While the Left Behind books have made millions and topped bestseller lists for years, the first two movies based on the popular series—Left Behind and Left Behind II: Tribulation Force—have quietly slipped in under the radar screen. Neither film was a hit in theaters, but both had moderate success in video sales—enough to keep the franchise alive and to commit to a third film, Left Behind: World at War, which opens nationwide this Friday.

Peter Lalonde

Peter Lalonde

Note that the previous sentence did not say "opens in theaters nationwide," because Cloud Ten Pictures, which produces the movies, is taking a radically different approach to this film's distribution: They're releasing it to churches, where it will show on more than 3,200 screens on opening weekend. (As a comparison, The Fog, last week's No. 1 film at the box office, showed on 2972 screens.) The film will then be available on DVD the next week, on October 25.

World at War, a self-described "End-Time Political Thriller," is based on the last part of the book Tribulation Force, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr., playing the role of President Gerald Fitzhugh, joins the returning cast of Kirk Cameron, Brad Johnson, Chelsea Noble and Gordon Currie for this latest film.

Peter Lalonde, CEO of Cloud Ten Pictures and producer of the Left Behind films, promises this will be the best one yet, partly because of a much larger budget—thanks to Sony Pictures, which is distributing the film. In this e-mail interview with Christianity Today Movies, Lalonde discusses his love of film, the history of the Left Behind movies, the strategy to roll it out to churches, and his hopes for a nice "box office counted in souls."

I've heard that your experience of seeing The Prodigal in 1983 changed your life. What did you learn about the power of film that day?

Peter Lalonde: I was broke. I loved films and this one was free! I had never really been in a church, but I went with a friend. The movie was interesting and challenging, but it was really the pastor's ten-minute message afterward that sent a thunderbolt through my heart. I did not go forward [to accept Christ] that night, but I was drawn back. And again. On the third Sunday, I got saved.

I guess I learned that film is great outreach tool. It can be entertaining while also sharing a worldview. Combine that with a pastor, or anyone in the spirit at the right time, and the results can be life-changing.

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Is that the reason you are now involved in making movies?

Lalonde: No, I never set out to make movies. Ultimately I entered the ministry as a writer, speaker and even TV host. I just fell into filmmaking and marvel at how the Lord brings things full circle.

Why is your studio called Cloud Ten Pictures?

Lalonde: The world dreams of living on Cloud Nine. As believers we are automatically on Cloud Ten, even though it does not always feel that way.

What exactly is your role as producer?

Lalonde: There is great line in the movie Get Shorty where John Travolta says, "I don't think a producer has to know much." When Paul [Lalonde, Peter's brother and the co-producer of the movies] and I first started, that was sure true. We know a bit more now, thankfully. I can even point to which guy is the gaffer and which is the grip. I'm still not exactly sure what they do …

Basically, the producer is Captain of the Ship. You need to find the story, craft it with writers, choose the director, choose the top line crew and then baby it along set by step.

What has been the most satisfying part of making these movies? What has been the most frustrating or discouraging part?

Lalonde: Satisfaction? Those whose life has changed in the way mine was. Frustration? Producing is nothing but problem solving, and it is very tiring and frustrating. But the end result washes it all way.

The Prodigal was intentionally evangelistic, but the LB films aren't as blatantly evangelistic. So, explain the thinking behind the film's release as a series of "outreach" events.

Lalonde: On the first two movies, we had third parties who moved us away from the evangelism a bit.

Peter (second from left) and Paul Lalonde on the set

Peter (second from left) and Paul Lalonde on the set

What "third parties"?

Lalonde: I would rather not name them, but they believed the objective should be to widen the audience by making the gospel more subtle and thereby more appealing to mainstream audiences. I do understand the desire to make sure we are not preaching to the choir, but I also believe that has to be balanced with confronting our culture with the gospel. Cloud Ten, because of my personal history, has a vision for evangelical films. Perhaps that great cultural crossover movie that wins souls in another way is out there, but I have not seen it yet.

But now we are solely in control [of content]. When we did our deal with Sony, we demanded and got full creative control. So, with World at War, you will see a more evangelistic film. The budget [provided primarily by Sony] is bigger, the effects are at studio level now, and it is probably the most entertaining Christian film to date, but I am not here just to entertain.

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Will a non-Christian who hasn't read the books have a clue what's going on?

Lalonde: I think this is a more entertaining film because it is not clear at every second what is going on, but the answers do reveal themselves. And yes, we start the film with a voiceover by Lou Gossett Jr. that tells the backstory to get the audience up to speed.

Tell me how the idea came about, to roll it out to churches rather than theaters. Talk about not just the spiritual reasons, but any practical/financial reasons as well.

Lalonde:Tribulation Force had had a small theatrical and church release, and that's where this church release idea was first born. When we were speaking to churches about Tribulation Force, I realized how desperately we needed the return to the "church film nights" of the early '80s. I sensed a hunger there. I also began to see the exploding technology in the churches that made it possible.

Doing something new for the sake of it being new is seldom worthwhile. But spotting an open door—an opportunity—and doing something new, something that makes sense, captures people's imaginations. There is this mystique about a theatrical release, but the fact is that most films lose millions—and most Christian films open on so few screens as to serve no real purpose. We are not trying to "go Hollywood." We make soul-winning movies.

