ALBANY, Ga. – A movie made by Baptist pastors using their congregation as cast and crew is a long shot for the Hollywood treatment. But "Facing the Giants," an inspirational film about a chronically losing high school football team, is heading to 400 theaters nationwide after becoming embroiled in a ratings dispute that reached the halls of Congress.
Members of Albany's Sherwood Baptist Church donated the money for the $100,000 film, which is to be released in September by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Destination Films, a branch of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
"We are thrilled. It was more than we ever imagined," said the Rev. Alex Kendrick, an associate pastor at Sherwood. "We felt like God answered a lot of prayers."
Sherwood's pastors believe television and films have a greater influence than sermons, so they got into the movie business in 2003 with "Flywheel," about an unscrupulous used-car salesman who turns his life around after finding God. It was shown at local theaters and distributed on DVD.
"Every church has to find out what they're supposed to do," said the Rev. Michael Catt, the senior pastor. "For us, it was making movies."
For "Facing the Giants," Kendrick and his brother, the Rev. Stephen Kendrick, also an associate pastor, wrote the script and helped produce it with the help of 500 church volunteers and a handful of technical behind-the-scenes professionals who conducted a two-day "boot camp" to train the mostly volunteer crew.
Alex Kendrick plays the lead role of Grant Taylor, coach of the fictional Shiloh Christian Academy football team. He and his wife face the usual everyday problems — car troubles, mounting bills, a rodent in the house — as well as infertility concerns that strain their relationship. In addition, the coach learns that some parents are calling for his ouster because of the team's losing record.
Taylor prays and searches his Bible for answers that ultimately ease his family problems and change his coaching philosophy. He turns the team around by telling players they need to believe in God as well as themselves.
The church spent about nine months producing "Facing the Giants," including three months of filming at local high schools and pecan orchards. All the actors and extras were volunteers, including a cameo by University of Georgia football coach Mark Richt. All but a handful of the football players in the film were from the 1,500-member church's own school, Sherwood Christian Academy.
The movie was "discovered" after the church contacted Nashville, Tenn.-based Provident Films, which had focused on Christian music distribution, for permission to use some of its songs. Provident, which merged with Sony last year, wanted to see the movie.
"We thought it was a tear jerker and we worked with Provident to get the rights," said Benjamin Feingold, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which will handle DVD distribution. He also admitted that he has an affinity for Albany because his grandfather, a Polish immigrant, is buried there and he still has relatives in the area.
The film's supporters recently complained when the Motion Picture Association of America's rating board gave it a PG rating, which is usually a warning of some profanity, violence or brief nudity. Believing the rating might have been based on the movie's strong religious message, conservative talk-show hosts, Washington lawmakers and religious groups saw the decision as evidence of an anti-Christian bias in Hollywood. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., sent a letter to the MPAA demanding an explanation.
The board doesn't usually explain its ratings decisions, but after being bombarded with more than 15,000 e-mails, a spokeswoman said the rating was based solely on the film's mature subject matter — football violence, depression issues and infertility — and had nothing to do with its religious content.
Sherwood pastors said they knew the PG rating was a possibility, although they had hoped for a G.
"Obviously, (the controversy) has given the movie a lot of exposure," said Catt. "We did not file an appeal on that. Football was a part of how we wanted to tell this story."
Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, said he's not surprised at the interest in "Facing the Giants."
"We're always looking ... for compelling, uplifting and inspirational stories, whether they're religious based, or emotional or human based," he said. "We're catering to the audience that is moved by the characters and the story line, rather than the pyrotechnics of blowing people up."
Sherwood church member Jason McLeod tried out for the movie hoping to become an extra. Instead he landed a leading role as Brock Kelley, the football team's captain.
"It's so cool how it's come together," said McLeod, 20, who played football during his first two years at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, where he is a junior preparing for the ministry. "We want to get the Gospel out there and reach people in a different way. We're just very excited about what God is doing."