In the food court of a nearly empty mall in North Dallas, Rick Santorum is explaining the importance of authentic characters and narrative arcs. It’s mid-morning on a Tuesday, most of the stores aren’t open yet, and the fire alarm is blaring for reasons unknown. Santorum is dressed in a dark suit, no tie, and a pair of Tony Lama cowboy boots he bought in Denver. His entourage consists of a real estate developer who serves as his de facto flack and driver when he’s in Texas, a photographer lugging two bazooka-size cameras, and a videographer. It’s almost like Santorum never left the campaign trail. He seems no less eager and focused than the peppy culture warrior who last year dogged Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries far longer than anyone expected, picking up eleven states and close to four million votes, outlasting several supposedly stronger candidates.
The ever-helpful real estate developer delivers a chocolate pastry to the table. Santorum tastes it, then offers the remainder to his interrogator. “You have it,” he says. “I only took one bite.”
Santorum and company are at the mall this morning for the premiere of Seasons of Gray (not to be confused with Fifty Shades of Grey; one is about resisting temptation, while the other is about surrendering to it). The film is the first official release from EchoLight Studios, an upstart Christian movie outfit based in Flower Mound that drafted Santorum as its CEO in June. The company didn’t hire Santorum because he has a background in film—he doesn’t, unless you count his massive DVD library. (Asked to name a recent fave, he mentions The Hunger Games. “I like a lot of films that you’d be surprised by,” he says.) They hired him, according to Bobby Downes, a veteran Christian film producer and EchoLight’s president, because he is Rick Santorum. “He’s a hero to our core demographic and our core consumer because he’s a voice for the voiceless,” says Downes. “He cares about the causes that the conservative consumer cares about.”
EchoLight was born out of a phone conversation between Downes and Gen Fukunaga, the founder of Funimation Entertainment, a Flower Mound–based anime distributor with a catalog that includes films like Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which is rated “TV-MA for mature audiences” for its “extensive nudity” and “sexual situations including bondage and lesbianism.” Not Christian movies, in other words. Over the past few years Fukunaga has dabbled in financing faith-friendly films from his own deep pockets—half a million here, half a million there. In 2011 he floated the idea to Downes of starting a proper Christian film studio, one that would handle all the production and marketing from start to finish. As it happens, Downes, a hip, bespectacled 45-year-old, had already drawn up a business plan for such a venture. And so, late last year, he relocated from California to Flower Mound to set up shop. Part of the logic for hiring Santorum was to boost the nascent studio’s profile right away. As Santorum himself puts it, “I’ve given a jump-start to the brand.”
Hero or no, Santorum arrives with baggage. To many, he is a square-jawed punch line, even a bigot. He has compared homosexuality to bestiality. He’s against contraception—not just the government paying for it but the very idea. Recently he objected to the term “middle class,” because, he says, it reeks of Marxism. None of that matters to EchoLight, according to Downes. In fact, it’s a plus. “We’ve got a megaphone the size of Rick Santorum,” he says. “Any polarizing effect that is created, from a marketing perspective, that’s all gain. Bad news is good news when it comes to marketing because it creates a national dialogue.”
So Rick Santorum makes sense for EchoLight. But why does EchoLight make sense for Rick Santorum? Why would a man who a year ago was a serious contender to be the leader of the free world leave behind his wife, his seven kids, and his five-acre estate in a leafy Washington, D.C., suburb to fly back and forth to Texas once a week? Santorum says the idea of running a film studio was more appealing than a typical inside-the-Beltway gig. And while the travel is a definite drawback, he says, it simply isn’t possible to start a Christian film studio closer to home. “Texas is the best place to do this,” Santorum says. “There are only two big cities where the money in town is conservative: Dallas and Houston. That’s it. Any other major city, even the Republican money isn’t conservative.”
Still, it does seem like an odd fit: no one thinks of movies when they think of Rick Santorum. “Well, I don’t think Matt Damon and politics,” he counters. “Hollywood has decided to jump in both feet into politics. We’ve decided to jump in both feet into Hollywood.” As Santorum is fond of saying, politics is downstream from culture, and he doesn’t much like what they’re putting in the water over there. “For a long time, many in Hollywood have produced films that are really entertaining, good quality,” he says. “But the message is not the one that I want to impart to my kids.”
Christian movies, on the other hand, are generally squeaky-clean, but they’ve also earned a reputation for being mostly awful. See the seventies church-basement classic A Thief in the Night or the more recent adaptations of the Left Behind novels. The production values are subpar, the acting stilted, the writing weak. That said, they’re often made on relatively small budgets and can turn into surprise hits at the box office. The highest-grossing independent film of 2008 was a Christian movie called Fireproof, a drama about a porn-addicted firefighter struggling to save his marriage, starring teen-idol-turned-creationist Kirk Cameron. It cost half a million dollars to make and earned $33 million in theaters. That particular film may not be great art, says Toddy Burton, an assistant professor of communication arts at Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts, but it struck a chord among believers. Burton, who studies Christian films, says that for a long time Christians saw filmmaking solely as a missionary tool, and consequently, the movies they made were far from Oscar material. “That’s changing,” she says. “You have more people who are believers and understand the rigor of doing it well.”
