What does it take to make a good Christian movie? “Passion,” says Nicole Abisinio, producer of “The Investigator,” based on the true-life story of comedian Ray Romano’s brother Rich.
In the long-running TV series “Everybody Loves Raymond.” the character “Robert” was loosely based on real-life cop Richard.
In real life, Rich, like Robert, is a policeman with a loving but quirky Italian Catholic family and a know-it-all high-profile brother. In the film, Rich’s undercover cop character has to take early retirement after a drug bust goes bad. He finds himself filling in as a baseball coach at a Protestant private school, facing a classroom of disrespectful rich kids and scholarshipped athletes, the latter who have special privileges since their successes bring in donors for the struggling academy.
The skeptical kids challenge their uncomfortable substitute teacher to re-open several high-profile historical cases, including President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and whether Jesus Christ is a historical or mythical figure. At the same time, he has to transform a mediocre varsity baseball team into winners.
Why did producer Abisinio choose such a project? After all, she started her career in New York City investment management, working in private equity and hedge funds for six years while simultaneously picking up roles as an actress – mostly in forgettable roles. Then she started working as a movie production accountant and eventually as an executive producer in New York City. What she’s known for is finding film funding – bringing in multi-million dollar deals for films with actors including Terence Howard, Jack Black and Samuel L Jackson.
She got into horror films – which make a lot of money. However, cranking out axe-murder movies aren’t very fulfilling spiritually.
“I was a very hardened New Yorker,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I was producing action films and horror movies and really nothing that was necessarily positive. It was entertainment and it was, you know, sometimes not very good entertainment.”
She began to get discouraged, feeling that her work was doing little to make the world a better place. She grew increasingly discontent – and says there was a divine plan behind it all.
“That’s just the way the Lord works,” she said at the recent premiere of The Investigator. “I began to see that there had to be more. After a couple of years of seeing my life change as I sought Him, I started looking for Christian scripts. I actually got very sick and almost died. It was during that period that Rich’s script came into my inbox when I didn’t think I was going to survive. The story uplifted my spirit, it changed me and it made me want to be a better person.
“I thought ‘Wow! If this script does this for me…’
“It made me want to fight harder to get better and if that did that for me, then how many people going through hard times could have that same experience? What if this script could help them be able to fight another day and fight harder and know that God is with them through it all?”
She jumped into the film with gusto.
“As an independent film producer, you know that you are going to spend a full two years – at least – on that film. So it has to be the right one. I knew I had to put together a solid business plan. But when I prayed about it, I knew that for the first time, I couldn’t go knocking on just anyone’s door.
“I didn’t go doing any of what I normally do. God spoke to my heart, ‘Prepare you house,’ so I got everything ready and knew that people were going to come to me.
“And they did. I received a phone call from a guy who I’d worked with on another project and he said ‘Oh, it’s so interesting that you’ve got this project. I’ve got this guy who is an investor …”
She met with him at a restaurant where the investor told her he had a dream of doing a movie about Christian apologetics and baseball. She says she almost fell out of her seat.
“Our movie was apologetics and baseball,” remembers Nicole. “It was unbelievable. He said ‘I’m going to invest.’ You can’t do anything without that, of course. Then we just went full speed ahead, casting 120 people and hiring our crew, but it was different this time. Everything was done differently than any movie I had done.”
“Because God was leading the way for it,” says Nicole.
Christian films traditionally struggle in the marketplace. Often they have trouble on a variety of levels.
“My husband is a movie junkie and a film geek,” writes blogger Nicole Cottrell. “By osmosis, I too ,have become somewhat of a movie nerd. Jonathan and I often sit and discuss the films we love. We talk cinematography, direction, screenplay, and of course, acting.
“We see all kinds of movies, from comedies, to dramas, independent films, to cult classics. But one type of film we avoid at all costs is the dreaded Christian film. [Twilight Zone music here…followed by a woman’s scream]. In decades of cinema history, maybe three or four films rate as a quality Christian film. ‘Chariots of Fire’ would be one. ‘The Passion of Christ’ another.”
“The Passion of the Christ,” of course, did phenomenally at the box office — $370 million. Then there’s the “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which pulled in $291 million. So, yes, Christian movies can be money-makers.
The Narnia sequels, “Prince Caspian” and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” did well — $141 million and $104 million respectively. Then there are the Sherwood Studios films – Courageous, Fireproof and Facing the Giants – which improve with each release, both in quality and in box office sales. Other well-done Christian films that have done well recently include “The Nativity Story,” “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” and “End of the Spear.”
And there are those blockbusters that aren’t “religious” but have strong Christian worldviews, such as “The Blind Side,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. What makes a movie “Christian,” anyway?
“Created with a Christian sensibility, a movie should be haunted by the invisible world,” writes scriptwriting mentor Barbara Nicolosi in an article with Spencer Lewerenz. “For believers, everything that we see is a sign of a reality that we cannot see. Paraphrasing St. Paul, all of creation points to the Presence and Nature of the Creator.
