Fireproof, the low-budget Christian movie from the makers of Facing the Giants, surprised Hollywood by finishing fourth at the box office in its opening weekend, despite showing on one-third the number of screens that most movies debut on.
The drama about a firefighter trying to save his marriage provided another big surprise, this time on the bestseller lists as the marriage-advice book written by the filmmakers sold 300,000 copies before Fireproof opened Sept. 26.
The movie was written and directed by Alex and Stephen Kendrick, two brothers who are pastors at a Baptist church in Albany, Ga. Their all-volunteer cast is headed by Kirk Cameron, who plays firefighter Capt. Caleb Holt - a brave and devoted fireman willing to risk his life for others, but whose relationship with his wife, Catherine, played by Erin Bethea, is cold as ice.
Fireproof was made on a budget of only $500,000 - a pittance by Hollywood standards - and grossed $6.8 million last weekend, showing on 850 screens. In comparison, the No. 3 film, Lakeview Terrace, grossed $6.97 million and played on 2,467 screens, according to Box Office Mojo.
Stephen Kendrick attended a screening for religion journalists in Washington recently and said afterward that when he finished the screenplay, he faced a major problem: The book that guided Caleb Holt to restore his marriage was a figment of the filmmakers' imagination, a prop used to tell a story.
The Kendrick Brothers decided to create a book, using their years of pastoral experience counseling married couples, that would provide a 40-day program to save a failing marriage, and have it ready by the time the movie opened.
It was a new and different challenge from screenwriting, Stephen said.
"Writing the book was so much harder than the movie!" he said.
They brought in writer Lawrence Kimbrough and wrote The Love Dare, published by B&H Books (214 pages, $14.99).
It was a runaway success before the movie's premiere because bookstores pre-ordered it by the truckload, anticipating a huge demand from moviegoers.
The Kendrick Brothers first ventured into moviemaking in 2003 in a small way, filming tFlywheel, a Christian movie about a dishonest car salesman, for a mere $20,000. It has grossed more than $200,000 in video sales.
The brothers followed up with Facing the Giants in 2006, another overtly religious movie, this one about football, filmed on a budget of $100,000.
The filmmaking brothers raised the bar another notch with Fireproof and its half-million-dollar budget.
Stephen Kendrick said the movie would not have been possible without the all-volunteer cast, although this time the filmmakers had enough money to hire acting coaches.
The result, he said, is that while a typical Hollywood director may film a scene four times and choose the best one, the Kendricks would film a scene 10 times and hope that one of them was good enough to keep.
"We still groan over some of the scenes," Stephen acknowledged.
Kirk Cameron, a born-again Christian who has been working exclusively of late in religious movies, volunteered to play Caleb Holt because he believed in the project, Stephen Kendrick said. But the filmmakers insisted that the former Growing Pains star audition for the part. While his name recognition was significant, they wanted to make sure he was the right actor to play the role, Stephen said.
Needless to say, Cameron passed the audition.
Stephen Kendrick said they titled the movie Fireproof because they wanted to convey a message that marriages are not necessarily immune from going through fires, but that with God's help they can withstand the fire.
When asked if he considered toning down the Gospel message to try to win broader appeal, Stephen said they are not in the filmmaking business to please critics or win awards, but to change people's lives.
In an interesting side note, he said there was a scene at the end of Fireproof when Caleb and Catherine embrace and kiss. Cameron has vowed never to kiss any woman other than his wife, even in a movie role. So the Kendricks flew in Kirk's real-life spouse, Chelsea Noble, and had her stand in for his on-screen wife and filmed their kiss in silhouette.
THE TIE-INS: The Christian publishing industry is not about to waste the opportunity provided by a popular movie that stresses the importance of marriage from a biblical perspective.
In addition to the usual T-shirts and soundtrack marketing, there are packages available for churches to "engage your whole congregation" (including a copy of The Love Dare, a small-group guide, and a CD with sermon ideas and PowerPoint templates, etc.) for $49.95 and promotional packages with glossy invitations and full-color banners for $595.
A wealth of information and resources about the movie are available online at www.fireproofthemovie.com and www.lovedarebook.com.
GRAHAM'S STORY: The Rev. Billy Graham's 90th birthday is coming up Nov. 7 and his life story will hit the big screen Oct. 10 with Billy: The Early Years, a biopic starring Armie Hammer as the young evangelist.
Hammer's credits include Flicka and Veronica Mars and he will play Batman in the upcoming Justice League: Mortal.
The director is veteran actor Robbie Benson.
The official soundtrack for Billy features an all-star country cast including Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, and Brooks & Dunn, as well as Christian music stars Mac Powell of Third Day and Michael W. Smith in a duet with American Idol's Melinda Doolittle.
The movie Web site is www.billytheearlyyears.com.
NUMBERS GAME: The latest issue of Outreach magazine lists the 100 largest and the 100 fastest-growing churches in the United States.
Since everything's bigger in Texas, it's not surprising that the two biggest churches are both in Houston: Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, with attendance of 43,500, and Second Baptist Church, pastored by Ed Young, with 23,659 attendance.
The fastest-growing is Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Ala., which added 3,418 members in the last year.
CedarCreek Church in Perrysburg Township was No. 62 on the list of fastest-growing churches, with an average of 1,678 more people attending in 2008 than last year.
The greatest numerical gain was at New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, which added 4,500 people since 2007.
Total attendance at the 100 largest churches was 1,128,451 people, an increase of 111,525 over 2007.
Outreach slices and dices the data in myriad ways. The magazine's Web site is www.outreachmagazine.com.
David Yonke is The Blade's religion editor. Contact him a firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.