FAITH IN HOLLYWOOD SINCE MEL GIBSON'S 'PASSION,' HUNDREDS OF FILMS WITH JUDEO-CHRITIAN, FAMILY-FRIENDLY THEMES HAVE HIT THE BIG SCREEN - AND MADE BIG BUCKS.
Long considered the modern-day equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah, Hollywood is increasingly showing its family-friendly side, churning out an unprecedented number of films and television shows with uplifting, redemptive themes.
In the three years since Mel Gibson released "The Passion of the Christ," hundreds of films with Judeo-Christian, spiritual and family-friendly themes have hit the screen -- from "The Nativity Story" to "Amazing Grace."
Last year alone, nearly 50 films featured positive Judeo-Christian content that producers hoped would appeal to the estimated 110 million Americans who attend church every week, according to Camarillo-based Movieguide.
The films raked in an average $39 million, according to Movieguide. All five of the major Hollywood studios have created marketing departments to target the growing demand for faith-based and family fare.
"People are gravitating to anything that gives them hope, inspiration, motivation or a sense of something light," said Mark Clayman, executive producer of "The Pursuit of Happyness."
"People want good stories. They want to be entertained, but they also want something they can bring their kids to and enjoy as a family. Look at our world. There is so much war and junk and disease. I think people are just hungry for the other side."
To meet the demand, 20th Century Fox recently launched Fox Faith Movies, which plans to release a dozen faith-based films a year. Last fall, the Walt Disney Co. also announced it would focus more on family-oriented and faith-based movies.
Movieguide publisher Ted Baehr, who also chairs the Christian Film & Television Commission, said Hollywood executives realize that the public wants more uplifting and spiritual fare.
"There is competition for the Christian audience now that there hasn't been before," Baehr said. "I thought at some point it would level off, but so far it's getting bigger and bigger.
"It's more than I could have possibly imagined. One of the audiences that has become stable and even grown for books, music and movies is the Christian audience."
Stephen Kendrick, executive producer of "Facing the Giants" and an associate pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., said the film has received broad praise since its release last year.
The drama chronicles a Christian high school football coach who uses faith to battle overwhelming fear and failure.
Kendrick said he and his brother, Alex -- also a pastor at the church and executive producer of the movie -- got more than 5,000 e-mails from people who said the movie has changed their lives.
An additional 1,200 e-mails expressed professions of faith.
"We think more movies like this are going to be rising up," Kendrick said. "I know there is a huge wave of people -- thanks to the digitalization of media and the lowering of costs to be able to produce films -- who are now beginning to study and learn how to make films. A feature film is one of the most influential things in our culture."
Getting their break
The brothers decided to make movies after reading about a 2002 poll by The Barna Group that found church was not considered among the top 10 influences in American culture.
"Movies and music are in the top three," Kendrick said. "So instead of cursing the darkness, we thought, 'We have the best message in the world that is still transforming people's lives and giving them hope, forgiveness and peace.' And so we want to take that message to them, using the most influential means possible. And that's why we chose to go into feature films."
At the grass-roots level, a growing number of aspiring Christian filmmakers, scriptwriters, actors and actresses are breaking into Hollywood.
Last month, 57 teams of Christian filmmakers from around the world participated in the Burbank-based 168-Hour Film Project.
Part of a "speed filmmaking" phenomenon, teams were given a week to write a short script based on a randomly assigned Scripture verse, and another week to film and edit a five- to 10-minute movie.
Films to be screened
The films will be screened March 23 at the Stars Art Theater and March 24 at the Alex Theatre, both in Glendale. Trinity Broadcast Network will air films chosen as the best.
"It's our biggest year ever," said John David Ware, founder and executive director of the project.
"We've had many people who are first-time filmmakers go on to produce many other films. The teams are expanding their short films into feature-length films and trying to sell them. Many of the films have won awards at other film festivals."
One of those filmmakers -- a graduate of Act One, a Hollywood-based organization that trains Christian scriptwriters -- is Atwater Village resident Amanda Llewellyn.
Llewellyn and her husband, Wes, have made two short films for the project and have a full-length feature film coming out Tuesday.
That film -- "The Moment After 2: The Awakening" -- is a post-Rapture story that follows the lives of two former FBI agents.
"You are starting to have more people like me ... who are starting to make inroads into management and executive positions in Hollywood," Llewellyn said.
"It's not a secret coup or a takeover. What it is is just allowing us a place at the table. I think Mel Gibson was able to kick down some doors for us in that area because of his financial success."
Dean Batali, former executive producer of "That '70s Show," who now writes TV scripts with faith-based themes, said the move marks a significant shift.
"Before, if you were a Christian and said you wanted to work in Hollywood, they would say: 'Get behind me Satan. You should be a missionary, a pastor or work at a Christian college,'" said Batali, who also wrote for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
"This is a diverse nation, and for the past decades, Christians have shunned Hollywood. All we are saying is: 'Why shun Hollywood? Let's go to Hollywood and take a seat at the table."'
But Batali said it's not always easy.
"I live in both worlds." Batali said. "The people I go to church with tend not to understand the people I work with in Hollywood, and the people in Hollywood tend to be really fearful of the people I go to church with."
Jordan Kerner, producer of "Charlotte's Web," said he thinks the public is welcoming Hollywood's attention to more uplifting and inspirational movies and TV shows.
"I think it's fantastic we have people here who are making movies that affect the heart and mind and faith and elements of our culture that don't find expression very often in motion pictures or on television," Kerner said.
Actress Shelli Boone, who stars in "Saints and Sinners," said viewers can relate to the themes because they offer universal tales of trials, tribulations and temptations.
"Everyone goes through obstacles, but in the end, if you keep your faith, if you keep steadfast to what is really important, anyone can make a turnaround," Boone said.
Keeping the faith
Here are some of the recent and upcoming faith-based and family-friendly films:
"Amazing Grace" Idealist William Wilberforce maneuvers his way through Parliament in 18th century England, endeavoring to end slavery in the empire.
"The Last Sin Eater" Henry Thomas ("ET") and Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") star in a Christian mystery, set in Appalachia.
"The Ultimate Gift" Based on Jim Stovall's best-selling novel, a man fights to get his share of a willed inheritance. Features Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine").
"The Nativity Story" Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.
SOURCE: Movieguide, Daily News research
3 photos, box
(1 -- color ) Wes Llewellyn, from left, directs actors Lonnie Colon and E.P. McKnight for a faith-based film called "A Good Day," which will be screened in March as part of the Burbank-based 168-Hour Film Project.
(2 -- color) A film crew prepares to shoot a scene for "A Good Day." The film is part of the 168-Hour Film Project, for which entrants write a script based on Scripture.
(3 -- color) Amanda and Wes Llewellyn are working on a 10-minute faith-based film called "A Good Day," which will be entered in the 168-Hour Film Project. For the project, entrants create a short film based on a Bible verse. Thanks in part to Mel Gibson and "The Passion of the Christ," Hollywood has witnessed a surge in faith-based and family-oriented movies in the past few years.
Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
Keeping the faith (see text)