BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are no dummies. And neither is Paul Lalonde. They understand that the first attempts at turning LaHaye and Jenkins' mega-best-selling Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels into a film franchise fell flat. Although three Left Behind films were made, there was little interest -- except amongst the most enthusiastic End Timers -- little buzz generated within the filmmaking community, and not much doing at the box office. Now, in the spirit of "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again," LaHaye, Jenkins and Lalonde have garnered a multi-million dollar budget, and plucked a box-office legend for the lead role, and are poised to take full advantage of the latest flood of religion-themed films.
If you don't think religion-themed films are trending, consider this: As of this writing (Monday, April 7), Noah, now in it's second week in theaters, has brought in more than $72 million at the box office; God's Not Dead, more than $32 million in three weeks, and Son of God, more than $58 million in its sixth week in theaters.
The Denver Post's film critic, Lisa Kennedy, recently pointed out that "By fall, no fewer than a half-dozen films with religious themes will be aiming for audiences beyond the faithful. Yet it's not simply the number of movies in or entering theaters in the coming months that herald a change in what we've come to know as 'faith-based' cinema. It's the variety, the mix of some things old and some things new."
Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind novels, recently tweeted: "Left Behind" [movie] is going to prompt important, life changing conversations. Are you ready? #leftbehindmovie."
In the April 2014 issue of GQ, Tom Carson summed up the dilemmas faced by faith-based filmmaking: "What's wrong with most Bible movies? That's simple: They aren't weird or disturbing enough. We're talking supernatural happenings, freak cataclysms, and a capricious Deity who has as much control over his kookier impulses as Justin Bieber. To evoke the proper awe about our founding myths, the Old Testament's folk tales ought to be treated as terrifying and bizarre. But Hollywood's definitive Bible epic – Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, of course – was basically a patriotic spectacle masquerading as a religious one; it's got more in common with Independence Day than it does with anything mystical or shuddery."
How "mystical or shuddery" will the rebooted Left Behind film be? While it is no guarantee of box office success, the rebooted Left Behind is scheduled for release in some 1800 theaters nationwide on October 3. The rapture-themed film stars Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage, as well as Chad Michael Murray, Cassi Thomson, Nicky Whelan, Lea Thompson and Jordin Sparks. Vic Armstrong, the stunt coordinator for such action films Thor, The Amazing Spider-Man and War of the Worlds, directs the film, which was shot this past summer in Louisiana.
"We're seeing a number of big, biblical movies on the calendar this year, particularly Son of God, Noah and Exodus," said Paul Lalonde, producer of Left Behind and CEO at Stoney Lake Entertainment. "The reason to bring Left Behind back is [two-fold]: one is to make it bigger and better, so that we can have a broader reach and a shot at a broader audience," Lalonde told The Blaze. "The first time we did it it was a straight to DVD production."
"The second reason is that the first movie was based on the entire first book in the series, so a book this fat turned into a screen play with 57 plot points and no real time to get to know the characters," Lalonde continued. "And the quintessential event that triggers all of Bible prophecy is the rapture — and that got like three minutes of screen time in the first movie."
Channeling his inner Anne Graham Lotz, who recently hypothesized that the disappearance of the Malaysian airlines flight could be the foreshadowing of The Rapture, Lalonde said: "What makes Left Behind different is that it is a contemporary story that could actually happen at any moment."
"It's also a historical account, in a sense, because it's based on a true story," he added. "It just hasn't happened yet, so it's very important to us that the core story not be changed. We had offers from three of the major studios in Hollywood to distribute this movie, but none would allow final control of the story to be left in our hands."
The plot according to Charisma News: "Left Behind follows [Rayford] Steele [Cage] who is piloting a commercial airliner just hours after the rapture when millions of people around the globe simply vanish. Thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic, he is faced with a damaged plane, terrified passengers and a desperate desire to get back to his family. On the ground, his daughter, Chloe Steele (Thomson) is among those left behind, forced to navigate a world of madness as she searches for her lost mother and brother."
There is no doubt that Lalonde and company is counting on Cage's box-office cache to lead the film to the promised land of profits and sequels. Cage, who over his 30-year career has, as the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Ordona characterized it, "put together some daring performances in many excellent films" although "not every outing has been a gem." Nevertheless, "the average domestic gross for his 54-features is a very healthy $64 million, when adjusted for ticket-price inflation."
Cage told Variety that he hopes the film "works as something that people will be entertained and thrilled by, but they'll also go home and they'll have conversations with their family and they'll ask 'do you think this could happen or couldn't happen' and it'll inspire discussions and closeness."
The Rev. Tim LaHaye was a major figure in Religious Right circles long before he and Jenkins produced the Left Behind novels, which have been published in 32 languages and have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. In twelve years, starting in 1995, LaHaye and Jenkins, produced 16 Left Behind books; participated in the making of three movies -- Left Behind: The Movie, Left Behind: Tribulation Force, and Left Behind: World at War; and, the video game "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," and its three sequels, "Left Behind: Tribulation Forces," "Left Behind 3: Rise of the Antichrist," and "Left Behind 4: World at War."
By fall, Lalonde, who produced the original Left Behind trilogy, will have major faith-based competition for box office bucks. He's got a lot at stake, but he has already confidently stated that a sequel to Nick Cage's Left Behind is in the planning stages.