With ‘Woodlawn,’ Christian films enter new playing field

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The Woodlawn High School football team, led by defensive coordinator Jerry Stearns (Kevin Sizemore, center left) and head coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), pause to pray before an important game in 'Woodlawn.' Photo courtesy Alan Markfield

The Woodlawn High School football team, led by defensive coordinator Jerry Stearns (Kevin Sizemore, center left) and head coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), pause to pray before an important game in 'Woodlawn.' Photo courtesy Alan Markfield

Never underestimate the power of pigskin and prayer.

When the government mandated that Woodlawn High School desegregate in 1973, riots and cross burnings ignited Birmingham, Ala. But after a chaplain visited the high-school football team, future Miami Dolphins running back Tony Nathan and more than 40 of his black and white teammates chose to dedicate their lives to God: praying together at practice, meeting for Bible study after school, and ultimately helping to unite the town.

As Birmingham natives, faith-based filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin were inspired to bring the true story to the screen in Woodlawn (in theaters Friday, Oct. 16), starring Jon Voight, Sean Astin and Caleb Castille.


READ: ‘War Room’ trounces ‘Compton’ for No. 1 at box office


“It was an anomaly event where an entire football team at once made a decision to love God and to love each other, in a school and a city that didn’t know what that meant,” says Jon Erwin. “Faith was an absolutely essential part of this story. It wasn’t politicians that led the Civil Rights Movement, it was pastors.”

Made for less than $15 million and opening on 1,500 screens, Woodlawn could pull in anywhere from $5 million to $10 million its first weekend, predicts Phil Contrino, lead analyst at BoxOffice.com. A sports movie with Christian themes “sounds great on paper,” says Contrino, although he doesn’t foresee it reaching the heights of recent faith-based dramas War Room ($64.1 million total), Heaven Is for Real ($91.4 million) or Son of God ($59.7 million), all deemed surprise hits by the media when they opened in 2014 and 2015.

“That narrative should definitely be retired — we should never be surprised,” Contrino says. “There’s a huge amount of people in this country that identify themselves as Christian. It’s not a niche, it’s not a specialized market, it’s a huge segment of the population.”

While Hollywood has never been able to match the heights of Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ in 2004 ($370.3 million), “the potential is always there, for sure,” Contrino adds.

Faith-based movies are more likely to cross over to a broader audience if they have established brands behind them, says DeVon Franklin, who appears in Woodlawn and is producing the upcoming Miracles From Heaven, starring Jennifer Garner, out next year. War Room, which topped the box office last month, is from director Alex Kendrick, whose Fireproof (2008) and Courageous (2011) each earned more than $30 million on budgets less than $2 million. Similarly, Christian super-producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey produced Son of God and Woodlawn, and endorsedHeaven Is for Real.


READ: Amazon takes dark, unsettling turn into religion with ‘Hand of God’


With these movies, “the faith is what leads the conversation,” Franklin says. “But because it’s coming from a trusted brand, your opportunity to do more at the box office is greater, because audiences anticipate these next films.”

The Erwin brothers have yet to establish themselves as box-office draws: Their past efforts, last year’s comedy Moms’ Night Out and 2011 drama October Baby, pulled in an OK $10.4 million and $5.4 million, respectively. But they have faith in the future of Christian cinema and believe there is enough interest from audiences to continue making them on a bigger scale.

Karen Abercrombie, left, and Priscilla Shirer in “War Room.” Photo by David Whitlow, courtesy of AFFIRM Films/Provident Films

Karen Abercrombie, left, and Priscilla Shirer in “War Room.” Photo by David Whitlow, courtesy of AFFIRM Films/Provident Films

“In five to seven years, we’ll see Christian blockbusters,” Jon Erwin predicts. “We’ll see faith-based films that are as big and competing with Jurassic World. We have the numbers, we have the resources, we’re marching up that mountain together. (There’s) a couple dozen of us that are forging ahead.

