Filmmaker Peter Lalonde: Refusing to Be "Left Behind"
- 2005 17 Oct
Along with his brother, he’s been called “Canada’s version of the Coen Brothers.” GQ magazine dubbed them the “fabulous Lalonde brothers” and they’ve been featured in all the top magazines, as well as almost every major daily newspaper in the country.
But producer Peter Lalonde is no Hollywood profit-meister. Much like the characters in “World at War,” the third film in his “Left Behind” saga, Peter Lalonde is on a mission. A dedicated Christian who insists on preaching the gospel in every film he makes, Lalonde has refused to buy into the Hollywood hype about “family values” being enough. Using private financing, and by rolling profits from each of his previous films – which include “Apocalypse,” “Tribulation,” “Revelation” and “Judgment,” as well as the first two “Left Behind” movies – into every new venture, Lalonde is staking out his territory in the ever-expanding genre of Christian filmmaking.
Crosswalk.com talked with Lalonde about “World at War” (which premieres in churches across the country on October 21 in a unique marketing strategy), what it will really take to make Hollywood sit up and recognize evangelicals as a viable audience and what Christian filmmakers need to do to succeed in showbiz.
Annabelle Robertson: Congratulations. People are saying that this is your best film yet – even better than your two previous “Left Behind” movies, which were very successful.
Peter LaLonde: This is the first film that has that real theatrical feel to it – the feeling of bigness and effects. There’s no question that the overriding commentary we’re getting back is that it’s way better than we expected it to be. I take it as a compliment. There’s not a lot of money in Christian filmmaking, so you do what you can. So when you take this to the new level.
Annabelle: You’re pretty excited about sharing the gospel. How did you become a Christian?
Peter: I became a Christian as a result of seeing “The Prodigal” in 1983 in a church. I went back on Sunday, then again, and several weeks later I became a believer. I attended that church for several years, then founded a ministry, which later became Cloud Ten Pictures, which made documentaries on the Bible prophecies.
Annabelle: Yet you had no background in filmmaking?
Peter: When we first started, we didn’t know the meaning of “gaffer” or “grip.” We needed 100 times the faith of two guys [to make the films we made.] In 1999, we crossed paths with the “Left Behind” franchise, and that really has been our direction since then.
Annabelle: You used an interesting strategy with the first “Left Behind” film. Tell us about that.
Peter: Everybody had the dream of it being a huge, blockbuster movie, but producers, directors and studios all said no. It was an unusual release, though, because we went to video first, then theatres. We opened in 800 theatres and grossed $4.2 million. It won “Bestselling Title of the Year from an Independent Studio” and “Sell-through Title of the Year by an Independent Studio” from the Video Software Dealer’s Association, the Academy Awards of mainstream video. The DVD did even better. The second film came out in 2002 and debuted on DVD number two only to “Spiderman.”
Annabelle: Now you’re once again using a brand new strategy for the release of “World at War.”
Peter: Once again, it’s something that’s never been done before. Over 1,700 churches have signed up. It’s an even bigger number than it sounds because they’re not multiplexes, which means that we’re opening in different locations all over the country. That’s more locations than the top three theatre chains, who have more screens, but not more cities and towns. That’s why it’s considered a “wide release film,” where you need more than 2,000 screens.
Cloud Ten is an exceptional marketing organization. We have the brightest and keenest minds when it comes to marketing Christian films. We’ve undeniably sold more videos than anyone else, and probably everyone else combined. On this movie, by building the church theatre chain, we’re once again finding a good way to make a movie very present and the Christian audience very aware that we exist.
Annabelle: What’s your strategy?
Peter: I’ve always believed in the church film night. It’s one of the greatest activities a church community can have. I came in from out of the blue, without money, because I saw the promotion for a free film that sounded interesting. That film was very good, but it was the pastor who had the right word. The purpose of this whole church theatrical release is so that, in the end, there can be that 10-minute talk.
Annabelle: So should churches charge to see the film?
