BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week's Time Magazine had a cross on the cover and the words "The Bible and the Apocalypse -- Why Americans Are Reading and Talking about the End of the World." It's the sort of story that a large percentage of the population will find shocking while another large percentage will be shocked that this was news to anyone. A quarter of all Americans belong to evangelical faiths which believe in some version of End Times prophecy. The biggest evidence of the appetite for the Apocalypse is the popularity of the Left Behind book series, the first 9 of which have sold a combined 50 million copies. Book 10 comes out on Tuesday. Last year our own Mike Pesca reported on the effort to bring the popular book series to the big screen.
MIKE PESCA: Barbara Coulter has just popped in a video in her Lincoln Park, New Jersey home. [VIDEO PLAYS UNDER]
BARBARA COULTER: Pat Boone stars as the minister who actually led Nicky Cruz, who was a gang member, to the Lord. [ECHOES OF MINISTER SAYING "COME IN" TO GANG MEMBER]
MIKE PESCA: The video is called The Cross and the Switchblade, a 1972 release -- one of the rare instances when an evangelical Christian theme was tackled in a Hollywood movie. Barbara and I are each getting something different out of the video experience.
BARBARA COULTER: You actually watch Nicky become a Christian.
MIKE PESCA: That's Erik Estrada!
ERIK ESTRADA AS NICKY CRUZ: ...stupid sermon about honesty! I say we cross him up; we take all of the bread, and we give it to that stupid preacher.
MIKE PESCA: Right now Pat Boone has reached the members of the two rival gangs.
MAN: That's cool, man.
MIKE PESCA: They're exchanging their switch blades for Bibles.
MALE CHOIR: [SINGING] GOD LOVES YOU, HE LOVES YOU, JUST AS YOU ARE, NOW, STANDING THERE IN THE [COLD]....
BARBARA COULTER: But this was almost-- it was over 30 years ago. Left Behind is the future.
CHILD: Hey, man--
MIKE PESCA: Coulter means that in every sense except the figurative. She and millions like her believe that the Bible has prophesized [sic] that the day of judgment is nigh. The faithful will be called to heaven and non-believers will be --"Left Behind." It made for such good reading in one book series, The New Testament, that a theologian and a writer updated the prophecies and gave them a stronger narrative structure. So far the Left Behind book series has sold 33 million copies. The movie is being rolled out in a unique way. The film's production company, Cloud 10 Pictures, has solicited sponsors to put up 3,000 dollars each in order to bring the movie to a local cineplex.
BYRON JONES: The movie was taken around and, and marketed to several of the huge theatrical release companies. The problem is they don't typically market to the people that we market to, and they just didn't know how to reach 'em!
MIKE PESCA: Byron Jones is the vice president of entertainment for Cloud 10 Pictures, Left Behind's production company. He says that when it comes to mainstream Hollywood fare, it's the Christian audience that has been left behind.
BYRON JONES: They market to the general audience. They do, they do a very wide massive print campaign and, and, and television and, and radio and spend literally millions of dollars to make the general public - anybody - it's sort of a shotgun approach. We don't have the money for that big a gun, so we do a very directed to our core buyers and, and get the word of mouth.
MIKE PESCA: Barbara Coulter's chapel raised the 3,000 dollars necessary to bring Left Behind to Parsippany, New Jersey. [OMINOUS MUSIC FROM LEFT BEHIND PLAYS]
MAN: How do you describe both a beginning and an end? We should have known better. But we didn't. [MUSICAL FLOURISH]
MIKE PESCA: The sold out screening is filled with people who know Barbara or who know someone who knows Barbara or knows about the screening because they've visited Left Behind's web site or have already seen the movie on video. That's right. Left Behind was actually released on video first to prime the pump for this date. At the end of the video, star Kirk Cameron does some evangelizing of his own.
KIRK CAMERON: We need you to tell everyone you can about the February 2nd theatrical release. We need you to hang posters. We need you to pass out flyers and to literally tell everyone you know about this movie! And if the movie is not sponsored in your community yet, we need you to try to make that happen too. And if we achieve this goal and then fill those theaters with people, we will be doing more than just sharing the most incredible story ever told with millions of people -- we will also be sending a wakeup call to Hollywood.
