Although denied officially, it may be the end of an era for the Rev. Billy Graham's feature film ministry.
His World Wide Pictures, which premiered its first crude film in the Hollywood Bowl three years after the 1949 Los Angeles tent crusade that made the evangelist famous, has shut down its Burbank studio and dismissed more than a dozen employees.
World Wide Pictures, whose studio was built about 25 years ago only a couple of blocks from NBC's Western headquarters and the Walt Disney Studios, vacated the premises at the end of May, according to former president Bill Brown of Tarzana.
The step was part of a consolidation and cutting back process for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. also being felt at the Minneapolis headquarters. Graham will be 70 this year and, according to associates, does not want to saddle his organization with obligations it cannot meet once he dies.
No feature film is currently planned and World Wide's future directions are under consideration, said John Corts, chief executive officer of the evangelistic association. "We really do intend to make more pictures, but we didn't think the facilities were being used enough to keep the studio," Corts said.
Hollywood Charged With Bias
Coincidentally, the halt in World Wide's steady production of inspirational feature films came as the evangelical community was citing Universal Pictures' "The Last Temptation of Christ" as an illustration of "anti-Christian" bias in Hollywood and was bemoaning the scarcity of traditional family films.
Realistically, however, World Wide Pictures was not in direct competition with major studios. It stuck to the formula of gradual, city-by-city distribution, working with local churches to use film as an evangelistic tool. The film ministry also worked under the rarely breached requirement that Graham and his crusades be worked into each movie's story line.
The greatest critical and popular success was scored by "The Hiding Place," a 1975 movie about Dutch Christians sheltering Jews during World War II. The $1.7-million film was based on a best-selling biography of Corrie ten Boom, who, at 83, appeared at the close of the film.
But some other films, including "The Prodigal" (1983) and the last two, "Cry From the Mountain" (1986) and "Caught" (1987), garnered some praise, especially for the work of director James F. Collier, who also did "The Hiding Place."
Producer Ken Wales, who did "The Prodigal" for $3.1 million with a full union crew, said the rising costs of making a major, professionally done film while using the Graham formula for distribution was hampering the film ministry.
"They would book a film in a movie house for only a week, or two at most, not allowing for any word of mouth," Wales said. "They would then take three years to distribute the movie, city by city." His suggestion to issue "The Prodigal" simultaneously in major cities along with nationwide publicity was turned down, he said.
For instance, the $1.7-million production "Caught," starring Jill Ireland, is being readied for showings this fall in selected Canadian cities for the first time.
Although Wales' work has primarily been in secular movies, producing "The Tamarind Seed" with Julie Andrews and the "East of Eden" TV miniseries, among other ventures, he said he counted "The Prodigal" as one of his "better experiences." In that film, Graham was persuaded to appear for the first time as an actor rather than only as a preacher whose crusade sermon affects a character in the film.
Wales said he concluded that the cutbacks and departure from Burbank amounts to "a winding down of Billy's (film) ministry. It's sad. We really need that presence."
Paul Kurtz, Minneapolis-based director for World Wide's distribution and operations, told the Associated Press that the Burbank building will be put up for sale, but Corts did not confirm that.
Wales said he had hoped that the Graham organization would have tried to offset operational costs at the facility by renting it out.
But Brown, whose 18-year tenure as president of World Wide ended last March, said attorneys advised that the ministry's tax-exempt status might be jeopardized if the studio were leased to for-profit companies. Brown estimated the value of the facility at $3.5 million.
Brown, now serving as the evangelist's Southern California representative, said he agrees with the decision to trim back and re-evaluate film production. "Budget-wise it was hard to compete," he said. "I strongly recommended that they (turn to) films for television."
Graham officials emphasized that each film's value was measured not by how much it cost but how many people it "reached" in bringing audience members to an evangelical faith--responses that are measured through cards, letters and other means of tabulation.
World Wide's start was not promising. "Mr. Texas," a story about a tough cowboy who turned tender when touched by Christ, was made in 1952 on a $25,000 budget. An overflow audience at the Hollywood Bowl, including Cecil B. DeMille and other celebrities, strained to see the 60-millimeter film in between breakdowns of the projector. Daily Variety panned the movie as "off-beat, amateurish."
But with later, improved productions--including "The Restless Ones," with Kim Darby in the lead--World Wide Pictures had the second- or third-largest impact of any of Graham's diversified ministries, Brown said. "We had films in 17 languages and reached 175 million people through them."