Movie theaters are `Left Behind' as Christian film goes to churches


The screen will go up tonight at Greater Grace Harvest Church in Baltimore, the lights will go down, and the end of the world will draw near.

Eighteen months after hundreds of millions of people vanished mysteriously from the face of the Earth, President Gerald Fitzhugh has placed his trust in the new global leadership of the Romanian Nicolae Carpathia.

But an underground group of born-again Christians believes Carpathia is the Antichrist prophesied in the New Testament Book of Revelation - and must be stopped.

FOR THE RECORD - A Page 1A article yesterday gave an incorrect date for the screening of the film, Left Behind: World at War, at Middle River Baptist Church. It will be shown today at 6 p.m.
The Sun regrets the error.

The story will be familiar to devotees of the Left Behind series of books and videos. But tonight, fans should notice what the filmmakers are calling the "quantum leap forward" in production values - the Hollywood-quality cinematography, sound and special effects lacking in the first two movies.

That's because the third installment in the series starring Kirk Cameron and Louis Gossett Jr. is the first made with funding from Sony Pictures. Left Behind: World at War, which opens tonight on 3,000 screens nationwide in an unusual churches-only release, is the latest Christian-themed movie to benefit from the film industry's growing interest in capturing America's churchgoing population.

In a development that has drawn momentum from the $600 million success last year of The Passion of the Christ, the major studios are opening faith-focused divisions and investing in overtly Christian films in the hope of reaching what motion-picture executives see as a whole new market.

Left Behind: World at War, based on the best-selling series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, comes two weeks after The Gospel, a film distributed by the Sony unit Screen Gems about faith and redemption set in and around an African-American church.

Universal is working on a film version of Shadowmancer, the best-selling novel by an Anglican minister that some consider a Christian response to the Harry Potter books.

The faithful are anticipating a blockbuster in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the adaptation of the allegorical children's novel by C.S. Lewis due Dec. 9 from Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media.

Following on the strategy developed for The Passion, promoters already are screening the hybrid live-action/computer-generated- animation feature for church leaders, in the hope they will endorse its faithfulness to the book, which is beloved among Christians.

Ted Baehr sees a growing recognition of Christian influence in the cultural marketplace.

"This is just a story of money," said Baehr, who is the chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, which advocates for the production of more faith-oriented fare.

"One hundred and thirty-five to 165 million people go to church every week," Baehr said. "If you get 10 percent of them to go to a movie, you've got a blockbuster. You get 20 percent, you're getting into Passion territory."

The Left Behind series, which draws its themes from scriptural interpretation not held by all Christians, will seek its success on a different scale.

Some 50 churches in Maryland have signed up to show Left Behind: World at War this weekend. Some are not charging admission, or are asking only for donations.

Greater Grace Harvest Church at 13 E. 20th St., which is planning to screen the film four times tonight through Sunday, has distributed free passes in the hope of drawing the curious.

"This is a means to teach or at least acquaint people with the idea that there are some things that are pointing to the coming of the Lord," said Bishop Carl H. Montgomery, pastor of the Pentecostal church of about 200 members. "With the various weather pattern changes and terrorism and the earthquake, it's starting to make the average individual sit up and ask what's going on. We have to be in a position to give an answer."

Executive producer Peter Lalonde, the chief executive officer of Cloud Ten Pictures, knows the power of film. He says he was "just a guy" 22 years ago when he walked into a small, independent church in northern Ontario to see the Billy Graham film, The Prodigal.

"The lightning bolt went through my heart," Lalonde said. He became a Christian.

Founded in Canada by brothers Peter and Paul Lalonde, Cloud Ten produces Christian features for both theatrical and direct-to-video release. The first two Left Behind DVDs have sold more than 4 million copies.

With the third film, Cloud Ten is trying to demonstrate the viability of what Peter Lalonde calls a "church cinema chain," in which local churches equipped with low-cost DVD projection systems would show Christian films monthly.

"If someone wants to take advantage, they'll have to make a movie that a pastor will play in his church," Lalonde said. "And therefore, we've affected the culture and started to have more films made for what I believe is an enormously untapped audience."

After the weekend church release, Sony will distribute the DVD of Left Behind: World at War on Tuesday.

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