PureFlix Entertainment, a trusted name in faith-friendly movies, has an urban inspirational film called Do You Believe on the way to theatres.
Director Jon Gunn, recruited by producer Harold Cronk and screenwriters Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman (the trio behind the 2014 release God’s Not Dead) is bringing to life a multi-layered emotional journey with an ensemble cast, headlined by Cybill Shepherd (“Moonlighting”) Lee Majors (“The Fall Guy”) and Ted McGinley (“The West Wing”) and also featuring a bevy of accomplished actors and stars-in-waiting, including JJ Soria (The Fast & The Furious, “Army Wives”) Mira Sorvino (“Falling Skies”) Senyo Amoaku (The Expendables), Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Delroy Lindo (“The Chicago Code”) Tracy Melchior (“The Bold & The Beautiful”), former UFC champion Mavrick von Haug, and rapper Shwayze.
In October, I traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan for a meet-and-greet with several members of the cast and crew, and then visited the set, on location in sleepy Manistee (right off the coast of Lake Michigan), in order to get an insider view on how the film was coming along.
Full disclosure, the travel costs were covered by PureFlix and their promotional partners, so of course, I heard 48 hours of nonstop praise for the film. However, I have a pretty active layer of skepticism whenever I’m subjected to boilerplate marketing copy, and I still came away from the experience feeling pretty good about the movie’s prospects, not only as a successful commercial investment, but as a vehicle for evangelism.
Here are three reasons why…
1. It has a relatively diverse cast.
Borrowing from the Crash playbook requires a wider variety of characters than what we saw in God’s Not Dead, and it appears that with Do You Believe, we’ll get it. Cybill Shepherd and Lee Majors may be headlining as the graceful diva / elder statesman combo, but in the clips we saw and the cast that we heard from directly (as well as other cast referenced whose shooting schedules didn’t coincide with the set visit, such as the aforementioned Delrey Lindo), it seems like diversity is a priority in this picture. That doesn’t ensure greatness, of course, but for audiences who prioritize it, it’d be a reason for a second glance at the multiplex or the Redbox.
Ensemble films can be hit or miss, because they require a lot of story juggling and have less time for character development or plot exposition. But this one seems to be well cast. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing more of JJ Soria’s character, who is one of the film’s heroes, and who has an extended action sequence during the finale. The last time I saw a faith-based film with a strong Latino lead was Eduardo Verástegui in the 2007 indie film Bella. In the cast Q&A, Soria mentioned that he often turns down faith-friendly scripts because they’re too cheesy, but in this case, he made an exception. Here’s hoping that JJ Soria can keep building his faith-film curriculum vita.
2. The tone seems to be less combative than the previous film.
From the title itself to the poster art to the scripted showdowns between professor and student, God’s Not Dead clearly appealed to a subset of Christian audiences who are conservative, weary from being disparaged by secular press, and in the words of character Howard Beale from Network, “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”
In this film, that strident feel seems a little toned down. The issues of Christian identity in the public square are still there – one of the characters’ life is turned upside down after sharing his faith in the middle of a work-related crisis – and they might still have the same thought-provoking result, but the clips that we saw didn’t seem to be as shrill or confrontational.
This bodes well for the film, because I’m sure the release date is designed to coincide with Easter and facilitate a massive campaign for churches to invite nonbelievers to the local multiplex for a screening of the film. Living in the Pacific Northwest, one of the most unchurched regions in the country, it’s been my experience that people who aren’t believers don’t like being lectured to onscreen.
3. Bigger budget, actual action sequences
The financial success of God’s Not Dead has given the filmmakers a larger margin of error, which has given them a bit more creative freedom to stage more of the kind of dramatic sequences with action and spectacle that are cost-prohibitive when filmmaking on a shoestring budget. Obviously, no one will mistake this film for a Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer production, but the location of Manistee, MI seemed like an inspired choice, not only for its bucolic views and enthusiastic locals, but because many of the costs associated with staging and fabricating stunts and stunt vehicles can be done more inexpensively and with less red tape in small-town Michigan than in New York City or Los Angeles.
These three factors by themselves certainly do not ensure a successful film, either commercially or artistically. However, the sneak peek I got from PureFlix Entertainment makes me think that this spring, Christian audiences will be in for a treat.
Here’s to hoping they’re right.