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In a June 26, 2014 photo provided by AFIRM Films/Provident Films, Stephen, left, and Alex Kendrick, pose outside The Gem Theater after shooting several car scenes along the main drag in downtown Kannapolis, N.C., for their fifth movie. The theater manager thought it be cool to put all their previous films on the marquee to serve as background and they agreed. The Kendrick brothers, who just wrapped up filming their fifth project, are making movies that could see wider release as distributors pay attention to the box office trends in the traditional Bible Belt and beyond. (AP Photo/AFIRM Films/Provident Films, Kevin Peeples)
2 Bible Belt filmmakers expand box office horizons
First Published Aug 03 2014 10:40 am • Last Updated Aug 03 2014 10:42 am

Nashville, Tenn. • It’s the Hollywood ending every studio wants: Low-cost production and high returns at the box office.

Filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick seem to have the formula down — grossing nearly $80 million on four films made for less than $4 million combined. Only thing is the Kendrick brothers work far from Hollywood and, outside the world of Christian-themed cinema, many have never heard of their films.

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That could change.

Increasingly, major studios appear to be taking a leap for faith-based audiences with biblical epics such as "Noah" starring Russell Crowe, the planned December release of "Exodus" and a remake of "Ben-Hur" for early 2016.

At one point in April, there were four faith-based movies in the Top 20 at the box office, including "Heaven Is for Real," about a 4-year-old boy’s account of his trip to heaven. It has grossed more than $99 million on a production budget of $12 million by Sony Pictures.

"Hollywood has taken note," said DeVon Franklin, former Sony senior vice president of production, who oversaw "Heaven Is for Real."

The Kendrick brothers — who just wrapped up filming their fifth project — are making movies that could see wider release as distributors pay attention to the box office trends in the traditional Bible Belt and beyond.

Their latest film, which has yet to have a title, centers on a family realizing the power of prayer.

"The point is not racing to see how many movies we can produce," said Alex Kendrick, in a telephone interview from Charlotte, North Carolina. "The point is to take the time, in prayer and research, to make a solid film and get the most ministry out of it before moving to the next one."

The Kendricks began with a tiny production company with their pastor at Sherwood Baptist, but decided to strike out on their own with their fifth film. The brothers say the separation was amicable and necessary for them to grow as filmmakers and recruit actors and crew nationwide.

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In previous movies, the brothers mostly used volunteers from their church though one of their more popular movies, "Fireproof," did include Kirk Cameron, a veteran actor memorably known starting in the ‘80s for his youthful role in a popular TV sitcom, "Growing Pains."

"The people we’ve gotten to meet who have expertise in areas that we have needed help have come to the table," said Stephen Kendrick. "And we’re growing as filmmakers."

The Kendricks — both ministers who sport salt-and-pepper beards — grew up in suburban Atlanta and now live in Albany in southwestern Georgia. They are still part of the ministry team at the Sherwood megachurch. Along with the church’s senior pastor, Michael Catt, they created Sherwood Pictures in 2002 and scraped together $20,000 to put out their first film, "Flywheel," in 2003 about a dishonest used car salesman who learns integrity.

With a budget of $100,000, the company released "Facing the Giants" in 2006. That film — about having courage amid adversity — ended up grossing more than $10 million, appearing in a little over 400 theaters primarily in the South. Then came "Fireproof," a story about a couple struggling to make their marriage work. That movie was made with a budget of just $500,000 and grossed over $33 million.

"That was what I would call the dawning of the new era of independent Christian films," said Ben Howard, senior vice president of Provident Films, a part of Sony Pictures that focuses on the Christian audience.

"Courageous," a film about fatherhood, was released in 2011 and made more than $34 million on a $2 million budget. The fifth Kendrick brothers’ movie is expected to cost at least $3 million.

Box office expert Paul Dergarabedian said the Kendricks’ earlier movies "weren’t what anyone would consider blockbusters in the conventional sense of the word."

"But the success of those films probably influenced filmmakers, studios, producers, distributors, to look at this genre as a viable, potentially money-making genre," said Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak.

Faith-based entertainment is not new territory. The Bible alone has spawned dozens of films dating back to the 1920s and Broadway has found enduring hits in shows such as "Jesus Christ Superstar."

While the Kendricks have found success, they’re still in the shadows of faith-centric blockbusters like "Noah," which was released in March and has made more than $359 million at the global box office on a production budget of $125 million.

However, the Kendricks and others like them have been able to move their lower-budget faith-based films from limited theaters to wider release mainly through a grassroots approach more reminiscent of community theater. It’s this type of fan base growth, which brings in millions in revenue, that has gotten the attention of major studios.

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