Christian film shot in Charlotte area makes box office splash

Filmmakers Alex Kendrick, left, and brother Stephen came to Charlotte to shoot “War Room,” a Christian movie near the top of box office charts.
Filmmakers Alex Kendrick, left, and brother Stephen came to Charlotte to shoot “War Room,” a Christian movie near the top of box office charts. AFFIRM Films/Provident Films

America's newest box office hit isn't another Hollywood blockbuster about superheroes. It’s a family drama with a Christian message and a mostly African-American cast.

And “War Room” was filmed right here, with scenes shot in uptown Charlotte, in Huntersville’s Birkdale Village, and in homes and churches in Concord and Kannapolis.

“We think God is working in Charlotte,” said Stephen Kendrick, the faith-based film’s producer and co-writer with brother Alex, its director. “There’s a kindness that’s in the city. And there’s a unity among the churches: We had 85 churches rise up and support us in the making of the film.”

It’s paying off. Last weekend, this latest low-budget movie from the Georgia-based Kendrick Brothers – dubbed the Steven Spielbergs of Christian cinema by Variety – debuted in 1,100-plus theaters and earned more than $11 million in ticket sales.

That total, which stunned Hollywood, made it the runner-up to box-office champ “Straight Outta Compton,” though “War Room” more than doubled the rap-music biopic’s per-screen average, according to Entertainment Weekly.

The film’s title may suggest a shoot ‘em up, but the combat in “War Room” is ultimately between God and Satan and is waged in the souls of an affluent suburban couple. As the film opens, their marriage is in trouble and their daughter is getting too-little attention from her too-busy parents.

Elizabeth, the emotionally and spiritually embattled wife played by acting newcomer Priscilla Shirer, eventually soldiers on against sin by turning one of her closets into a prayer room, or “war room,” with prayers and Scripture passages taped to the wall.

Producer Kendrick said he and his brother are feeding a hunger among evangelical Christians for films that promote faith and morality.

“What we’re trying to do is make movies that are wholesome for the whole family to see ... and have a message of faith, hope and love,” he said. “We’re hitting a target audience that wants more of this kind of film.”

The Kendricks were associate pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., when they started making faith-based films in 2003. “Flywheel” was followed by “Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof,” and “Courageous.”

Hollywood’s ‘toxic diet’

“War Room,” their fifth film, is different from the others in one way: The lead characters are African-American. That’s made the film a must-see among members of many black churches.

Mooresville actress Karen Abercrombie, who landed the key role of Miss Clara, an elderly religious warrior who reaches out to Elizabeth, said that that diversity reinforces the film’s message.

“I believe that heaven is going to be multicultural, with shades of every hue,” she said. “It’s wonderful (that African-Americans are getting their share of plum roles) and it’s the way it should be.”

Abercrombie got the part after auditioning for the Kendricks at her church – Grace Covenant in Cornelius – and said she felt comfortable delivering much of the film’s Christian message, including a battle cry that ends the film. Though she’s only in her 50s, she was able – with help from the makeup artist and costumer – to be convincing as a woman in her 80s.

“It had been a prayer of mine to be able to use my gifts on a Christian project,” said Abercrombie, whose acting credits includes roles off Broadway and on TV. “Just to have this opportunity – I believe it is a divine appointment. (God) opened the door in a big way.”

At first, the Kendricks’ movies did better as DVDs shown in churches than as feature films opening in theaters. But increasingly, Christians have been flocking to the multiplexes to see movies, by the Kendricks and other evangelical filmmakers, with scripts that pay homage to Scripture.

Eager to promote these Bible-based movies, including last year’s “Son of God” about Jesus, churches are buying out various showings and inviting their members. Churchgoers and pastors have also spread the word about “War Room” and similar films via social media and the pulpit.

“War Room” producer Kendrick said the success of Christian films is partly a reaction against the “toxic diet” coming out of Hollywood. Too often, he said, secular movies dishonor marriage, devalue life, and trample on religious faith.

Said Kendrick: “I want to be able to walk out of a movie not thinking, ‘I want my $20 back. You just wasted my time blasting the name of my God and introducing my children to some things ... they shouldn’t be thinking about.’”

‘More movies like this’

Film critics have been underwhelmed by the Kendricks’ films, including “War Room,” which got positive reviews from just 29 percent of those critics featured on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

The Los Angeles Times dismissed it as more Bible study than feature film and the Boston Globe wrote that “War Room” is “so heavy on broad pulpit pounding that it’s challenging to get swept away by the story’s message.”

But Rotten Tomatoes also reported that 91 percent of the film’s audience said they liked it.

“War Room,” which leavens its drama and sermons with a bit of humor, got two thumbs up from Maria Pearson and daughter Amber, who attended a showing of the film Tuesday at Carolina Pavilion.

“It was really awesome. There needs to be more movies like this,” said Maria Pearson, a Charlotte nurse who attends Oak Grove Baptist Church in Pineville. “I found myself crying, laughing and praying.”

She said she especially liked the film’s message, which she summarized as “when crises arise, go to God. When you trust in God, he’ll make a difference.”

Kendrick said most film critics “don’t get the faith audience” and, in his words, are so used to eating the cotton candy and junk food coming out of Hollywood that it’s a shock to their system when they’re given a plate of nutritious vegetables.

But he also acknowledged that he and his brother consider their first mission to spread the Gospel message, not make films that will wow critics looking for mastery of film-making technique.

“We could make very subtle artistic films that have these embedded messages and try to reach non-Christians that way,” he said. “That’s all well and good. But so far, as we’ve prayed it through, we felt like God was saying, ‘Go after the church and be just straightforward and straight-up with what you’re communicating – make the movies they never get to see.’”

Thanks partly to the Kendricks’ success – “War Room” cost $3.5 million to make and has already grossed more than $11 million – more faith-based and Bible-inspired movies are heading to theaters.

At the Carolina Pavillion on Tuesday, prior to the showing of “War Room,” viewers were shown trailers of several films with religious elements. “Captive,” also filmed in North Carolina, is a redemption story starring David Oyelowo (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma”) as a jail escapee who is exposed to Pastor Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” by a woman he kidnaps.

Also coming soon: “Risen,” about a Roman centurion charged by Pontius Pilate to investigate rumors that Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead. The film is being cast as a sort of sequel to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which broke box office records – and sparked controversy –when it was released in 2004.

Scenes from a movie

Shooting locations for “War Room” included:

▪ Duke Energy Building, uptown Charlotte.

▪ Bank of America Building, uptown Charlotte.

▪ Dressler’s Restaurant, Charlotte.

▪ BB&T Ballpark, Charlotte.

▪ Concord First Assembly Church in Concord

▪ Pitts Baptist Church, Concord.

▪ Oakwood Cemetery, Concord.

▪ Evangel Worship Center, Concord.

▪ Home of Michelle and Bo Ward, Concord.

▪ Crossroads Church, Concord

▪ Covenant Classical School, Concord.

▪ Brant Piper home, Historic Downtown Concord.

▪ Benham Real Estate, Concord.

▪ CrossFit Vitality, Concord.

▪ Northwest Cabarrus Middle School, Concord.

▪ Home of Angela and Roland Mitchell, Kannapolis.

▪ The Refuge, Kannapolis

▪ Research Campus in Kannapolis.

▪ Grace Covenant Church, Cornelius.

▪ Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Huntersville.

▪ Birkdale Village, Huntersville.

▪ Sites in Hickory.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer