Corbin Bernsen, Christian film festival highlight needs for faith-based movies

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — "The Blind Side," the 2009 faith-based football drama that earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress, not only earned more than $255 million at the box office, but it also steam rolled prevailing Hollywood thought that movies need sex and vulgarity to score with viewers.

While the movie may have blindsided most industry insiders, those involved with the largely ignored faith-based movie movement were chortling like a lineman who just registered a 15-yard sack.

The art of good quality faith-based films were celebrated the last weekend of December at the inaugural San Diego Christian Film Festival, which featured dozens of features, documentary, shorts and music videos. The festival drew more than 1,000 people a day during its four-day run, which culminated with an award gala.

Among the winners was "Rust," directed by former L.A Law actor Corbin Bernsen, who also starred as the lead character, the Rev. James Moore, who struggles with his own crisis of faith, but finds redemption for himself and the whole community when he goes back home.

The film earned the Director's Choice Award.

Bernsen was one of several Hollywood insiders invited to the festival to share their thoughts in various venues on the emerging faith-based market. Most agreed that while faith-themed movies have long found favor with Christian audiences, there is a pressing need to develop top quality, authentic films about redemption that can reach an often-skeptical secular market.

"There's this circle right outside that is so wide and so large that people are just yearning for this stuff," Bernsen said during a Q-and-A-session immediately after the screening of his movie "Rust."

"Give me 'Blind Side,'" the actor/director said, as he launched into a spontaneous cacophony of eating noises. "People just eat it up."


Personal assessment
These days, Bernsen is eating it up, too.

Like his character James Moore, Bernsen has been on his own journey of faith, a personal path that has taken root professionally as he dedicates his resources and talents on the faith-based genre. The redirection of his life's work came shortly after the 2008 death of his father, TV producer Harry Bernsen.

"I was sitting with a bag of ashes and I said, 'Where is he?'" Bernsen told the audience during a pre-gala panel discussion featuring the industry experts. "I had to ask myself—I'm 54 years old, 53—some serious questions. I had always believed in God, said, 'God Bless You,' celebrated Christmas. Like I told people, I knew the gym was there, but didn't really exercise the muscle.

"So my dad passes away and I begin this incredible journey where God, in that voice, just comes to you to says, 'Open the sails and let me take you.' That moment I started doing that until this exact moment right here."

Early on in that journey, the script for Rust emerged, an independent film produced in a small Canadian town, whose ordinary residents were cast for most of the movie's roles. It's their honesty before the camera, coupled with the brutal beauty of a Canadian winter and the artistic nuances of quality cinematography that deliver a Sundance-worthy film.

Bernsen, it seems, is addicted. Through his Team Cherokee Productions, he's about to begin filming another faith-based film starring Lloyd Allen Warner, who had a principal role in Rust.

"I can't spread the sails wide enough and give into it," he said. "I'm very early in my journey and I'm loving where it's taking me and enjoying it."

Still, during the post-premier discussion of Rust, Bernsen declined to define where the journey has taken him spiritually.

"I'm a newcomer to this," he said, saying he was uncomfortable with labels. "I'm not going to carry that card. I'm not going to do that stuff. I know it scares people. It scares the people I'm in business with. I sit there and wonder am I going to fail in the selling of my film if I don't say I am this or I am that?"


Nuanced approach
Unlike secular films where pretty much anything goes, the production and selling of faith-based films requires a nuanced approached, Bernsen's colleagues admitted.

Ken Wales, the producer of "Amazing Grace," a spectacular biopic on William Wilberforce, the British lawmaker who successfully fought to end the slave trade in his country, said it took him 19 years to get the award-winning TV show "Christy" to the little screen, despite the fact the book series had a built-in audience having sold millions of copies.

"You can't believe the quiet, tough battles to do something that has a centeredness of faith," Wales said in the panel discussion. "It's very difficult."

Mark Clayman, the producer of the Will Smith hit, "The Pursuit of Happyness," said Christian filmmakers need to finesse their approach by creating crossover films that honestly depict the lives of Christians, warts and all.

"They are authentic and they are about flawed people, but there is redemption and there is hope," Clayman said. "Whether it's comedy, whether it's a true story, or whether it's a fantasy but it's a movie that will speak to an audience that's open to hear that message."

Because of the redemptive value of those movies, Bernsen said they bring much more personal satisfaction than the zombie horror flick he previously produced.

"The world needs this right now. It doesn't need another zombie movie," he said to a round of applause.


Personal target
When assessing the socially redeeming qualities of his films, Bersen said he looks to his oldest sons.

"I have three children who are atheists who don't believe in anything, period," their dad said. "Anything. Not only God. They don't believe in the economy, they don't believe in politicians, they don't believe in music, they don't believe in anything. Anything they like lasts three minutes. They are human atheists. But I know they are yearning for something. So I know there is something important that I am supposed to do."

That purpose, he said, is to "crack the door open to my sons, I just want to crack it an inch …"

"What I have to do, my purpose, its what I do when I stand up in my hull and my sails are open. I know that my journey now is to make sure that I stay true to myself," he said. "Stay true to the films and try to reach that circle just outside."


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