Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
A youth pastor in California has made a feature film, released in theaters around the country this past weekend, that is literally saving lives.
Jim Britts of New Song Community Church in Oceanside has worked in youth ministry for more than 10 years, while his wife, Rachel, has been a high school English teacher for the same amount of time. Their experience with youth prompted Jim to write a movie script (which has also been turned into an award-winning novel) based on the real-life struggles many students face – including teen suicide.
“We realized that every day we talk to students who are in pain. It’s a huge, huge part of our jobs,” Britts told WND. “And so I started wondering if I could write a movie that would bring hope to hurting students as well as empower teenagers to be messengers of that hope to their classmates.”
Jim Britts’ “To Save a Life” debuted at No. 15 on the box office charts, topping $1.5 million in ticket sales on opening weekend (which already puts it on pace ahead of another church-produced film, “Facing the Giants”) in 441 theaters nationwide.
The film’s story is about an all-star athlete and his girlfriend, who find their lives spinning out of control when Jake loses a childhood friend to suicide. Breaking out of the patterns of peer pressure and popularity to reach other hurting students, however, proves a life-changing challenge.
“Some people are just dying to be heard,” states the film’s tag line. “The movie asks, ‘How far would you go? How much would you risk? How hard would you fight … to save a life?‘”
Teenagers themselves are raving about the film – it’s currently the top viewer-rated picture on the movie website Fandango.com – and leading drives to demand more theaters show it by selling 1,000 advance tickets in a community before the movie even arrives.
It’s not the success of the film that Britts finds gratifying, however, but the movie’s impact.
“Teens see this film, then they walk out and throw their razor blades away and say, ‘I’m never gonna cut again,’” Britts said, referring to the alarming trend among teenagers of “cutting,” slashing themselves with razors as a way of externalizing internal pain.
Over 200 “Lifeline Squads” pledged to pre-sell at least 1,000 tickets each.
A group in Fairbanks, Alaska, purchased 1,500 tickets, while another in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., purchased 2,600.
One person in Kansas bought 1,000 tickets alone, just so the first 1,000 teens to come to the theater on opening night could get in for free. The effort is being followed up in the community by seven weeks of outreach to hurting teens.
A bus company in Texas volunteered to drive any students who do not have transportation to the film to the nearest showing over 20 miles away. The local school district has joined in an offered to drive other students as well. In the same community, a group of citizens is raising money for all 800 local high school students to attend the film for free.
In Burleson, Texas, where five screenings of the film have already been sold out, a group organized a “red carpet” opening with cast and crew from the film. Over 500 local volunteers including parents, youth workers, educators and city leaders committed to helping this event reach as many teens as possible.
By coupling the movie’s release with teaching and event planning materials and encouraging teens who have seen the film to put its message into practice, Britts says from the beginning he’s been more interested in starting “a movement” than making a movie.
“Our goal is that kids would walk out and be different people,” Britts told WND. “Students desire to live lives of significance, and students really seem to connect with this. It raises the bar of expectations of what they can do with their lives.”
He added, “There’s a lot of films out there where the teacher or the coach is the hero, but we said, ‘Let’s make a film where the high school students can change their own generation.’”
“I am a cutter, and I could really relate to Jonny in this movie and how he felt,” writes Marisa. “I even thought about taking my life a few times, but now I’ve learned that there’s so much more to life than what I thought it was. God gave me a reason to be on this earth, and I am now seeing what I’m here for.”
“I have attempted suicide before and grew up in a broken home. I can relate to these stories,” writes James. “But on the other side of it, I think of the lives that I could have changed and still can if I only show the kindness and love that Jesus would have. I have made a vow to myself and God to use every day as a chance to change a life. ‘A Life a Day’ is my new motto.”
“I just went to the movie so I could have something to do on a Saturday night,” writes Lydia. “I actually got way more out of the movie than I could ever have imagined. I am kind of like Jonny; I am a cutter and I don’t have many friends. But after watching that movie I realized that no matter how many people ignore me, God will never ignore me.”
Dozens of the comments on the site marvel at how the Christian-made movie nonetheless feels so “real” and relevant, a point Britts said was his group’s goal from start.
“From the beginning, we never set out to make ‘a Christian film,’” Britts told WND. “We set out to make a film that gives hope to any teen, and specifically teens that would never set foot in a church. … One of our core values was ‘cheesiness’ equals sin. We said we’ve got to make a movie that’s very real.
“Now hundreds of thousands have seen it, and the No. 1 response has been, ‘That movie is so real. It’s as if you walked onto my campus and started filming,’” he said.
“To Save a Life” is continuing to add theaters and showings around the country, even into late February. Britts said he’d like to see 1,000 theaters carry it, and the film’s distributor, Samuel Goldwyn Films, has a plan to make it happen:
“People interested in seeing the film come to their area should visit Tosavealifeleaders.com,” Britts said. “It empowers them to use film as well as to bring it to their areas. Half of our theaters have been scheduled because youth workers, teachers and students brought it themselves.
“If they get on our website and register as a Lifeline squad leader, where a group will commit to 1,000 tickets in the opening week, Samuel Goldwyn will work to bring movie to that theater,” Britts told WND. “Get youth workers, principals, teachers, parents and teens together to get commitments, then Samuel Goldwyn will work to send it to their city.”