MIKE PESCA: No one heard the wakeup call in New York City. Unable to hook up with a church sponsor, Cloud 10 rented 3 Manhattan theaters on its own. Last Friday night's 7:15 showing at the Battery Park Multiplex brought in 15 customers. The 9:30 showing on opening night brought in 7. Thirty-three million books sold and 22 total bodies on opening night?
CRAIG DETWEILER: The biggest problem of, of faith-based filmmakers is that they put the message ahead of the story. They, they are more interested in evangelism than entertainment.
MIKE PESCA: Craig Detweiler stands at the intersection of movies and spirituality. A professional screenwriter by trade, he is the coordinator of film and media studies at the Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.
CRAIG DETWEILER: Left Behind clearly represents a narrow, old school version of the End Times, and for me as a person who doesn't come out of that tradition, I watched the film and I was completely lost for the first 30 minutes. If the movie was intended to communicate to an audience who knows nothing of this theological framework, I think it, it fails.
MIKE PESCA: Hollywood on the other hand knows how to quote Scripture to suit its purpose.
CRAIG DETWEILER: Hollywood has loved religion traditionally, things like the Ten Commandments, Greatest Story Ever Told, and all the way back to the silent era of King of Kings, you know, 1927; Ben Hur, certainly early silent film remade in the '50s.
MIKE PESCA: The '60s and '70s were a fallow period for religious movies, and they almost stopped altogether when Scorsese took on the Crucifixion.
CRAIG DETWEILER: I think if you look at the way the faith community responded to a film like The Last Temptation of Christ, it was as if the church said, you know, hands-off -- he's our, you know, he's our Messiah; you can't touch him.
MIKE PESCA: Since then films like The Prince of Egypt, mini-series based on the lives of both Jesus and Mary, and TV programs like Seventh Heaven and Touched by an Angel have proved that there is a market for religious fare. Specifically religious fare with a palatable and ecumenical God -- the repenter-be-damned message inherent in a movie like Left Behind is as outside the mainstream as ever. Inside.com's book editor Sarah Nelson sees the culture clash in play.
SARAH NELSON: It scares a certain group of people that a book of this type that, that deals with religious issues like this is so popular. I think a lot of people in publishing are sort of snobby about what books are supposed to be, and that this book which is not a high literary book, which is really a religious theme book for the masses, is threatening to them.
MIKE PESCA: As a book series, Left Behind has been unbelievably successful. As a video it is surprisingly profitable. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] But as a movie it's a much harder sell. It grossed just over 2 million dollars its opening weekend. 17th on Variety's list --not enough to cover the cost of theater rentals. Despite front page articles in last Friday's L.A. Times and Washington Post, Left Behind seems more a curiosity than a phenomenon. The only films likely to follow in its marketing plans will be others in the Left Behind series. Devotion and faith put this small evangelical movie in the theaters. It is the same uncompromising conviction that keeps it from filling the seats. For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca. [MUSIC CRESCENDO AND OUT]
WOMAN: This is the first time I'm going to the movies since high school, so-- [LAUGHS].
MIKE PESCA: Nah, you have to tell me what was the last movie you saw?
WOMAN: Take mine-- [...?...].
MIKE PESCA: I swear I'll take the name off.
WOMAN: Okay. The Godfather. [LAUGHS]
MIKE PESCA: So how does, how does this compare to the Godfather?
WOMAN: [LAUGHS] A whole lot better. [LAUGHS]
MIKE PESCA: This one was.
WOMAN: Yes. A whole lot better.
MIKE PESCA: Okay! Well that one won Academy Awards -- [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] maybe this'll do well.
WOMAN: Praise the Lord.
A FULL MIXED CHOIR: [SINGING] I'LL SEE YOU IN THE [BETTER] AFTER THE FIRST [...?...] [...?...] THE DAY IS BRIGHT [...?...] FROM THE SEA AND [...?...]....
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, ads that create anxiety and international incidents and what the media make of women in uniform.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.
"I'll See You In the Rapture"
by Mississippi Mass Choir