The question is no longer "Will they succeed?"
With a tried-and-true record of beating the odds, the question now is "How far can they go?"
We're talking about the team behind Sherwood Pictures, which is set to release its fourth film, "Courageous," on Friday in some 1,400 theaters nationwide.
On that team is Tampa's own Rob Whitehurst, the film's production sound mixer. Because he's been with the group from the early days, he has some insight into the amazing journey from a small volunteer-based operation to a national model for churches aspiring to do film outreach.
"The quality has come a long, long way over the years," says Whitehurst, a 1973 communications graduate of the University of South Florida. "On the first movie, I did the sound myself with a bag around my neck. The next one, we had eight people. I think we were up to 20 on this last one, with state-of-the-art digital equipment. Sherwood's commitment to excellence is really apparent."
This film company is about as far from Hollywood as you can get. It's a ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., a mid-sized town about three hours south of Atlanta. Its purpose: Produce movies that promote a Christian message using mostly volunteers, then funnel the profits into outreach programs that benefit communities and start-up churches.
"It's not about making money with them. It's about making a difference," Whitehurst says. "They use movies as a way to get that message across globally. They know this is a medium that has the power to impact people way beyond the pews."
What makes the Sherwood experience different from the secular productions he's worked on? "They pray a lot," Whitehurst says. "They aren't moving on something unless God moves them to do it. And if you look at what they've accomplished, you will understand that God has answered their prayers."
If Sherwood's track record is any indication, the cop-themed, action-packed "Courageous" is going to make a profit and spawn a conversation, this time one that centers on the need for fathers to step up and put their families first.
Sherwood Pictures began back in 2003, when brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, both on the pastoral staff at Sherwood Baptist Church, parlayed their childhood love of filmmaking into writing and making a movie for the local community. In just nine months, with a volunteer cast and donation of equipment and $20,000, "Flywheel" made its debut in local theaters.
It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. With a storyline about a shady used-car salesman who turns his life around after finding God, "Flywheel" had a six-week run, outlasting some Hollywood productions. It went on to win several independent film awards and has sold enough DVD copies to net around $37,000.
That experience was enough to "cut our teeth and get some confidence," Stephen Kendrick said. "We had seen enough cheesy, stupid and embarrassing Christian movies. We knew that with a bigger budget and better equipment, we could so something much better than that."
They made good on their word.
"Facing The Giants," a high school football tale that follows the challenges of the characters on and off the field, cost $100,000. It landed in theaters nationwide in 2006, and ended up making $10.1 million at the box office. Two years later, the group released the even more ambitious "Fireproof," a $500,000 project that told the story of a struggling marriage between a firefighter and his corporate executive wife.
The script showed some maturity, touching on daring themes (by Christian standards) of Internet pornography, money, sex and self-centeredness. Sherwood brought in acting coaches for the amateur cast and hired Kirk Cameron of television's long-running "Growing Pains" sitcom as the lead actor. Cameron was a fan of Sherwood's previous efforts, so he agreed to do the project and donated his fee to a nonprofit camp he and his wife run in Georgia for seriously and terminally ill children and their families.
With its $1 million budget, "Courageous" continues to confront real-life issues. Among the themes: the tragic loss of a loved one, the dangers of gang involvement, and a believer who breaks the law and must pay the consequences.
Like all Sherwood films, there's a strong moral message that will be accompanied by books and study guides. The filmmakers are hoping "Courageous" sparks a conversation about fatherhood the way "Fireproof" did for marriage.
Whitehurst, a 1969 graduate of Chamberlain High School, has had a colorful career. After graduating from USF, he was an on-air personality ("The Red Bearded Wonder") with WINQ in Seffner, which billed itself as the world's first commercial Christian rock station. He was the ringmaster with the traveling "Circus Alleluia." He booked California rock bands into local venues. As a sound mixer, his credits include everything from HBO movies to television shows like "Cops."
But the experience with Sherwood – one he hopes will continue – stands out. Since a "radical" Christian conversion at age 18, he's dreamed of the day he could meld his love of movie-making with a company that shares his passionate faith.
"God is not so much interested in your ability, but your availability," he says. "And now I choose to make myself available for projects that promote what I believe in. You don't have to separate the two worlds."