John Rhys-Davies' Faith-Based Film Aims to Top 'Theater-on-Demand' Release Record

John Rhys-Davies - P 2014
AP Images/Invision

John Rhys-Davies - P 2014

'Beyond the Mask' is set in Colonial America and being distributed through Gathr Films.

A $4 million faith-based movie made largely by 400 volunteers from the homeschooling community is hoping to open April 6 on as many as 1,100 screens, far more than needed to set a record for the largest on-demand theatrical opening.

The film, called Beyond the Mask and starring John Rhys-Davies, is a faith-based action-adventure movie. It's set in Colonial America and, while fiction, includes some historical facts and figures, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence and scenes involving the likes of Benjamin Franklin. It was the historical aspect that drew Rhys-Davies to the project.

"I love history, and there's a lot of shared history that America and Britain have," said the Welsh actor. "It's an exciting story with wonderful historical elements."

The plot involves a mercenary for the British East India Company — which producer Aaron Burns calls "the first too-big-to-fail multinational company to get special favors from the government" — who is on the run and trying to rehabilitate his reputation after having been double-crossed. Rhys-Davies plays the heavy in the film, and he clearly has an affinity for America's earliest heroes.

"Ben Franklin is one of the most fortuitously happy of men," he said while in New Zealand filming The Shannara Chronicles, an upcoming fantasy series from MTV. "Franklin is thoughtful and well-read, and his contemporaries are the most stimulating bunch of young Englishmen ever to have left the British Isles. Those Founding Fathers of yours — you think of Pericles in Athens. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Washington — they are an extraordinary class of very great men who can get on with each other and change the world."

The movie is from Burns Family Studios, founded by Aaron Burns and his cousin Chad Burns, who directed Beyond the Mask. It is from a script co-written by Stephen Kendrick who, with his brother Alex Kendrick, are the prolific duo behind such faith-based movies as Fireproof, Courageous and Facing the Giants.

The filmmakers are distributing through Gathr Films using the theater-on-demand method, whereby theaters are booked based on presales. Once a theater sells a certain number of tickets, typically around 65, the movie is booked. Theaters get 100 percent of the first 65 tickets sold, and Gathr and the filmmakers split the rest. The biggest on-demand opening ever was for a documentary called Girl Rising, which opened on 146 screens in 2013. Aaron Burns says Beyond the Mask has more than that already committed and he expects as many as 1,100 by April 6.

Aaron Burns and Chad Burns are both "homeschool graduates" and decided to incorporate that community into their project, so they spread the word via social media, a Kickstarter campaign and a website that they were looking for workers, actors and volunteers. Many of the 400 who responded are children who appear as extras in the film. A four-minute video outlining the effort is embedded below.

"I sort of like mavericks who challenge the Hollywood studio system," Rhys-Davies said. "There are many subcultures in the U.S., and they always defy my expectations, and I welcome homeschoolers. I find them keen and enthusiastic, with a moral code and impressive integrity. I really liked working with them — and they made a jolly good romp of a film."