One of the most surprising publishing stories of the last five years has been the phenomenal success of the "Left Behind" books, a series of seven evangelical novels about the biblically prophesied end times that has racked up sales of nearly 20 million copies.

But back in 1997, when co-authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins were negotiating the sale of rights for a "Left Behind" movie, the initial books in the series had sold fewer than 100,000 copies.

The books' eventual success has helped spur disputes and legal battles between people involved in "Left Behind: The Movie," which goes on sale in video stores Oct. 31. And some of these behind-the-scenes tensions pack more dramatic wallop than the film itself.

There have been long-running disputes between the authors and Namesake Entertainment, a Louisville, Ky.-based company that originally bought the film rights, and Cloud Ten Pictures, a Christian film production company based in Toronto. These disputes cover the typical industry issues--script, budget,stars, technical quality and sequels--as well as a controversial marketing plan that will see the movie being sold on video and DVD three months before its scheduled theatrical release.

The authors have asked that their names not appear on the video or any related promotional materials. And things escalated in July, when LaHaye filed suit in the Los Angeles County superior court against Namesake and Cloud Ten, charging breach of contract and demanding unspecified damages. "If you were talking about something that wasn't worth anything, people wouldn't worry about disagreements and fuzziness in the contract," said Los Angeles entertainment and intellectual property attorney Christoper Rudd, who represents LaHaye, "but now every comma and period take on real significance."

The behind-the-scenes disputes don't diminish the fact that "Left Behind: The Movie" is, as its producers maintain, the most ambitious and accomplished evangelical film in history. But that's not really saying very much, because over the last quarter-century, evangelicals have spent more energy hollering about the evils of Hollywood than they have creating quality Christian films. "We have been conspicuous by our absence," said Cloud Ten President Peter Lalonde, who along with his brother Paul produced "Left Behind: The Movie." "When the Christian community in the '70s saw what was going on in Hollywood, they believed it was so dark that no light could penetrate the theaters."

Lalonde says he became a Christian in the early 1980s, shortly after going to a Toronto church to see "The Prodigal Planet," an earlier and much more primitive Christian end-times film. And he remains convinced that "prophecy and film are two of the best tools" evangelicals have to reach the world.

But many people who have seen advance copies of "Left Behind: The Movie" acknowledge that while the film is a significant step in the right direction, it still fails to deliver on the producers' goal of creating a movie on par with anything Hollywood can offer.

Officially, various parties involved in "Left Behind" express sorrow about the disputes and lawsuits and say they hope for the best with the film. These include representatives of Alive Communications, the Colorado Springs, Colo., literary agency that originally teamed LaHaye and Jenkins; Nashville, Tenn.-based Reunion Records, which has released a soundtrack featuring Christian artists; Tulsa, Okla.-based Impact Entertainment, which is marketing the video; and the "Left Behind" books' Wheaton, Ill.-based Tyndale House Publishers.

But off the record, numerous insiders predict this film won't match the books' stunning mainstream success. "I got involved in this project because I was hoping we could take this book and make a movie that would spill over into the secular market," said Ralph Winter, a Hollywood veteran who has worked on successful projects like this summer's hit movie "X-Men" and who helped produce "Left Behind: The Movie." "Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to be able to pull that off with this movie."

According to LaHaye's suit, Namesake representatives originally promised to spend $40 million on a major, star-studded theatrical film that would be released in theaters before Jan. 1, 2000, so it could take advantage of the public's interest in the millennium.

But Namesake was unable to generate interest for the project among major Hollywood studios, one of which dismissed the initial "Left Behind" novel as "far-right propaganda masquerading as an action potboiler."

With its option for the film rights due to expire, Namesake contracted with Cloud Ten, a producer of three previous end-times films for the Christian market. Cloud Ten's Lalonde says his company budgeted $17.4 million for production, distribution and marketing--an unprecedented sum for an evangelical film--and lined up "Growing Pains" star Kirk Cameron as intrepid reporter Buck Williams.

Ironically, the fact that "Left Behind: The Movie" is big enough to generate a complex and possibly lengthy lawsuit may indicate that evangelicals are poised to be a presence in the world of film. They have previously achieved significant success in the music and book publishing industries. "Disputes like this are a part of the industry," said Ted Baehr, who praised the film in his publication Movieguide magazine. He has long argued that Christians need to have a greater presence in Hollywood. "Every major movie generates a flurry of suits, so this is normal."

Meanwhile, the "Left Behind" publishing phenomenon rolls on undiminished. On Nov. 14, Tyndale House will release "The Mark," the eighth book in the series. With an initial printing of 2.5 million hardback copies, the book will set another milestone for the series, which Tyndale publicist Beverly Rykerd calls "the fastest selling adult fiction series in publishing history."

The previous volume in the series, "The Indwelling," was published in March and debuted atop the best-selling fiction charts in The New York Times and other publications. A ninth volume is scheduled to be published next fall, to be followed by three more books.

Rykerd said that "Left Behind: The Movie" has "played very little role in the release of "The Mark."

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