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What Would Jesus Film?

With a little oil money and a lot of faith, Dallas has become the production center for Christian entertainment.
Beginning in the 1950s, however, a parallel narrative emerged: the rise of independently produced religious entertainment. Credit here goes to Billy Graham, who produced a series of bluntly obvious films about dissolute souls who find salvation through Jesus Christ. While Graham didn’t necessarily get his funding from Texas, he certainly took inspiration. Both Mr. Texas, set against the backdrop of a Graham revival in Fort Worth, and Oiltown U.S.A. are said to be loosely based on the religious conversion of one of Graham’s friends, Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson. 

If Austin fancies itself the third coast of the entertainment industry, might North Texas become a Christian-influenced Fourth Coast?

And as North Texas grew, the region—with its affordable acreage to site large-scale production facilities and its mostly conservative and religious-minded population—proved attractive to faith-based entrepreneurs. It helped, too, that in the 1980s, a film- and television-production tradition was established here, with secular fare like JFK, RoboCop, and Walker, Texas Ranger.

The early ’90s also saw a flurry of production activity in Dallas. In 1988, the family-friendly, Allen-based Lyrick Studios (originally known as Lyons Group) was born and began turning out the TV series Barney and Wishbone, and distributing the Christian-themed cartoon VeggieTales. Five years later, Trinity Broadcasting Network, which later became the first major network to air T.D. Jakes’ sermons, bought a 50,000-square-foot studio in Irving. Then competing Christian-based Daystar Television Network was founded in Dallas by Joni and Marcus Lamb. 

Put all of these elements together—a filmmaking infrastructure; oil, gas, and real estate wealth; religiosity; the eternal, irresistible allure of the silver screen—and you can see how Dallas wound up at the center of the modern faith-based entertainment market. 

Now one big question remains: can these people make any real money? With the notable exception of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which grossed more than $600 million worldwide, most Christian commercial entertainment in recent years has not performed well at the box office. 

“My personal opinion is that you can do quite well with a movie that is grounded in faith,” says Bruce Goerlich, chief research officer for the box-office-tracking firm Rentrak. “But it has to be a compelling story, and the production quality has to be compelling.”

Which is exactly what Bishop T.D. Jakes has in mind.

They’ve crowded into a second-floor conference room in the Omni Dallas Hotel: Mayor Mike Rawlings and a dozen or so members of the City Council; Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau; and a hundred or so publicists, reporters, and photographers. Ostensibly they are all here for a press conference, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of celebratory mass.

It’s a blistering hot Wednesday in late August, the day before the commencement of Jakes’ MegaFest. Organizers say the semiregular, three-day event, which has never before taken place in Dallas, will attract more than 50,000 attendees over the next three days and inject $41 million into the local economy, making it one of the largest conventions the city has ever hosted. 

“I was literally stalking him,” Jones says to the crowd, detailing his five-year effort to convince Jakes to hold MegaFest here. “Until we reached the point where he said, ‘Get me that Convention Center hotel, make some improvements to the Convention Center, make some additional light-rail service improvements, continue to develop downtown—and make sure this city can host my event the way we can all be proud of.’ ” 

When it’s his turn to speak, Jakes—with his wide smile, soft lisp, and avuncular, aw-shucks manner—downplays the notion that he made costly or unfair demands on the city. “I didn’t put any pressure on them,” he insists.

But a few minutes later, during a one-on-one interview in another of the hotel’s conference rooms, I get the sense that Jakes is aware of his political and cultural influence—and of how important money becomes in any conversation about faith-based entertainment. “Hollywood studios are not driven by a mission,” he says. “They’re driven by a number on a ledger. That’s why people who are interested in propelling our message have to come out opening weekend, because that’s when everyone is looking to see whether what we did mattered.” 

More than arguably anyone else in America today, the 56-year-old Jakes illustrates how deeply religious culture has bled into the mainstream—and how many more possibilities still remain unrealized. His nondenominational, Dallas-based church, The Potter’s House, was founded in 1996 and now has more than 30,000 members on its rolls. Beginning in the early 1990s, he started publishing a series of best-selling books with titles like Woman Though Art Loosed. In 2000, he founded Dexterity Sounds, a gospel and Christian-music record label. (Jakes himself won a Grammy in 2003 for Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album, for A Wing and a Prayer by The Potter’s House Mass Choir.)

Over the past decade, Jakes has ventured into film and television, making a number of powerful Hollywood friends along the way. This year’s MegaFest brought to town Oprah Winfrey (who hosted two of her “Oprah Life Classes” at American Airlines Center) and Jennifer Hudson (who headlined the “Woman of Purpose” concert at the AAC). There was even a “Faith and Family Film Festival,” with panels on the challenges of marketing entertainment to Christian audiences and a screening of Jakes’ new BET talk show, T.D. Jakes Presents: Mind Body and Soul.

Yet despite his knack for blurring entertainment categories, Jakes still seems stuck in a pop-culture middle zone. He’s a huge deal within Christian circles, not especially well-known outside of them. A 2004 indie film based on his book Woman Thou Art Loosed proved a modest hit, grossing about $7 million. (Jakes plays himself in the film but was not a producer.) His company found wider success in 2011 with the romantic comedy Jumping the Broom, which grossed more than $37 million. But Jakes’ other efforts, including the 2009 drama Not Easily Broken, last year’s remake of Sparkle, have failed to connect with either critics or audiences. Jakes’ company came on board as a partner on the film Winnie, a biopic starring Hudson as Winnie Mandela, following its premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. But then the film sat on the shelf for two years before grossing a dismal $80,000 when it finally opened on just 32 screens in September. (The budgets for Jakes’ films have been in the $5 to $15 million range. Although the company won’t discuss specifics, funding appears to come from a mixture of Hollywood studios and private investors.) 