“A movie made with this conviction will leave viewers with the sense that beyond all the chaos and craziness in the world is a Loving Mind that comprehends it all, and is over it all. This broader vision–encompassing what is seen with the heart as well as with the eyes–has as much to do with good writing as with pastoral urgency.
“A Christian film should be imbued with the certainty that we are not alone. We were conceived of, worked out, prepared for, and assigned a place in the plan. We are connected to one another and to the One who yearns for us as the apple of his eye.
“Humans are meant to be merciful to one another,” writes Nicolosi. “Talents are given to us to speed us corporately on our way home to God. We should treat human beings the way we would treat any unique and precious treasure that belongs to someone else. “
“I don’t want to knock any film that anyone is doing in any other Christian films,” says Abisinio, “because they have paved the way for us. The thing that has been said the most about this film and anyone that has seen it is ‘Wow! This film isn’t cheesy.’ This film is high quality, it’s got great acting and it’s real.
“That word just needs to spread. The more people that see it and tell everybody what they think of it, it will just go from there and explode.”
One of the film’s greatest barriers, she says, are skeptical Christians. “It’s the Christians who are like ‘Well we don’t want to watch a Christian movie because it’s going to be bad. It’s going to be a church movie. It’s going to be on a video camera and you know, not have a story or be cheesy,’” says Abisinio.
As soon as they see the movie, she says, “it’s like, ‘Oh well, if we knew it was going to be this good, we would have done this or that to help you get the word out.’ It’s pulling teeth to get them to come see it in the first place, but as soon as they do, then they’ll do anything for us.”
For example, “The Passion of the Christ” opened in 3,408 theaters nationwide. “The Investigator” openned in 11 – but Abisinio says those 11 markets were carefully chosen. In each city, churches and youth groups went to see the film together. Pastors recommended their congregations see the film.
Then, when the DVD comes out in 2014, says Abisinio, so will a Christian study guide that examines the evidence that the film’s main character covers in his classroom – the proofs that Jesus Christ actually did everything that Christianity says He did. That’s certainly going to help with the bottom line – and, yes, even Christian films have to make a profit if their producers are going to have a shot at another film.
This is a perfect movie to show to a youth group on a weekend retreat. Nobody hops into bed. No blasphemous language. Lots of youth angst and teenage conflict. The baseball team’s arch-rivals are wretched enough that you want to throw popcorn at the screen.
Some of the editing is confusing – superfluous scenes could have been axed, but were obviously dear to the screenwriter and to Abisinio. The baseball scenes are fun – and here is where the film’s comedic element shines. Occasionally the character development is confusing as opponents become supporters too quickly – a little more suspense would be more satisfying. But it is inspirational to see the arrogant young football quarterback quietly ask Coach if he can have a shot at baseball.
Filmed in the St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa area, lots of local extras were used – and at the premiere, all seemed thrilled with the result and had brought friends and family to see their moment of fame.
It’s done well with reviewers: “This intriguing investigation takes place as we also follow the teams rise to the championship game,” writes Dove family reviewers who gave it a coveted rating of 5 Doves. “Will Sergeant Buanacore recover his faith? Will the team come together and play disciplined ball? You will have to watch this inspirational film to find out. You will also be surprised to find out that this moving drama is adapted from real events and we are pleased to award it our Dove ‘Family-Approved’ Seal for ages 12 and over.”
“I didn’t think they made this kind of film anymore,” wrote Pastor Bob Coy, Senior Pastor at Calvary Chapel in Ft. Lauderdale. “Redemptive message, high quality, good acting, a keep you glued story, educational, inspirational, and for the whole family! It’s more than just a movie, it has the power to change your life!”
”A candid and encouraging look at wrestling with faith and doubt through hard times,” wrote the American Family Association Journal.
”A moving and thought-provoking film about one man’s journey to investigate his faith and return to Christ.” Wrote the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.
”The Investigator is a Christ-centered, heart-warming story about discovering grace and truth,” according to Movieguide.
”This gripping tale is one of redemption and finding God’s grace in the most unlikely of places. As a ministry that promotes films that promote a culture of life and love we could not be more thrilled,” wrote Jason Jones of Movie to Movement.
”For those who are like the doubting apostle Thomas, you will explore a way to investigate the resurrection of Jesus through the character of Police Sergeant James Buanacore, a twenty-year veteran investigator. Overall this is a heartwarming story, of personal transformation that will touch adults as well as adolescents,” wrote Dr. Caroline Cerveny of Interactive.
“This is a special film,” says Abisinio. “Everywhere we’ve gone, we are seeing it literally changing people’s lives. They are wanting to come to God. it’s amazing. I’ve never seen people literally affected to that extent.
“I think it is because it’s real and we don’t hold back.”