Peter: I think it’s important and I encourage the churches to charge an admission fee. We want this to be a demonstration to the Hollywood industry that this is a different model for release, a different way of reaching the core Christian audience that’s out there, and that they are going to have to produce the kind of films that pastors will produce. This is the kind of film that pastors want to show in their churches – not the typical feel-good, family values film.
Annabelle: What’s the difference?
Peter: "Narnia” is a wonderful story, but it’s not an evangelical Christian film. We’re creating evangelical Christian films. We don’t have a desire to make crossover movies, feel-good movies. We want to make gospel movies. We want to demonstrate the power of this system, the power of the church release, and leverage the studios to produce more films in this vein. And that’s an important cultural upside. No one will leave a Cloud Ten movie without hearing a gospel message and understanding what it means.
Annabelle: But how do you make an evangelistic film without turning it into a sermon?
Peter: Someone will ask, ‘Who is Jesus?’ and then someone else answers. It’s a reality at the heart of the story. In the past, the gospel message was often outside the story. But in this screenplay and in the acting, Buck’s own struggle is to “stand still and know that I am God.” That’s a spiritual message. Even the believers in the film are still struggling. Buck’s mad at God, Chloe’s in trouble. But when he does stand still, he leads the president of the United States to Christ.
Annabelle: Has the success of “The Passion of the Christ” changed how Hollywood views Christian films?
Peter: I don’t think there’s a great relationship between Hollywood and Christianity. We’re just two different. Everyone thinks there is a big wide open door, but I just don’t think it’s the case. We are basically not compatible with Hollywood. There’s a little open door right now, thanks to “The Passion,” and it’s a great thing, but the core here is to do what we do. If the studios want to do that and invest in it, it’s great. But if we change the core of what we do to get them to invest, we’re [abandoning our mission.]
But leave “The Passion” aside. It was a phenomena, but it was an anomaly. Mel doesn’t even have it on his radar screen to do another film like that. The only big success in Christian filmmaking has been, from a business perspective, with end-time movies.
Annabelle: What can aspiring Christian filmmakers do?
Peter: I would love to see an association of Christian filmmakers. It’s stunning to me that we don’t.
Annabelle: So what lies ahead for Christian filmmaking? Not everyone can or should make end-time films.
Peter: I think the future is extraordinarily bright if we meet a couple of criteria. First, we have to work and play well together. There’s still a lot of competition. Second, we have to recognize that we’re the flavor of the month in Hollywood. A lot of organizations are going to be burned. Right now there’s this sense that Hollywood is changing, but I disagree with that. Hollywood isn’t changing one thing. Third, we need to put content ahead of all else, in my opinion. What makes us different is that we have the ability to confront the culture and do evangelism. I’d rather make a $10 million evangelical film rather than a $50 million feel-good film.
Annabelle: But people are called to different things.
Peter: Of course. But we believe that if you don’t have the gospel message, you haven’t done anything of eternal significance.
Annabelle: What’s next for Cloud Ten Pictures?
Peter: I want us to branch out. We have two movies right now that I’m excited to make. There’s a beautiful story written by a Christian lady in L.A. called “Dirk and the Devil.” We still need to find the financing for it, but it’s witty, funny and light, yet with a thunderous message – a beautiful movie with great teaching and great evangelism. Even the devil is funny.
Another one we’re working on is about a burned-out music star who has lost all of his connections and who signs with a new label, a Christian rock band. It’s extraordinarily funny – a wonderful story of redemption and transformation called “Born Again” – and we’re doing the rewrites on that.
We’ll also keep going on with the “Left Behind” series. The church release deal is not a one-time deal for us. We want this to be a monthly deal. Cloud Ten Church Cinemas. Our primary point in our mission statement is, “It’s the best evangelical film. It doesn’t matter who the producer is.” The best movie that we can acquire goes to the church, but it has to meet our criteria.
"Left Behind: World at War" will have its theatrical release in churches nationwide the weekend of October 21-23. It will be available for purchase (DVD and VHS) in retail stores on Tuesday, October 25.
For more information about “Left Behind: World at War” and how your church can participate, please visit www.cloudtenpictures.com.