KENNESAW, Ga. — St. Catherine of Siena, one of the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s largest parishes, wants to be the first Catholic church in the United States to create an independent motion picture.
Following the example of Protestant churches that have come together to produce films such as Courageous and The Grace Card, St. Catherine is working on a film called Five Blocks Away. The project (FiveBlocksAwayMovie.com) is being spearheaded by filmmaker Kevis Antonio, founder of Rising Faith Productions and a St. Catherine’s parishioner.
“Last year when I went to a prescreening of Courageous, I asked myself, Why don’t Catholics make films?” said Antonio, who is serving as writer, director and producer. “It’s great that we support films that we can take our families to, but if one Baptist church is able to fill a gap that isn’t being provided by Hollywood, why is the Catholic Church so behind? We have the biggest network in the world.”
Antonio described the film as a story of a young adult who achieves his dream of starting a successful business only to have a life-changing event force him to look at himself and his talents in a completely different light.
Antonio’s most recent work, a documentary titled Bread of Life, was one of the entries in the Pope John Paul II International Film Festival.
Executive producer Dorothy Polchinski described the genesis of the project.
“Kevis and I and a group of young adults met through young-adult ministry. We’d play tennis and grab a bite to eat afterwards,” explained Polchinski. “Through our conversations, we talked about the need to bring the Gospel to young adults through the media. It was through those conversations that the seed was planted.”
“Our vibrant community is always on the lookout for projects that get the entire community excited and involved,” said Father John Matejek, pastor of St. Catherine’s. “St. Catherine’s support of this film gives volunteers from the parish the opportunity to experience evangelization to its maximum.”
“It’s an opportunity to preach beyond our brick-and-mortar walls,” said Antonio.
But some wonder whether the film will be preachy.
Polchinski doesn’t think so.
“This film won’t come across as preaching,” said Polchinski. “It witnesses to a greater truth and respects the dignity of the person. The beauty of this film is that it will meet people wherever they are at on their journey.”
“Some films, such as those done by evangelicals, are more confessional. They fire up the base,” said Paulist Father Eric Andrews, president of Paulist Productions. “Others, such as a film like Gran Torino, are commercially successful and share a Christian message to a more general audience. The challenge is: How do you reach the saved, the seeker and the skeptic all in one?”
Catholic Involvement in Film
“Catholic sponsorship of films goes back to the earliest days of silent film,” said Steven Greydanus, film critic for the Register and DecentFilms.com. “As far back as 1897, the French Catholic publisher Maison de la Bonne Presse was producing Catholic films; they also provided other Catholic groups with film equipment. In 1903, they launched one of the first film magazines, Le Fascinateur.”
“Unfortunately, most of these early efforts weren’t very successful,” said Greydanus.
Greydanus noted that, in 1926, Fox Films partnered with the Archdiocese of Chicago to produce a very successful documentary film on the 28th International Eucharistic Congress. “Two Catholic laymen who were instrumental in that documentary went on to have a major impact on Hollywood that lasted for decades,” Greydanus said. “Martin Quigley, who brokered the deal between the archdiocese and Fox, went on to co-author the 1930 Production Code with Father Daniel Lord, SJ, outlining moral principles for film production. And Joseph I. Breen, who publicized the film, enforced the code from 1934 to 1954 as head of the Production Code Administration.”
Among modern films, Paulist Pictures, founded by Father Ellwood (Bud) Kaiser, produced the 1989 film Romero. The 1996 film The Spitfire Grill was funded largely by the Walls, Miss.-based Sacred Heart League, Inc. The movie won the “Audience Award” at the Sundance Film Festival, and the film’s rights were purchased by Castle Rock Entertainment for $10 million, at that time the largest sum paid for an independent feature film.
In more recent years, Catholic entities have supported particular films with financial contributions, priests on the set or by providing other in-kind or promotional support: The Legionaries of Christ supported the film Bella, Opus Dei supported There Be Dragons, and the Knights of Columbus supported For Greater Glory. The Daughters of St. Paul are currently trying to raise money to produce a film on Father James Alberione, founder of the order.
“With the success of other Georgia-based Christian films such as Fireproof and Courageous, there is no better time than now for Catholics to join in the momentum of producing faith-enriching films for the mass audience,” said Antonio.
“The Church has a role to play in film production,” said Father Andrews. “We have a marvelous story to tell. Stories that are inspirational give hope and offer glimpses of what redemption looks like. We have a great deal of experience to offer, and putting those on film, however one wants to do that, is a worthy effort that is part of our baptismal call as missionaries.”
Can a Catholic parish produce a film? Father Andrews certainly thinks so.
“Fifty years ago, Father Bud Kaiser and parishioners at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Los Angeles started a production company in the garage,” said Father Andrews. “Parishioners such as Bob Newhart, June Lockhart, Patty Duke, Jane Wyman and others created Paulist Picture’s Insights program, which aired on TV for 23 years. If a parish has the creative juices and the talent, it makes sense.”
The parish’s approach is an unconventional way to go about filmmaking, where typically an agented story is purchased by a production company. Antonio spoke to parishioners after each of the Masses on March 25 to inform them about the film and to seek partners on the project.
Antonio said that the film is in the “awareness and fundraising stage.” The team behind the film is currently attempting to raise $550,000 to produce the film. Approximately $7,000 has been raised to date. While they support the effort, neither the parish nor the archdiocese is funding the project directly.
The parish staff, however, did read the movie script, and parishioners are assisting the effort with their time, talent and financial donations.
“The intention is to make the film in Atlanta, as it touches on Atlanta geography and corporations,” explained Richard Martin, the executive producer. “It’s a Christian version of Tyler Perry’s stuff.” Perry is an Atlanta-based inspirational filmmaker.
While the movie is being made through a Catholic parish, the filmmakers hope that it will be supported widely outside the “choir.”
“It’s a Christian project with a basic Christian message,” said Martin. “It’s already spreading by word of mouth through non-Catholic family members, pastors and organizations.”
“My role as a layperson is to bring the Gospel to all the world — through social media and in movie theaters — to meet people where they are at,” said Polchinski.
As important as the filmmakers feel the project is, they highlight another goal of the project in determining its success.
“This isn’t just a project from one church,” said Antonio. “I’d rather have 500,000 people donate $1 each than simply one large investor. This is a project that will be made possible from many Catholics overall.”
Polchinski echoed that hope.
“As news about the film is traveling, I’m seeing more and more people who are stepping forward to be a part of it,” said Polchinski. “That’s what is so beautiful: seeing the body of Christ come together.”
Auditions are being held at the parish in mid-July. If the team is able to raise the money, Antonio hopes to begin a five-week production schedule in mid-September.
If the film succeeds in making a profit, Father Matejek has a couple of ideas for how to use the proceeds.
“We’d like to bring our school’s gym up-to-date,” said the pastor. “Perhaps it could also be used to help another Catholic parish produce a film.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake
is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.