“Sean Astin said to me the other day, ‘Jon, I see you and Andy as pioneers or frontiersmen.’ I said, ‘That’s a great compliment. Only trouble is, most frontiersmen die on the frontier.’ ”

LM END RYAN

  • Larry

    Christian films are a lot like pornography.There is never a reason to expect quality from them. That is because with both, the primary audience’s interest has little to do with storytelling, character or plot. 🙂

    The Passion of the Christ was successful because it was an early entry in the “torture p0rn/splatsploitation” boom of the early 2000’s. Take the grue of the Hostel films and put religious trappings to it and suddenly people who would normally have protested gore films attended them.

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  • Oh look, Christians are just copying what Jews did 15 years ago in Remember the Titans but with some platitudes about Jesus thrown in. This is what happens when a faith is brain drained and moribund, you end up with reheated prolechow for retards.

  • TheCountess

    The intent and hope of the film makers is to lead people to Christ and not exploit public opinion, distort facts/information, or press a venue, even if that is the end result in some people’s minds. To present to a lost and dying world, as evidenced by so much violence world wide, from hatred, acts of cruelty, killings, exposure via media, etc, etc, etc, the message of redemption by Jesus Christ, Lord and Savoir to the world. With or without the violence, the need is the same. Seek and save that which is lost. And that means everybody.
    Getting it ‘perfectly’ may or may not be the needful objective, as the Holy Spirit doesn’t need any one to do His job for Him; Main purpose of the HG revolving around humans is: ‘Convict the world of Sin’. Period.
    And in that conviction, bring proper fear of Hell. Fear is the beginning of knowledge. Out of fear for the One Who can put one’s soul into everlasting death, comes acceptance of the need to be forgiven. Hence the message of hope in…

  • Larry

    “The intent and hope of the film makers is to lead people to Christ and not exploit public opinion”

    So my pornography analogy fits. The intent and hope of the filmmaker was not to make entertaining film with a well written plot and stirring characterization. But to pander to an audience who is not looking for such things.

    The Samuel B. Mayer dicta still stands, “If you want a message, use Western Union.” Meaning a good film with a message has to be a good film first. You are not seeing that with “Christian films”.

  • Steve

    Maybe you didn’t notice that Woodlawn is based on real events, and they were compelling. I was in middle school during the integration in the south in the early 70s, and if what happened at Woodlawn had happened everywhere the entire course of race relations in the U.S. would have been different. By the Snapchat, in case nobody has told you, ret…. is a cruel hateful word and your use of it reveals much more about you than your poorly expressed opinion.

  • David Alderman

    Wow. Pretty cynical thoughts but having been a Christian for 38 years now I can say confidently you are wrong- and the numbers speak for themselves. People just didn’t attend poorly made films that lacked storylines or character development. Take a gander at two old movies- ‘A Thief In The Night’ and ‘A Distant Thunder’ and you’ll see just how far Chrisyian movie making has come. Try not to speak for all of us- we are all children of modern cinema as you are. Our minds are not so open to movies simply because they beat the name ‘Christian’ on them that our brains fall out!

  • David Alderman

    Wow. Pretty cynical thoughts but having been a Christian for 38 years now I can say confidently you are wrong- and the numbers speak for themselves. People just didn’t attend poorly made films that lacked storylines or character development. Take a gander at two old movies- ‘A Thief In The Night’ and ‘A Distant Thunder’ and you’ll see just how far Christian movie making has come. Try not to speak for all of us- we are all children of modern cinema as you are. Our minds are not so open to movies simply because they bear the name ‘Christian’ on them that our brains fall out!

  • Larry

    Its not that the Christian films these days were made unprofessionally or poorly produced. Now you have mid-level budgets and professional actors, but still lack decent writing. However, Christian film producers seem to think their audiences as more interested in being pandered to than the elements which make for watchable films in their own right. Its a lack of creative talent, not technical talent.

    In counterpoint are “Biblical films” of the Hollywood studio system from the Silent Era to 1960’s. These were films which not only brought in the Christian audiences but generally had enough skill and writing that they are well regarded by most people on their own merits as films.*

    *I fully acknowledge Cecil B. DeMille used Biblical settings as excuses to bend The Production Code for violence and sex for much of his career.

  • mike

    Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!