- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

Albany, Ga., bills itself as a great place to live and work. Procter & Gamble and Cooper Tire each have around 1,300 employees at their operations in the city — about a 3 1/2-hour drive southwest of Atlanta — while the Phoebe Putney Hospital complex has around 3,400 workers.

Though each is a going concern, none are known for making national headlines by taking on the world’s entertainment epicenter, Hollywood.

But Sherwood Baptist Church, a self-described “contemporary Southern Baptist Church with traditional values,” has locked horns with the Motion Picture Association of America, after the association gave a PG rating to “Facing the Giants,” a movie that opens tomorrow in about 430 theaters nationwide.

The folks at Sherwood Baptist say the family-friendly film is being punished for being too faithful to its faith-based message.

According to a statement from the promoter, “Although the movie has no foul language, sex scenes or extreme violence, the [MPAA ratings] board balked at the numerous references to Jesus Christ in the film.”

The rating stunned industry outsiders and insiders.

“It just amazes me that it can be PG because of faith,” accomplished NFL coach Dan Reeves said in a telephone interview last week.

Earlier, Kris Fuhr, marketing vice president at Provident Films, a unit of Sony Pictures, told Scripps Howard News Service religion columnist Terry Mattingly that “it is kind of interesting that faith has joined that list of deadly sins that the MPAA board wants to warn parents to worry about.”

But while coaches and marketers may be surprised, screenwriter Stephen Kendrick saw the MPAA’s decision as a way to get attention for this small film — made with $100,000 raised by the Albany congregation, whose Sunday School classes provided the film’s “catering services.”

Mr. Kendrick along with his brother, Alex, wrote and produced the film in their job as media pastors at the church.

The story centers on the six-year losing streak of a Christian high school’s football coach, financial and family crises, and the application of faith, prayer and determination to surmount these challenges. As the ratings controversy loomed, the church was seeking a way to bring the film’s message to national attention.

“In May of this year, we started praying that God would let there be a breakthrough in the media for ‘Facing the Giants,’” Mr. Kendrick said of the film’s PG rating, “then the media hit two weeks later. To us, it was an answer to prayer.”

The publicity, which included Mr. Mattingly’s syndicated column and notice by DrudgeReport.com, created an unexpected reaction. While Provident Films, the Sony unit, was working with distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films to place the picture, local church congregations and businesses across what Sherwood senior pastor Michael Catt calls “flyover country” were banding together to bring the movie to their towns.

Mr. Kendrick said Provident and Goldwyn Films would book a theater if 1,000 tickets were pre-sold, and groups in about 27 cities did that, he said. One bank in Texas offered to buy 3,000 tickets to give to customers, he said.

“We’ve been shocked and excited at the response,” Mr. Kendrick said.

Adds Mr. Catt, “Hollywood measures everything by the bottom line, and the key is, if people want this kind of entertainment, they have to go out and support it. We think we’ve got a very positive, encouraging and hopeful movie.”

Mr. Kendrick said the church got into the motion picture business — its first effort was a locally produced tale, “Flywheel,” that now is in Blockbuster stores for rental — after a 2002 survey by evangelical researchers the Barna Group reported that movies were more influential on culture than was the church.

“In ministry, we’re constantly telling stories,” Mr. Kendrick said. “Whether it be in pulpit, or an article we write, or in a hallway at church, we’re sharing a story of what God is doing in people’s lives. [This movie is] based on a lot of true things that happened in our lives or the lives of people we know.”

The Kendricks also know the people who acted in the film. Alex Kendrick is not only the screenplay’s co-author, he’s also the director, producer and star, playing coach Grant Taylor. Church members compose the all-volunteer cast: the role of Brook Taylor, Grant’s wife, is played by Shannen Fields, the wife of the local football coach. Bailey Cave, a local high school senior, portrays David Childers, the placekicker who helps the fictional “Shiloh Eagles” advance to the playoffs where they were beaten before.

But the breakout performance of the film could well come from Chris Willis, a delivery truck driver for Frito-Lay Corp., and another Sherwood Baptist Church member. Stephen Kendrick said the production team wanted a black actor to play the part of assistant coach J.T. Hawkins Jr.

Willis, a father of seven who also teaches a Sunday School class at Sherwood, auditioned and won the part with his comedic talents.

“He was funnier than we wrote it,” Mr. Kendrick said.

Mr. Willis has “a great sense of humor in real life,” Mr. Kendrick said. “His wife helped us on the set, and about six months after we finished the movie, got sick with lupus and scleroderma.”

Mrs. Willis died last year, after the filming was completed, and the church has rallied around Mr. Willis and his family, according to Mr. Kendrick.

For most of the actors, their roles weren’t a great stretch, Mr. Kendrick said.

“We tried to cast them in a role that was like their regular personality,” he said. “All the people in the movie, we see them every Sunday, they’re our family. We understood one another.”

Two football veterans say they were touched by the story and its realistic filming of football action, helped by a tutorial from the Orlando, Fla.-based filmmakers who worked on such theatrical films as “Friday Night Lights,” “The Replacements” and “Any Given Sunday.”

“I loved it, it’s a great movie,” said Mike Gottfried, a former University of Kentucky and University of Pittsburgh coach who is now an ESPN commentator. “The football part of it is excellent, what a coach goes through when he loses and all of a sudden it looks as if he can’t get it together. All the parts of it, it’s a great story. It has a good theme to it. All of a sudden you see this team come together. It’s a feel-good movie. I like the coach, the fact that he had problems at home, which coaches do.”

And former NFL coach Reeves, who once preceded a Super Bowl showdown with Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs’ team by having the two squads share a devotional prayer meeting, also applauded its realism.

“I think it does a great job of portraying high school football,” Mr. Reeves said. “The football scenes were very good. It’s hard to simulate action on the football field, but it’s very good.”

For Mr. Catt, the pastor billed as an executive producer of the film, the ultimate payoff won’t come at the box office but in seeing the message of “Facing the Giants” touch lives.

“Two hundred eighty-four people in Boston and Syracuse made first-time commitments to Christ after watching the movie,” he said.



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