Santorum and EchoLight are trying to be part of that movement, to make movies that are indistinguishable, quality-wise, from whatever else is playing at the Cineplex. “I’m not going to put my name on anything that is a cheesy Christian film,” Santorum insists. Since taking the job, he has suggested changing the titles of three forthcoming movies. (He thought the fluffy-sounding Heaven’s Rain, for instance, might do better as the hard-hitting Unforgivable, a title that is currently being test-marketed.) He’s not, he makes clear, just a figurehead. He has an MBA and a law degree, and, from his time in the Senate, he knows how to make deals. “This is not the only thing I’m going to continue to do,” he says. “But I’m spending the vast majority of my time doing it.”
As part of its effort to raise the bar, EchoLight is seeking out actors known for their mainstream work. The studio is unlikely to bag, say, Jennifer Lawrence—though Santorum notes he’d be interested—so it’s opting for semi-stars you sort of know. For instance, one EchoLight feature, The Redemption of Henry Myers, stars Drew Waters, whom you might recall as Coach Wade Aikman from the TV series Friday Night Lights. The film is in postproduction, but even the film’s rough cut, minus the special effects and musical score, feels like a real movie made by actual professionals, albeit one you’d probably expect to see on the Hallmark Channel. It’s a western, and like every respectable western, it includes shoot-outs, a bank robbery, horse chases, and characters speaking their dialogue while leaning against a fence. Watch closely, though, and you’ll notice the film is careful not to break the unwritten rules of Christian cinema. In the saloon scene, scruffy, hard-living ranch hands hold glasses of what appear to be adult beverages, but the liquor never crosses their lips. Drinking alcohol on-screen is a no-no. The romantic tension between the two lead characters is palpable but never goes further than fond glances. Unmarried smooches are verboten.
In popular Christian music, the abbreviation “JPM” is insider slang for the number of times Jesus is mentioned in a song per minute. If the Lord doesn’t show up by the chorus, there’s going to be trouble. Likewise, Jesus needs to get name-checked in Christian films, and ideally, the gospel message should be plainly presented so that unsaved viewers will learn how one qualifies for admission to heaven. In Henry Myers, that message is spelled out at exactly the one-hour mark, when the protagonist is at his lowest, riven by regret and desperate for forgiveness. Artfully slipping in the Good News is part of the challenge. If a movie is inspiring but fails to present a specifically Christian message, it isn’t an EchoLight movie. “You could have gotten that from Disney,” Downes says.
Casting is tricky too. Secular actors are fine, but their personal lives can be a problem. In 2006 the Christian film End of the Spear was pilloried on Christian blogs because its lead actor, Chad Allen, is openly gay. It goes without saying that EchoLight would never produce a film that portrayed homosexuality as anything but a sin. But would it back a movie with a gay actor? Santorum, while pointing out that he has yet to be involved in casting, is cool to the notion. “You want people who stand by the film and the message in the film and not—by their life, their actions—undermine the film,” he says. “To me, that makes sense from a business perspective.”
The movie that’s premiering at the mall today, Seasons of Gray, was produced not by EchoLight directly but by Watermark Community Church, a megachurch in Dallas, for a mere $500,000, roughly the amount that a summer action movie would budget for catering. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t live up to the good-as-Hollywood standard EchoLight is trying to establish, but when you consider that it was put together by first-timers for almost nothing, it’s a respectable effort. Gaps in logic? Sure. Jarring shifts in tone? A few. A not-entirely-successful attempt to shoehorn the biblical story of Joseph and his jealous brothers into a modern-day ranch milieu? Yup. But the audience at the premiere, made up of Watermark members and Santorum fans (Dallas-based telecommunications billionaire Kenny Troutt was spotted in the crowd), laugh and clap at the right moments. No one bails during the convoluted second act.
Before the movie began, Santorum offered a few remarks about EchoLight’s vision. “I can’t think of a better way to continue the mission I felt about trying to save our country and to restore the traditional values of our country than giving the people the opportunity to fight back,” he told the audience. Listening to Santorum get revved up, it may have occurred to those in attendance that the executive office of a Christian film studio is not such a terrible platform for a guy who, as he will admit, hasn’t abandoned his dream of being president one day. The job bolsters his conservative Christian cred, for one thing, which is at the heart of his appeal. When this is pointed out to Santorum, he quickly nods. “Yeah, I thought about that.”