- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2013

The news of Rick Santorum’s new gig as the head of a Christian movie studio drew some raised eyebrows last week, but the former Pennsylvania senator and GOP 2012 presidential hopeful argues that making movies is one of the most effective ways he can help change the culture and promote his socially conservative values.

Modern movie moguls do not typically favor sweater vests — the unlikely symbol of Mr. Santorum’s feisty presidential run — but mainstream film and music can have a huge impact on the culture and, ultimately, the laws of a country, the 55-year-old fledgling filmmaker insisted in an interview.

“I think we have an opportunity to present good, quality, entertaining content for folks out there who don’t believe that what’s being produced in Hollywood is meeting their values in a way they feel comfortable,” Mr. Santorum said of his venture with EchoLight Studios, the Dallas-based company that produces faith-based and family-friendly films. “We’re going to give them an alternative.”

Mr. Santorum joined EchoLight’s board of directors a few months ago and has been helping the firm raise money. EchoLight, founded in 2011, is set to release its first film, “The Redemption of Henry Myers,” this fall. The Western will focus on a bank robber whose life is changed by the kindness of a widow and her children. A second production, now set for release in 2014, tells the story of Eric “Hoovey” Elliott, who overcame a serious illness to play college basketball.

EchoLight’s productions to date feature exceedingly modest budgets by Hollywood standards, costing an estimated $1 million to $3 million. But despite the popular perception, Christian-themed movies have shown an ability to be under-the-radar box office hits: Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ” is the top grossing Christian movie of all time, with a lifetime gross profit of $370 million, according to the website BoxOfficeMojo.com.

In the face of considerable skepticism and critical indifference, the History channel’s miniseries “The Bible” garnered big ratings earlier this year and in April set a record for first-week miniseries DVD sales, selling 525,000 copies.

Mr. Santorum said that EchoLight will be partnering with Lynchburg, Va.-based Liberty University to produce films from the school’s cinematic arts program. The company also has deals with two film competitions to produce and distribute faith-based films.

“We want to find the best and brightest young filmmakers and try to encourage them to develop projects,” said Mr. Santorum. “We’re very excited to encourage these young believers to engage in the arts.”

Film professor and producer Jack Hafer said Mr. Santorum’s goal would could come to pass if EchoLight markets its films strictly toward Christian families. But Mr. Hafer, who heads the cinema and media arts department at Biola University, a Christian university near Hollywood, Calif., said Mr. Santorum’s involvement in EchoLight will face hurdles in exerting a major influence on mainstream popular culture and youth.

“Christian filmmaking is really in its infancy,” said Mr. Hafer, pointing to films such as Sony’s “Fireproof” and “Courageous,” which openly promote the Christian faith. “To influence the young people outside of the [Christian] culture, they have to be sure they’re using the [appropriate] language, and not just the cultural language of the church,” a balance he said it is “so difficult” for religious-oriented filmmakers to strike.

Mr. Santorum, a Catholic, ran against Mitt Romney for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and openly expressed his socially conservative values for traditional marriage, the right to life and religious freedom. Given little chance of winning the nomination, he proved among the most tenacious of Mr. Romney’s challengers, winning 11 states before dropping out of the race in April.

Christian film professors are cautiously commending his quest to permeate popular culture with Christian values, acknowledging the huge influence of Hollywood.

“Movie theaters have become kind of a church for the masses,” said Thomas Parham, co-chairman of the theater, film and television department at Azusa Pacific University, another Christian university near Hollywood. “People are thirsting for a good story. At the end of the day, people pay $12 to $13, in 3D or whatever, to have their minds taken off their troubles for a couple of hours.”

Mr. Parham said Mr. Santorum lack of experience may actually prove an asset in his new career.

“It can sometimes not be the most beneficial to have an outsider come in [to the film industry] who doesn’t know the business,” he said. “To have somebody who’s a politician run a production company — that’s a curious choice. I hope he’s surrounded by good people who know what they’re doing.”

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