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Following the Book to Success

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

When producer Matthew Crouch set out two years ago to make his $25-million apocalyptic biblical thriller “Megiddo: The Omega Code 2,” he never dreamed the sequel to his 1999 hit film, “The Omega Code,” would debut at such a dramatic hour in world history.

But though major Hollywood studios from Warner Bros. to Disney quickly jettisoned plans to open new films in the immediate aftermath of last week’s terrorist attacks, Crouch felt compelled to press on with Friday’sopening of “Megiddo.”

Why? Because, he believes, it is all part of God’s plan.

“I don’t believe under any circumstances that God’s hand destroyed those buildings,” said Crouch, the son of televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

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“It was not God’s breath that blew those planes off course and into those buildings, but when he knows that things like that are going to happen--because I believe God sees from the beginning to the end of all time--he positioned this film to be the answer for a question we didn’t even know would be asked.”

Crouch said chills coursed through his body as he turned on the television after the terrorists had struck and he watched the World Trade Center collapse, knowing that in his own film there is an eerily familiar scene of a newsman standing in front of a TV screen where a burning building collapses.

Crouch later gathered a large group of his employees for prayer at his production studios, Gener8Xion Entertainment, located near Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

“We sat together and had a pastor bring a service to us,” the producer recalled. “The pastor chose to read Psalms 23. Then we turn on the news, and the president of the United States is reading the same psalm. It was a mind-blowing experience. The thought that [God] would position us to have an answer to a world that would be screaming out for answers is dynamic.”

GoodTimes Entertainment, which is releasing the film in 400 theaters, has kicked in $3 million in marketing support--a healthy increase from the $600,000 used to market “The Omega Code.”

Last February, New York-based GoodTimes formed a 10-year venture with Gener8Xion to produce and distribute four movies a year with budgets ranging from $4 million to $30 million.

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The first two films to come from the venture were “Carmen: The Champion,” a boxing story with elements of faith that was released earlier this year, and now “Megiddo.”

Seth Willenson, an executive with GoodTimes who describes himself as a secular Jew, said his company debated whether to release “Megiddo” on Friday in light of the attacks on America, but came away confident they should go forward as planned.

“This is not a decision we are taking lightly,” Willenson said. “As somebody who has spent 30 years in the film business and as a student of popular culture, I feel that putting ideas on the screen doesn’t necessarily mean exploitation and celebration.”

He noted that he talked with the pastor of a large Los Angeles church after the attacks and was told that his congregation wanted the film released as scheduled.

“Megiddo” tells a Cain-and-Abel story of two brothers. The elder, played by Michael York (reprising his role as Stone Alexander from “The Omega Code”), seeks to control the world while his brother, played by Michael Biehn, becomes president of the United States and stands in the way of his brother’s evil objectives.

Their rivalry ends in a climactic battle for world domination as two vast armies meet on the fields of Megiddo, the valley in Israel where the Bible prophesies Armageddon will commence.

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Although inspired by the books of Revelation, Daniel and New Testament gospels, Crouch concedes that the characters and plot of his film are not true to the Bible.

Indeed, York is depicted as head of the European Union and the movie posits the theory that the world is divided into 10 zones, with seven zones warring against the other three--in this case, the United States, Latin America and, surprisingly, China.

“We have never contradicted Scripture,” Crouch says, “but we certainly added certain story points to it that aren’t clear. ... So, what we are saying is, what would be the conceivable way a guy would rise to power and really woo the world into a one-world government? It would have to be through some things we said in ‘The Omega Code,’ which was a guy giving away food and water and desalination of ocean water and making the world a happy place first and then starting to gain control of nations.”

Crouch concedes it was a major coup to land York--who starred in such films as “Cabaret,” “The Three Musketeers” and “The Taming of the Shrew”--as the lead in “The Omega Code.”

“I was impressed from the moment I met him,” York said of Crouch. “Matt is his father’s son. He has this wonderful evangelical quality, that sort of glittering eye, and it’s infectious.

“I must say what he said slightly stunned me--that there is this whole missing audience that wasn’t going to the movies because they basically didn’t like what was being offered.”

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Grass-Roots Marketing Bolsters ‘Omega Code’

“The Omega Code” stunned Hollywood when it debuted in October 1999.

With little advertising and a grass-roots army of churchgoers flooding the theaters, it broke into the top 10 charts of highest-grossing movies its first weekend in release.

The film took in $2.4 million on only 304 screens that weekend and went on to gross $12.5 million in North America.

With “Megiddo,” directed by Trenchard Smith, the production budget alone came in at $22 million.

“Megiddo” features 270 special effects shots, including a computer-generated bat-winged monster that Crouch boasts looks “pretty nasty” on the screen.

Commenting on the grass-roots marketing campaign that proved so successful with the original “Omega Code,” Crouch holds up a list of ministers and their telephone numbers that he can call and ask their help.

