Lights, Camera, Gospel!

A look inside the grandiose cinematic dreams -- and genuine transcendent joy -- at Voice of Pentecost Church

The Christian movie industry emerged in the 1940s when evangelicals began producing 16mm films for churches to show during Sunday night services. In this way, films such as The Hiding Place and The Crossing developed cult followings.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, with the advent of video and the decline of Sunday night services, demand for Christian 16mm films tanked. Christian bookstores and, most recently, the Internet have replaced the churches themselves as Christian filmmakers' primary locus of distribution. A few such filmmakers have achieved success in this arena. Most notably, a Chicago-based director named Phil Vischer produced a line of videos for children about the adventures of a cast of Christ-loving animated vegetables. The VeggieTales series has sold more than 20 million copies and is now carried by mainstream retailers Wal-Mart and Kmart.

As a rule, Christian films have had less success on the big screen, but there are exceptions. In 1999, Orange County- based Christian television giant Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) bankrolled The Omega Code for $8 million. This feature-length film depicted the story of a motivational speaker who comes face to face with Satan himself, in the form of the chairman of the European Union. After being plugged on TBN, The Omega Code was shown in movie theaters and grossed $12.6 million. Its sequel bombed at the box office.

Sunny and Richard Gazowsky.
Paul Trapani
Sunny and Richard Gazowsky.
The Gazowsky Family: Richard, Misty Dejavu, Rocki 
Starr, Sandy, and Sunny.
Paul Trapani
The Gazowsky Family: Richard, Misty Dejavu, Rocki Starr, Sandy, and Sunny.

In 2004, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ blew away every independent Christian film ever made in terms of box office receipts. Prior to the movie's theatrical debut, Gibson pre-released The Passion to churches, hoping to build buzz among Christians. The tactic worked, and The Passion took in some $370 million.

The Passion, VeggieTales, and the recent presidential election are all evidence that a massive Christian market exists; how best to reach it through film is a hotly debated issue among Hollywood producers, and even among Christian filmmakers themselves.

Some, like director Rich Christiano, firmly believe that Christian films should be unapologetically evangelical. In his low-budget, yet profitable, 2002 film Time Changer, an 1890 Bible professor time-travels to the present day and is outraged at the lax moral standards and sinful practices he finds. Such films may appeal to some believers, but they are less palatable to mainstream distributors, including the major TV networks and movie studios.

"I don't think Christians or non-Christians want to be preached to in movies," says Ralph Winter, a 20th Century Fox producer whose credits include Planet of the Apes and X-Men. Winter has also helped produce several independent Christian films, among them the adaptations of the popular Left Behindbook series based on the rapture, or second coming of Christ. He believes films hoping for widespread success should incorporate Christian themes and values but leave out the Bible thumping. WYSIWYG falls firmly into the unpreachy camp.

"The story [of Gravity] is about how [the main character] was torn away from his dad, but then he got his father back," says Rocki Starr Gazowsky. "At the end of this film we want parents and children to be embracing one another. 'The Gospel' means 'the good news,' and we just want to spread God's good news that families can be together."

The odds are clearly against WYSIWYG ever producing a film that finds an audience of millions.

"The Passion is not only Academy Award-level directing from Mel Gibson, but also phenomenal marketing and distribution," says Winter. "That's what you need."

And that's what Gravity won't have.

"They're doing an epic in three years, and it just seems strange, because they've never actually released a movie," director Christiano says. "Why not do a 30-minute short, crank it out, and see if it sells?"

But if WYSIWYG's grandiose vision seems impractical in terms of cinematic economics, it makes perfect sense in the context of historical Christianity.

"The building of Chartres was an amazing story of envisioning that phenomenal cathedral, and then getting it all to happen against the odds. There have been a number of projects like that, especially with much more primitive building skills than we have today," says Harold Stassen, professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "[For a Christian] a big part of life is to be a participant in something really great that God is doing."

VOP congregation member Marc Senasac puts it another way: "Richard's attitude is, if we really believe this is God, then let's give him a decent sound system."

Over the course of several months, more than 100 people audition for a part in Gravity, many after seeing an ad that WYSIWYG posted on Craigslist declaring that the company was casting thousands of actors for a Christian epic, work for which they would not be paid. The week before Christmas, 150 people return for what the company insists are "callbacks," but really appear to be an attempt to test out some of Gravity's more ambitious scenes for the camera.

Some 30-odd women, dressed in brown ponchos sewn by Sandy Gazowsky, stand on Voice of Pentecost's stage, in front of where the movie screen used to be, waving palm fronds around a blond actress cradling a plastic baby doll. One of the women paints a portrait of the newborn on a pad of paper set up on an easel. This scene, I'm told, is supposed to be a royal birth and will ultimately have 70 people in it. A camera on a big crane moves slowly below the stage, with Gazowsky standing beside it, watching intently. Meanwhile, the scene unfolds a few feet away on a little monitor.

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