With production on his latest feature film underway, executive producer Michael Catt has a busy schedule. His morning begins on the set before daybreak and ends with a look at the dailies after dark. In the hours between, he’ll review script changes, meet with the production staff, grab a quick lunch with the lead actors, and still find the time to prepare his Sunday sermon.
More important than his role as producer is his role as pastor. Dr. Michael Catt ’75 is senior pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church, the Albany, Georgia-based center of worship best known for forming its own production company, Sherwood Pictures, and producing the inspirational films Flywheel, Facing the Giants, and Fireproof.
In April 2010, filming began on Sherwood Pictures’ latest film, Courageous. The movie tells the story of four law enforcement officers who give their best on the job, but who find “good enough” to be all they can muster as fathers. When a tragedy strikes close to home, the men find themselves wrestling with their faith and asking what God really expects of them as fathers. The inspiration behind Courageous was Malachi 4:6; the film’s title echoes God’s call for men to “rise with courage” in their homes and as leaders.
“For more than a year we’ve prayed to be sure that we’re pursuing God’s idea and not our own,” Dr. Catt says. “With action, drama, and humor, this film embraces God’s promise in the Bible to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.”
Like Sherwood Pictures’ previous releases, Courageous will be shot entirely in Albany with a cast and crew made up primarily of volunteers from the church. A town of less than 76,000, Albany is a far cry from Hollywood, and Dr. Catt is far from the stereotypical movie producer. Then again, Sherwood Pictures was formed to meet goals far more important than ticket sales.
“Michael has always had a vision that this church could touch the world from Albany, Georgia,” says Sherwood Baptist Church’s Executive Pastor Jim McBride. “Some people think you have to be in a big city to impact the world, but the Lord did something pretty miraculous in a little town called Bethlehem.”
Michael Catt’s wife, Terri, and their adult daughters, Hayley Catt and Erin Bethea, are all involved in the Sherwood Pictures ministry. Terri, who also attended Mississippi College, is the costume designer for the films. A photographer and graphic designer, Hayley handles design for Sherwood Baptist Church and shoots still photos of the movie production. The lead actress in Fireproof, Erin is an entertainer at Disney World and is considering other film projects.
When asked how her life changed after Fireproof, Erin jokes that she can’t go to the grocery store without make-up. On a serious note, she acknowledges that the film changed the way she thought of both acting and ministry.
“Acting is what I love doing the most, and to be able to combine that passion with ministry was an amazing opportunity,” Erin says. “When I hear from people who tell me that Fireproof saved their marriages, I realize this ministry is so much bigger than a movie or whether or not my acting gets good reviews.”
Fireproof also gave Erin the opportunity to act alongside Kirk Cameron, the first professional actor to appear in a Sherwood Pictures production. Erin confesses that while she enjoyed working with Cameron, she had never seen an episode of Growing Pains, the 1980s TV sitcom that made him a star.
“It’s probably good that I never watched the show or had a crush on Kirk,” Erin says with a laugh. “It would have been hard to play his wife in Fireproof if I’d grown up with a poster of him on my bedroom wall.”
Prayer, Lights, Camera, Action
The Sherwood Pictures Backstory
A native of Pascagoula, Mississippi, Michael Catt planned to attend the University of Mississippi, but when God called him into the ministry, he enrolled at Mississippi College instead, accepting a partial scholarship provided by a church and working his way through college. Catt attended Luther Rice Bible College and Seminary and Trinity Seminary, then served as a youth minister and pastor at churches in Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgia before assuming the leadership role at Sherwood Baptist Church in 1989.
The Sherwood Pictures ministry began with a conversation between Dr. Catt and Alex Kendrick, the church’s minister of media, during a back-lot tour of Disney World. Kendrick had recently read a survey that indicated people were more influenced by TV and the movies than by church. He told Dr. Catt that his dream was to make movies about real people dealing with issues of real faith, but he didn’t think he could do that as a member of a church staff.
“I asked him, ‘Why not?’” Catt recalls. “It was one of those moments in life where your answer determines opportunities. I asked Alex to bring me a script.”
Kendrick responded with the script for Flywheel, the story of a used car dealer whose life changes when he decides to do business in a way that honors God. That first film was produced on a donated, $20,000 budget that Dr. Catt describes as “our five loaves and two fishes.” The crew shot the entire film with one camera, using a pipe from Home Depot as the camera dolly. Filming took place at a real car lot in Albany. Business could not shut down for shooting; every time the telephone rang, filming stopped. The final edit on Flywheel was completed 30 minutes before the film premiered in a movie theatre in Albany. The film ran for six weeks and was picked up by two other theatres in the area; the only movie to top Flywheel at the Albany box office during those weeks was The Matrix Reloaded.
