You know a free film festival is in good shape when it starts charging admission to movies.
That sounds paradoxical. And in the case of the third annual Projecting Hope Film Festival, we're talking about one movie: "What If...," starring Kevin Sorbo as a rich businessman who's visited by an angelic mechanic and learns what life would have been like if he'd followed God's calling.
"What If..." will show alongside a well-filled slate of free pictures Thursday through Sunday at Ayrsley Grand Cinemas, but festival organizers decided to let folks buy that one.
"Our mission is to support faith-based movies, and you sometimes have to support them with your wallet," says founder Scott Anderson. "We had a screening of the rough version last year, and (director) Dallas Jenkins came out to get reactions to it. Now we're encouraging people to see the finished product, and we wanted to encourage the filmmakers with paid admissions."
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Projecting Hope, allied to a sister festival in Pittsburgh that runs over two weekends, has run three days in the past but expanded slightly this year. It begins with a special opening night film on Thursday: "The Grace Card," in which the death of a son in racially tense Memphis has left a white police officer blaming minorities, "the system" and God himself.
From Friday through Sunday, features, shorts and films for kids will screen at Ayrsley. A free concert Saturday will run from 2 to 10 p.m.; it features Otherwoods, which won the 2009 Miller Lite Great Taste Music Series Competition and played at the Speed Street Festival. Serenity, the Donald DeGrate Band, New River Band and Sara Scott will also play.
The festival, which is co-presented by Bojangles and New Life 91.9 FM, runs earlier than usual this year. It'll take place during the last four days of the Charlotte Film Festival, though Anderson expects the events to draw different crowds.
The subject material is diverse. "The Perfect Game," which stars Clifton Collins Jr. and Cheech Marin, is about the first Mexican team to compete in the Little League World Series. "The Trial," which will be presented by director Gary Wheeler and novelist Robert Whitlow, is about a suicidal lawyer called out of retirement to defend a death penalty case.
"You'd think folks would gravitate to the hot new titles," says Anderson. "But I have a harder time marketing major releases that people don't realize will be the next big thing.
"We showed 'To Save a Life' (starring Randy Wayne as an athlete making personal sacrifices) last year, and people didn't know it. Then it became a hit on the Christian circuit. This year, it should do well."
Anderson was excited about 'The Trial' and 'The Way Home,' starring Dean Cain as the dad of a missing 2-year-old boy. Randy and Christal Simpkins, the real-life parents in the case, will come up from Georgia to host a Q-and-A session.
Anderson also has a soft spot for "The Holy Roller," a quirky film from New Zealand about a struggling preacher tricked into starting a church in a night club, where the owner needs to repay gambling debts to an underworld boss.
"It's kind of like 'Bella' was when we programmed it: a movie that doesn't fit the conventional idea of a Christian film but has a good message. Some of the audience will come out asking, 'Why did you show that?' Some will say, "It changed me.'
"You have to have those kinds of movies, too."