Faith and Values Awards honor religous portrayals

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One might say former Los Angeles-based casting director Reuben Cannon found his true calling after moving to Atlanta and becoming a producer on writer-director Tyler Perry's ultrasuccessful urban comedies "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" (2005), "Madea's Family Reunion" (2006) and Lionsgate's current release "Daddy's Little Girls."

"Hollywood does not understand the people who live between New York and California," says Cannon, who was the first to describe Perry's oeuvre as "gospel cinema." "Now that I live in the South, religion is probably the biggest activity here. The Bible Belt is not just a name. It is real. Hollywood just hasn't catered to the Christian faith-based market because it hasn't been necessary."

Until recently, that is. Untold articles already have pontificated about the colossal boxoffice gross of Mel Gibson's 2004 Biblical epic "The Passion of the Christ" -- which took in upward of $370 million domestically -- and the similar performance of the arguably less overt but still Christian-themed "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which earned roughly $292 million stateside after its December 2005 release.

No doubt seduced by those staggering sums, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment announced in October the creation of a new label, FoxFaith, that will release faith-based films theatrically and on DVD. Two months later, Hollywood impresario Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob, announced that their nascent outfit the Weinstein Co. had entered into a multiyear first-look deal with Tulsa, Okla.-based Impact Entertainment, a Christian movie production and grass-roots marketing company, to produce and acquire theatrical and direct-to-video titles for the faith-based community.

And there's more. David Kirkpatrick, an 18-year veteran of Paramount, recently left the studio to co-found Good News Holdings, an independent production and distribution company that is financing and adapting Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," as well as a slate of Christian-themed horror films. He also is starting up a Christian programming satellite channel.

"What happens in New York and Los Angeles is we breathe rarefied air, and we believe we know what people want," says Kirkpatrick, whose resume also includes stints at Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone Pictures as president of production. He recalls that while working for the studios, there was plenty of talk about how the executives should all pile in a bus and drive around the country "to find out what the hearts and dreams of everybody around were. It was a nice idea, though we never did it."

What all of this amounts to is that religious conservatives have a newfound cachet in Hollywood thanks largely to their significant spending power, which is great news to someone like Ted Baehr, who publishes Movieguide magazine and, with the help of his staff, reviews and analyzes nearly every theatrically released film in a given year. Although the content of the reviews might surprise outsiders -- movies are evaluated in terms of how they hew to Christian worldviews, if any characters smoke or consume alcohol, if the message embraces a "humanist" worldview -- Baehr has the ear of studio executives at the Walt Disney Co. and New Line, the latter of which struggled with its recent foray into religious-themed cinema, "The Nativity Story." And when representatives at WMA need theological input for their plan to work with faith-based films, they dine with him.

Baehr has funneled much of that power into his annual Faith and Values Movieguide Awards, the 15th annual edition of which will take place tonight at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Having already listed its 10 best films of 2006 in two categories -- movie of the year for mature audiences and best family movie -- one winner from each category will be selected at the ceremony.

Also on tap are presentations of the Libertas Award, which honors the best representation of America, and the Grace Award, which is given to actors who "best displayed God's grace toward us as human beings," according to the Movieguide Web site. The evening, which will be hosted by John Ratzenberger, is capped off with the organization's biggest honor: the John Templeton Epiphany Prizes, which are given to the best movie and film, with $50,000 going to the creators of each.

"One of the things that Movieguide really advocates is excellence," says show producer Susan Wales, who, along with Baehr, producer Ken Wales (who also is her husband), Movieguide editor Tom Snyder and others connected to Movieguide, serves on the awards jury. "You really have to walk in excellence when you represent your faith."

Winners are not confined to films that strictly advocate a religious point of view, however. Rich Cowan, president of production company North by Northwest, won a best picture prize in 2001 for "The Basket," a story set amidst World War I about ballplayers who live in a small Washington farming community. The win came as a surprise, he says: "It wasn't our intention to make a religious movie. We just wanted a thoughtful film. There really isn't a Christian theme in the movie at all."

Andre van Heerden, vp film for Cloud Ten Pictures, whose films are largely distributed by Sony, takes a harder line on what the company defines as a picture of "faith and value." Founded by brothers Peter and Paul Lalonde in 1997, Cloud Ten's first production was 1999's "Revelation" -- the company sticks close to the Christianity factor implied by "faith" with its projects. In other words, don't confuse Cloud Ten's faith films with a family factor; van Heerden says he wouldn't allow his 7-year-old daughter to watch "Revelation."

"It has too much violence in it," says van Heerden, whose company has released films like director Alex Kendrick's 2006 football drama "Facing the Giants" and has its own franchise in the "Left Behind" movies, which are based on the best-selling book series. "End times prophecy has a lot of violence."

That there are schisms, however superficial, in the ever-growing collective of faith-based filmmaking comes as no surprise. But Baehr says he's just pleased that there is mounting evidence -- some of which is collected by his organization and presented at each year's awards ceremony -- that not only do "faith and values"-based films proportionately outperform the competition at the boxoffice, but the major studios and the independents are opting to release more projects for the whole family than ever before.

"When we first started doing Movieguide, we were trying to put a family film on the cover, and we could only find six family films that whole year," Baehr says. "Now, I've got more family films than I know what to do with. I just told (Buena Vista president of distribution) Chuck Viane, 'I keep saying you can't give us all these films -- this is more than we can keep track of!'"

Mike Paseornek, president of Lionsgate and an executive producer for family film nominee "Akeelah and the Bee" (2006), says his company is making a concerted effort to regularly release more family-friendly fare. In the pipeline are two films from South African director Sunu Gonera: the planned March release "Pride," which stars Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac in a story about a swim team for troubled teens, and "Church Boy," about the life of gospel singer Kirk Franklin. And, of course, the company has no plans to stop working with Perry anytime soon.

"We are going to make a lot of films that are targeted at an audience that's concerned about value-based movies," Paseornek says. "To us, a value-based message is the same as a faith-based message."

Clearly, Paseornek, whose company also is behind such nonfaith-based offerings as the ultraviolent "Hostel" and "Saw" franchises, knows how to balance the voices on both of his shoulders. "It makes you feel good to make movies that you're proud of and you're proud to show your family, your parents and your kids," he says. "Regardless of our religion, no one can deny that they feel good about showing these movies. Our faith-based movies are not preachy, they're organically good."

And, perhaps, they offset all that blood and gore? Paseornek chuckles. "Right," he says. "It's an antidote to all those 'Saw' movies -- the movies we enjoy for other reasons: the guilty pleasures."
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