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Christian Entertainment Part II: The Next Temptation

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”This is not this silly Pokémon thing going around. This is God’s message to the children!”

Welcome to the Third Annual Central Coast Christian Film Festival in Salinas, Calif. The morning matinee—an animated double bill of VeggieTales and The Miracles of Jesus—has just concluded, and Tom Saab is in the middle of turning this sticky-floored theater crammed with kids and parents into a romper-room tent revival.

After his passionate windup, Saab, 45, makes the pitch. ”So, children,” he says, ”if you’re ready, if you want to invite Jesus into your heart, you come down right now and join us in front.” They do. One, two, then a few with their parents. Eventually, more than 40 kids join Saab in front of the darkened screen. He hushes them and draws them close. I commit my whole life to you, they pray together. I love you, Lord Jesus.

By festival’s end, 12,965 will have attended, and about 800 will have made a commitment to Christ in front of a movie screen. ”It’s pure evangelism,” says Saab, a New England real estate broker who staged his first festival seven years ago in Salem, N.H. ”We simply wanted to bring the gospel into a secular setting.”

In Saab’s festival, that can mean anything from a college-angst drama like Rich Christiano’s End of the Harvest to a sci-fi thriller like Peter and Paul Lalonde’s Revelation. But despite their different genres, they do have one thing in common: They probably won’t be coming to a theater near you. The fruit of Christian filmmaking has long been confined to festivals like this one, church screenings, and limited-run 16 mm showings in rented meeting halls. And even as Saab’s combination of matinee and tent show unfolds, a younger generation of filmmakers raised on equal parts Scripture and Star Wars is suddenly itching to do more than preach to the converted. ”There is no denying the change God makes in people’s lives,” says 29-year-old Christian film star David White, just days after Saab’s come-on-down-kids reaffirmation. ”But our goal is to change everything that is hokey about this.”

That means changing everything from the mom-and-pop distribution system to the content of Christian films themselves. In short, it means going mainstream—a possibility that arrived with dramatic speed in October when a little-known company called Providence Entertainment cracked the box office top 10 with The Omega Code, an end-of-the-world thriller starring Casper Van Dien and Michael York. Code was produced by Matthew Crouch, son of Trinity Broadcasting Network chief Paul Crouch. Utilizing Internet marketing, a Rolodex bursting with connections in the Christian subculture, and his dad’s TV network, Crouch and Providence booked Omega into theaters in TBN-friendly parts of the country, worked every church-group contact they had, and opened Code at $2.4 million. To date, the $8 million flick has grossed $11.5 million—more than such recent secular efforts as Three to Tango and Teaching Mrs. Tingle.

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