A year later, the Sherwood team prepared to produce Facing the Giants, an inspirational movie about a high school football team. The second time around, the donated production budget was $100,000.
“With Flywheel, the attitude of those first donors was ‘Bless your heart, you’re trying to make a movie,’” Dr. Catt says. “Flywheel proved that it could be done, so we had even stronger support the second time around. Our goal was to get the movie into 12 theatres, maybe even on some screens in Atlanta. That would allow us to call it a ‘theatrical release’ before it went straight to DVD.”
Sherwood Pictures’ first film
Released in 2003
$20,000 production budget
Six-week run in local theaters
200,000 DVDs sold
Released in 2006
$100,000 production budget
Opened in 441 theaters
$10 million box office gross
1 million-plus DVDs sold
Top independent film of 2008 based on box office receipts
$500,000 production budget
Opened in 800 theaters
Debuted at #4 on opening weekend
$33 million box office gross
1 million-plus DVDs sold
A companion book to the film, The Love Dare, debuted as a New York Times bestseller and has sold more than 3 million copies
Sherwood Pictures’ fourth release will hit theaters in 2011.
A big break for Facing the Giants came when the Sherwood team sought permission from Provident Label Group to use a song by Third Day on the soundtrack. The request and a rough cut of the film made their way to the desk of a Provident executive, who passed the film on to a contact at Sony, Provident’s parent company. The Sony executive was so impressed with Facing the Giants that Sony picked the film up for national distribution. Far from the original goal of 12 screens, Facing the Giants appeared on 441 screens nationwide.
Sherwood Pictures continued to build on that success with Fireproof, which focused on a fireman seeking God’s help to save his marriage. A grassroots marketing effort saw action teams nationwide pre-selling tickets in order to guarantee Fireproof would be shown in their local theatres. The effort was wildly successful; Fireproof debuted at number four nationwide and became the number one independent movie of 2008 based on box office sales.
The key to the success of all of the movies is prayer.
“We pray as we work on the story,” Alex Kendrick says. “We pray before each day of shooting. We pray during the editing. God has repeatedly used the prayers and the passion of this church to bring the movies to completion.”
Courageous: Honor Begins at Home
More than 15,000 people have contacted Sherwood Pictures to say they’ve been saved after seeing one of the company’s films, and Dr. Catt estimates five times that many people have shared stories of marriages saved by a screening of Fireproof. The Sherwood team’s hope is that Courageous will have the same impact on fathers and their children.
“Courageous follows four fathers who are present, but not really there – kind of like me as a student at MC,” Dr. Catt says with a laugh. “Seriously, the movie follows these men as they move from just being present to really being
engaged as fathers. As a former youth minister, I’ve seen a lot of phantom parents who are not really involved in their children’s lives. Every kid wants a dad who not only leads, but who does it consistently. One of the biggest challenges I see facing fathers today is that need to be consistent. Fathers make an effort for a while and then quit. If you start it, you have to stick with it.”
Like Fireproof and Facing the Giants, the Courageous project will include Bible studies and a curriculum for pastors based on the movie.
“We never forget that we are a church with a production company, not a production company with a church.” Dr. Michael Catt
“The movie is a two-hour event, but the materials make it a process,” Dr. Catt says. “For example, with Bible studies and the sermon series, we estimate the life of influence for Fireproof to be 15 years.”
With each film project, the budget has increased, the team has gained more experience, the end product has improved, and audiences have grown. But with success comes a new level of challenge. The expectations placed on Courageous are high, but the public’s expectations are not Michael Catt’s primary concern.
“The spiritual stakes are higher now,” Dr. Catt says. “We’re a bigger target now. We’re not ignorant of Satan’s devices or of the dangers of success. When we made Fireproof, we prepared for Satan to attack our marriages. Now, shooting a movie about fatherhood, we are prepared for attacks on our families. With every film, there’s more need for prayer and unity.”
An important part of maintaining that unity is keeping egos in check. Those working on the film can’t begin to see themselves as “stars,” nor can they let negative reviews dampen their enthusiasm for the mission behind the movies.
