It's the end of the world, take three.
The third in a series of apocalyptic films based on Tim LaHaye's and Jerry B. Jenkins' blockbuster novels, Left Behind: World at War, will bypass Hollywood's standard operating procedures when it opens Friday in more than 3,000 churches instead of movie theaters.
"It's an uneven playing field," producer-screenwriter Andre Van Heerden said in an interview. "Hollywood has so many millions of dollars, and distribution deals all set up. We have to change the rules a little bit, especially if we are going to reach the people we want to reach."
The latest episode features the same key players, with Kirk Cameron starring as feisty reporter Buck Williams, his wife, Chelsea Noble, playing Hattie Durham, and Gordon Currie portraying Nicolae Carpathia, who was revealed in the previous films as the Anti-Christ.
Adding some star-power to World at War is Academy Award-winning actor Lou Gossett, Jr., who plays U.S. President Gerald Fitzhugh.
Cloud 10 Pictures, the Toronto filmmaking company that created the series, spent about $17 million on the new film, slightly more than the budget for each of the two previous Left Behind movies. While the funding may not match up with that of today's major studio releases, it was sufficient for the task at hand, Mr. Van Heerden said.
"Whenever you're producing, directing, or writing, you have to look at the story you're trying to tell," he said. "One of my favorite movies is [the 1957 murder-trial movie] 12 Angry Men, where the characters are basically sitting in a room. You wouldn't need a large budget for that, and the movie holds up even today."
Left Behind: World at War contains several scenes with cars and buildings blowing up and bursting into flames, but the film's focus is the characters, Mr. Van Heerden pointed out.
"In writing this one, we made sure we were telling a personal story, but on a large scale," he said. "We were able to get a sense of the world as it goes into World War III, without giving away the fact that we weren't working with a $100 million budget."
Two local pastors who plan to show the movie at their churches said they are more concerned with the message than the production quality.
"I don't know that you can compete with a $200 million Hollywood production, but we're looking for it to be good enough that it doesn't look cheesy and it gets people to think there's some really serious stuff here," said the Rev. Steve Miller of Maumee Valley Church, which will show the movie at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
"We weren't that impressed with the previous ones," he said, "but they said this one's supposed to be a lot better."
Mr. Miller has studied biblical prophecies about the end of the world and his interpretations don't necessarily line up with the scenarios depicted in Left Behind. He is grateful, however, for films that promote discussion of the topic.
The series starts after the Rapture, an event in which all Christians disappear from the Earth and are instantly transported to heaven. Those who are "left behind" must deal with the chaos and confusion, find an explanation for the disappearances, and deal with the rise of Carpathia, the Anti-Christ who comes to world dominance by promising peace.
The new movie is based on the last 50 pages of the second LaHaye-Jenkins Left Behind book, Tribulation Force.
"As a church," Mr. Miller said, "our position is that we're not sure when the Lord is coming back, but we want to get your attention and say that this is real, that stuff like this is going to be happening and you need to be ready for Him to return someday."
The Rev. Brad Adams, pastor of Timberlake Community Church in Holland, said showing the movie gives him a chance to bring new people into his church and to provide an alternative to the high-priced movie theaters. Timberlake is giving away popcorn and pop when it shows the film at 7 p.m. Friday.
"We see it as a great opportunity to reach out to the community and to offer them a free evening of entertainment and a fun movie night," Mr. Adams said. "They can bring their family and watch the movie here instead of going to a theater and paying $9.50 a ticket and $4 for popcorn."
As for the first two Left Behind films, "I'm not so sure that they were where they needed to be, quality-wise," Mr. Adams said. "But going by on the trailer for the new one, it looks like it will be a very good, very entertaining movie."
At the same time, the pastor said, "obviously it's going to get across a good message that most movies don't have these days. As a church, we're wanting to support them in doing this. If we support them and promote this movie, then maybe other people in Hollywood will see that they can do these kinds of movies and that there's support there."
There are 127 churches in Ohio signed up to show the movie and more than 3,000 churches nationwide. Locations and times of church screenings are available online at www.leftbehind-worldatwar.com.
"We thought that instead of taking this to Hollywood, how about taking Hollywood to the churches?" Mr. Van Heerden said. "When we looked at the technology, you can have a great screening with digital projectors and surround sound. You don't need a movie theater. So we started asking people and screening the movie for pastors, and after they saw it and wiped away a tear, they said they would love to show it to their congregations."
DVD and VHS videos of Left Behind: World at War will be released Tuesday and for the first time Sony Entertainment is involved in the production and distribution.
Mr. Van Heerden said the fourth Left Behind movie is in the preproduction stage and should be released next year.