Catholic-Funded 'Spitfire Grill' Finds Success Despite Skepticism

A FILM FINANCED by a Catholic group has earned at least $10 million. But respect is hard to come by in Hollywood and in the mainstream media, which has expressed concern about a religious group funding movies.

The Sacred Heart League, a charitable organization run by the Sacred Heart Fathers in Walls, Miss., funded The Spitfire Grill, a film that debuted in theaters nationwide in early September and placed in the top 10 with approximately $3.5 million in revenues its first week.

Sacred Heart League financed, produced and marketed the film through its for-profit subsidiary, Gregory Productions, which seeks to “present the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” such as “love of and reverence for God,” through film and media. It also wants to make money for the League, which runs schools, clinics and other programs serving the people of northern Mississippi.The Spitfire Grill is Gregory's first film. It won this year's audience award for drama at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

The film features a character named Percy Talbot, a woman who's recently released from prison and decides to make a fresh start in a small Maine town, where she finds work at the local grill. After the initial scrutiny and suspicion that towns-people give Percy, she becomes friends with two women at the diner.

The film takes a dramatic twist when one of her friends, who owns the grill, decides to sell it. A tragic event helps Percy to teach the townspeople a lesson in sacrifice, forgiveness and the importance of not prejudging strangers.

Despite their success, Sacred Heart and its director, Roger Courts, haven't earned much applause from the mainstream press. Castle Rock Entertainment, which paid $10 million to distribute the film, has downplayed it's association with the organization in promoting the film. Nonetheless, the company sees potential for profit in Spitfire, and it has spent $15 million to market the movie. Perhaps sensitive to criticism leveled by Hollywood executives and the media, Castle Rock makes only one reference to Gregory Productions or to the film's origins at its World Wide Web site.

But Caryn James, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote from the Sundance Film Festival that “some executives in Hollywood are uneasy about the Church's connection with the film and what they see as Gregory's religious agenda.”

Ron Austin, a Catholic who teaches in the Cinema Department at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, called James' viewpoint “a particularly narrow kind of secularism. I don't think most people in Hollywood have a problem,” with Gregory's involvement in The Spitfire Grill, he said.

Lee David Zlotoff, the movie's writer and director, is an observant Jew. Zlotoff, a television producer who created Remington Steele and MacGyver, told Gregory in 1994 that he wouldn't work with them if they wanted to make a movie with religious overtones. As Zlotoff tells it, Gregory wanted to “make a movie with humanistic values and no sex or violence.” Zlotoff, who is married and has four children, had no problem with that mandate and quickly signed on to make his first movie.

New York Times reporter James calls the film “a manipulatively heartwarming story,” and an “effective button pusher.” She charges that “viewers are being proselytized without their knowledge.” She cites a scene in which Percy, fresh from prison, meditates in a church. Henry Herx, director of the United States Catholic Conference's office for film and broadcasting, called the movie, “one of the better films of the past few months.”

One Jesuit priest argues that James' contentions only demonstrate a bias against religious influences in film. “If, in Spitfire Grill, the young woman released from prison had been taken to a motel room for some lesbian sex, would critics have felt they were being manipulated?” wrote Father Francis Canavan, S.J., a political science professor at Fordham University in New York, in The New Oxford Review.

One aspiring Catholic film-maker is encouraged by Gregory Productions' success. “Hopefully, it will encourage more religious people to get involved,” said Alvaro Calabia, a graduate student in film at Howard University in Washington. “It's one thing to complain about what Hollywood is producing, and another thing to do something about it,” said Calabia, who grew up in Madrid, Spain. “Maybe they'll open a door for me.”

He has a lot of company. According to USC's Austin, who is a retired producer and writer, “there's been a major, major change in Hollywood. More younger filmmakers are motivated by what they call 'spiritual’ interests, which can mean everything from traditional religion to the New Age religions.” According to Austin, three groups have sprung up in the past 10 years to meet some of the spiritual needs of Catholics in the entertainment world in Hollywood.

While some of the great Catholic intellectuals have made their mark in the academic world or in literature, it appears that more will work in mass media in the 21st century. Walker Percy, the late Louisianan novelist and philosopher, said near the end of his life in 1990 that movies had displaced literature as the art form with the greatest possibility of impacting society.

“He's correct. In today's world, movies are the best way to reach a wider audience,” said Herx. “It's the perfect medium for today's storytellers.”

“We are a movie-going people,” concurred Courts in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It's a place from where the young derive their value systems.”

Courts is a 60-year old former Arthur Murray dance instructor who came to work at Sacred Heart 38 years ago as a typist. He now manages a staff of 370 which amassed $21 million in contributions through direct mail last year.

Courts raised $4 million for Spitfire with a loan from the Sacred Heart League and from the sale of equity in the movie company to the nonprofit organization that provides for Sacred Heart's 170 priests. Despite assembling a low-budget cast, hiring a non-union crew and shooting in just 38 days, the film cost $6.1 million. To make up the difference, Gregory Productions took out another $2 million loan.

The gamble worked and Sacred Heart is reaping the benefits. The after-tax profit on the movie was $3.5 million, and Gregory will earn much more if the film does well at the box office. Sacred Heart is building a new elementary school in a rural Mississippi county for 400 students. It plans to name the school's cafeteria The Spitfire Grill. Courts is reviewing scripts for future films.

Bill Murray is based in Rockville, Md.