It is approximately 1 a.m. on Easter morning, March 31, on the campus of Liberty University. Most of the student body is away — traveling, in some cases, hundreds of miles to be home for Resurrection Sunday.
But there is still plenty of activity on the Central Virginia campus, even in the middle of the night. The cast and crew of the film “Letting Go” are hard at work and nearing a lunch break during an all-night session. It is day five of a 25-day shoot.
The set is bustling with about 40 crew members and several others in the cast. Tonight’s scene involves the male lead, played by Andrew Cheney (Behind the Mask), attempting to rescue the female lead from certain death.
Cheney’s fictional character is akin to those in popular films, such as Groundhog Day and Source Code, who find themselves trapped in a time loop wherein they are forced to live the same day over and over.
The female lead, played by Rachel Hendrix (October Baby) dies every day, and will continue to, until the hero can circumvent the time loop — she is hit by a car during tonight’s shoot.
What is unique about this movie set is that there are 32 cinematic arts students in training — each one learning under an experienced industry professional. The students are enrolled in Liberty University’s Cinematic Arts program, and the industry experts are contracted by EchoLight Studios, a Christian production company based in Texas.
According to the film’s director Tracy Trost, each department head has a group of students underneath them who have specifically requested to train within their discipline for the film. With a four-to-one, student-to-professional ratio, students are ensured an opportunity to get plenty of hands on training.
At supper, the cast and crew gather for prayer over a hot meal that has just emerged from catering vans. Some students still linger over pieces of equipment with their instructors.
As everyone begins to form a line, Chris Morrow, co-founder and Chief Global Strategist of EchoLight Films, addresses the crowd, praising the efforts put forth in the first half of the day. He and his family are leaving in the morning to return to Texas.
Morrow and his associates started Texas-based EchoLight Studios in 2011, emerging from an already-established Christian film company, christiancinema.com. The goal, he said, was to better cater to what he calls a severely under-served market of Christian moviegoers.
Morrow and his team just signed a deal with Liberty to fund, market and distribute five films to a national theater audience, of which “Letting Go” is the first.
The university has recently launched a brand new film school in connection with the Zaki Gordon Institute in Arizona.
The groundswell of enthusiasm for film at the world’s largest evangelical Christian university is something that faith-based filmmakers hope will infuse large numbers of skilled and creative young people with a Christian worldview into a movie industry which seems to possess few
“Our goal is to create a professional hands-on learning environment where our students, working with state-of-the-art equipment and world class faculty, are prepared to become artists whose faith infuses all they write, direct or produce,” notes Dr. Norman Mintle, dean of the School of Communication & Creative Arts.
The path to legitimacy
There are strong arguments to be made for Morrow’s beliefs that the Christian film industry is an undeserved market. In recent years, Sherwood Pictures and Kendrick Brothers productions, including “Fireproof,” “Courageous” and “October Baby,” have enjoyed marked successes.
“October Baby” received praise — however reserved — from the L.A. Times and the late Roger Ebert, and “Fireproof” and “Courageous” each grossed roughly $35 million at the box office, despite their small budgets, according to Box Office Mojo.
Further support for the theory exists in the success of other Christian-themed flicks such as “Soul Surfer” and “The Blind Side,” as well as the History Channel’s “The Bible” miniseries, which Entertainment Weekly reported garnered ratings that equaled the enormously popular drama “The Walking Dead’s” season finale and beat out most other Sunday-night offerings.
But while recent successes in the box office for several Christian films have generated considerable excitement among the church crowd, it is understood that the road to widespread recognition of the industry is long — and narrow.
“It’s in infant stages,” Cheney said. “They’ve been making Christian film for decades, but it seems like we’re at this kind of crossroads where they’re really trying to step up — the production quality, the story telling, the performances, the distribution — and in that, the budgets are growing…”
Those within the business readily admit that there are tremendous hurdles of pre-conceived notions about Christian film that must be overcome.
“It’s going in a new direction,” Hendrix said. “It’s turning from being stapled and labeled as low quality, bad acting, or this or that, and this kind of other stuff we’ve all heard — nobody’s hiding that, it’s not a secret.”
But every dollar that goes toward tickets to Christian films, Hendrix said, is essentially a vote being cast for the future of the industry.
“What you buy when you go see a film, in a lot of ways, it’s a vote of what you love, what you stand for, what you believe in, what your own life experience is like,” Hendrix said.
But even as the figurative votes begin to increase for Christian film, the most enthusiastic supporters of the movement readily admit that the process is slow and will take time.
Morrow likens the slow change that he says is occurring in film to what occurred in the now more mature Christian music industry, which has given rise in recent years to such Grammy Award-winning artists as LeCrae, TobyMac, Matt Redman and Mary Mary, who have enjoyed success in both secular and Christian markets.
“Christian radio 20 or 30 years ago wasn’t where it is today, and over the last 20 years, we’ve seen artists who start out being Christian artists that are now singing country and pop,” Morrow said.
The development of Christian radio, which allowed Christian artists a platform large enough to reach national audiences, is what helped bring Christian music to its current level of popularity and profitability. In theory, Christian film will enjoy the same success when the filmmaking infrastructure has developed enough to support it.
“(It used to be) if you were a phenomenally talented singer and you were a Christian, pretty much the only place you could sing was in the church,” Kirk Cameron, the child star of the popular ‘80s family sitcom “Growing Pains,” said. “But if you were phenomenally talented and wanted a career in singing, people weren’t really singing Christian songs on the radio or in concerts, so you’d sort of have to cross over and become this secular, godless sort of artist.”
But investments in the Christian entertainment led to a more inviting climate for artists to produce God-honoring art.
“Once Christian radio stations started and you give the opportunity and the platform, now you’ve got really talented people who love the Lord that go, ‘I could make a career out of this,’ and we can just blow this wide open,” Cameron said. “We see that in the music industry, and I think we’ll start to see it in the film industry.”
According to Cameron, who as an official partner with Liberty’s film school visits the Virginia campus with increasing regularity, Christian colleges and universities are going to be the leaders in adapting the climate for artists. For many years, Christian schools were places that trained only pastors and missionaries, but that is changing.
Places like Liberty recognize the ability to share the Gospel message to the world by preaching through film and by evangelizing through arts, Cameron said.
“That’s why I’m partnering with Liberty,” Cameron said. “It’s because I see that they’re doing that, and I want to help throw some wood on the fire.”
Hendrix could not agree more with the notion that film is, and should be, considered as a powerful instrument for Christians to use to impact the culture.
“I think God is moving and has been moving a long time in the direction of there being a pillar — the entertainment industry being a pillar of ministry, and it being a tool to use to communicate with a generation of young people,” Hendrix said.
COMS 485 students Jeremy Angione and Tahesha Moise also covered the film “Letting Go” for their final broadcast project.