'Billy' seeks pastors' blessing

On Sept. 2, up to 750 pastors and church workers are expected to crowd into the sanctuary at Calvary Church in south Charlotte – some of them driving in from as far as 60 miles away.

They're coming not to sing, pray or hear sermons, but to watch a movie.

“Billy: The Early Years” – the new feature film about Charlotte-born Billy Graham – won't hit theaters until Oct. 10. But the movie's producers, based in California and England, hope to build some buzz in the coming weeks by holding more than 50 such sneak peeks for evangelical “opinion makers” across the Bible Belt.

Two nights after the Calvary screening, it'll be shown to pastors assembled at Pritchard Memorial Baptist near uptown Charlotte. All told, 13 screenings are scheduled for the Carolinas – including an outdoor showing Sept. 5 at Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock.

Good reviews from critics are nice, but the thumbs-up that producers of Christian films want most these days are from pastors urging their flocks to head for the theater.

In recent years, such word of mouth from the pulpit has helped turn films such as “The Passion of the Christ,” “Facing the Giants” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” into must-see hits for evangelicals who often shun Hollywood fare for its risqué and violent content.

“Today, Christian filmmakers can count on a very savvy pastoral community that's looking to highlight films like these to their congregations,” says Doug Phillips, founder of the Christian Filmmakers Academy and the 5-year-old San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.

And it's not just the Christian message these pastors are endorsing. Phillips said the technological revolution, with the rise of digital, has made it possible to produce quality films at a reasonable price. So reasonable that Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., was able to make “Facing the Giants” for just $100,000 – thanks in large part to its amateur, all-volunteer cast. The movie about a small-town football coach who finds hope through a renewed faith in God went on to make about $10 million.

Alex Kendrick, an associate pastor at Sherwood Baptist who directed the film and played the coach, will unveil his latest movie next month. “Fireproof” is another inspirational Christian movie about a firefighter who saves his struggling marriage by following a 40-day “Love Dare” journal.

Last month, a screening of “Fireproof” – followed by a Q&A with some of the actors – was held for Charlotte area pastors at Stonecrest Theaters in Ballantyne.

The Rev. Scott Vail, executive pastor at Calvary Church, was there. He got so excited about “Fireproof” – due in theaters Sept. 26 – that he quickly volunteered his church when those looking for a place to screen “Billy: The Early Years” came calling.

“What a great opportunity for us,” Vail says about Calvary hosting the movie about Charlotte's most famous son. “Each one of these (Christian) films is trying to communicate a biblical world view and how it's lived out in our society today.”

The Rev. Mark Harris, pastor at First Baptist in Charlotte, says the Charlotte connection will also be an incentive for those in his church to see it: “We've got a lot of folks at our church who have followed the Grahams for years. Some members even work out at the (Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association).”

Producers of “Billy: The Early Years,” which cost $6 million to make, aren't relying just on pastors to help them sell tickets.

There's the soundtrack CD, which will feature some big names in country and Christian music – Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, Michael W. Smith and deep-voiced Josh Turner, who will also play veteran Graham Crusade soloist George Beverly Shea in the movie. A single from the film, sung by Sara Evans, should turn up on the radio in September. The soundtrack will come out in October.

A “novelization” of the film, which includes scenes of a teenage Graham accepting Christ at a 1934 tent-like revival in Charlotte, will arrive in bookstores, also in October.

Up now: A Web site – www.billytheearlyyears.com – that offers a trailer and film clips.

Finally, producers are busily trying to get the blessings of Billy Graham and his family, including son Franklin, who was publicly peeved that he and the family, ever-protective of the elder Graham's legacy, were never shown a script before the movie was made.

Producer Larry Mortorff says copies of the finished film were delivered to Franklin Graham and the family. Franklin Graham has seen it, his spokesman said, but has been too busy traveling lately to comment.

“We hope what we've done is pleasing to him,” says Mortorff. “It's a homage to his dad.”

A spokesman for Billy Graham, who's now 89, in frail health and living in Montreat, said he has not yet seen it.

Billy Graham's daughter, Gigi Graham, has seen it – and is publicly praising it. In fact, Mortorff said she's been hired as a consultant for the film. She plugged the movie's merits at an Aug. 3 screening at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. – the church founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell – that attracted 4,500 people.

“Billy: The Early Years” is set to open Oct. 10 in theaters in 13 Carolinas cities, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Boone, Columbia and Myrtle Beach. To accommodate towns where it's not scheduled to open, producers are inviting churches in those places to rent a nearby theater to show it.

Though Graham's fame – and the high-powered soundtrack – could make the film a draw with some non-evangelical audiences, Mortorff says the movie's initial release will be limited to 300 or 400 theaters in 20 states, most of them in the South and lower Midwest, where most evangelicals live.

Says Mortorff: “We're going for our strongholds.”