The last week in August is not a prime movie release slot, but there's one new opener on Friday that is primed to exceed expectations: "War Room," the latest Christian-themed feature by Georgia-based filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick.
The brothers have emerged as the most commercially successful independent producers of faith-based films. Their last three previous movies -- 2006's "Facing the Giants," 2008's "Fireproof," which was the highest-grossing indie that year, and 2011's "Courageous" -- have taken in $87 million at the box office on a combined budget of $2.6 million.
"War Room," with a more ambitious $3 million budget, is on track to gross $4 million to $5 million with its debut nationwide in a modest 1,100 theaters via Affirm Films, Sony's Christian label.
"They have evolved in their commercial approach and have done what has been the goal of many in the faith-based movie market: They are seen as successful filmmakers that happen to be Christians," industry analyst Seth Willenson told TheWrap.
With "War Room," the Kendricks have utilized the same formula that made those films hits: a hyper-tight budget and grassroots mobilizing of churchgoers via special screenings with pastors. The marketing has increasingly become narrowly focused and social media-heavy, but mainstream awareness of their films seems to be growing.
The biggest twist with the new film is its primarily African-American cast -- T.C. Stallings and New York Times best-selling Christian author Priscilla Shirer star as a middle-aged couple struggling in their marriage until they meet a stranger (Karen Abercrombie) points out the power of prayer.
Alex Kendrick, who produced with his brother Stephen, and also directed and has a role in "War Room," told TheWrap he wasn't trying to make a statement with the casting.
"We believe this story is best told from this vantage point. The passion, humor, and emotion we were looking for is so powerful from these characters. It would be a different film from any other perspective," Alex Kendrick said. "It was the right decision to cast these wonderful actors and this is one of the first faith-based films we've seen that reaches so strongly across racial lines."
Diversity has been a sticking point in several recent Bible-based movies, which have drawn criticism and even boycotts in the case of last year's "Exodus: God and Kings," a big-budget epic from Fox that defied historical accuracy with an all-white cast that included Christian Bale as Moses. (Director Ridley Scott defended the lack of diversity in his film by saying, "I can't mount a film of this budget ... and say that my lead actor is Muhammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I'm just not going to get it financed.")
The African-American cast isn't the only reason "War Room" is a departure for the brothers. It's the first release from Kendrick Brothers Productions, their own label, rather than via the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., which has turned profit from three successful features into a new recreation center and expanded ministries. The Kendricks have resigned as assistant pastors to pursue film full-time, and this is the first time they've shot outside their home state.
"It's different in location and the teams, but not not that different in heart," Kendrick said, adding that the production used volunteers from nearly 85 churches as well as professionals.
"This film hits a need in our culture that is becoming more and more obvious. We need to return to prayer," he said. "Politicians, government programs, and political correctness can't fix the many issues that are destroying our culture. But God can."
And while the title may seem to be at odds with Christianity's message of love, Kendrick insists that "War Room" is appropriate for religious audiences. "It is very strategic title that may not be fully understood until after you see the movie," he said. "But just like the military preparing their battle plans with their allies in a strategic place before going out onto the field, we believe we should each learn how to get alone with God and strategically pray through all of the issues we are facing in life before trying to go out and deal with them."