Together, he says, they represent many of the largest congregations in Southern California.

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“This front page,” he says, “represents probably 200,000 [church members]. When you add up the phone calls I could make [to pastors listed on subsequent pages], it represents 300,000 to 400,000 people just in the L.A. market.

“And I have a sheet like this for probably the top 55 to 75 markets in America with telephone numbers.”

Of course, the reason he can tap into this large demographic is because of the vast religious network forged by his parents, whose Orange County-based Trinity Broadcasting Network is now the largest Christian network in the world. TBN cut a check for the production budget but would not fund the prints and advertising.

Explains Crouch: “My dad says, ‘I’ll fund the creating of the movie, but I own it. And I own the revenue. I’ll own the copyright and run it on Trinity in perpetuity, but I’m not going to play the Hollywood game. That’s not my bag.”’

Crouch believes that Hollywood is making a mistake by not tapping into the Christian market for movies. “Hollywood calls this core audience a niche,” he says. “I think it’s going to be the other way around. I think there are millions of people who are going to go to the movies that have historically not gone, [but] ... I think Hollywood will ultimately understand that they have left so much business on the table it will astound them.

“We are trying to make a statement to Hollywood,” Crouch added. “I’m not in opposition to Hollywood. I’ve never said anything negative about Hollywood. I’m trying to tell Hollywood executives that I’ve found an audience and I know how to market to them.”

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Crouch also has a blunt message for his Christian brethren, some of whom condemn Hollywood without ever going into a theater.

“I chastise the Christian community by saying, ‘You have thought that the way to make yourself known is to protest,”’ he said. “Instead of doing something like a protest and organizing 25,000 people to set upon Universal Studios over here, just make a movie and support it and vote on it at the box office. All I’m saying is it’s time to start showing back up at the theater.”

Growing Up in the Spotlight

With his brush-cut hair, chiseled jaw and a passion for the bible and the movies, the 39-year-old Crouch cuts an intriguing figure in Hollywood.

He calls his years growing up in the glare of the TBN spotlight “intense” and confesses he saw little of his parents some weeks when they were building their broadcast empire.

“I was John Q. Kid until I was 11 and then my life was way different,” he recalls. “There was a lot of intensity to our home life. I was raised a lot by my brother, quite frankly, because my parents were both down at the studio when I would get back from high school.”

Sometimes, he added, he would not see his parents for days on end because in the early days of TBN they were often on the air three or four hours a night.

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“I literally remember four or five days going by when I wouldn’t physically lay eyes on them unless I turned on the tube.... I think they almost felt bad that Paul Jr. was taken out of school at 14 and was running cameras and directing TV shows and they left me in high school because I excelled in some sports. They kind of left me to try and possibly make some normalcy of school, you know?”

Through his father’s connections, he has met many of the world’s religious, political and corporate leaders. He and his wife, for example, were invited to President Bush’s inauguration this year, an invitation he proudly displays in his study. And because his father travels frequently to Israel, Crouch has met every Israeli prime minister since Menachem Begin.

A seasoned world traveler, he worked as a videographer from Beirut to El Salvador, supplying news agencies with his footage and hinting that he also provided them to the U.S. military.

He is also trained as a jet pilot and once flew an F-18 as a guest of the Navy’s famed Blue Angels.

Crouch resides with his wife and their two sons--40 miles from his Orange County roots. Home now is a stately, two-story Mediterranean-style house up a steep winding road in the hills overlooking the Hollywood Freeway and Universal Studios. The house has a circular stairway and a lavish interior that seems fit for an Italian villa. The couple also has a home in Rome.

An avid sportsman, he has lined one entire wall of his personal study with mounted heads of elk, gazelle, deer and rams, many felled with bow and arrow.

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His office is only a minute’s drive down the hill in his powder-blue Porsche, where Gener8Xion has acquired the entire three-building complex that once housed the Hanna-Barbera cartoon studios. Crouch’s business office is as colorful, if not more so, than his study.

On the wall is an AK-47 assault rifle given him by the prop master on “Megiddo” as a souvenir. The gun, he notes, is made of rubber and won’t shoot. There are also two 9-millimeter handguns from “Omega Code” nailed to another wall.

There is also a photo of his father greeting Pope John Paul II and framed posters of the four movies he has made, beginning with “China Cry,” when he was an associate producer, and continuing with “The Omega Code,” “Carmen: The Champion” and “Megiddo.”

Crouch said he once read a review that chastised Christian filmmakers for making movies of such amateurish quality. “[The reviewer] said, ‘Why are we reviewing a film as poor as this when the heritage of this genre [religious epics] was Cecil B. DeMille.... Look how much they’ve fallen,”’ Crouch said.

“Megiddo,” Crouch vows, will reverse that decline. “It’s not the greatest film in the world, but it will definitely be called a step back to the epic. I guarantee you.”

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