Hurray for 'Holywood': Central Florida gives birth to Christian film industry
Churches with 'Fireproof' dreams and state incentive money may make Florida the home of faith-based films
A film crew lays tracks in Mount Dora for a shot in "Ryann Watters and the King's Sword," an indie, faith-based fantasy film. (TYG STUDIOS / August 27, 2010)
The movies already have a Hollywood and a Bollywood, but some local filmmakers see Central Florida staking its claim as "Holywood."
A single faith-based movie filmed here last year has led to a handful of like-minded movies being shot from Ocoee to Mount Dora.
•"The Whisper House," based on the biblical parable of the prodigal son, was filmed in Ocoee last winter. It has its Florida premiere next Saturday at the Ocoee-based Central Florida Film Festival.
•An adaptation of a Christian children's fantasy novel, "Ryann Watters and the King's Sword," just wrapped location filming in Mount Dora.
•"Heading Home," a faith-based drama about redemption and baseball, was written by local filmmaker De Miller and is slated to go before cameras in Lake County in October.
•And the local producers of "Letters to God," the first big faith-based movie shot here, plan to film two more faith-based projects here before the end of the year.
David Nixon, who co-directed "Letters to God," is a firm believer that Central Florida "should be the capital of Christian films. We have world-class facilities, just as good or better than L.A."
Adds Miller, "We'd like Central Florida to be 'Holywood' because we want to get the 'L' out of Hollywood."
Unlike Hollywood's blockbusters, these faith-based films are made on micro budgets. "Letters to God," which started this Central Florida boomlet, cost $3.5 million to produce. But the films following in its footsteps have even smaller budgets — ranging from $785,000 for "Ryann Watters and the King's Sword" to $70,000 for "The Whisper Home."
Most are made with lots of donated labor, locations and gear. "Ryann Watters" was shot on cameras donated by a church member, said Kerry L. Fink, CEO of TYG Studios, the film's producers." We tell folks this is a God-sized project, so we're believing God [will] step in where our resources and abilities stop," Fink said.
Why Central Florida?Several factors are attracting faith-based filmmakers to Central Florida as their location of choice."We have A-list crew who don't get the chance to showcase their work very often," said Jaime Velez-Soto, director of "The Whisper Home." "They want the chance to make movies here, and not in L.A. or wherever, so they help you out." As in California, you can film in Florida all year. And "there's all this acting talent, thanks to the theme parks," Nixon said.
This being Florida, sometimes "retired" talent is available. The producers of "Heading Home" hope to use Gary Burghoff of TV's "M*A*S*H," a snowbird who winters in Florida, just as they did in their earlier venture, "Daniel's Lot."Another plus: the local churches.
To a one, filmmakers involved in Florida's faith-based films take their inspiration from the Albany, Ga., Sherwood Baptist Church, where the Kendrick brothers — ministers and aspiring moviemakers — made "Flywheel," "Facing the Giants" and then the $40 million hit " Fireproof."Ministers and congregants became the volunteer crew, donors and actors in those films. Nixon, who has two upcoming Central Florida projects, was a producer and second-unit director on "Fireproof."" It doesn't hurt that we have a lot of churches in Central Florida," Nixon said. His "Letters to God" used a Winter Garden church for a location and volunteers.
"Churches that are totally into this are a real asset."More recently, Margaret Marquis of Ocoee Christian Church offered her church as home base for "Whisper Home," said Velez-Soto. "We used it for locations, and members of the church cooked for us and pitched in."Church as producerUsing film as a means of evangelical outreach has prompted at least one local church to set up its own production company."We've always wanted to minister outside the four walls of the church, to the whole world," says Pastor Matthew J. Shaw of the Faith and Power Worship Center in Apopka, the church behind Faith and Power Pictures. "Movies seem like a better way of spreading our message."Faith and Power Pictures produced "Daniel's Lot," based on writer-director De Miller's idea of erecting a cross in his front yard. That effort went direct to video, but Miller hopes their next project, "Heading Home," will reach theaters.With a budget of $260,000 — nearly a third of that from state-film-commission incentives — the baseball movie will star TV actor Dean Denton ("Days of Our Lives," "Dark Skies"). Ex-major leaguers John Denny and Davey Johnson are on board as consultants, plus there are offers of help from hundreds of volunteers. An October start date has been set, and they're raising funds through a website: helpholywood.com.But as Miller learned with his previous film, "Daniel's Lot," partnering with a church or ministry doesn't guarantee a movie will be financed, finished or successful."Funding is still the hardest thing for any indie film, whether it's faith-based or not," said Paul Sirmons, a local producer and director, and former film commissioner for the state of Florida. As for state incentive money, "There is a 5 percent bonus for family-friendly films, but religion is not a qualifying factor."Just as faith-based filmmakers are upsetting the traditional filmmaking model, the day may come when such films bypass Hollywood altogether. Texas-based Heartstone
Productions already is taking faith-based films directly to churches, "so churches may be our next movie theaters," said Jerry Eisinger, screenwriter and star of "Whisper Home."Like other Central Florida filmmakers, Eisinger sees faith-based movies helping fill a gap in Hollywood's offerings."Family, faith-based films, movies with positive messages, I think there's a place for them," Eisinger said. "That's where we hope to make our movies."
Roger Moore can be reached on his blog, OrlandoSentinel.com/movies.