"Courageous," the new, Christian-themed movie that was created and produced by Sherwood Pictures, the media division of Sherwood Baptist Church, continues to make headlines across America. Certainly, it is the film, itself, that has audiences and critics intrigued. But, there's also something grander and more complex that is driving the discourse.
Contrasting greatly from other Hollywood successes, Sherwood's story is an astounding tale that defies the odds, while showcasing the ability of positive and uplifting messages to resonate with the masses. Rather than praising drugs, sex and violence, Sherwood pictures uses films like "Courageous" to help individuals and families reconnect with one another -- and with God.
The Blaze sat down with Stephen Kendrick who has co-written and produced the church's highly-successful films, to learn more about how a Baptist church from Georgia has distinguished itself as the epicenter of spiritually-themed big screen successes.
Every week, countless movies make their way into theaters, as they entertain and inspire millions of audience members. But there's something special about "Courageous" -- something uniquely organic. See, most Hollywood successes are driven my major studios and professionals who have countless years of experience in the industry. For Sherwood, which is based in Albany, Georgia, the situation is much different.
Kendrick, who is the Senior Associate Pastor at the church, provided me with a brief history that explains how he and his brother, Alex (Alex stars in "Courageous"; he also co-wrote and directed the film), found their way from the pulpit to the big screen.
As children, both Stephen and Alex had a penchant for making home videos. Their passion for telling stories through film started early on.
"When we were in elementary school, Alex asked for 8mm movie projector," he said. "He would setup chairs in our garage and invite friends to come over and watch his home movies. It’s always been a love and a passion."
And according to Stephen, their hobby of capturing almost everything on film even extended into the classroom. "In high school we would be assigned papers and we would submit videos instead," he said through laughter.
Alex's dream was to make films as an adult. But as the years went on, Stephen says the two men were led toward a very different career path -- Christian ministry.
"Both of us were called to ministry. We really fell in love with God by developing our own faith," he explains. As their years in ministry progressed, though, the path towards realizing their childhood dreams became clearer. Eventually, they both ended up working at Sherwood Baptist Church, which set the stage for their theatrical success.
Alex, who was brought on as the media director, was the first to arrive on staff at Sherwood. "When he was hired, he told the church that one day [the church] was going to make Christian movies," Stephen explained. At the time, church officials didn't really know what this meant.
After all, making serious movies isn't something houses of worship are known for. But according to Stephen, it didn't take the church very long to realize that it needed to work its way into popular media if it wanted to make an impact. He explains:
"In 2002, a national poll came out and it said that the church was no longer in the top 10 influences of American culture. So we realized, if people are letting media influence them, why not take the best messages in the world and incorporate that into a movie?"
So, in 2002, Stephen says that the church rallied $20,000 and started working on "Flywheel, the first of the four films that have been produced by Sherwood Pictures. Considering the fact that this was the church's first attempt at movie-making, the production for "Flywheel" was, understandably, a bit disorganized. "Everyone was a volunteer church actor," Stephen explains.
Armed with a vision, childhood dreams, an extremely small budget and a troop of Christians willing to give their time to the cause, Alex and Stephen wrote the script and began production. When the film was completed, a local theater agreed to show it on one screen. Of course, the church was elated.
"We were so disorganized that we finished the movie the morning that it was supposed to be shown at the local theater. We were sitting in a theater thinking, 'Is this about to be a big, cheesy embarrassment?,'" he explained. But it was quite the opposite.
"People weeped as they watched and gave a standing ovation. We were so exhausted -- we were thinking, 'Do people really like this?'” Apparently, they did. Below, watch the trailer for "Flywheel."
"Flywheel" did so well (it was the second most popular film during its debut weekend) that the theater asked if it could continue showing the film for a week. In the end, the movie was kept on screen for six weeks -- an accomplishment that was mesmerizing considering that it was a local, low-budget production.
According to Stephen, "["Flywheel"] beat 12 Hollywood movies that came, died and left. It got funny. Every week we’d get a call from the theater asking for more time."
In the end, the church decided to put the film on DVD. To date, Sherwood has sold more than 500,000 copies of "Flywheel." Even Walmart and Blockbuster got in on the action, as the former sold the film and the latter offered it up for rental. This was the beginning of major movie success for the Kendrick brothers. In sum, Sherwood has produced four films, with each doing astoundingly well.
Following "Flywheel's" local popularity, the Kendrick brothers' second film, "Facing the Giants" (about the coach of a high school football team), ended up reaching major national success. Stephen and Alex, hoping to build on their presence in the local theater, wanted to bring the second film into three theaters. But fate had very different plans for the brothers.
"We were submitting the movie to get copyright permission on a Third Day song," Stephen explains. Then, the unexpected happened. The music label they were working with to obtain usage permissions approached the church, explained that the company had just been purchased by Sony and offered to distribute the film to 441 theaters across America. "We didn't even know they did distribution," he said.
Thus, the path to success was set for the second film, going above and beyond the church's humble, three-theater goal. In 2006, "Facing the Giants" was released with great fanfare. Watch the trailer, below:
"Facing the Giants" had a $100,000 budget and the film subsequently brought in an astounding $10 million. The team's third film, "Fireproof," which focused upon repairing broken marriages, had a larger budget -- $500,000.
In the end, "Fireproof" brought in $33 million, opening as the fourth most popular film during its debut weekend. Now, "Fireproof" is on DVD in 75 countries -- a monumental accomplishment, as the film continues to impact families both in America and abroad. Watch the trailer for "Fireproof":
Stephen summarizes these success as follows: “That had to have been God because we know we don’t have the skills, the ability, the training to do this…”
Now, "Courageous," the latest flick to come from the Kendrick team, opened in fifth place (by some accounts fourth place), nationally, making it difficult to ignore the astounding ability Sherwood Pictures has to connect with the American public on the big screen.
Despite this success, though, Stephen says that the church's goal isn't to rival Tinseltown. He explains, "We’re not trying to compete with Hollywood. We're just trying to do something to reach out into our community."
When it comes to Hollywood's reaction to the church's succes, he says he hears "mixed things." While some cheer Sherwood on, others are against the church's projects. Sometimes, "they're against non-Hollywood people [making movies]." For Hollywood, he says, the canvas is the screen, but for Sherwood "the canvas is families."
Stephen credits the box office achievements he, his brother and their church community have had to strong and relevant story lines. While the films do, indeed, tackle tough issues and subject matters that are pertinent to contemporary society, the Kendrick brothers' process for making their films may also play well into their successes. He explains:
"After a film is done, we go back and pray. We ask the Lord, 'What do you want the next movie to be about?' We spend six months to a year praying and asking that question.
What's happened consistently is that we always have a ton of movie ideas. But [when we pray, a specific] idea kind of gets dropped on us and it lines right up with scripture and where people are in need."
So, while Stephen and Alex always have a multitude of ideas for movies they'd like to make, the filmmakers rely heavily on prayer as a tool to guide them toward the one subject that they believe God wants them to tackle. When asked about why the two chose fatherhood as the subject of their latest film, "Courageous," Stephen says that he has both a logical answer and a "faith" answer.
"Logic is that we are fathers. Alex has six kids and I have four kids and we are passionate about the issue of fatherhood and how important that role is," he said. "We know how hard it is on those without dads."
When it comes to the faith answer, Stephen explains that he and his brother prayed incessantly. As they researched the issue of fatherhood, he says the material "just exploded" and it became more than clear that this was the area of focus God wanted the church to turn its attention to. In discussing what he hopes people will take away from "Courageous," he says:
"I hope that dads will realize how priceless they are to the next generation. This generation doesn’t know what great fatherhood looks like. They don’t see it at home and they don’t see it in television and in movies.
Young men in their 20s and 30s sometimes don’t know what is it to be a man. They don’t have a vision for being a strong husband or father. They’re not getting married. They’re following the example of the guys on 'Friends' rather than 'Father Knows Best.'"
Here's the "Courageous" trailer:
And, below, watch the film's opening scene:
Aside from impacting audiences with positive, Christian messaging, the church has been able to turn the profits made from the films into more wide-reaching ministry. According to Stephen, "We started with nothing. We never used church offering plate money for any of our movies." He explains that people donated to assist in funding these films. He continues:
"We pour the money right back into ministry. We have started multiple churches. We also created an 82-acre sports club for families in the community. We have done homeless work and food shelter work. There's a whole list of things the church has done with that money."
Stephen says that his church has been "totally blown away" by the success each film has had. "We're celebrating what God's doing in peoples' lives through these movies," he says. Next on the agenda, he says, is rest and prayer, as the church again seeks to figure out which subject it is destined to explore on the big screen.
"We're in a situation in which is takes us three years to make a movie," he says. "It's got to be right. I'm not interested in good ideas. I'm interested in God ideas."