The Next Blockbuster Movie — Coming Soon to a Church Near You

After an opening-weekend screening of the movie “Left Behind: World at War,” a pastor stood in front of the sheet onto which the movie had been projected at Temple Jehovah Shammah.

“This evening, we’d like to make an invitation,” said the pastor of the nondenominational evangelical church in the South Bronx. “If you’d like to accept Jesus, the invitation is open to you. It will be like a new beginning, and we’re offering it to you.”

Temple Jehovah Shammah was one of 3,200 churches where the latest Left Behind movie was screened last weekend, in anticipation of its October 25 release on DVD. The movie — an action-packed thriller about the rise of the Antichrist — was being used by many of the churches to sell Jesus; the film’s producers prodded churches to evangelize to audience members after the film.

But the church was being used to sell the movie, too: The producers chose to create buzz for the DVD by debuting the film in churches instead of theaters. This bold experiment is part of a broader move among Christian marketers to create their own marketplace outside mainstream corporate America.

“You can turn anything into a movie theater now,” said Gabriel Snyder, who writes about the movie industry for Variety. “We’re going to see more of this with films that have a strong niche appeal, but not enough of a broad audience to put it in a traditional movie house.”

Christians are not the only ones who have used this strategy. Last weekend, the Israeli film “Ushpizin” — currently in release in theaters — was shown at a Brooklyn high school with gender-separated seating, where it was more accessible for ultra-Orthodox Jews in the area. But the Christian market has grasped the commercial possibilities more fully.

The new Left Behind film is the third installment in the Left Behind film franchise. The movies are based on the Left Behind book series — a wildly successful succession of cliff-hanger novels about the people left behind after the rapture, when, according to Christian belief, Jesus whisks all believers directly to heaven. The first book was published in 1995, and since then more than 60 million copies of the 12 books in the series have been sold.

“I call it ‘crack for Christians,’” said Eileen Santiago, 41, educational pastor of Temple Jehovah Shammah. Santiago was responsible for bringing the new movie to

the church. “Once you read book one, you’ve got to read book two.”

Canadian company Cloud Ten Pictures produced the movies. For the third film, Sony Pictures came on board to provide the entire $12 million marketing and production budget.

The breadth of the screening shows how evangelical churches have come to form an entire market unto themselves. It is estimated that the evangelical Christians make up between 30% and 40% of the American population, and many evangelical churches have bookstores that push products avoided by mainstream stores. The fastest-selling book of all time in America — “The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For,”a self-help tome by California pastor Rick Warren — attained its incredible success with no mainstream marketing.

Peter Lalonde, producer of the Left Behind movies, estimated that with 3,200 screens it’s likely that his latest movie was shown in more ZIP codes last week than any other film. The biggest theatrical release last week was “Doom,” which appeared on 3,044 screens.

But Lalonde said the new marketing push also reflects the fact that mainstream corporate America has steered largely clear of the evangelical market. Lalonde said after the success of Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ,” he was expecting movie-makers to jump all over the Christian market, but he never saw it happen.

“I came to the realization that if there will be a wide distribution of evangelical films, Christians will have to do it outside the system,” Lalonde said.

“Left Behind: World at War” was designed with few elements to appeal to any audience outside the evangelical community. It begins with a clandestine mission to transport Bibles. The enemy in the tale is the Global Community, a body roughly analogous to the United Nations. The head of the Global Community, Nicolae Carpathia, is the Antichrist, and the narrative of the movie revolves around a plot he has hatched to kill underground Christian sects by poisoning their Bibles.

While the Left Behind movies contain no sex, they do have plenty of violence. The president of the United States becomes a hero when he uses the country’s missiles to deter Carpathia (who is, of course, immortal). We see heroism after Buck, the reporter hero of the series, proselytizes to the president. Amid the chaos of the apocalypse, Buck walks into the Oval Office and says, “Mr. President, look, time is running out, and I don’t want you to go to hell.”

“If you’re willing, God can save you,” Buck says. “Confess your sins and turn away from them. Put your faith in Jesus Christ.”

The philosophy of the Left Behind series has caused concern for many Jewish interfaith professionals. The films are based on what is known as dispensationalist premillennialism theology. According to this philosophy, Jesus’ return will come only after the re-establishment of the Jewish state and the rebuilding of the Temple. After the rapture, dispensationalists believe that all the Jews will be converted to Christianity. Many of the stories in the Left Behind series take place in Israel among the Jewish converts.

In the new movie, Jews play almost no role. And the Antichrist is not Jewish, as he is in the prophecies of many dispensationalists. But Lalonde was frank in his final message for Jews.

“As a Christian, I have the view that Jesus is the messiah,” Lalonde said. “Salvation comes through him, whether that be for people of Jewish or Egyptian or Canadian descent.”

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The Next Blockbuster Movie — Coming Soon to a Church Near You

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