Troubled by what they saw as a rising tide of negative messages in motion pictures, members of a Georgia church challenged Hollywood, started making their own movies and triumphed with films of faith.
Facing the Giants, a major-release theatrical feature last year, was written, produced, financed, directed, and acted by the members and ministers of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga.
Made for a fraction of what it costs to bankroll most Hollywood films, Facing the Giants was panned by many critics but widely embraced by the public, recouping its $100,000 production expense nearly 70 times over before its theatrical run was complete and it was released on DVD. The church is using the proceeds to finance a youth sports complex on an 82-acre tract in Albany.
“We have too many Pharisees and not enough people like Jesus,” says Michael Catt, 54, the church’s senior pastor. “He told stories. That’s what movies do. We’ve been narrow in thinking the only way to preach the Gospel is to preach.”
Audiences responded to the movie’s message about God’s power to change lives and events—a message that seemed to tap into a deep vein of spiritual longing far beyond the reaches of Sherwood Baptist and its congregation of 3,000 members.
Stephanie Thompson, 26, Catt’s research assistant, spends much of her day sorting through hundreds of e-mails that the church receives each week about the movie. “I hear a lot from guys in Iraq,” she says. “One said after watching Giants, he was encouraged to rededicate his life, and six of his friends came to know the Lord that night.”
The idea for Facing the Giants was born almost five years ago. Brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, both associate pastors, saw the results of a national survey that polled Americans about what influenced them the most. Movies and television topped the list. The Kendrick brothers were troubled that church didn’t even make the top 10.
But they had an idea: Why not take the message of the church to the movies? “We prayed about it and came up with a plot,” says Alex Kendrick, 37, who enlisted brother Stephen, 34, Catt and executive pastor Jim McBride, 46, to lay the groundwork for the project. “We wrote the script and prayed for money. It was quiet. We didn’t make a big deal about it, because we didn’t know if it would work.”
With no experience in moviemaking, no budget, no equipment and no actors, Kendrick and his fellow pastors put together the financing and used volunteers from the church for their first movie, a shoestring-budget 2003 drama titled Flywheel about a used-car salesman (played by Alex) who makes a God-centered decision about how to run his business and his life.
A surprising success
Kendrick asked the local Carmike Theater manager if he’d let the church screen Flywheel, simply as a thank-you to those who volunteered, prayed and supported the effort. The movie sold out the first night. After several showings over a single weekend, it was the second highest-grossing movie of all 16 showing at the multiplex.
“It went over so well, they just kept extending it,” Kendrick recalls. “It stayed six weeks. It just kept building momentum. Blockbuster Video offered to put a few copies in their stories nationwide. Seven Christian TV networks showed it. Missionaries took it overseas. We hoped to sell 3,000 DVDs. We sold 85,000.”
Encouraged by the success of Flywheel, Kendrick and the other pastors made plans for writing, directing and producing another movie. Facing the Giants, which began production in 2004, told the uplifting story of a struggling high school coach (Alex Kendrick, again) who encourages his team to put their hearts in the right place, then leads them by doing the same himself.
Once again, the members of the Sherwood congregation rose to the occasion. Hundreds of volunteers of every age cooked meals, carted equipment, learned how to apply makeup and set up lighting, appeared as actors and worked late into the night as extras in crowd scenes. Although never asked to do so from the pulpit or elsewhere, many members donated money that helped pay for moviemaking equipment and other costs of production.
Wendy McLeod was the “prayer coordinator.” Steve Dapper used his engineering background to help with set construction. Vicki Parr cooked regularly for the cast and crew. Sheila McBride doesn’t even know what her title was, but after working with the sets, she now notices when things are out of place in movies.
The Kendrick brothers’ wives also pitched in. Christina and Jill Kendrick contributed ideas, watched the two men rehearse scenes in their kitchens and jumped in wherever needed.
“Our wives were awesome. It was definitely a sacrifice for them,” Stephen says. “They would keep people’s kids all day who were working on the film and we’d come home at 2 a.m. after shooting a long crowd scene and they would have cooked us a meal. They just continually loved on us.”
People outside of the church’s congregation also helped. University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt, who once said his three favorite movies were Braveheart, Gladiator and Flywheel, did a cameo in Facing the Giants—for free. A professional cinematographer and a crew of four cameramen were hired to host a movie-making boot camp for church volunteers and to help with filming. They were the only paid workers in the entire production.
Some participants felt the effects of their work after the filming was completed. Jason McLeod, 21, says playing the football team captain in Facing the Giants turned his life around. “God started showing me that I was basically playing myself in the movie,” says McLeod, who worked at the church as a summer youth minister before returning to college at Georgia Southern University. “I realized I was being halfhearted in certain areas of my life. God revealed Himself to me in such a big way that summer.”
After the success of Flywheel, producers decided that Facing the Giants needed an official premiere. But the film’s opening last summer in Albany was designed to honor the volunteers, not the movie’s “stars.”
“On our red carpet, the actors lined up outside the ropes and cheered the church members as they walked up,” Kendrick recalls. “We treated them like stars, because it would not have happened without them.”
Filmmaking on faith
After Giants completed its 10-week run in 441 theaters across the country, it reached an even larger audience on DVD. In January, Catt and his wife were visiting the Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee. “We went into a Wal-Mart and I saw a display for Facing the Giants,” he says with a smile. “I turned to my wife and said, ‘Terri, we’re in Wal-Mart!’ It was so weird to stand in a Wal-Mart and think, ‘This is something from our church.’”
Stephen Kendrick attributes the success of Facing the Giants to its message. “Everybody needs hope. Everybody faces giants. Everybody needs to be encouraged in their spiritual journey,” he says.
Sherwood Baptist’s third movie, Fireproof, is in the works, with filming scheduled later in the year. The film is scheduled for release in 2008.
What do the Kendrick brothers—used to working with the bare essentials, at least in Hollywood terms—want for their next excursion into filmmaking?
“Two cameras!” Stephen says immediately.
“Chips and salsa,” Alex adds with a laugh.
Catt says that until God closes the door, Sherwood Baptist will continue making movies that convey a message of faith to the world.
“He’s blessed it,” Catt says. “We feel He’s called us to make movies. We are going to try to be faithful to that.”