Jonah, the first feature film from Big Idea Productions, earned $16 million in its first three weekends. While placing sixth in box-office earnings, Jonah earned the October 4 weekend's second-highest per-screen total among feature films opening that same weekend.

Jonah opened on 940 screens. The healthy box-office receipts encouraged more theaters to screen the film. Terry Botwick, chief operating officer for Big Idea, said in an interview earlier this year that the film had to make $20 million in order to break even. An entertainment industry source told CT that the movie could make $20-30 million domestically. International receipts could add millions more.

The box-office success came too late for the more than 30 employees Big Idea laid off just one week before the movie's release. In addition, reliable sources report pay cuts between 15 and 20 percent for remaining employees. Big Idea would not confirm the pay cuts. The privately held firm asked departing workers to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

According to former employees who asked that their names not be used, this was the third time layoffs have occurred at Big Idea. Based in the Chicago suburb of Lombard, the company employs fewer than 200 people. It is the creator of VeggieTales, a children's video series that promotes biblical values.

Weak retail

In a prepared statement, Big Idea founder Phil Vischer called the recent layoffs a "correct sizing" of the company's staff and a response to a weaker retail market. He said that Big Idea has a full 2003 video release schedule and is in pre-production on The Bob and Larry Movie. "We were unable to carry a fully staffed production crew from one film to the next. This was a heartbreaking reality."

When asked last spring about the risk of making Jonah, Vischer said, "I have wanted to make this movie since 1999. If you have the chance to pitch in the majors, would you really say, 'Why don't I stay in the minors, because it's too risky'?" He added that the company's success in selling more than 20 million home videos did not mean the company couldn't "go belly-up."

A knowledgeable former staff member who left the company during the production of Jonah told CT, "Unlike how most people make a movie, where you get all the money up front, we were doing it backwards. We were making a movie [and] trying to get money to back it as we were going along."

Another former Big Idea employee said the company represented more than a paycheck. "These are people who know God brought them to this company to be part of this mission. It isn't just that we have to go to the food pantry or lose a house. It is also that we lost the passion for what we were doing because it was our mission."

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