“I do not believe in flattery or in flattening,” Dr. Catt says. “Neither are true. Success for us is when God is pleased with what we do, when we hear stories of people being saved and lives being changed. We don’t let anyone strut. No one struts at the foot of the cross. I am the negative nanny on the team, with constant reminders that it’s not ‘my’ movie or ‘our’ movie, it’s God’s movie.”
Dr. Catt gestures to a row of houses across the street from the church.
“The people who live in those houses don’t care that we make movies. They’re worried about losing their jobs, about caring for their children, about the real life issues they’re facing,” Dr. Catt says. “Our outreach begins here, at home.
If we lose Jerusalem to get the world, we have not done much. It would be very sad if all we were known for is making movies. We never forget that we are a church with a production company, not a production company with a church.”
Reaching the Next Generation
Sherwood Pictures has attracted its share of critics and cynics. For those who question what a church is doing making movies, Dr. Catt has an answer.
“Look at the great cathedrals of Europe,” Dr. Catt says. “The church once owned the arts. An illiterate person could see a painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or a stained glass window depicting the parable of the prodigal son, and they could understand and share that story with their children. Movies are simply the stained glass windows of this century.
“The most important characteristic a good father can have is integrity, so that his children are not embarassed or conflicted by his choices.” Dr. Michael Catt
“Secular people will receive a Christian message in a secular vehicle,” Dr. Catt continues. “Get their attention in a movie, and they’ll come to a Bible study at the church. We’re not handing out tracts in front of the theatre and we don’t preach to the camera. We give them a story they can identify with and pray that it moves them.
“The church dies when it tries to reach people where they should be. Instead, you have to go where they are. Whoever wants the next generation the most will get them.”
Profits from Sherwood Pictures’ films are funneled back into ministries, including an 82-acre sports park built with profits from Facing the Giants and open not only to church members, but also to the entire community.
“Movies and sports parks are simply tools to bring people to the Gospel,” Dr. Catt says. “The message of the Gospel doesn’t need to be changed or enhanced, but sometimes our tools for delivering it can be.
“I don’t know how long we’ll keep making movies,” Dr. Catt continues candidly. “Many churches are guilty of finding something that works, then just repeating it over and over, but I’m not big on the idea of the 87th Annual Singing Christmas Tree. Everything has a season. Right now, we’re in a season in which God has us making movies. All we can say with certainty right now is that we’re making Courageous. Then we’ll wait for God to show us what He wants us to do next.”
36 percent of children in America live without their biological fathers.
40 percent of children in fatherless households have not seen their fathers for at least a year.
50 percent of children living apart from their fathers have never been to their father’s home.
Children without their biological fathers are more likely to be poor and to have educational, health, emotional, and psychological problems than their peers who live with a married mother and father.
Fatherless homes produce:
63 percent of youth suicides
90 percent of runaway children
85 percent of children with behavioral disorders
71 percent of high school dropouts
75 percent of adolescents in chemical abuse treatment centers
85 percent of youths in prison
Michael Catt laughingly describes life years ago with his wife, Terri, their daughters, Erin and Hayley, and two female Labrador retrievers as akin to “living in a girls’ dorm.” His daughters are now adults, and when Dr. Catt looks back on their upbringing, he’s glad he made being a father his top priority.
“I was active in their lives,” Catt says. “I resigned from the International Mission Board because I was missing Hayley’s basketball games and Erin’s cheerleading. I realized that other men could do IMB, but I was the only man who could be Erin and Hayley’s dad. You have a very narrow window to build memories. You can’t go back and do four years old again.”
Dr. Catt sees a failure to listen to their children as one of the biggest shortcomings among fathers today.
“I made sure my daughters and I had actual conversations,” Dr. Catt says. “Too many dads are uncomfortable talking to their own kids. During a drive, they’ll put a DVD on in the car instead of using that time to talk to their children. Kids talk when they want to talk – not when we want to talk. My kids would sometimes start talking two blocks before they had to get out of the car because they knew they wouldn’t have to talk for very long. They learned pretty quickly that if they started talking, I’d just keep driving.”
The result of that time spent listening is an extraordinarily close relationship between Michael Catt and his adult daughters. Before she accepted her fiancé’s proposal, older daughter Erin told her prospective groom, “If my father had not approved, I could not have married you.” When asked if he cried during Erin’s wedding last fall, Dr. Catt replies, “Yes, but I cry over ground beef. And I still don’t know how much that wedding cost.”