FORT WORTH, Texas _ North Texas has long tried to capture the eye of mainstream Hollywood, luring a variety of TV shows and movies _ from "RoboCop" and "Prison Break" to the new-generation "Dallas" and MTV's upcoming reality show "Big Tips Texas" _ to shoot in the region. But it's in the subgenre of faith-based and family films that Dallas and Fort Worth may be poised to make their biggest mark.
Last week, Jennifer Hudson and Oprah Winfrey were part of Bishop T.D. Jakes' MegaFest _ a family-themed three-day extravaganza of conferences, concerts and sporting events in downtown Dallas. Unlike previous MegaFests in other cities, this one introduced the International Faith & Family Film Festival, an event organizers hope to spin off from MegaFest into its own annual Dallas tradition.
Jakes, whose Potter's House congregation is based in Dallas, is very involved in films, having produced Whitney Houston's last movie, "Sparkle," in 2012, and "Winnie" Mandela, starring Hudson, which was shown at the festival before opening commercially Friday.
That follows on the heels of the announcement in June that former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum had signed on as CEO of Dallas-based EchoLight Studios. The company's first films, "The Redemption of Henry Myers" and "Seasons of Gray," are due for release this month. Another EchoLight production, "Hoovey," shot in Waxahachie, Texas, last spring by director Sean McNamara, is set for release in 2014. (McNamara's previous film, "Soul Surfer," grossed $43 million.)
Meanwhile, DreamVision Motion Pictures and Animation is moving its headquarters from Orlando, Fla., to Fort Worth. The firm, which announced its arrival with a free festival outside the Fort Worth Convention Center in June, has said it plans to build 80,000 square feet of studio and office space.
"I'd like to see Dallas and Fort Worth be to faith and family entertainment what Nashville is to music," Santorum says. "It's an alternative to the coasts."
The reasons North Texas is poised to become a hub for faith-based films are varied and many.
Santorum cites the friendly business climate. "The people with the resources are more favorably disposed to issues of faith and family," says Santorum, who has been visiting Dallas weekly.
Others point to the plethora of megachurches. "Dallas is the Bible Belt," says Derrick Williams, executive vice president of T.D. Jakes Film and Entertainment and the man in charge of the film festival. "What better place to do it? There's a built-in audience."
"Faith-based companies can directly tap into that audience because (the audience) is here," echoes Ya'Ke Smith, an art and art history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, who's also a local director.
His films, like 2012's "Wolf" and the upcoming "Heaven," deal with such social issues. "And they can get that audience tweeting and Facebooking and getting other people interested in their work."
Other reasons for the upsurge might apply to anyone looking to do business here _ a central location, a major airport, and a large pool of technical and creative talent.
Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, a division of the city's Office of Economic Development in charge of persuading producers to shoot in North Texas and liaising with them once they're here, says the uptick in faith-based projects in the area is part of a national trend.
"We've had activity here for some time in that genre," she says. "But it's gathering speed everywhere, not just here."
It's a niche that could add to North Texas' allure as a place to shoot, she says.
"Fireproof," the 2008 Georgia-shot film starring Kirk Cameron that had a $500,000 budget, became a word-of-mouth sensation that raked in more than $30 million.
The socially conservative climate has attracted faith-based film endeavors for a while now.
In 2004, Dallas was the birthplace of the conservative American Film Renaissance festival, which billed itself as "the world's first-ever film festival featuring movies that celebrated America's timeless, traditional and foundational values."
And DreamVision CEO Rick Silanskas says he decided to make the move after visiting the region a few years back. "What really hit me and my brother," he says, "was the preservation of values in Texas that I've not felt anywhere else."
Some filmmakers are concerned that if the region becomes known for a narrow definition of what a faith-based film can be, it might make it harder to attract those who don't fit that profile.
"If you have these faith-based companies coming in, more Christian-themed films will be made, but it might push others away," says Smith, whose films focus on such issues as child sex trafficking and a family dealing with molestation.
"As a filmmaker, I would really hope that people like (T.D.) Jakes would begin to broaden the horizons and really embrace Christian filmmakers who don't make traditional Christian films but films that are challenging, films that put a critical eye on the church and the world."
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Some movies chosen for the International Faith & Family Film Festival did go beyond the confines of so-called faith-based films: "The Other Son," a French production about two boys _ one Palestinian, one Israeli _ switched at birth; the British romantic comedy "One Chance," from "The Devil Wears Prada" director David Frankel; and a screening hosted by Soledad O'Brien of the CNN documentary "Black in America."
And, as with every other niche, North Texas has to worry about competition from other cities in attracting productions. A group of Dallas filmmaking buddies, working under the name Riot Studios and known for the 2011 comic documentary "Beware of Christians," recently moved to Austin.
"There are so many crew members here and the incentives are good," says Riot Studios producer Alex Carroll, who last week finished shooting his company's latest film, "Believe Me," starring Alex Russell ("Chronicle") and Zachary Knighton (TV's "Happy Endings").
Still, even though Jakes thinks "it might be premature" to call North Texas "the Hollywood of faith and family films," he is optimistic about what is going on here.
"Hollywood is a business and wherever there is a demand, there will be a supply," he says. "They are recognizing there is a demand for this type of content and we are willing to supply it. Those of us who appreciate these films have to make the choice to scream in the darkness or light the candles. I choose to be a candle-lighter."
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