September 22, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Millions of people all over the world disappearing into thin air sounds like a B movie.”
Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Final Days, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

Millions of people all over the world are disappearing into thin air. Well, actually, on a May morning in a Toronto warehouse-cum-soundstage, a dozen people will appear to vanish from a plane, raptured by Jesus during a transatlantic flight. As ”first class” extras squeeze into Givenchy knockoffs, a man dressed as a Hasidic Jew adjusts his hat, and a woman plays mommy with a pink-clad baby. A craft-service guy bearing hot dogs greets the group cheerily: ”Hello, all you sinners!”

In truth, not all of them are sinners — the day players will be divided up between those raptured and those remaining. A quick (and interpretive) Bible lesson: According to the Book of Revelation, Jesus will someday reappear to whisk the faithful to heaven. Nonbelievers will remain on earth for the Tribulation, years of starvation, disease, and earthquakes accompanying the rise of the Antichrist. They will have one more shot at redemption, provided they accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Such is the premise of Left Behind: The Movie, based on the first of LaHaye and Jenkins’ seven End Times thrillers — the biggest Christian fiction series in publishing history, with more than 25 million copies in print.

If the surprise $12.5 million box office gross of last year’s The Omega Code cracked the door open for mainstream Generation Xian success, those backing Left Behind see their film blowing the hinges off — making money while spreading the word of the Lord. ”This is a movie that’s not to be viewed inside churches,” says former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron, 29, who toplines as Buck Williams, leader of a band of new believers out to topple the regime of the charismatic Antichrist (Gordon Currie). ”To call it a ‘Christian’ film doesn’t give what the message is, [which] is God’s got a great plan, and he spells it out in the Bible. And it’s for everybody.”

Or so the producers hope. Their objective: to be the No. 1 movie in America the weekend of Feb. 2, 2001, and to build from there. ”Our goal is not to do [Omega Code‘s] box office, it’s to do far more than that,” says Peter Lalonde, who with brother Paul heads up Toronto’s Cloud Ten Pictures. ”We think this is the right title and the right time to do it.” And with a reported $17.4 million budget, it’s being touted as the one that will finally earn faith-based filmmaking mainstream cred.

Then why in heaven’s name is Left Behind: The Movie being released Oct. 31 on video?

Peter Lalonde insists this was always the plan. On Halloween, 1.3 million tapes and DVDs will hit stores, intended, he says, to galvanize the Christian fan base. ”We want to show [them] there’s something worth supporting here,” says Lalonde, who has produced Christian action flicks starring Margot Kidder and Gary Busey. ”When you have a great product, let your core audience know about it. They’re your best evangelists.”

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