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Box Office Shocker: How Moviemaking Georgia Church Behind 'Courageous' Outperforms Hollywood

Courtesy of Sherwood Pictures

The Baptist church behind Sherwood Pictures, the company that produced the indie hit "Courageous," makes films that earn back their budgets dozens of times over.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of the Hollywood Reporter.

Before the filmmakers for Sherwood Pictures shot the first frame of Courageous, they prayed. It's right there in the press materials. They did the same thing with Sherwood's previous theatrical releases, Facing the Giants in 2006 and Fireproof in 2008. None of these Christian-themed movies is up to Hollywood production standards, though by one metric -- box office compared to budget -- they're some of the most profitable films in modern history.

While Iron Man 2 and Thor earned three times their production budgets, Giants was made for $100,000 and took in $10.2 million domestically, 102 times its budget. Fireproof cost $500,000 but earned $33.5 million, a multiple of 67 on its budget, and Courageous, made for $2 million, earned eight times that in its first 10 days. It bowed No. 4 at the box office with$9.1 million from 1,161 theaters.

It seems Sherwood -- a company few in Hollywood have even heard of -- has discovered the secret for making films on a shoestring that people will line up to see in theaters. Maybe it's all that praying.

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Sherwood Pictures is "the moviemaking ministry" of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., which spans 130 acres. While it serves 3,000 congregants from a dozen nations, its message -- "passion for Christ and compassion for all" -- reaches millions more through TV and radio broadcasts and its film entity, which launched in 2003 with Flywheel, a movie produced for $20,000 that sold 350,000 DVDs. Since then, Sherwood has struck distribution and marketing deals with two units of Sony Pictures: Affirm Films and Provident Films.

Sherwood's films are similarly themed. Courageous is about cops who fear they might fail as fathers without help from Christ. With Fireproof, which starred Kirk Cameron, it was men seeking help to become better husbands, and with Giants and Flywheel, it was men seeking help in their professional lives. The movies have progressed from amateurish to critical successes.

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"The characters are complex and well drawn, struggling with various personal issues that test their faith and character in believable ways," The Hollywood Reporter film reviewer Frank Scheck wrote of Courageous.

The movies are written, directed and produced by Alex and Stephen Kendrick, brothers who are ministers at the church and had minimal moviemaking experience before Flywheel.

They're shot and cast largely with volunteers, and profits go to the church, which spends the money on initiatives like an 82-acre sports complex. The Kendrick brothers don't take a salary for acting, directing and producing, though they profit from books that stem from their films. One they wrote based on Fireproof, for example, sold 4 million copies.

As Sherwood's filmmaking has improved, so has the marketing and distribution. Flywheel showed in a single theater, and the buzz generated a local news story and a DVD. For the next three films, there were hundreds of screenings for faith leaders, followed by ads on Christian radio and TV and on Fox News Channel. The marketing budget on Giants was $4 million, and the movie played in 441 theaters, followed by $7.5 million in marketing for Fireproof in 905 theaters and $9 million for Courageous, according to insiders. Sony and Sherwood declined comment for this report.

It's no secret that Hollywood has been trying to tap into the Christian audience (20th Century Fox has founded FoxFaith). Sherwood attracts Bible Belters by taking the obvious approach -- more in line with The Passion of the Christ than The Chronicles of Narnia series, where a resurrected lion might or might not represent Jesus (depending on which crowd the marketers are talking to). With Sherwood, there's no ambiguity.

"They say we're preaching to the choir, but you know what? Sometimes the choir needs a good reminder," Alex Kendrick said in a recent interview with THR's Kim Masters on KCRW's The Business.

Encouraged by Sherwood, other churches are delving into filmmaking. The Grace Card, for example, is a buddy-cop Christian drama starring Louis Gossett Jr. and produced by Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, Tenn. Made for $460,000 and marketed and distributed in February by Affirm, Provident and Samuel Goldwyn Films, the movie took in $2.4 million. (Goldwyn also helped distribute Giants and Fireproof.)

"Christian movies have become quite a cottage industry in the Bible Belt," says Howard Klausner, who wrote the 2000 Clint Eastwood movie Space Cowboys before moving to Tennessee, where he wrote and produced Grace Card. "My desire is to make Christian movies mainstream -- to grow the genre up a little bit and make it more culturally relevant."