NASHVILLE Tenn. Remember when "faith-based film" equaled "cheesy?" That label was blown away with such films as "Passion of the Christ" and "Courageous," and it certainly doesn't apply to the latest movie that is being marketed to churches and that opens Friday "Unconditional."
Rated PG-13 and starring well-known Hollywood talent, the movie tells the true story about "Papa Joe" Bradford (Michael Ealy) and his ministry to inner-city children. Bradford's love for the kids impacts his friend Samantha (Lynn Collins), who is questioning her will to live after her husband is murdered.
The acting is stellar and the story gripping. It seems almost unfair to categorize it as "faith-based" not only because that label leads to negative reactions for many moviegoers but because Unconditional likely will have crossover appeal.
Sure, "cheesy" still does apply to quite a few faith-based movies, but the landscape has changed in recent years, with solid movies hitting the big-screen regularly and finding success. Bob Waliszewski, director of Focus on the Family's Plugged In media/movie review website, says it's "definitely" the best run of solid faith-based films he's seen in his two decades of reviewing movies. In addition to the ones already mentioned, there's "Bella," "Fireproof," "Grace Card" and "October Baby" all of which had relatively low budgets but somehow looked bigger budget on the big screen. And that's not even including ones such as the "Chronicles of Narnia" series and "The Nativity Story," which actually did have much larger budgets.
Asked why he thinks there's been such an influx of faith-based films, Waliszewski said Christians are seeing that they can "make a difference" and "impact culture" through movies and reach people who aren't interested in coming to church. Through films he said "we have the opportunity to bring in a whole lot of people and help them think differently about life, God and the bigger issues."
Waliszewski wasn't talking specifically about Unconditional producer J. Wesley Legg, but he could have been. Legg and Unconditional's other producer, Jason Atkins, spent $2 million of money they had made managing a hedge fund to produce Unconditional.
Legg, Atkins and a couple of other men launched the hedge fund in the mid-2000s. All of them were Christians, growing stronger in their faith, and they began looking into ways they could invest their money into God's Kingdom. So they created a foundation and gave to widow, orphan and evangelistic ministries.
"Then the Lord started talking to us about media," said Legg. "And I think it really probably first came from a conviction of, 'Hey, here's what media is doing to you, here's what it is doing to your family, here is how the enemy is using it.' Through prayer, the Lord kept talking to us about it particularly Jason. And so Jason had a tremendous burden. Passion had already come out and Facing the Giants came out."
So the men used their hedge fund profits to launch an annual short film competition called the Doorpost Film Project. They'd pick a topic forgiveness, for instance and ask for submissions. They'd receive hundreds. They picked 10 winners, each of which would then receive enough money to make another short film, this one focusing on the subject of "hope."
The film competition, though, only whet their appetite for filmmaking.
"God wouldn't really leave us alone about it particularly Jason," Legg said.
And in 2009, they shut down the hedge fund, returned the money to their investors and launched into filmmaking, starting Harbinger Media Partners. There were at least two problems, though: They didn't have a story idea, and they had never made a movie. God, though, had a plan all along.
While participating in a Nashville inner-city ministry they met the real Papa Joe Bradford, who headed a ministry called Elijah's Heart. One day while eating lunch with Atkins, Papa Joe began disclosing secret details about his background how he had been in prison, how he had nearly killed a man while there, and how he had moved to the projects after getting out of prison and felt compelled to help under-served children. That sounded like a good story for a movie, but who would help make it? God was at work there, too.
The Doorpost Film Project had put them in contact with dozens of good filmmakers. They started contacting them. One of them, Brent McCorkle, had won third place one year and became Unconditional's writer/director. Others from the film competition joined the Unconditional crew, too. The film was shot in the fall of 2010.
"Jason and I never believed that we would make a film," Legg said, "and all of a sudden, it was like a farm league: We were sitting surrounded by all of these filmmakers, and different levels of filmmaking not just directors but cinematographers, writers, costume people. God had built a network for us with all of these people, and us not knowing we were going to be making a film."
For the Unconditional cast, Legg and Atkins wanted the best Hollywood talent their money could buy. Collins and Ealy each have been in major films.
"If we really want to reach people, if we really want to reach those that are going to movies every weekend, we have to raise the bar on the quality, or they're never going to see our movies," Legg said. "... We just took it as an opportunity to say, 'Hey, let's get the best actors we can get, just like if you're building a church, we'd say let's get the best carpenter we can get.'"
Legg said he wants Unconditional to have a bigger impact on moviegoers than do most mainstream films.
"I want people to know who God is and that God loves them and no matter what's going on in their life, no matter what they've done, no matter what's been done to them, no matter what they've gained or lost, that God is a loving and caring God that cares for each one of us, and that He's with us," Legg said.
Unconditional is rated PG-13 for some violent content and mature thematic elements. It has no language or sexuality.