How 3 brothers from Cobb succeed in faith-based films’ growing market

The moviemaking trio known as the Kendrick Brothers: Stephen Kendrick (from left), Alex Kendrick and Shannon Kendrick. CONTRIBUTED

The moviemaking trio known as the Kendrick Brothers: Stephen Kendrick (from left), Alex Kendrick and Shannon Kendrick. CONTRIBUTED

The Kendrick brothers are taking the ministry beyond a Sunday worship service and onto movie screens around the world.

And if that means preaching to the choir, that’s fine, too.

After introducing faith-based films “Fireproof, ” “Courageous” and “War Room,” the Albany-based Kendrick Brothers company recently added a new movie to the mix.

Their sixth film, “Overcomer,” was released in August and, as of October, had earned more than $34 million at the box office.

All but one film was shot in Georgia. They filmed “War Room” in North Carolina and part of “Overcomer” in Tennessee.

“Overcomer” tells the story of a high school basketball coach whose championship dreams are crushed when the town’s biggest plant closes and families begin leaving the area.

The coach, played by Alex Kendrick, was urged to train a troubled teen in long-distance running after questioning his own worth.

Karen Abercrombie stars in “War Room,” the 2015 film from the Kendrick brothers. CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID WHITLOW / AFFIRM/ SONY

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“Jesus told stories in the form of parables to present truth to his listeners,” said Alex Kendrick, 49, who works alongside his brothers, Stephen, 46, and Shannon, 52. “In many respects, we’ve used motion pictures as modern-day parables. We want to tell stories that people can relate to and give hope and inspiration. We want to encourage their faith in God.”

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The Kendrick brothers are basically “Bible teachers with a knack for storytelling,” said Leah Klett, a reporter for the Christian Post. “They’re passionate about sharing the Gospel and not watering it down. They believe that the Christian community needs films that reflect what they believe and to remind them why they believe. Their goal is to honor God with the content they put out.”

The faith community was tired of being misrepresented as either religious fanatics or almost cartoonish, Klett said.

“It was refreshing for them to see a fair representation of who they are on the screen, and this was also something they could bring their children to and know it was going to be safe,” she said. “And that was getting harder and harder for them.”

Investors are banking that there will be a continued market for this genre.

Since 2010, there have been 100 faith-based theatrical releases, which earned $1.34 billion at the box office, according to Bob Elder, an industry leader in faith and family entertainment and owner of Collide Media Group in Tennessee.

That’s good news for people like the Kendrick brothers.

John (Alex Kendrick), Amy (Shari Rigby) and their kids Ethan (Jack Sterner) and Will (Caleb Kendrick) take time to pray together in “Overcomer.” CONTRIBUTED BY SARA BURNS / AFFIRM/ SONY

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Stephen Kendrick compares watching the films to eating a meal.

“When I sit down, I want it to be delicious, but I also want it to be nutritious.”

Their 2015 hit, “War Room,” was made on a budget of $3 million and grossed over $73 million worldwide. “Courageous, ” released in 2011, grossed $35 million.

That’s pretty good for three guys from Cobb County.

The Kendricks were raised in Smyrna, the sons of Larry Kendrick, the founder and headmaster of Cumberland Christian Academy, which later became the Cumberland School. Stephen and Alex both graduated from Kennesaw State University, and Shannon graduated from Georgia Tech.

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But they became interested in filmmaking when they were preteens and ran around, dodging cars as they shot movies on Super 8 mm film.

Their parents, while not discouraging their interest in filmmaking, also encouraged them to learn more about Scripture.

They did.

Director Alex Kendrick gives notes to actors Priscilla Shirer (Principal Brooks) and Aryn Wright-Thompson (Hannah) between takes in filming “Overcomer.” CONTRIBUTED BY SARA BURNS / AFFIRM/ SONY

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Alex and Stephen are ordained ministers who served on the staff at Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta until 1999.

Eventually Alex and Stephen Kendrick moved to Albany, where they became active members of Sherwood Baptist Church and together made videos to support the ministry. Shannon Kendrick later followed.

Their artistic journey began with a prayer.

They started making films as part of a movie ministry at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany.

In 2002, Alex Kendrick approached the senior pastor, Michael Catt, with an idea to make a low-budget, full-length movie as an outreach to the community.

Catt endorsed the plan. Church members prayed for them. The church didn’t have the $20,000 needed to make their first film, “Flywheel,” the story of an unscrupulous car salesman who later finds repentance and God, so several church members stepped in.

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Over time, they opened their own film company outside of Sherwood, though they all remain active members.

Their stories are about hope and redemption, which today seem more needed than ever, Alex Kendrick said.

“We’re in an age when there is so much division and frustration in our culture,” he said. “We want movies that will not only entertain but offer that hope and inspiration and do it in a way that is honorable.”

In the company, Alex Kendrick serves as president; Stephen Kendrick is vice president; and Shannon Kendrick is director of operations.

However, for individual projects, they have served additional roles as writer, producer, director or actor.

In the past few years, there have been a number of successful faith-based movies such as “Breakthrough,” “Heaven Is for Real,” “I Can Only Imagine,” “The Shack” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which was based on the writings of former atheist turned believer C.S. Lewis.

The Kendrick brothers join an impressive list of filmmakers including DeVon Franklin, Bishop T.D. Jakes and the Erwin Brothers.

“The Hollywood film industry’s greatest concern is the bottom line,” said Nsenga Burton, a film and media studies professor at Emory University and a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

“If they can make millions of dollars in profit off of Christian films, then they will make them,” she said. “The fact is Christian films have been making millions of dollars outside of the mainstream industry for decades. It’s good business for Hollywood to cash in, particularly when battling all of this competition from streaming services.”

It’s not a new genre, but one that has exploded in recent years.

Among the early filmmakers was Eloyce King Patrick Gist, an African American woman from Washington, D.C., who made spiritually centered films with her husband, James E. Gist, who was an evangelist. She directed, wrote and in some cases, starred in films like 1930’s “Hellbound Train” and “Verdict Not Guilty” in 1933. They would show the films at churches throughout the Southeast, according to Emory’s Burton.

In the early days of faith-based films, which were mostly low-budget efforts, the scripts were less than stellar, the acting was average or bad, and the production quality left much to be desired.

Today, it’s a different world, said Elder from Collide Media.

For years, faith audiences didn’t have much to choose from, but as the industry grew, so did budgets.

Films like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), which grossed more than $610 million worldwide, raised the bar.

“Christian filmmakers are tapping into powerful stories of God’s hope and redemption to inspire believers and nonbelievers alike,” said Elder. “When we share God’s work in our lives, it’s called a ‘testimony’ and it encourages all who hear it. Faith films are ‘testimonies’ on a grand scale.”

Stephen Kendrick said the goal isn’t about taking home gold statues. It’s about spreading the message and love of Jesus through filmmaking.

“Jesus died for us because he loved us so much,” he said. “And he continues to answer our prayers. I’ve seen how he can turn a family around, how he can save a broken marriage and save someone from suicide and give them hope. We’re taking some of that powerful message from Scripture and incorporating it into the storyline of our films. We don’t have to win an Oscar. We’re greatly rewarded to hear that people’s lives are blessed and changed by our films.”