With nearly twice as many Facebook fans as "Facing the Giants," the latest faith-based film to hit the big screen is looking to continue the momentum that's been building up since the Christian community flexed its muscle in front of Hollywood with the release of "The Passion of the Christ."
"Letters to God," produced by one of the filmmakers behind successful faith-based flicks "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof," tells the story of a young boy whose walk of faith crosses paths with one man's search for meaning.
As he faces his daily battle against cancer, eight-year-old Tyler Doherty (played by Tanner Maguire) corresponds regularly with God through prayers in the form of letters, which find their way into the hands of beleaguered postman Brady McDaniels.
At first, McDaniels is confused and conflicted over what to do with the letters. But over time, he begins to form a friendship with Tyler and the Doherty family, which is trying to stand strong against the doubts that come with having lost Tyler's father and with Tyler's life now on the line.
Eventually, through the process, McDaniels gets his act together, comes to realize what he should do with the letters, and helps to deliver the message of hope that the filmmakers are looking to spread.
"Inspired by a true story, Letters to God is an intimate, moving and often funny story about the galvanizing effect one child's belief can have on his family, friends and community," the film's promoters say.
The release of the overtly Christian film this weekend comes as more Christian filmmakers are taking their projects to the big screen, encouraged by the success of "The Passion of the Christ" and even more so by smaller, independent films like "Facing the Giants," which was produced on a $100,000 budget and ended up grossing more than $10 million in the United States.
Prior to the release of "The Passion of the Christ" in February 2004, only two Christian films grossed over $10 million, according to Box Office Mojo. After the release of Mel Gibson's film, nine more went on hit at least eight figures. "The Passion of the Christ" and the first two film adaptations of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia series even hit nine-digit figures – not surprising, however, as they were the products of Hollywood.
Still, while low-budget Christian films such as "Fireproof" have been hailed for paving the way for Christian filmmakers, those in the industry know there's still some distance to go.
"Fireproof is a good story, but not a great film," says Phil Cooke, president and creative director of Cooke Pictures. "There are many shortcomings in the movie – the acting, writing, directing – all could be dramatically improved. But with Fireproof, it's the model that's worth noting. They found a target audience, created a low budget movie tailored for that audience, and succeeded financially."
A similar statement could be made for "Letters to God." Having seen it earlier this year, I have to say honestly that the story is good, but it's not a great film.
The script could have been better.
And I would suspect that the reason why it wasn't is not far from what writer, director and author Dan Merchant has to say about a lot of Christian entertainment projects.
Such projects, he says, are "incubated in a bubble and often the script isn't challenged creatively the way a mainstream Hollywood script is vetted by director and producer and (for better or worse) studio."
"As I writer, I have seen the value first hand of the fifth draft. Even though I thought the first draft was genius (and it NEVER is), being pushed to refine the characters, the rhythm of a scene, the revelation of the story allows the writer to find nuances that need to be in the script to help it become the best possible movie," he says. "This highly competitive, challenging process does create a higher level of product that must not happen too often in faith-based material ... or the movies would be better."
That's not to say movies such as "Letters to God" or "Facing the Giants" aren't worth watching. Honestly speaking, I thought "Facing the Giants" – for one – was great. I was pleasantly surprised.
And even though "Letters to God" could have been better, it's still worthwhile to watch and even more so to support.
As Dr. Marc T. Newman, president of MovieMinistry.com, puts it, "the most important thing is that if we want these studios to get better at their craft, we need to support their efforts."
"Christians should vote with their wallets," Newman says.
I agree. And there's no better time to do it than opening weekend – which often times determines the fate of a film.
So unless you're strapped for time and/or strapped for cash, I'd highly recommend believers to check out "Letters to God." You'll get something out of it, and you'll be putting something into it and the Christian film movement – a vote of confidence.
And as Christian films do better and better, it can be expected that more will come out and even Hollywood will catch on and begin thinking more about films that cater toward the faith-based community.
It is, after all, market-driven.
If there's a demand, a supply will emerge.
So Christians shouldn't just hope for Hollywood to change, but give it good reason to. Go help pave the way!