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'Left Behind' flop shows difficulty of mixing preachy, popular in Christian movies

Last week a remake of Left Behind, a movie about the biblical Rapture originally starring Kirk Cameron and based on the bestselling Christian book, opened with Nicolas Cage in a lead role. • Yes Cage, bizarre action hero, agreed to act in a "God" film. • The Academy Award winner plays an airline pilot forced to land a jet after passengers mysteriously disappear. On the ground, the end of days begins. People vanish leaving only their Bibles and clothes. • The apocalyptic fare may sound Cage worthy, but it's safe to say 10 years ago, he wouldn't have touched the role.

Today, 54 percent of Christians say they are more likely to choose entertainment reflective of their beliefs, according to research group Faith Driven Consumers. A decade ago, the majority of evangelical-themed movies flew straight to video because of a smaller percentage.

The original Left Behind, released in 2000, earned less than $5 million total in theaters. Critics slaughtered it for bad acting and shoddy production. (Not that they like the new one, but I digress.)

The 2008 film Fireproof, a save-your-marriage-with-Jesus-themed flick, grossed a surprising $34 million. The box office draw of the drama, also starring Cameron, surprised even its creators. They released a $30 million followup, Courageous, in 2011 and inspired fellow Christian filmmakers to up production values.

In April, God's Not Dead, the story of a college student dared by his atheist professor to prove the existence of God, stunned critics by earning an unprecedented $60 million.

Spring releases Son of God and Heaven Is for Real also turned a significant profit, prompting entertainment reporters to declare God a popcorn show commodity.

"People with strong values, sick of the sex- and violence-filled movies out there, went to see these recent faith-based movies and all of a sudden Hollywood realized, hey, there is a market for these," said Scott Hitchcock of Christian business group C12 Group of Tampa Bay.

Of course, not everyone sees this as a good thing.

Some argue the more money involved, the less direct the message gets. Big-screen hoopla upstages Scripture. Directors edit to please a larger market.

In the case of Left Behind, some question casting Cage, who is tight-lipped about his personal theology.

Creator Paul Lalonde, who also made the original, said the beliefs of actors do not affect a film's subject matter.

He admits to toning down the "preachy" to gain a new following. But in his attempt to mainstream Revelations, he quite possibly alienated fans.

Jackson Cuidon of Christianity Today said the remake is "not a Christian movie."

It earned just $7 million last weekend, making it Cage's lowest earner ever. Apparently many believers who flocked to God's Not Dead stayed home for this one.

The difference between God's Not Dead and Left Behind is that where the former's creators used production dollars to cater to evangelicals, treating the interest of nonbelievers as a bonus, the latter attempted to package and label a Christian movie as something else.

"Similar to a Christian singer who has crossover talent and becomes more widely known, as studios see this happening with movies, they will make more of them," said Rick Christensen, a Tampa-based Christian author. "This creates a blend of preachy and popular."

It seems no one is buying it.

Contact Sarah Whitman at sarahrothwhitman@gmail.com.

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