Facing some giant lessons

Like millions of other American kids, Alex Kendrick couldn't believe his eyes the first time he saw "Star Wars."

"I remember sitting in that theater, looking up at that big screen and thinking, 'I want to do that. I have to do that. If it's the last thing I ever do, I'm going to make movies,' " said Kendrick, the writer, director and actor whose low-budget "Facing the Giants" football flick has made headlines.

The evangelistic indie movie cost $100,000 to make and, showing on 418 screens in faith-friendly smaller markets, has made nearly $3 million at the box office in two weeks. It's backed by Provident Films, Sony BMG and Samuel Goldwyn films, but the critics have been merciless.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted: "It preaches to the converted -- literally." And then there was this Richmond Times-Dispatch love letter to Kendrick: " 'Facing the Giants' may have been made with all the best intentions in the world, but it was also made by writers who can't write, directors who can't direct, editors who can't edit and actors who can't act. And they're all the same guy."

It helps, however, to understand that the Southern Baptist guy at the heart of this movie has had a tough time turning his "Star Wars" epiphany into a career reality. He is learning how to make movies and "Facing the Giants" is only his second try.

Kendrick never had a real chance to study screenwriting, editing, directing or acting. When the time came to pick a career, he did what many young media-driven believers end up doing. He entered the ministry.

It's hard to explain to outsiders how this kind of thing happens.

"I kept trying to find people who felt the same way as I did," he said in an interview just before a ratings tussle with the Motion Picture Association of America that sparked a media firestorm. "I could see that movies were shaping our culture and I couldn't understand why so many other people couldn't see that. It was hard to find people who understood what I wanted to do."

Kendrick tried a Christian college, where there were no classes linked to entertainment and filmmaking, but ended up with an all-purpose degree in communications from Kennesaw State University near Atlanta. Then he went to seminary, but it was more of the same.

Eventually, he heard that Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., was seeking help with its 24-hour Christian ministry on the local cable-television system. This led to Alex and his brother Stephen being hired as "associate pastors of media" at this modern megachurch, the kind where the faithful sit in movie seats and the preacher stands between two giant video screens.

"Basically we were putting church on TV," said Kendrick. "We were filming services, concerts and special events. But my brother and I still wanted to make television shows and movies that told stories that connected with people."

Then they saw some research that helped the leaders of their church understand what they were saying about media.

In their book "Boiling Point," evangelical pollster George Barna and e-commerce professional Mark Hatch put it this way: "The world of entertainment and mass communications -- through television, radio, contemporary music, movies, magazines, art, video games and pop literature -- is indisputably the most extensive and influential theological training system in the world."

That clicked.

Before long, Alex and Stephen Kendrick and their supporters had "prayed in" $25,000 to create a movie called "Flywheel" about a morally confused used-car salesman. It did surprisingly well in a few local multiplexes and on DVD, considering that it was made with volunteer actors and technicians, using store-bought cameras, lights from Home Depot and the video-editing software in desk-top computers.

This led to "Facing the Giants," where a slightly larger budget let the church hire five professionals to run a movie "boot camp" for church members, as well as to film some of the football scenes. It was a strange place to study filmmaking.

The folks at Sherwood Pictures team have learned many lessons, but are well aware that they're just getting started -- at last.

"So many miraculous things have happened to make all this possible," said Kendrick. "We're doing the best that we can and we're learning ... I truly believe that I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing."