Film skips Hollywood, debuts for Christians
Southside Baptist Church is among 198 in Florida and 3,000 nationwide where Left Behind 3: World at War has premiered.
By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published October 26, 2005
BRANDON - Time is running out. The villain has unleashed a killer virus. World War III is at hand.
That's when the pretty female lead stops to pray.
"We have to surrender to God's will," she says. "What's he asking us to do? Let's ask him."
The three main characters dutifully gather together and bow their heads. "Heavenly father," the heroine begins, "we seek your guidance."
It's an odd turn of events for an action thriller - but not for this one, made and marketed specifically for Christian audiences.
Left Behind 3: World at War opened Friday at more than 3,000 churches nationwide - 198 of them in Florida.
The DVD was released Tuesday. The movie's Web site touts the approach as "an entirely new distribution system" that "challenges fundamental Hollywood rules."
Since the days of silent films, Christian cinema has existed as a kind of parallel world to Hollywood. But recently, a growing nationwide evangelical movement has prompted a surge of interest in all kinds of Christian entertainment.
"I think the idea is transforming culture," said John Lyden, a religion professor at Dana College, Neb., who studies Christian films. "You want an alternative to secular popular culture that is equally attractive ... and that looks and sounds like the culture (Christians) have grown to like. It's got to be exciting, but it has to have the Christian message in there."
The third movie in a series produced by Cloud Ten Pictures, Left Behind 3 features Christian rock music on its soundtrack, and is based on the bestselling series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
The novels dramatize events that some Christians believe are foretold in the Bible: the faithful are snatched up bodily into heaven; the Antichrist ascends to power and rules the world for seven years; then Jesus returns to judge sinners.
Readers follow a group of nonbelievers who were "left behind" on earth, but who gradually come to faith - with a variety of explosions along the way.
As a movie, Left Behind presents a mix of piety and bloodshed. Scenes of tearful confession and repentance are interspersed with shootings, assassinations and bombings.
At a local screening at Southside Baptist Church, a packed house of more than 200 moviegoers munched popcorn at round tables set out in the church's darkened atrium. Children darted from table to table as the Apocalypse played out on a flimsy projection screen.
Todd Gicker, 34, of Seffner brought his 5-year-old son along to see the movie.
He said the child didn't usually get to see anything rated above PG13. But Gicker said he made an exception for Left Behind 3."It's one thing when it's fiction, and it's another when it's the truth," he said. "This is the truth. It's what's going to happen."
Natasha Brooks, 29, of Brandon brought her daughter, Bailey, 11.
Although Bailey's favorite movie is The Lion King - a far cry from Left Behind's political thriller formula - Brooks said she thought it was important her daughter see the film.
"Even though you can read it out of the Bible, it's different (on the screen)," she said. "It makes it more real."
Jay Gerrico, 42, of Spring Hill had driven in by himself just to see the movie. He already has Left Behind 1 and 2 on DVD, he said, and he's read all 12 books.
By the standards of Christian cinema, Gerrico said, the Left Behind movies are "really, really good," with acting and production values to rival Hollywood.
"I've seen a lot of B-rated or really bad Christian movies" he said, with hammy acting and shoestring budgets.
"But Left Behind really turned that around."
The first two Left Behind movies were shown in very few movie theaters before going to video.
Southside's pastor, the Rev. Pete VandeWeghe, said his church rented a screen at the Regency theater to show Left Behind 2.
When Cloud Ten contacted him about screening Left Behind 3 at the church, he was delighted.
The company charges a fee for the showing - between $69 and $199, depending on the size of the congregation - and churches are free to sell tickets to recoup the cost. VandeWeghe's church asked for donations to help victims of Hurricane Katrina instead.
VandeWeghe said he thought showing the movie at churches was a better idea than entrusting it to mainstream cinemas. "I think the theaters are afraid of showing something with such a strong Christian message," he said.
His church had scheduled three showings: two on Friday, and another on Sunday.
VandeWeghe said that while his church has about 500 members, "90 percent" of the 300 people who showed up to the two Friday night screenings were not members of his church.
For Left Behind 4, he said, he was thinking about investing in a better screen and speakers.
As the first showing came to an end and the credits rolled, VandeWeghe called for house lights. "Although the characters are fictional, and the storylines are fictional, the biblical truths are real," he said.
"Do you know for certain, are you absolutely, positively convinced that you are going to heaven?" he asked.
Together, the moviegoers bowed their heads to pray.
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 813 661-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org