At the beginning of 2013, Rick Santorum — former senator from Pennsylvania, 2012 Republican presidential runner-up, likely 2016 candidate — began helping to raise money for EchoLight Studios, a Christian film production and distribution company formerly based out of Dallas and now located in Franklin, Tennessee. A few months later, he accepted a spot on the board of the studio. Then he became chairman of the board. Eventually he voiced concerns about how EchoLight was being run. By June 2013, he was the company’s CEO.
“Be careful what you complain about,” Santorum told me in May. When we spoke, he had just sent back notes on the eighth draft of a film script.
Trying to explain Santorum’s venture through the lens of political calculation isn’t easy. If he runs again in 2016 — and most observers assume he will — he’ll need to somehow persuade voters that he is more than just a hard-line culture warrior, an image that he says was never accurate in the first place. “The caricature of the person and the person tend never to be quite the same,” he told me. “I have a long list of leadership on a variety of issues where I had strong bipartisan support. It’s easy for the media to write a characterization about somebody, but I don’t know that it reflects the totality of the person or their work.”
Helming a Christian movie studio isn’t going to do much to upend the caricature of Santorum. In that sense, it does seem like a strange move. And yet, as I learned more about his project, I started to think it might not be such a bizarre way for Rick Santorum to be spending his time. To understand why, it helps to remove politics from the equation — and to take EchoLight Studios seriously on its own terms.
ONCE A PUNCH LINE reserved for direct-to-video and Sunday school, Christian cinema has recently seen a remarkable amount of success. According to the industry tracker Box Office Mojo, the three highest-grossing Christian films ever released — excluding the Chronicles of Narnia films, which were more conventional blockbusters, and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, a phenomenon all its own — came out this year: Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and Son of God.
“This trend is not going to stop anytime soon,” says Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst of BoxOffice.com. “Faith-based films are succeeding because they appeal to a segment of the population that is often seriously underserved by normal Hollywood flicks.” It all makes a lot of economic sense: In the hyper-specific media landscape of contemporary America, where everyone has a cable-news channel, comedians, websites, and musicians tailored for their political and aesthetic tastes, movies shouldn’t be any different.
While Heaven Is for Real and Son of God were major-studio products, God’s Not Dead provides the blueprint for what a studio like Santorum’s EchoLight could be capable of. Produced by a Christian film company called Pure Flix, it had grossed 30 times its production budget after about two months of release. Its secret weapon was a savvy distribution strategy. Those involved in the film reached out directly to pastors and congregations — imploring the faithful to buy tickets in bunches, rent out movie theaters, and order DVD packages they could show to Sunday-school classes and church groups.
EchoLight was founded in 2011; before the winter 2013 release of The Christmas Candle, EchoLight’s first movie with Santorum as CEO, it had been involved with 10 films to varying degrees, none of which received wide theatrical release. The Christmas Candle grossed $2 million — certainly not a wild success. But to gauge EchoLight’s potential, consider that, when Santorum took over the company, it was sitting on a filmmaking fund of about $20 million. God’s Not Dead reportedly cost $2 million to produce. That means Santorum and EchoLight could afford to make 10 such movies. If just one does as well as God’s Not Dead, the company will be in great shape.
Santorum and EchoLight President Jeff Sheets are hoping to use congregations as a testing ground to premier their films, literally turning churches into theaters where they can gauge impact and enthusiasm. “If they don’t resonate well with the church, then it isn’t realistic to think that they’re going to resonate well in theaters,” says Sheets (who tells me that he works with Santorum “literally daily”). If the films “do resonate well in the church, and there’s a growing groundswell of support, then it will overflow into the theaters and it will have a much broader impact on society.” It also means that a film has to prove itself before EchoLight takes “the much more expensive approach of putting it in theaters.”
Some of those movies may be long shots to garner a mass audience — but all of them are probably surer bets than a presidential campaign.
It seems entirely possible that Santorum’s fame could help to bring attention to some of these movies; certainly, the national attention The Christmas Candle received, both positive and negative, would never have come without Santorum’s involvement. “I looked at it as, in the last election, I was given a gift. Before the election, a few people knew who I was, but after running for president, you have a lot more name recognition,” Santorum told me. “I think promoting the importance of faith as an element of people’s lives and how it can impact people’s lives, telling true stories and inspirational stories about that — it’s a pretty good way to shape the future. I felt like that was a good way to take the notoriety that I have and turn it into something positive.”
Despite its niche nature, EchoLight seems determined to have some mainstream credibility. Sheets told me about an upcoming documentary the studio is putting together on the secularization of American society, which went to great lengths to include voices from the other side — such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry Lynn and Princeton professor Peter Singer. “We want to be able to represent your voice well on screen,” Sheets says he told the leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center in a successful bid to get them to participate. “We’re not going to manipulate what you say. We’re not going to edit it to make you look silly.”
SANTORUM’S TENURE AT EchoLight has not been without turbulence: Three months after his elevation to CEO, EchoLight fired the company’s two cofounders. Moreover, except for The Christmas Candle, none of EchoLight’s major Santorum-era projects has been in a theater yet — so it remains to be seen whether the company can create hits out of such projects as Finding Faith (“Before moving away forever, a determined young boy starts a kid-powered movement to spark lasting change in his hometown — but his BIGGEST challenge is to bring his widowed father back to faith — and to love”); a Korean War movie tentatively titled War Shepherd (“In a city ravaged by war, an orphan boy meets his savior, a military chaplain who must find strength in his faith in order to save one thousand orphans from an impending enemy attack”); or, perhaps most promisingly, a movie based on the Left Behind books, a wildly popular series of Christian novels.
Some of those movies may be long shots to garner a mass audience — but all of them are probably surer bets than a presidential campaign. Santorum would never say this, of course, but running for president is always going to mean tough odds, for him or anyone else. In an era when the Christian film industry is coming into its own, running EchoLight Studios might be one of the savvier back-up plans any politician has come up with in a long time. “I see the work that I’m doing at EchoLight as a continuation in trying to shape America or expose America to values that I think are important for a strong and healthy country,” Santorum told me when I asked how his new film career dovetailed with his political career, including a possible 2016 run. “I think culture is upstream from politics, and maybe it’s important to get involved in the upstream and see what the impact can be to the country generally as a result.”
Kevin Lincoln is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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