'Gospel' reaches passionate niche

Los Angeles TimesOctober 7, 2005 

Screen Gems, which produced and is distributing 'The Gospel,' believes it will build an audience on word of mouth spread by those moved by its top-notch gospel music and uplifting story line.

Independent filmmakers Rob Hardy and William Packer attracted a cult fan base with low-budget films about the passions of the flesh. But their first major theatrical release celebrates passion of the spirit.

Writer-director Hardy and producer Packer were the key creative forces delivering "The Gospel," which opened last weekend with about $8 million and the highest per-theater average of any movie in the Top 10. The movie is a modern remix of the biblical tale of the prodigal son, and performances at some theaters were transformed into churchlike revivals as filmgoers talked back to the screen's characters and danced along during the numerous production numbers featuring top contemporary gospel artists.

Produced and distributed by Screen Gems, "The Gospel," which received mixed reviews, was promoted heavily by Packer and Hardy primarily in black churches. Popular gospel artists Yolanda Adams and Donnie McClurkin, who appear in the film, touted it on Christian television stations.

With no major stars and its niche appeal, "The Gospel" was originally targeted for a limited theatrical release or as direct to home video. But Screen Gems, which has released a string of black-themed films in the last few years, saw greater potential after well-received test screenings and decided to give "The Gospel" a shot against the more commercial "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "In Her Shoes," which also opened last weekend.

"We felt there was an underserved audience that would really go for this," said Screen Gems President Clint Culpepper. "There are a lot of people who love gospel music, and they have embraced this."

The popularity of "The Gospel" has brought newfound Hollywood glory to Hardy and Packer and their Rainforest Films, the Atlanta-based production company they formed soon after graduating from Florida A&M University in the late 1990s. With a budget of less than $5 million, the film is several steps up -- financially and spiritually -- from their specialty: urban erotic thrillers sprinkled with skin, sex and violence.

The most notorious was 2000's "Trois," about a lawyer who pressures his wife into engaging in a menage a trois with a bisexual stripper-prostitute. Armed with the tagline "Every Man's Fantasy, One Man's Nightmare," the centerpiece of "Trois," which was made for $200,000, was an explicit sex scene among the leads -- Gary Dourdan, Kenya Moore and Gretchen Palmer.

Nonetheless, Holly Davis-Carter, one of the film's executive producers, said she felt the filmmakers were perfect to help her realize her dream of bringing Christian entertainment into the commercial Hollywood arena. Davis-Carter represents several gospel music artists, in addition to superstar Usher.

"I went to them specifically and said, 'How can I take you to the next level?' " she recalls. "Although they came from a different place, they were very interested in a new spin on entertainment. We absolutely wanted to reach a core audience that is traditionally overlooked by Hollywood.

"We felt if we could create something that could speak to that audience, and bring some great music to it, others who are non-Christian might respond."

Bobby Jones Jr., who hosts gospel programming on BET, said there is a ready market for modern religious film.

"People want to be touched," he says, "and see those kinds of stories."

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