The first film opened in 867 theaters and earned $2.1 million on opening weekend and $4.2 million overall in its theater run. Since your production and marketing costs were over $20 million, how did those low numbers feel?

Lalonde: We were a little disappointed at the theatrical release. But, we were asking theaters to do something they had never done before. We were asking them to play a movie that was already out on video. So we ended with poor screens in poor locations. But we sold more than 3 million units at video, and we were able to recover our costs, and then some.

Were the dollar figures from the first film the sole determinant of whether Cloud Ten would make more LB movies?

Lalonde: We are a small company, and we had mortgaged everything on the film. If we hadn't succeeded, we would have not likely had the means to make more. So there are both business realities and spiritual desires. The good news is that we now are in a position where we plan to make two per year.

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Bigger budget, bigger explosions

Bigger budget, bigger explosions

What are your hopes for opening weekend for World at War—financially, philosophically, spiritually? How long will it play in churches? Is it just a one-weekend deal?

Lalonde: We are calling it a box office counted in souls. We will not ask churches for total numbers of attendees. The number we will report to the press on the following Monday are the number at the altars—those who actually come to Christ. And yes, it is only a one-weekend release, although many churches are having multiple screenings. The DVD will release on October 25.

Will the churches essentially act as "theaters," selling tickets? Selling popcorn, candy and sodas? Does a church need a big screen and fancy projection system to make this work?

Lalonde: We have left every detail of the program to the local church. Since some are in secondary buildings [locations other than the sanctuary], there will be popcorn and pop, while others will be in sanctuaries. Most churches have pretty sophisticated video projection facilities and big audio now, so it should be an awesome experience.

The first two films weren't very well received by critics. How did that criticism affect you? Did it motivate you to do better, or did it discourage you, or what?

Lalonde: Well, we pretty much knew that mainstream critics were going to hammer us just because of the message.

Its Christian message?

Lalonde: Yes, there is this Hollywood mindset that was well coined by Samuel Goldwyn: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Of course, Hollywood sends messages every day, but they have always had this mindset toward Christian films, and frankly I think they still do. We may be the flavor of the month in Hollywood, but I see no real interest there in making truly Christian films. However, I do see a great interest in selling their films to Christians.

It's funny, because our biggest critics were other filmmakers within the faith-based community, who all said how they would have done it bigger. And yet the rights to the film were shopped for two and a half years—to major studios, Christian investors, Christian film companies in Hollywood—and no one bought them. It's like, "Dude, if you are going to do all these great things, the first thing you have to do is buy the rights." But no one would put a dime on the table. That is when Cloud Ten was approached.

I am also a little defensive of the original movie because the response from the Christian audience was overwhelmingly positive. But Paul and I believe God called us to do what we do. We have put our hand to the plow and done the best we can, and have remained committed to the message. And I think Left Behind: World at War is the quantum leap we have been looking for.

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Lalonde: Many reasons. We are becoming more experienced filmmakers. Sony helped us raise the level with some good advice. We had much more time to hone the script. The acting was raised to a whole new level by Lou and Kirk, and that drove everyone to reach further. I mean Kirk set the tone in his first scene, and everyone went, "Wow!" I think he now has an increased ownership of the Buck Williams character and he's got this flow going. I can't wait until the next movie.

The Left Behind books have sold incredibly well. Were you hoping for the same kind of success with the LB movies? Or is that realistic?

Lalonde: We have had enormous success as well. Wait till we get to the twelfth movie! Our first movie was named "Best-Selling Title of the Year by an Independent Studio" and this new film is opening on almost 3,000 screens.

Louis Gossett Jr. plays the role of the President

Louis Gossett Jr. plays the role of the President

For a while there, the Left Behind brand name was omnipresent—on top of the best-seller lists, discussed in the mainstream media, embraced by evangelicals everywhere. But more recently, the LB frenzy has died down. Are you concerned that the diminished interest could hurt this film's chances to succeed?

Lalonde: Sure we are. But a film is different animal and we have to build up loyalty the same way the books did. I still think it is the biggest brand in the Christian world.

Some might say the LB movies—and books, for that matter—are "preaching to the choir," with a message that only Christians would understand, that it's not necessarily something that "outsiders" would "get." What's your take on that?

Lalonde: There was debate once where it was argued that the books had crossed over because 50 percent were selling in the general market. But no one could answer the question of who was buying them at Wal-Mart. Was it the guy who just came from the local pub? Or was it Christians? I thought the answer was pretty clear. There are 200 million people who identify with the Christian faith in this country, and they shop at Wal-Mart just like I do. Anyway, if that argument were valid, we are totally crossed over because our movie sales are now 95% in the general market. In the end, I think it usually takes a believer to put one of the books or even movies into the hands of most unbelievers. That is just the way evangelism has always worked. It is what the church film night is all about: "I saw an ad and went." So it can work a hundred ways.

How did you get Louis Gossett Jr. to play a role? Should we assume he's a Christian?

Lalonde: Lou is a Christian and I am great at begging—oh wait, that is what a producer does!