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The director of a new Christian film that has successfully crossed over and received rare positive reviews from secular media outlets as well as Christian critics has said the genre is at an important crossroads in Hollywood.
“Grace Unplugged” tells the story of an 18-year-old girl named Grace, played by AJ Michalka, who is a talented singer who takes after her father, Johnny, played by James Denton. Johnny is a former rocker who is now a worship leader at his local church in Birmingham, Ala. At one time, Johnny was a huge rock star with a No. 1 song, “Misunderstood,” before he left that life behind to follow Christ.
When his old manager offers him a chance to go back on the road, he turns down the offer. However, Grace sees her big chance to become famous like her father and heads off to Los Angeles to make it big. Along the way she has to decide whether she is willing to compromise her Christian beliefs on the altar of fame.
While the film has received some of the normal negative reviews that films of faith seem to always get from secular movie critics, those involved with it have been stunned by some of the positive reviews it has received.
The Huffington Post gave it a 7 out of 10 score and praised the film for its ability to reach people beyond the Christian audience.
“‘Grace Unplugged’ is a movie with a message and the message is a religious one. Still even those who are not interested in the religious aspect can enjoy this story of a family in crisis. There is also some great music on display,” the Huffington Post review said.
“Christian themed movies are on the rise but their appeal is generally limited to a specific audience. ‘Grace Unplugged’ wants to entertain that base but also expand to a wider audience. By dropping some of the cheesier dialogue and plot lines other movies of this type sometimes have, this new film does succeed.”
The Los Angeles Times had a similar review.
“Ultimately, the movie’s you-can-have-it-all resolution, foreshadowed in a nice speech by a devout record-company intern (Michael Welch) who befriends Grace, is not only uplifting but well-earned.”
Director Brad Silverman told WND that while positive reviews in conservative and Christian publications were not surprising, the glowing reviews in secular media caught him off guard.
“We had our share of nasty secular reviews, and what was interesting was they weren’t even talking about the film per se; their criticisms centered around the themes presented in the film,” Silverman said. “They were almost mocking the fact that we identify sin as being sin and how old-fashioned and outdated we were. Well, that’s what my Bible calls it.
“What almost unnerved me more,” he said, “is that while we got extraordinary reviews from across the Christian and conservative press in general, there were certain secular publications such as the L.A. Times and Huffington Post that gave us a positive review. Part of me was encouraged by that, but another part caused me to ask myself, Jesus didn’t get a lot of positive reviews from the secular media of his day, so why should we?”
The film was also unusual for Christian films because of the way it was produced. Many Christian films have been independently produced and then distributed by major studios. “Grace Unplugged” was produced by Lion’s Gate, which produces a wide range of shows from “Barney” to the “Saw” horror series.
Silverman said the challenge of working with the studios during production is ensuring the Christian message is not compromised.
“The problem becomes, and that’s what we are wrestling with right now, is if you’re rubbing elbows with unbelievers in the studio system, they just don’t get it,” Silverman said. “They don’t fully understand the spiritual aspect of the film or the ministerial aspect. The thing that we struggled with and continually butted heads with was trying to explain that the ministry aspects are what drives the movie, and the ministry aspect drives the marketing.”
In recent years, several other Christian-based films have had respectable showings in competition against secular films.
“Courageous” was produced for $2 million, which is small change for Hollywood. However, the film grossed that amount in pre-sales alone during its opening weekend and eventually earned a respectable $34.5 million, over 17 times its budget.
Another Christian film, “Fireproof” received unfavorable reviews from the secular media. However, it ended up grossing over $33 million, while only costing $500,000 to make.
While the films may not make as much as some of their big-budget counterparts, their inexpensive budget means they are able to turn a respectable profit for the studios, which is a huge contrast to films such as “The Fifth Estate,” a film about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. The film cost $30 million to make and had a disastrous showing, grossing only $1.7 million its opening weekend, less than what “Courageous” made during the same time frame, at only a fraction of the cost.
“Grace Unplugged” has also held its own on Fandango by being the No. 1 choice for fan votes for three weeks, surpassing even the hit film “Gravity,” which was No. 3.
Silverman said that while Hollywood may not be ready to embrace Christian values, it at least is beginning to understand that faith-based films make money. People expect to see more such films, he said.
“Money at the end of the day is the predominant factor,” said Silverman. “These are really exciting times, and we are overwhelmed by the response to ‘Grace Unplugged.’ The studios and secular producers are now starting to ask what do we have coming up next.”
However, Silverman says that while there is much to be grateful for, he believes the Christian-based film genre is at potentially dangerous crossroads.
“After Star Wars first came out in 1977, it became a phenomenal success that caught the studios completely off guard. Prior to that sci-fi was considered somewhat of a joke and frequently made with low budgets,” Silverman explained. “After that, the studios began to produce a large number of sci-fi movies, thinking that that is what would sell, however, for many of these films the quality was horrible.
“We are at a crossroads regarding where we go from here. There are so many films that have a faith message, and we will see if the product will maintain its quality, because the cream will rise to the top. Time will tell if this genre truly has legs or not.”