Missionary in Hollywood

Times Staff Writers

At the recent premiere of "One Night With the King" in Westwood, movie producer Matthew Crouch took a few moments to offer thanks.

"You know what I feel like would be an awesome thing to do right now?" Crouch said during a live broadcast of the opening festivities on "Praise the Lord" on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. "To thank my sweet little mom and dad, Paul and Jan Crouch."

There's a lot to be thankful for. His televangelist parents have authorized more than $32 million in tax-free donor money for the funding of three of his movies, TBN officials say. In addition, $16 million was given to a ministry that funded "One Night."

The movie, which opened Oct. 13 on about 900 screens, took in $4.3 million at the box office on its first weekend, ninth among films in release. Over this last weekend, it dropped to 14th place, taking in $2.2 million. With sumptuous costumes, location shooting in India and cameos by Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif -- their first pairing since "Lawrence of Arabia" -- "One Night" tells the biblical story of Esther, who helped save the Jews from extermination in ancient Persia.

Matthew Crouch, 44, could use a box-office hit. Of his first three movies, none has turned a profit, although his 1999 movie, an apocalyptic thriller called "The Omega Code," is credited by some for showing Hollywood the potential of Christian-themed films, leading to such hits as "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "The Passion of the Christ." Crouch's small, publicly traded company is struggling, having lost nearly $3.7 million last year, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Even so, Crouch's ties to his parents' cash-rich ministry -- which operates the world's largest religious broadcasting company -- may help explain why he never had to take a vow of poverty. He owns a Hollywood Hills mansion. He and his wife, Laurie, have eight vehicles, including a $240,000 Bentley Arnage.

For fun, Matthew Crouch hunts big game with a bow and arrow in Alaska and at a private reserve in Texas and displays his trophies -- stuffed elk, gazelle and ram heads -- on his study wall.

In many ways, Crouch and his company, Gener8Xion Entertainment, are Hollywood anomalies. He hasn't had to look further than his parents -- with their tax-free donor base and worldwide television reach -- to bankroll and market his movies. In other ways, the stereotype of a Hollywood producer fits snugly. Friends and foes describe him, by turns, as charismatic, arrogant, charming, ruthless, visionary and greedy.

"He's one of the most creative and innovative people in my industry," said Stephen Strang, president of Strang Communications, a Florida-based Christian media company. "I know there's many people out there trying to make a difference, but Matt's someone out there doing it."

Other entertainment-industry veterans who have worked with Crouch -- a diminutive figure who sports a modish crew cut -- say he would have been drummed out of the business if not for his TBN ties.

"I think he would be a laughingstock if he was a penniless evangelical, going cap in hand, office to office, trying to raise money and projecting the same personality he does," said Brian Trenchard-Smith, director of "The Omega Code's" 2001 sequel, "Megiddo: The Omega Code 2."

Associates also say that Crouch's impulsiveness -- and perhaps a desire to escape his father's long shadow -- has prompted him to take shortcuts that have led to risky decisions. During the production of "Omega Code," his key personnel included a former adult-film actor and a novice screenwriter who was arrested and convicted of soliciting a child for sex.

Crouch declined to be interviewed for this story. But on "Praise the Lord" last month, he sat next to his wife and told viewers, "We were born" to make "One Night With the King." "We were destined for greatness."

Matthew Crouch was 11 when his Pentecostal parents launched TBN in 1975 in a rented Santa Ana studio, using the family shower curtain as a backdrop. Today, the Tustin-based empire, with annual revenues of nearly $190 million, is controlled by three board members: his mother, father and older brother, Paul Jr.

From TBN's early days until 1991, Matthew Crouch held a variety of positions at the network. Former associates and friends describe him as a dreamer and risk-taker who likes to drive fast cars and is especially close to his mother.

In 1992, Matthew and Laurie Crouch formed Gener8Xion Entertainment, with the mission of serving a long-neglected demographic: religious audiences turned off by what they see as the vulgarity of popular culture.

The venture started simply, operating out of a home that Matthew Crouch owned in Orange. Former associates said the business was soon flourishing as Crouch sold his services as a television producer to pastors seeking connections with TBN.

Move to Hollywood

BY the mid-1990s, he had moved the business to Hollywood, renting office space in a colorful complex that once housed cartoon giant Hanna-Barbera Productions. In 1995, the Crouches bought a home nearby for $1.15 million. Crouch has told colleagues that he had a vision about getting that exact office and house.

Joe Marroquin is a onetime Gener8Xion employee who said he did not leave on good terms. He said Crouch would charge pastors $15,000 to $20,000 a week to produce their shows -- work that consisted of little more than providing access to his parents' network.

"He basically strong-armed people, saying, 'Paul Crouch is my dad, and my mom is in charge of programming,' " Marroquin said.

A second person, a former confidant of Matthew Crouch who feared retribution if identified, confirmed this account. TBN officials said at no time was Paul Crouch or the network aware of such arrangements.

In response to The Times' questioning, TBN attorney John Casoria said the network launched an investigation, interviewing pastors who retained Crouch as a producer.

"All of them have denied this allegation," Casoria said. And "they would continue to work with Gener8Xion whether or not they were" on TBN.

