By Doug Brunell | November 18, 2005

“Left Behind: World at War” opened on an impressive 3,200 screens across the country recently. Oddly enough, I bet many readers have never heard of the film … because its opening wasn’t in theatres. Nope, this religious thriller opened in churches before heading to DVD.

The movie is part of the “Left Behind” franchise, which is popular fiction aimed at church-going, God-fearing, lack-of-taste people. It stars the one-time Cutest Boy on Television Kirk Cameron, who is apparently Born Again, and it is a movie that aims to be escapism with a message. There are explosions, evil dudes, and all the other stuff you’d expect in a story like this. The series started off as books, which sold tremendously well, and (of course) were made into movies.

I didn’t go to the opening of the film because it would violate my pact of not paying (and, yes, some churches were charging admission) to see anything that isn’t an original motion picture, and I don’t think churches are an ideal setting to see a film. (How long have those hot dogs been sitting in that machine? Will I be interrupted by someone’s cell phone going off to the tune of “Joy to the World”?) It also seems kind of like a secret clubhouse thing, too. “This is our movie. We’re showing it in our church. The rest of the world isn’t welcome.”

I doubt anyone thought this picture would do gangbusters if released in the theatre. (The first film did do a small theatre run, but only airing elsewhere first.) From the clips I’ve seen, it looks like standard television-movie-of-the-week production values with equally mediocre dialogue and acting. They’ve attracted some people you’ve heard of, like Cameron and Lou Gosset, Jr., but honestly, what else have they been doing recently?

So instead of releasing a film to disappointing numbers, which could possibly affect the budget for future films, it gets released in churches first (to much hoopla) and then DVD. That way, an opening at three thousand churches seems fairly impressive, church-goers are smugly satisfied, and Cameron’s existence continues to be justified. Of course, sequels will continue to follow.

I must admit that I like religious thrillers even though I don’t have a religious or spiritual bone in my body. But when a movie is marketed like this, it takes the appeal out of the film. Instead of being a story I may be interested in watching, it becomes a “message movie” where I’m fairly certain the message will take precedent over the plot. (Even if that’s not the case here, it’s how it comes off to the general public.)

I’ve known people who have seen these films and have read the books and comic books. (Yes, there were comic books that came out based on some of the books.) They all said the story was “good.” Unfortunately, they were all Christians and weren’t exactly unbiased in their opinion. I never heard an atheist, Jew or a Satanist sing their praises, so the story may not be as universally appealing as the creators like to think … hence the church-only opening.

Ironically, around the same time this film opened, another movie with ties to an outside entertainment medium hit the big screen. That film was “Doom,” based off a wildly popular series of video games, which also spun off some novels and a horrible comic book. “Doom” looked like a dud of a film, but it opened in theatres and was given serious reviews by many critics. Had it only opened in Gamestop.com stores in malls around the country, I doubt it would have gotten the same kind of attention. Instead, the story would’ve been about how it opened in retail stores and not theatres, and the emphasis would not be on the movie.

That’s exactly what happened with “Left Behind: World at War.” I first learned about it on the “Today” show, where it was a story simply because of where it was opening. That says to any serious film aficionado that the movie isn’t worth watching because its creators resorted to a mere gimmick to get it coverage. And it was a gimmick that didn’t even use a movie theatre or direct-to-DVD release.

If Christians want their entertainment to be taken more seriously (and there’s every indication that they do because it’s a good way to reach young minds), they need to start respecting it more. Throw it out there in the theatres (if any will have it) and let the public decide how good it is. Don’t make it a clubhouse exclusive, and don’t send out press releases telling the media how many churches it will open in. Chances are, had it gone head-to-head with “Doom” in theatres, it probably would’ve gotten better reviews than The Rock’s film, and there’s a victory right there. It may have even captured some of the movie going audience that was put off by the wrestler and his BFG. Instead, it was never given a chance.

You didn’t leave the general audience behind. You left them out, and that’s a box office sin. Next time, have more faith in what you’re creating. Hell, a VeggieTales movie made it to theatres. Are you folks telling us Cameron can’t top that? Yeah, I think you are.

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