Albany, Ga., population 76,000, is a three-hour drive south of Atlanta and not the first place in the world you’d expect to find a movie star. But visit the well-kept grounds of Sherwood Baptist Church here on a Sunday, as the congregation’s 3,000 members gather to sing and pray, and you’re likely to spot a few. There’s Tracy Goode, who played coach Brady Owens in the 2006 high-school football epic Facing the Giants; there’s Harris Malcom, who played the father of Kirk Cameron’s firefighter character in the 2008 drama Fireproof. And if he’s not in New York editing a movie, you’re almost guaranteed to spot Alex Kendrick, the 40-year-old director and frequent lead actor in the films of Sherwood Pictures.
Kendrick and his producer brother Stephen, 37 — church pastors both — are at the center of one of the more unlikely success stories in movies. Sherwood Pictures is a tiny organization whose Christian-themed films are produced almost entirely by volunteers with little moviemaking experience — and they’ve grossed more than $43 million since 2003.
Christian entertainment is a big, increasingly mainstream business. The Shack, a self-published 2007 novel about a man who meets God in a cabin in the woods, became a bestseller; the postapocalyptic Left Behind series has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. Major Christian recording artists such as rapper Toby Mac move millions of albums and anchor massive concerts like the four-day Creation Music Festival, held twice a year in Pennsylvania and Washington. But with the exception of Mel Gibson’s $370 million hit The Passion of the Christ, films with overt Christian themes haven’t been significant players at the box office. Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn films, which helped distribute Fireproof, calls the faith-based audience “huge and underserved.”