In 1999, Crouch hit Hollywood's radar screen with "The Omega Code," a $7.2-million apocalyptic thriller that surprised the movie industry by taking in $12.6 million at the box office.

"I'm trying to tell Hollywood executives that I've found an audience, and I know how to market to them," Crouch said in a 2001 interview with The Times.

Although federal tax filings show that TBN received only a $2-million return on its $7.2-million investment, Crouch supporters say the legacy of "The Omega Code" cannot be contained on a balance sheet.

"How many more slasher or chain-saw-massacre movies do we need?" Paul Crouch Jr. asked at the "One Night" premiere.

Some in Hollywood would agree. Last month, Fox Filmed Entertainment announced plans to produce as many as a dozen Christian-themed films a year under the banner FoxFaith. This month saw the debut of "Facing the Giants," a film about an underdog Christian high school football team that was produced, written and directed by two Baptist pastors.

Matthew Crouch produced "The Omega Code" with a staff that had far less film experience than those at major Hollywood studios. For instance, Marroquin, owner of a Houston-based limo company, said he was recruited to be Crouch's chief lieutenant as "director of projects." TBN officials said Crouch described Marroquin as a driver and "errand boy."

One Gener8Xion executive was Sean Abbananto, vice president of marketing. His prior industry experience was as an actor in several adult films, including "Erotic Fantasies III." Abbananto, who had no marketing experience, said he was upfront about his past.

"The thing I enjoyed about Matt and Gener8Xion is that stuff didn't bother them," said Abbananto, who now runs a Christian ministry. "They were more interested in what you're doing now, as opposed to what you did then."

In a statement, TBN said that Crouch was unaware of Abbananto's previous work.

The screenwriter for "Omega Code" was Barton Green, who had no movie credits to his name. During production, he was arrested in San Bernardino County on suspicion of soliciting a child for sex over the Internet and attempted child molestation. His target, according to court records, was a police officer posing as a child online.

Marroquin said that after the arrest, Crouch worried about being linked to Green if the story were picked up by the media. "Matt had me calling to the cops, digging for information," he said.

In 2000, court records show, Green pleaded no contest to a child prostitution charge and was sentenced to three months' probation and 90 days in county jail.

Using a pseudonym

WHEN "The Omega Code" was released, the writing credit went to Hollis Barton. Marroquin said Green used the pseudonym to avoid linking the movie to a sex scandal. Green, who shared a writing credit for "Megiddo," didn't return phone calls or a message left at his Los Angeles apartment.

"The Omega Code" faced its own legal problems in 2000, when a novelist alleged in federal court that the plot of her book had been stolen and used for the movie. The defendants, which included TBN and Gener8Xion, denied the allegation, and TBN officials said they settled to avoid costly litigation. The settlement was about $1.2 million, according to a source close to the negotiations.

Crouch's next two movies fared poorly at the box office. In 2001, "Carman: The Champion" -- a boxing tale with spiritual overtones bankrolled with nearly $4 million from TBN donors -- earned less than $2 million in theaters, TBN officials said.

TBN and Crouch had higher hopes for "Megiddo." TBN officials said that the ministry initially gave Crouch $16 million to make the movie but that the price tag grew to $22 million.

Because of those budget pressures, some who worked on the film were surprised that Crouch bought two new cars within a three-day period during filming.

John Lafferty, who edited "Megiddo," said he watched from his cutting-room window at Gener8Xion as Crouch drove up.

"I was just floored," Lafferty said. "He showed up in the blue Porsche. I mentioned that to a co-worker, and he said, 'You should see the wife's car, the Bentley.' "

In a statement, network officials said their audits show that Crouch received only $180,000 in production fees for the first three films. For "One Night With the King," TBN gave $16 million to another ministry, the Hope, Direction and Encouragement Ministries, run by the Rev. Tommy Tenney, who wrote the book the movie is based on. That ministry in turn hired Crouch to produce the film. TBN officials said they didn't know the terms of the deal between that ministry and Crouch.

"Megiddo" took in $6 million at the box office, a poor showing that TBN officials blamed largely on its release date shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Timing aside, reviewers weren't impressed, panning it as unintentionally comical. The Hollywood Reporter called it too funny to "take seriously."

These days, Gener8Xion could use a box-office hit. The company lost nearly $3.7 million in the last year, and "there is no assurance that additional capital will be available" for future operations, according to a company statement.

Gener8Xion had to borrow $6 million in August to distribute "One Night." Although some observers called its opening-weekend box office impressive, the movie fell far short of the $12.5 million it needed to qualify contractually for an additional $2.5 in loans for wider distribution.

Reviews were mixed. The LA Weekly said it "plods across the screen with the thudding portent of an earnest Sunday-school lesson." But Variety called the movie "a surprisingly satisfying attempt to revive the Old Hollywood tradition" of lavish biblical epics.

On the air, Crouch remains upbeat, not just about "One Night" but also about other projects, such as "Gifted," a Christian version of "American Idol."

In a public conference call for investors, Crouch explained that God recognizes his company as a blessing for American culture and for investors.

william.lobdell@latimes.com

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Monday October 30, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction Omar Sharif: An article in the Oct. 23 Calendar section about the movie "One Night With the King" said it was the first pairing of Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif since "Lawrence of Arabia." Both appeared in the 1967 movie "The Night of the Generals."
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