A resurrection in faith-based films

Films with a message of faith

There was no red carpet at Lake St Louis in Missouri, but for the filmmakers promoting a movie about the power of prayer, it's a place that provides a reason to believe. The new movie "Breakthrough" is based on the true story of 14-year-old John Smith, who fell through the ice on Lake St. Louis and was pronounced dead. Only his mother (played by Chrissy Metz, of TV's "This is Us") believed not all was lost, and started to pray. 

Metz said, "It's undeniable that something miraculous happened, and that we still don't have answers as to why or how. You can't really deny that, literally, on the documents it states, 'Patient died. Mother prayed. Patient came back to life.'"

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Long out of favor in Hollywood, faith-based movies, like "Breakthrough," are back on screen, with big-name talent, larger budgets, and box-office success. Walt Disney Studios

The message that prayer can work is part of what drew Metz to the story. "I've seen it work so many times, not only in my life but my friends, my family," she said. "And I've used it throughout my life, 'cause I needed to!"

With its religious themes of prayer, doubt and even resurrection, "Breakthrough" is what the film industry refers to – somewhat disparagingly – as a "faith-based" or "Christian film."

Correspondent John Blackstone asked Metz, "Have you ever worried in the entertainment business about being a person of faith?"

"It wasn't until people started asking me this question that I thought, 'Should I be worried? I don't know!'" she laughed. "I didn't think I needed to be worried."

Metz and the makers of "Breakthrough" hope their story will indeed break through and appeal to a general audience.

The "Greatest Story Ever Told" has been told plenty times on the big screen. There's a reason "The Ten Commandments" is unforgettable; it's been on TV almost every Easter weekend since 1973. Adjusted for inflation, it's the sixth highest-grossing film of all time. But those Biblical epics largely faded from the screen.

And then, 15 years ago, Mel Gibson released "The Passion of the Christ." The film was controversial and a must-see for the faithful. "For Christians, it was a huge moment in which we said, 'My goodness, we can actually put our story on the screen,'" said Barbara Nicolosi, a film professor at Azusa Pacific University. She's also a former nun, 

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Jim Caviezel as Jesus in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (2004). Newmarket Films

"What a lot of Christians didn't realize or think about with 'The Passion' was, Mel financed that himself. He had the millions of dollars. Very few Christians have a lot of cash anywhere near that. And unfortunately, in this art form, you get what you pay for."

But after "The Passion," Hollywood was ready to put at least some money into faith-based movies. What followed was a wave of religiously-themed projects made by Christian filmmakers. Some were hits, movies like "Fireproof" and "Facing the Giants," made for less than a million dollars but made a awe-inspiring return on investment. They tended to please their mostly Christian audience, but often not the critics.

But after "The Passion," Hollywood started paying attention. Faith-based films, like "Fireproof" and "Facing the Giants," made on small budgets brought in big money. And they pleased their mostly Christian audiences, if not the critics.

At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, one of the largest Christian Universities in the world, Brett Cole and his classmates are learning the art of filmmaking. Blackstone asked Cole, "Are there movies that have given faith-based films a bad name?"

Chrissy Metz on prayer and acting in faith-based films

"I think in the past faith-based films have been made by pastors, but they're not really artists," he replied.  "And I think that's kind of given us, you know, a bad image in a way because you have corny dialogue, or it's made more for Christians who are already Christians."

At Liberty. a day on a movie set begins with prayer: "We pray for the performances ... We give you glory and praise, in Jesus' name, amen."

For the past two years, these student-driven productions have actually had theatrical releases. "We're studying the art, we're studying people who have come before us, whether they're Christian or non-Christian, because good film is good film," said Cole. 

Ruthie Grumbine is studying to be a cinematographer: "I know this is where God wants me. And I know He wants me here in film. So, just having that as, like, a ground will definitely help me out," she said.

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Jennifer Garner in "Miracles From Heaven" (2016). Columbia Pictures

Recent changes in the film industry may help, too. There are more Christian production companies, and high-quality equipment for moviemaking is getting cheaper.

"Technology's changed a lot," said Stephan Schultze, the director of the film school at Liberty University. "Now you can actually go make a movie, reach your target audience, and be successful on multiple platforms."

Platforms like Pureflix. a streaming service like Netflix for faith and family films – movies that provide an alternative to Hollywood's sex and violence that Christian parents like (Lisa Solares) say are not right for their children

Solares told Blackstone, "I'd rather have them spend their 2 1/2 hours watching something that's gonna benefit them, and something that's gonna strengthen them from the inside out. And we've gone to see, of course, 'Miracles From Heaven.'"

"Miracles From Heaven," starring Jennifer Garner, was made for only $13 million, but brought in more than $73 million at the box office. Its producer was Bishop T.D. Jakes. "I've always been interested in film," he said. "I've always been interested in teaching through stories. And I think that's kind of congruent with what Jesus did."

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Greg Kinnear played a pastor whose son claims to have experienced visions of Heaven while undergoing surgery, in "Heaven Is For Real" *(2014). TriStar Pictures

Jakes has made 10 movies, including the Christian mega-hit "Heaven Is for Real," starring Greg Kinnear, that brought in more than $100 million.

But on Sunday, you'll find him at his Dallas megachurch known as the Potter's House. Blackstone asked Jakes, "So, here you'll preach. In a movie, you're not trying to preach?"

"I'm not trying to preach," he replied. "But I may be trying to convey a message."

A message he hopes to deliver to those who may never go to church. "From an evangelistic perspective, there are more people in the theatre on Friday night than there are in the pews on Sunday morning," Jakes said. "So, you have a huge chance to reach a wider array and a different demographic of people with a message of positivity."

With faith-based films like "Breakthrough" getting larger budgets and attracting big-name talent, Christian filmmakers may finally be getting an answer to their prayers.

Producer, pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes on faith-based films

        
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Story produced by David Rothman.