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 the passion for the Christ.
Writer-director Hardy and producer Packer were the key creative forces delivering "The Gospel," which opened over the 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 several local theaters were transformed into church-like 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 African American 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 African American-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 over the weekend.
Executives hoped "The Gospel" could catch the wave of success of religious films such as the blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ" and the more urban-oriented "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Woman Thou Art Loosed."
"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."
One of them is Bernadette Gladden-Moore, who attended a Friday afternoon showing at the Bridge Theatre in Culver City, where people clapped along with the choir on-screen and heads bobbed and bodies swayed to the music.
"I would definitely buy the soundtrack," said Gladden-Moore, 50, a record company owner from View Park. "I support Christian movies and I'd like to see more of that, something a family could see. A lot of people might not step foot in a church ... but they can still get the message of the gospel through this movie," she said.
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 an up-and-coming 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.
Dourdan, a star of TV's top-rated drama, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," has called "Trois" the low point of his acting career. But it was a turning point for Hardy and Packer. The success of "Trois" in its limited theatrical release in selected Southern and Southeastern cities helped open doors for the pair in Hollywood. "Trois" also sparked two sequels (neither featured the original stars) and the inevitable "Trois" DVD box set.
Despite their risque resume, Hardy and Packer say "The Gospel" is in keeping with their determination to display their versatility as filmmakers tackling diverse genres.
"What a blessing," said Hardy. "We have shown we can do thrillers, we can do faith-based films." Added Packer: "We've been able to accomplish something that has never been done before."
Holly Davis-Carter, one of the film's executive producers, said she felt the pair 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.
Though she was familiar with their films, Davis-Carter said she had no concerns about seeking their involvement with a strictly religious film. "I went to them specifically and said, 'How can I take you to the next level?' 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."
After discussions with Davis-Carter and her fellow executive producer Fred Hammond, a top gospel star, Hardy came up with the idea for the prodigal son story line of "The Gospel," which he said has similarities to his own life. Boris Kodjoe (Showtime's "Soul Food"), plays David Taylor, who was raised in the church but pursues a secular singing career after his estrangement from his father (Clifton Powell), the bishop of the hometown church. Just as David is gaining fame with a hit song ("Let Me Undress You"), he returns home when his father becomes ill and winds up butting heads with his former best friend, an egotistical minister (Idris Elba) who is poised to succeed the bishop. David finds himself torn among his past, his father's legacy and his decadent lifestyle.
Bobby Jones Jr., who hosts gospel programming on BET, said there is a ready market for modern religious film: "People want to be touched and see those kinds of stories."
The moral messages were not lost on the audience at the Bridge, which murmured approval and hissed back at characters who went astray. "I think we need to spend less time looking good and more time being good," was a familiar mantra in the movie. "We gotta leave things in God's hands."
"That's right!" answered audience members, clapping in approval.
Heather Hughes, who attended the show with Gladden-Moore, found the film "provocative and exciting. There was a clear message that touched both the secular and spiritual arenas.... There hasn't been a movie like this that has sent a clear message -- not since 'The Passion,' " said the 35-year-old marriage and family therapist. "Hopefully, it will help blur the color lines and bring people together, especially in these times we live in, perilous times."
Times staff writer Merrill Balassone contributed to this report.