Jakes describes his company’s efforts as “Christians doing films that are for everyone.” But he acknowledges a resistance from both the media who cover his projects and from the studio bean counters. 

“There is skepticism from the big gurus who make marketing decisions about how much to spend on something,” he says. “And they’re skeptical because their friends don’t go to church on Sunday mornings. Their friends don’t embrace these ideas, so they don’t think there are major numbers of people who do.” 

A potential game-changer is on the horizon. Just before MegaFest, T.D. Jakes Enterprises wrapped production in Canada on Heaven Is for Real, based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent about a 4-year-old Nebraska boy who, after waking from surgery, described a detailed vision of heaven to his family. The book was an unexpected triumph in 2011, selling more than 7.5 million copies. The creative team behind the film includes director Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart) and actors Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly, the sort of A-listers who wouldn’t usually get involved with a Christian-themed production. It’s also worth noting that the cast of the film is mostly white. The film is set to be released by Sony right before Easter weekend.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a test case, but I am interested in seeing the results,” says Derrick Williams, executive vice president of T.D. Jakes Films. “We’ve shown the ability to say to Hollywood, ‘You do what you do and market how you market, and then allow us to market to our audience the way we know how.’ A combination of them both will get us the box office that we’re both looking for.” 

As to the larger question about Jakes’ future and whether he might become the first truly mainstream faith-based media mogul, it certainly seems to be on his mind. Near the end of our interview, I ask if he might one day create his own film studio, perhaps right here in Dallas. 

“I don’t think that I’ve earned the stripes to do that yet,” he says. “If I’m blessed to do that, and if our company grows to the point that that becomes a serious matter of contemplation, I’m open to that. It has not escaped the periphery of my thinking.” 

Even the disciples had a rough go of it at first. So it appears at EchoLight Studios, “America’s fast-growing inspirational and family film company.” EchoLight had been known for the sort of gooey, dewy efforts that give Christian filmmaking a bad name, stuff like 2007’s Welcome to Paradise, featuring former Wings starlet Crystal Bernard. When EchoLight hired Rick Santorum in June, the move seemed to signal ambitions to raise the company’s profile. “We’re in a position with potential to transform the industry,” Santorum boasted in the press release announcing his appointment. 

But just a few months later, Santorum fired company president Robert Downes and chief global strategist Christopher Morrow. In a lawsuit filed in Fort Worth in September, EchoLight also sued Downes and Morrow for what it termed “a campaign of sabotage.” (Company officials did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.) Meanwhile, early critical word on EchoLight’s newest title, The Christmas Candle, based on a novel by San Antonio preacher Max Lucado and co-starring British singer Susan Boyle, suggests the movie is unlikely to move the needle commercially for the company. (It was due for national release on November 22.) 

There is also the inconvenient truth that, even if many of these faith-based entertainments are sourced out of North Texas, they rarely end up shooting here and producing a direct economic impact. The Riot Studios team, for instance, grew up in Dallas but chose to shoot in Austin, in part because that city has a more established tradition of indie filmmaking. The state has also struggled to persuade larger-budgeted Hollywood films to shoot in Texas. Lucrative incentive packages in other states, and in Canada, make it financially attractive for producers to take their projects elsewhere.

Still, the sheer number of conservative- and faith-based companies in North Texas points to an intriguing future. If Austin fancies itself as the third coast of the entertainment industry, might this area one day become regarded as a kind of Christian-influenced fourth coast? In June, The DreamVision Company hosted an outdoor concert in downtown Fort Worth to celebrate its relocation from Orlando. Its chief creative officer is Ron Logan, who founded the theatrical wing of Disney. Although they offered few specifics, DreamVision officials said they hope to produce films and Broadway shows, and possibly build a Christian theme park in Fort Worth. 

Glenn Beck bought the Studios at Las Colinas in June. Thus far, he has used the facility for his talk-radio and television shows, but he has been broadening the range of his programming, including a filmmaking reality show called Pursuit of the Truth, produced in partnership with Vince Vaughn. It began airing on Beck’s television network, TheBlaze, in September.

So how big and how mainstream can Christian entertainment get? To answer that question, all eyes will be on Noah, Hollywood’s first attempt in decades to produce a Bible-based global blockbuster. Pay careful attention, too, to the planned upcoming sequel to The Bible, likely in 2015. The original version broke ratings records for the History Channel, prompting NBC to aggressively bid for the rights to produce and air a sequel. (A shorter version of the original Bible miniseries will be released theatrically in February—something virtually unheard of with projects originally produced for television.) “If Hollywood sees these things making money, more things like them are going to get produced,” says Rentrak’s Goerlich. “They are looking to expand their programming and try to find that middle ground. As our clients, we’ve heard that repeatedly in our discussions with them.” 

All of which could leave the likes of T.D. Jakes and the Riot Studios guys looking like visionaries, entertainers who had their fingers on the pulse of a religion-starved culture long before anyone else. “If art does in this century what it has done in previous centuries, it will leave behind the DNA of what it is like to live in this century,” Jakes says. “You cannot leave a true picture of our society and leave faith out of the discussion.”


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