A film festival for the faithful

With a minute left before the deadline, Mike Cahill raced along Burbank’s Providencia Avenue to get to Media City Church on time.

Faith-based film festival: An article in Monday’s LATExtra section about the 168 Film Festival referred to Adekunle Ilori, who submitted a film to the festival, as a woman. Ilori is a man. In addition, a photo caption said John David Ware helped found the festival; as the article states, Ware is the founder. —

He was rushing to get his short film, “In the Company of Sinners,” into the 168 Film Festival, the culmination of a faith-based competition that helps Christian filmmakers break into the mainstream movie business.

“I made it. Yes!” Cahill yelled, raising his clipboard above his head.


Seconds later, Adekunle Ilori, who had fought traffic all the way from Lancaster, became the last of 73 competitors to qualify.

“I prayed all the way here,” Ilori said, bending over and out of breath. “I said ‘God, please let me make it.’ ” She then led a prayer circle with the crowd gathered on the sidewalk.

Cahill’s and Ilori’s entries are pitted in this year’s contest against work from 15 states and nine countries, including Israel, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan and Cameroon.

The 168 Hour Film Project, now in its eighth year, pushes filmmakers to hone their craft by creating films of less than 11 minutes based on a Bible verse they draw randomly just before production starts. Teams have one week to come up with their finished product.


“The 168 in the name stands for 24 hours times 7 days,” said John David Ware, a filmmaker who founded the project in 2003. Ware believes the intense deadline pressure forces filmmakers to do their best work even as they illuminate the word of God.

“This tells struggling filmmakers that it’s OK to make films of faith. You don’t have to separate your faith from your profession,” he said. “There is no shame in it.”

A member of Reality L.A., a nondenominational Christian church in Hollywood, Ware has long combined his faith and his career. A film school graduate originally from Ohio, he moved to Los Angeles in 1996 and did entry-level work on productions including “Independence Day” before writing and directing his own projects. He is active in a prayer group for film and television professionals.

More than half of this year’s 168 Project teams are from the L.A. area, where seasoned professionals volunteer their time and expertise to mentor younger filmmakers.

“I see an opportunity to put someone on the map,” said A-List cinematographer Ron Vidor, a veteran of dozens of well-known films, including “Jaws,” “The Big Chill” and “Lethal Weapon.”

Vidor, who pioneered the use of the Steadicam for television, brought that expertise to scenes in an entry about marital commitment that was inspired by Jeremiah 7:13: “While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer.”

The completed shorts range from beginner efforts to highly polished works. They will be screened March 26 at the Hope Theater in San Fernando and March 27 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. A jury will grant awards in 18 categories, with the team that wins best film receiving $12,000 in cash and prizes, as well as meetings with Hollywood players.

The films are far from biblical re-enactments -- one has a car crash -- and most don’t even mention their verse. Last year the screenings attracted an audience of 2,000, and this time even more are expected as production values continue to rise.


“The quality rivals any of the short films that you see at any film festival,” said Craig Detweiler, director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University.

Detweiler says that with the success of such films as “The Blind Side” and “The Book of Eli,” Hollywood is recognizing the box-office potential of Christian audiences, even in urban areas like New York and Los Angeles.

“This festival rallies creative Christians in Southern California and affirms the best, brightest and most promising filmmakers,” he said.

For the second year in a row, “Saturday Night Live” alumna Victoria Jackson acted in a short. Ralph Winter, producer of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is one of the judges. Actress Gwen McGee, who has appeared in “ER” and “Monk,” participated in the filming and also brought in actor David Ramsey, whose credits include “Dexter” and “The West Wing.”

The competition attracts both evangelical Christians who see their films as a way to spread the word of God and those who are less religious but like the idea of doing films with a higher meaning.

“I’m more spiritual than religious,” said Amber Deegan, co-producer of the entry “Bountiful.” “It’s more about life-affirming film. It’s to get people thinking.”

Other participants, including sisters Rita Betti, 61, and Deborah Kay, 57, view filmmaking as a ministry. The two women, who had been living in Arizona and New Jersey, lost their husbands within a year of each other and ended up moving to Studio City to pursue their film ambitions and spread their beliefs.

“I’m doing it for God,” Kay said. “It is about knowing you have a calling to reach people where they are. People who need to be loved aren’t in church.”


For the sisters and many of their competitors, merely completing a film under such grueling conditions felt like a miracle.

“I’ve never seen such a hand of God on a film,” said Jenn Gotzon, who burst into tears when she delivered “Sumo Joe,” the film she produced with Geoffrey Black.

Gotzon had managed to assemble a team of 90 people for the shoot, but the lead actor got into a car accident on the way to a location that was booked for only three hours.

“It’s hard to find a 450-pound sumo wrestler on short notice,” laughed Black, the writer and executive producer.

“We all prayed and as soon as we said ‘Amen,’ someone showed up,” Gotzon said. Then a fuse blew during the film’s editing and it looked as if all the hard work would be for nothing. The power went back on just in time to meet the deadline.