Q&A: Filmmaker Stephen Kendrick on the shocking success of 'War Room' and the critics who trashed it

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |
Stephen Kendrick, Gary Wheeler and Alex Kendrick pose on set in Concord, N.C. while filming "War Room." | Photo by David Whitlow/Courtesy AFFIRM Films/Provident Films

ALBANY, Ga. (Christian Examiner) -- Producer Stephen Kendrick says he and his brother Alex didn't get into the movie business to make No. 1 films. No, they got into it to see lives changes.

This year they've achieved both.

Their latest movie "War Room" opened at No. 2 on its first weekend before climbing to No. 1 on its second weekend – a rare achievement in an industry in which films typically lose 50 percent or more in box office receipts after their opening weekend, and fall fast.

It was their first No. 1 film, and on Tuesday "War Room" – which spotlights prayer -- topped $50 million in receipts, another first for the brothers.

Not since the 2004 "The Passion Of The Christ" has a movie with explicit Christian content ranked No. 1.

But more significantly, the movie has impacted people.

At one multiplex, members of a black church walked out of one theater and began talking to members of a white congregation who had watched it in another theater, and the two groups spontaneously began praying together.

At another theater, a man walked out and fell to his knees crying, asking his wife to forgive him for the way he had treated her. A group of people gathered around and prayed for the couple.

Then there's the story of building contractors who are receiving requests from homeowners to add a prayer close – a "war room" – to their houses.

"That's totally the Lord," Kendrick told the Christian Examiner. "We didn't know how people would respond to the film. We felt like we were being obedient to what God had called us to do. The prayer that went into this movie was at another level. Not only was our church at Sherwood [Baptist in Albany, Ga.] praying for us, but we had over 85 churches in the Charlotte area [where it was filmed] praying for us. We have seen that the Lord has not only helped us communicate that prayer works -- but He's demonstrating it with what's happening with the film."

The Christian Examiner spoke with Kendrick not only the film's success, but also about his reaction to mainstream critics who trashed "War Room." Following is a transcript:

Christian Examiner: Going into that first weekend, did you think you had a chance to finish as high as you did?

Kendrick: We were hoping to be at least No. 3 in the nation. Alex and I said it would be great to be in the Top 5 again, because "Fireproof" and "Courageous" were both No. 4 in the nation. This one was opening with incredible reviews. The buzz that we were seeing at the screenings, the emotional responses of the crowds, the Tweets and the Facebook posts were all communicating that this movie was at another level than those previous films. We felt like the quality level had jumped, and we had worked hard to increase the quality level. So we were hoping for No. 3. At the same time, we were thinking, "God continues with each project to surprise us, and we expect him to surprise us but we don't know how He's going to do it."

Christian Examiner: And you were No. 1 on the first night.

Kendrick: We were all blown away. We were thrilled. We couldn't believe it. At the same time, we were grateful to the Lord for all that was happening. We had seen not only miracles on the set, but even in the promotionals – there was a TV anchor during an interview in Bakersfield, Calif., who choked up talking about how the movie had impacted his life. There were things that were happening that were God moments. It was like He was communicating: "I'm still with you. I'm blessing this. Something great's about to happen." So, a No. 2 opening weekend, we were thrilled to pieces.

Movies usually go down, so when we went up to No. 1 on the second weekend, we were blown away again. I remember waking up in denial that this was really happening – not denying that God was doing it. But that was not why we make movies; we don't make movies to compete with "Straight Outta Compton." Our hope is to change lives. We are so grateful that the buzz that has come in from the success of the film has caused many, many more people to be impacted spiritually by it.

Christian Examiner: You were No. 2 on opening weekend. Were you thinking, "400 more theaters and we would have been No. 1"? [War Room played in 1,135 theaters on opening weekend. The top film that weekend, "Straight Outta Compton," was in 3,142.)

Kendrick: We were more excited than we were disappointed. We were not going into the weekend expecting to be No. 1. We were just going in praying, saying, "God, here are our fives loaves and two fish. What are you going to do now?" We were totally fine with No. 2, just because we had already decided we'd be happy with No. 3.

Christian Examiner: Going into the second weekend, did you see a No. 1 finish coming?

Kendrick: We weren't expecting that, either. We thought it might be 2 or 3 or 4. We didn't know. When we looked at the other movies, though, we started tracking the reviews that were coming in for "A Walk In The Woods" and "The Transporter Refueled," and you can track ticket sales on Fandango. We were praying that we would be No. 1 in the nation that second week. After we saw No. 2 happen (on opening weekend), we started praying, "If we can do this, Lord, would you allow us to become No. 1"? The team was praying for that, and we were hoping for that, but the Lord can do whatever He wants. Movies don't usually move up to the No. 1 spot after they've been No. 2. "Inside Out" did, but usually it doesn't happen. We were competing against new movies in addition to the movie that beat us the previous weekend.

Christian Examiner: Some of the reviews really trashed you guys. Does it get to you? Does it bother you?

Kendrick: It doesn't bother us that much. It bothered us on "Facing The Giants," because we weren't used to having our "baby" being attacked. But that's the league that we're playing in. You're putting yourself out in front of millions of people, and you're going to hopefully have people who love what you do, and you're going to have people who are totally antagonistic. We're aiming at a different target than what [critics] are aiming for. We didn't make the movie to please the critics, or we would have made a different movie. They don't know how to process this movie through their usual Hollywood grid. When a movie gets an A+ Cinemascore rating [as "War Room" did] but the critics are simultaneously trashing it, two things are clear: First, the filmmakers reached their target audience. And secondly, the critics are not their target audience.