LYNCHBURG, Va. — A cadre of God-fearing film students in this college town has been laboring to create an “inspirational, loving” cinema culture far from the bright lights — and scandals — of Hollywood.
Students at Liberty University, the nation’s largest Christian school, have created five independent full-length feature films over the past six years that have received wide distribution and national recognition as faith-based films rock the expectations of mainstream moviemakers.
The next faith-based feature from Liberty’s cinema arts program is bound to draw more attention. “The Trump Prophecy,” about a fireman who says he received a prophecy in 2011 that Donald Trump would become president, is set to be released in October on 1,200 screens, a debut that rivals a typical studio release.
The university’s cinema program pits eager amateurs against seasoned professionals in a growing niche market that was long underserved and occasionally mocked by Hollywood. Over the past decade, faith-based films such as “Heaven Is for Real” and “God’s Not Dead” have made an impact at the box office, reaping millions of dollars in ticket sales from their modest budgets.
Founded in 1971 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Liberty University was set up as an alternative education facility on the front lines of a moral revival, which some faith-based films reflect.
Stephan Schultze, director of Liberty’s cinema arts program, said the university’s hometown of Lynchburg — sandwiched between Appomattox and the Blue Ridge Mountains — has joined filmmaking mini-meccas such as Atlanta, Louisiana, Kentucky and the Carolinas to challenge the industry dominance of Hollywood, which is taking note of the religious genre.
“Every one of the studios now has a faith-based division in it,” he said. “If the culture shifts, they’ll make movies that adapt to the culture.”
Mr. Schultze proudly noted that his program’s most recent project, “Extraordinary,” was the first student-driven film to be released nationally in the U.S.
“If they were still making ‘Lord of the Rings,’ our students could walk onto that set and go to work,” he said, adding that his students operate professional-grade cinema equipment while honoring God.
“There’s going to be a lot more students that feel comfortable having a voice and their worldview expressed publicly,” the cinema teacher said. “It’s full immersion. They get here in the morning, and they work till night.”
In learning their craft and plying their trade, the students have emulated the on-set culture of professional Christian-themed films. Actors and producers say they feel comfortable without the harassment, intimidation and scandal revealed by the #MeToo movement.
“So many people on the set felt that the environment on the set was consistent with the movie we were making,” said Christian producer DeVon Franklin, whose company has partnered with 20th Century Fox.
Karen Abercrombie, who starred in the 2015 faith-based film “War Room,” which made about $68 million, said she has seen “so much hypocrisy it makes me sick, enough to make me want to throw up.”
“You’re dealing with a different kind of people” in Hollywood, she said, adding that faith-based movie sets feel “inspirational, loving.”
“If [Hollywood creators] are people of faith, they’re afraid to express themselves. … They may feel that people on set may be hostile,” Miss Abercrombie said.
The feelings of some Hollywood directors and producers get in the way of the product, she said, and they have become so accustomed to writing about violence and sex that they are ignoring the gold in faith-based films.
Yet the faith genre’s rise comes with concerns, said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. Makers of religious-themed movies must pay particular attention to overcome West Coast negativity.
“There’s a tremendous Hollywood bias against Christians,” Mr. Donohue said. “While people may not want to be preached at, they also have a spiritual light that is void in many cases. There’s an emptiness out there.”
Communications professor Kimberly Miller, who teaches Christian faith and cinema at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, said she supports the growing religious-based market but added that producers need bigger budgets, quality writing and top actors.
They also need to reach out beyond Christian audiences instead of “preaching to the choir,” Ms. Miller said in an email.
Mr. Schultze said his Liberty students rely on private investors to fund their productions. As investors increasingly knock on their doors, the students work to assemble audiences that don’t necessarily share political views, he said.
They also relish the debate over Christian values that their movies spark because dialogue could help resolve tensions that have gone unaddressed, he said.
The cinema arts program, which is 6 years old, graduates about 60 students a year. Each student creates a short film and earns at least one credit on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Alumni have worked on projects such as “Indivisible,” a film about an Army chaplain experiencing a crisis in faith. It stars Justin Bruening of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and opens Oct. 26.
With “The Trump Prophecy” debuting the same month, the cinema program is testing the waters to produce a television series on campus, said Mr. Schultze, who also directed the movie.
He said he hopes the media project will further the dialogue, which could end with: “I don’t agree with you, but you’re a nice person — we can be friends.”