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Hollywood takes notice as Bible Belt brothers turn faith-based films into box office bonanzas

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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.

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, centres 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.

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."

They're also giving back. The brothers are using the fruits of their success to help up-and-coming filmmakers with projects, as well as mentor a younger generation of hopefuls. During their recent filming, they brought in about 20 interns from different universities who worked under professionals involved in the making of the film.

"We believe every generation needs to be pouring into and investing in the next generation," Stephen Kendrick said. "Hopefully, they'll be able to stand on our shoulders one day and make even better movies."

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 theatres 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 theatres to wider release mainly through a grassroots approach more reminiscent of community theatre. It's this type of fan base growth, which brings in millions in revenue, that has gotten the attention of major studios.

"What people must understand is that Hollywood is a business," said Bishop T.D. Jakes, a megachurch pastor who produced "Heaven Is for Real" and other faith-based movies. "And while we have a message that we want to convey, we are conveying that message to an idiom of thought that is controlled by businesses and budgets."

The Kendricks' marketing strategy, in particular, has become sort of a blueprint for other Christian filmmakers over the years. It involves pre-release screenings for community church leaders, who are encouraged to spread the word about the film.

"Which is accelerated because of social media," said Sean Wolfington, a digital marketing entrepreneur who helped promote "Fireproof" and "Son of God," a faith-based film by husband and wife filmmakers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey about the life of Jesus Christ that was released in February and has made more than $67 million on a production budget of a little over $20 million.

Whatever the case, the success of such movies is likely to command the attention of major studios for quite a while.

"When we have films that represent our beliefs ... (and) to be able to have more options of those types of films in the marketplace; it's certainly speaking to Hollywood, without question," said Franklin, now president and CEO of Franklin Entertainment.

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