For years, Christians have been trying to spread the faith through films, mostly rented to individual churches and religious organizations. Who would have thought that a “non-Christian” movie, financed by an Arab shipping magnate and Twentieth Century-Fox, then purchased and distributed by Warner Brothers, would become a hit in a secular world, yet contain a powerful Christian message?

Chariots of Fire, based on a true story of two British runners training for the Paris Olympics in 1924, has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, has been a huge box office success, and is still playing in all of the five cities in which it opened last September. It has been nominated for best picture, best director, best supporting actor, best editing, best music, best costume design, and best screenplay.

“I was raised a Catholic. This is probably one of the most stirring movies I’ve seen in my whole life,” said Barry Reardon, president and general manager of Warner Brothers Film Distribution Company. He estimates the movie will earn his company some $15 million in film rentals (which would mean about $30 million in gross box office receipts). Most good foreign films (Chariots of Fire is British) earn between $1 million and $3 million in film rentals.

British producer David Puttnam got the idea for the film by reading through a reference book entitled The Official History of the Olympics, the only book he could find to browse through in a home he had just rented in Los Angeles. He hired a writer, Colin Welland, whose film credits include Straw Dogs, to work with him as the idea for the movie developed. The director was Hugh Hudson, who has directed television documentaries before, but never a movie. The film’s two leading actors, Ben Cross and Ian Charleson, were playing their first movie roles. In an interview about Chariots, Puttnam said, “More and more I feel I’m living in a totally expedient age. Yet the values I was given as a youngster were real values … the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, truth and untruth, decency and cynicism … all fundamental values which have been eroded in the last 20 years. There is no doubt that progress, which reshapes the old, can improve the quality of life, but it can also distort and destroy.”

The movie cost $5.5 million to make. Half of it came from Twentieth Century-Fox in exchange for foreign distribution rights, and half from Dodi Fayed, an Egyptian employed in his family’s shipping business. Fayed formed a movie production company in 1979, and its first movie was Breaking Glass, a rock musical. Chariots of Fire was the second.

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Betting that the movie would not play well in the United States, Twentieth Century-Fox decided not to buy the rights to U.S. distribution, but Alan Ladd, Jr. (son of the actor), former president of Twentieth Century-Fox, saw value in it, and pursued the rights through his own company, which distributes films through Warner Brothers.

Terry Semel, president of Warner Brothers, and Barry Reardon, who heads its distribution company, saw a rough cut of the film in August 1980, and in Semel’s words, “It’s rare to get emotionally involved with a rough cut the way we did.”

Before Warner Brothers attached its name to the film, however, it hired Inspirational Films, a promoter of Christian movies, to generate the interest of Christian leaders, if that could be done. The film was shown to numerous religious organizations and church groups, and valuable testimonials from Christian churchmen quickly followed. “We did a month’s work before Warner Brothers jumped in with both feet,” said Tim Penland, vice-president of Inspirational Films. Warner Brothers opened the film commercially last September in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and two Canadian cities, and excellent reviews from important reviewers began turning up. It was released nationwide in February.

New York film critic Rex Reed called it “the number one film of 1981.… It’s not only the finest film about athletes ever made, but also one of the best movies of any kind ever made … fresh and original, it reached deeper for universal truths about human experience than most films, and expressed sentiments considered old fashioned by today’s cynical standards.” Reviews in the Christian press also were strong (CT, Jan. 22, p. 40). Penland said word did not get out that the film had a Christian message, and that helped it among the larger movie-going audience.

Reardon of Warner Brothers said his company is getting lots of mail from people expressing thanks for putting out such a film. He was asked if the public can expect to see more such films from Warner Brothers. “If we find them, we would be very prone to distribute them,” he said.

Pastors Getting Fired: A Growing Problem Among Southern Baptists

A trend toward more clergy firings and forced resignations has alarmed officials of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with 13.6 million members.

Pastor firings are at an all-time high, according to Brooks Faulkner, supervisor of the denomination’s career guidance section in Nashville, Tennessee. He said 29 of the 35 state Baptist newspapers carried editorials concerning the problem in the last year.

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He said ministers sometimes start slipping when they experience “burnout,” a problem his division is starting to address in seminars. Faulkner is also helping pastors start peer-support groups and has a strategy for establishing 150 new ones by October 1984. There are 116 such groups now in communities across the country.

Harold Bennett, executive secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention, said denominational officials are aware that ministerial firings are more prevalent today than in the past, but no national studies have been done, and there is no plan on a national level to deal with the situation.

Reasons for clergy firings are varied. They include sagging church financial and attendance statistics, for which a pastor is blamed; general unstable conditions in the country, resulting in frustration among congregations and clergy; personality clashes; breakdowns in communication between pastor and congregation; and power struggles between the pastor and a faction within the congregation.

Bennett speculated that the denomination’s push for church growth under the theme of “Bold Mission Thrust” may also be part of the problem.

Ed Bratcher of Manassas, Virginia, who did a study of ministerial turnover nine years ago at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said more congregations are taking the initiative in firing their ministers.

A North Carolina Baptist study indicated the following reasons for firings:

• Unrealistic expectations on the part of the congregation where the pastor is concerned.

• Differences between the pastor and other church leaders concerning the pastor’s style of leadership.

• Inadequate self-care by the pastor—not taking days off, not pacing himself—resulting in depletion and burnout.

(The problem is not confined to the Southern Baptists. According to a study done for the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the United Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Christ, one of every 100 congregations in those denominations fires its minister for reasons other than unethical or immoral conduct. More than 40 percent involve conflicts existing before the dimissed pastor’s arrival.)


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