywood studios have tried to tap into the faith market. Disney's Chronicles of Narnia films have gained traction with Christian audiences, but no filmmakers have scored with the devout as consistently and economically as the Kendricks have. Fireproof is their third profitable Christian film. The monies they have earned have gone toward building an 82-acre community sports park in Albany.
Alex, 38, and Stephen, 35, grew up in metro Atlanta, the second and third sons of a minister. (Their older brother works at IBM). Both earned communication degrees at Georgia's Kennesaw State University, attended seminary and got ministerial jobs at Sherwood. After reading a study about the influence of movies on culture and the relative lack of influence of the church, the brothers decided to return to what had been an adolescent hobby, playing with a video camera. In 2003, they asked their church for $20,000 to form a production company, Sherwood Pictures, and make a movie, Flywheel, about a dishonest used car salesman who sees the light. Flywheel got a local theatrical release and a pickup by Blockbuster Video, and went on to sell more than 200,000 DVDs. But it was Sherwood Pictures' second film, Facing the Giants, a 2006 parable of football and faith, that earned the Kendricks notice in Hollywood. Produced for $100,000, the movie was dismissed by mainstream critics as too earnest and heavy-handed. But due to the recommendations of pastors and Christian publications, the film went on to earn more than $10 million at the box office, and it sold 1.6 million DVDs.
"The Kendrick brothers are the target audience," says Kris Fuhr, vice president of marketing for Provident Films, a faith-based unit of Sony BMG Music that has marketed the brothers' last two movies. "Sometimes people think to reach Christian audiences you just have a movie with no swearing in it and that's enough. It's not. In Sherwood's movies you have a very overt depiction of faith."
The Kendricks' casts are usually composed of church members. But it was the filmmakers' wear-your-faith-on-your-sleeve quality that attracted the first name actor to a Sherwood production. Cameron, best known as dimpled troublemaker Mike Seaver from the '80s sitcom Growing Pains, has re-invented himself as an active figure in the Christian community with his Evangelical TV and radio series The Way of the Master. After seeing Facing the Giants, Cameron asked to audition for the Kendricks' next film. "So often movies that try to incorporate a message of faith are so cheesy and I've been in some of those cheesy movies," Cameron says. "Fireproof isn't that." Instead of a fee, Cameron accepted a donation to his charity, Camp Firefly.
The Kendricks' business model is hardly one a major studio could replicate. Unlike a typical Hollywood set, on a Sherwood set, Cameron says, "You don't have people walking around saying 'They don't pay me enough to do this,' cause nobody's getting paid anything." The filmmakers relied on a team of 1,200 volunteers, plus a handful of technical crew members working below rate. They also secured a donated train, hospital wing and fire trucks. Rather than the usual TV spots and billboards, Fireproof's marketers invited Christian publications on set and screened the film early for pastors and church groups. "This audience has to actually feel the fabric," says Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films. "The marketing is more grass roots."
The end result was a movie that, in box office terms, held its own with A-list Hollywood stars and directors. "Hollywood is gifted at high production quality and acting," says Alex. "But their morals and life perspectives are so different from the rest of us. New York and California seem to have one type of culture and then there's the rest of America. We're trying to make movies that speak to what we believe the American family struggles with — communication, financing, intimacy."
Since Fireproof's release the Kendrick brothers have fielded meeting invitations from two studios and one TV production company. But they say they're taking a little break from the biz. Says Alex, "We're going to focus on church ministries and our families for the next few months before we dive into our next script."
6 months ago