No one was surprised when "A Walk to Remember" opened on Jan. 25th and drew flocks of teen-aged girls to the suburban super-cinemas that circle America's biggest cities.
This was, after all, a multi-hanky "chick flick" staring pop diva Mandy Moore. After a week, it was the No. 3 movie and had pulled in $12.2 million, which raised some Hollywood eyebrows because it only cost about $10 million to make.
Then the plot thickened. In weeks two and three, ticket sales hit $23.3 and then $30.3 million. "A Walk to Remember" was doing OK in major cities, but soaring in smaller cities and towns across the heartland. Was the quiet little romance about a chaste preacher's daughter and a brooding troublemaker reaching a new demographic?
"We don't want to go out to theater lobbies and ask people, 'Are you a born-again Christian? Are you going to recommend this movie to people at your church?' But it seems clear this movie is attracting people who normally don't dash out to movie theaters," said veteran producer Denise Di Novi. "We must be getting good word-of-mouth support from people who are saying, 'This is not a typical Hollywood teen movie. You can trust this one.' "
"A Walk to Remember" began with a novel by Nicholas Sparks, an active Catholic. The movie tells the story of Jamie Sullivan, the devout but spunky daughter of a small-town Baptist pastor, and Landon Carter, a handsome jerk in need of redemption. Jamie carries a Bible, helps poor children, dresses modestly, obeys her widower father and does not compromise when taken on a stargazing date that involves one blanket.
Landon tells her father: "Jamie has faith in me. She makes me want to be different -- better."
The screenplay is not as overtly religious as the book. Nevertheless, reluctant Warner Bros. executives pressed Di Novi for hard evidence that an audience existed for such a clean, pro-faith story. The studio eventually sponsored promotional materials for Christian viewers, including 10,000 youth-pastor packets containing a Bible study about issues in the movie.
Now, Di Novi is predicting the film will hit $50 million in theaters, with a bright future in video. This has obvious implications for other films, if there are quality scripts available with a similar blend of morality and storytelling.
"It was hard getting this movie made. I don't mind saying there was spiritual warfare involved," said Di Novi, who is best known for making films such as "Heathers," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Message in a Bottle," based on another Sparks novel.
"This isn't a blockbuster. But it is a bona fide hit movie. People should sit up and pay attention. I think we have shown that there is an audience for a teen movie that isn't just about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. You don't have to be prurient."
Christian critics have not been silent or unanimous in their praise. Some powerful voices have insisted that "A Walk to Remember" is too vague. The film does not include one very dangerous word -- "Jesus" -- and the rebel never articulates his faith. Di Novi said the movie was screened in advance for secular and religious audiences and she had no intention of running either crowd out of theaters.
The bottom line is that this is not a "Christian movie" that preaches at viewers. Instead, she said her goal was to produce something more daring -- a Hollywood movie that revolves around a Christian character that is compassionate and attractive, as opposed to being a phony, angry, hypocritical, judgmental zealot.
At the same time, the movie makes a subtle comment about modern churches and the young people in their pews. It shows the rebellious Landon sitting in church and, later, a confrontation with the preacher makes it clear the kid was paying some attention week after week.
"Lots of kids go to church, but you never see that reflected in TV and at the movies," said Di Novi. "And there are all kinds of kids at church -- good kids and mixed-up kids. The book says Landon had already been baptized. Sometimes the faith gets through to kids like that and sometimes it doesn't."