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Filmmaker: Christians must take a stand

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Christians who want to see more clean movies in theaters need to support the handful of such films already out there.

So says independent producer Rick Eldridge, whose latest movie, “The Ultimate Gift” (PG), received high marks from many Christian reviewers but didn’t fare so well in theaters. It is the fifth theatrical release by the FoxFaith label, which Twentieth Century Fox launched last year as a way of distributing faith-based and inspiration movies for Christian audiences. Although one of the line’s films — “One Night with the King” — had a solid opening weekend when comparing it to mainstream films, the other FoxFaith movies have had far less success.

Eldridge, who has worked with only one FoxFaith film thus far, said it’s “incredibly important” that Christians back movies with solid moral messages — especially since mainstream critics often are quick to find fault with them.

“The same [Christian] people that criticize Hollywood need to take a stand and say, ‘You know what? This is good and we do want to see more of this,’” said Eldridge, whose best-known work among Christians may be the “Hermie & Friends” children’s video series he produced. “… (After ‘The Passion of The Christ’ was released) I got a call from a studio executive who said, ‘Rick, tell me about this Christian stuff. They’re buying tickets.’ He doesn’t care about the message. He wants to sell tickets.

“So, if we respond as a community of believers, Hollywood will respond and make more stories like that. For them, it’s a business. It’s all about making money.”

One Night with the King averaged $4,533 per screen on opening weekend in October, ranking it fourth in that category, according to figures at BoxOfficeMojo.com. The Ultimate Gift — based on a best-selling book about a spoiled rich young man learning what’s important in life — averaged $1,520 per theater on opening weekend in early March, which ranked it 12th when comparing it to movies shown in an equal or larger number of theaters. By comparison, the top eight movies that weekend averaged at least $2,200 per theater, even though most had been out multiple weeks.

Another FoxFaith film, “THR3E” — a thriller based on the book by Christian novelist Ted Dekker — averaged $1,528 opening weekend in January. A fourth FoxFaith film, “The Last Sin Eater,” averaged $574 on its first weekend in February.

Mainstream movies tend to rely on advertising — including high-priced TV commercials — to draw people to the theaters. FoxFaith, on the other hand, is relying less on advertising and more on relationships with Christian ministries.

“Releasing Fox Faith films in theaters is a new venture that continues to evolve,” FoxFaith said in a statement to Baptist Press. “A critical element of spreading the word about these films is the unique partnership between churches and Christian retailers. Given that, comparing their performance against other releases is like comparing apples to oranges.”

Eldridge said The Ultimate Gift’s first weekend took in “about half” of what he had hoped it would make. Of course, including One Night with the King, there are examples of Christian-themed films that equaled mainstream success. The aforementioned Passion of The Christ made $83.5 million its first weekend and finished with $370 million domestically. The recently released “Amazing Grace” — the story of British Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce — averaged $5,125 on opening weekend (third in that category) and has made more than $16 million.

Eldridge, who served as executive producer of 2004 theatrical release “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” (PG, language), is working on several projects now, including one, “The Perfect Game,” about the first international team to win the Little League World Series.

“My goal and objective is to make films that can make a difference,” Eldridge said. “I don’t want to beat anybody over the head with anything, but I want to challenge them. I want them to think, and I want to do stories that can do that — whether it’s a comedy or a drama or whatever it happens to be. And I want to tell great stories and do them at a high level. And I’m not alone there — there’s a real movement in Hollywood for stories that can make a difference.”

The Ultimate Gift — rated PG for thematic elements, some violence and mild language (it has at least one expletive) — was applauded by Christian reviewers, but blasted by a handful of secular critics.

Christian reviewer Ted Baehr of MovieGuide.org gave The Ultimate Gift four out of four stars, calling it a “highly polished gem” with an “extremely captivating” storyline. Phil Boatwright of PreviewOnline.org and Baptist Press gave it three out of four stars and said it had an “uplifting narrative.”

But Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times said the movie was “reeking of self-righteousness and moral reprimand.” Louis Carlozo of the Chicago Tribune warned: “(B)e prepared to be hit over the head by the message.” Both reviewers, along with Mark Olsen of The Los Angeles Times, also criticized what they saw as the movie’s “anti-abortion” message. They apparently were referring to a brief scene in the movie when a young unmarried mother talks about her little girl (played by Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin) who is in the hospital with cancer. Giving birth to the girl, the mother says, was the “best decision” she’d ever made. Abortion is never mentioned.

The criticism stunned Eldridge.

“She decided to have her daughter, but we’ve been living with this daughter now for the last 45 minutes [in the movie], and you can tell she’s a wonderful girl and has such an amazing personality and such an amazing wit — of course it’s a wonderful decision,” he said. “But it’s not an abortion issue. It’s just, ‘This is a little girl that I love, and I’m glad I had her.'”

Catsoulis of The New York Times even called the movie “pro-poverty.” Throughout the movie, the lead character learns that money is not the most important thing in life.

Movies aimed at the Christian community often are critiqued harshly by critics, Eldridge said.

“Any film that has the type of values and virtues that we represent automatically gets a big old Christian tag put on it,” he said. “Once they do that, there’s a few guys who have an agenda who say, ‘OK, it’s Christian. Let’s find some stuff in here.’ … (Critics) check off all the little things that we’re not, and all of a sudden we’re a boring, two-hour bland sappy movie. Nobody gets killed and nobody’s in bed with anybody, so [they say] it’s boring.”

Boatwright, writing at PreviewOnline.org, made a similar argument that Eldridge made about supporting moral-themed movies.

“If we don’t back early efforts containing Christian themes, then studios may lose heart and forsake the possible masterpiece,” he wrote. “This is a movie worth attending as it fuses Christian values with an interesting plotline.”
More information about FoxFaith movies is available online at www.FoxFaithMovies.com

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  • Michael Foust