LOS ANGELES - It might seem odd for Christian-oriented moviemakers to strive to be unorthodox, but Cloud Ten Pictures plays by a different set of rules making and marketing faith-based films, including this month's release of "Left Behind II: Tribulation Force."
The Canadian film company is releasing the Christian action-adventure on home video Sunday, then two months later in theaters.
The unorthodox release strategy was used to great success two years ago, when the first "Left Behind" film came out on home video, stunning the entertainment industry with its runaway sales and receiving widespread attention as the first movie to have a theatrical run after its video debut.
Expectations are even higher this time around as Cloud Ten aims to increase its profile in Hollywood and capitalize on what the company believes has been a largely ignored but very ripe market for Christian films.
"There's a point of view of 80 million Americans out there that really isn't being represented, so I think it's a wide-open market," said Cloud Ten's Peter Lalonde. "It's happened to the music business, where Christian music is now a billion-dollar industry. The same thing in the publishing world."
The timing for the second film in the "Left Behind" series comes on the heels of strong box office returns for the faith-based animated film "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie" from Artisan Films. The film grossed $6.2 million when it opened recently, a particularly impressive performance since the movie was on just 940 screens and many tickets were purchased by children at matinee prices. Its success has led to the expansion to 210 additional screens, with more planned later.
"Everyone thinks you have to go tremendously wide to make a profit," said Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source Inc., a box office consulting firm. "I think it will be the No. 1 highest-grossing Christian movie ever. It's going to open up a new market, too."
This is a belief shared by Lalonde and his brother, Paul, who are co-chief executive officers of Cloud Ten.
"We believe we are the bridge between that world and this world, because we understand both the worlds," said Peter Lalonde, who is the company's main spokesman. "I think for one of the studios that is willing to jump into this and put some capital into it and work with people who understand it, they can create a whole new genre."
Both "Left Behind" films cost about $17 million each to produce and market. They are based on a series of best-selling novels that use a fundamentalist interpretation of the book of Revelations in the Bible.
"The competition is so slim that we don't have to make $80 million movies to compete; we don't have to open nationally to build brand awareness," Lalonde said.
When the Christian-themed "The Omega Code" opened in 1999, it was a modest hit. The Providence Entertainment release grossed $12.6 million at the box office and was proof of the core audiences' hunger for such fare.
The next year, "Left Behind," starring Kirk Cameron, was released, topped the Amazon.com sales charts for four consecutive weeks and flew off the shelves of such retailers as Wal-Mart, Costco and Best Buy.
The unorthodox theatrical release of "Left Behind" that followed gave a second wave to the video sales and helped to get better placement in the video stores, which were initially a bit dubious about the movie's prospects.
"It was a lot of 'Who are you guys and what is this genre you're talking about?' " Lalonde recalled. "This time, we have every major retailer and every minor one. Anywhere that you can get a studio movie, you can get 'Tribulation Force.' "
By the time the first "Left Behind" hit, Cloud Ten had already released a string of direct-to-video movies featuring such stars as Burt Reynolds, Louis Gossett Jr., Judd Nelson, Corbin Bernsen, Richard Thomas and Mr. T.
"It was really grass-roots marketing to the talent side of getting the word around and creating good scripts," Lalonde said. "The more these movies are becoming mainstream, the more and more comfortable people are becoming in playing them."
The actors do not have to be of Christian faith, but Cameron, the star of both "Left Behind" films, has been open about his beliefs since starring in the sitcom "Growing Pains."
"We've been very lucky in the 'Left Behind' series because Kirk Cameron is a very passionate and committed Christian," Lalonde said. "It's a different level of publicity and actor support that you get. It really gives it a nice marketing lift."