Downtown movie moguls?

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February 12, 2002 // UPDATED 1:13 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Hennepin Avenue doesn't exactly look like the movie capital of the world. However, in an unassuming cubicle-filled building on the corner of Hennepin and South 12th Street is the driving force behind nine major motion pictures.

"This is sort of the brain trust for the films that get made," said Barry Werner, the managing director of World Wide Pictures Inc., 1201 Hennepin Ave.

WWP is the motion picture ministry of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Yes, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a Christian ministry. No, the films that they make are not fluffy, preaching films best-suited for Sunday school.

Their latest film is about two mountain climbers on a dangerous rescue mission in the Chilean Andes, and it's chock full of action sequences on a par with its Hollywood equivalent, "Vertical Limit." Does this sound like Sunday school?

Kristel Bosshardt, manager of media for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, explained that when Billy Graham decided to start a motion picture company in the 1960s, he wanted to reach people who wouldn't necessarily go to one of his crusades.

"Dr. Graham wanted to use a medium to appeal to those who wouldn't come to see him at an event," Bosshardt said.

And these movies weren't filmed with an amateurish camcorder either. They're glossy and slick and studded with all the glamour of Hollywood. "The Climb" has even enlisted the talents of well-known actors such as Dabney Coleman ("9-to-5") and Todd Bridges (yes, the same Todd Bridges of "Diff'rent Strokes" fame. "What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?").

An R-rated Billy Graham? What is the difference between a Billy Graham film and a regular Hollywood film? "We try to take out the gratuitous parts," Werner said. By gratuitous, Werner is referring to unnecessary swearing, violence or sex -- but that's not to say that these elements wouldn't be included if they were appropriate.

Werner expects that one day, he may make a film for WWP that could garner an R rating. "We'll probably make a film about war that would get a stronger rating," Werner said, explaining that violence is a necessary part of war. "We're very reality-based," he said.

The other difference between Hollywood and WWP: "We do want to shoot films from a Christian worldview," Werner said. This doesn't mean that Jesus makes a cameo in every movie, but simply that the characters assume there is a God. "(The Christian worldview) should come in through the story and characters," Werner said.

Film by formula WWP films don't trickle haphazardly out of the minds of dreamy screenwriters. Rather, WWP has a foolproof formula for making their annual movies.

"The Climb" began with the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Dr. John Corts, telling his staff something to the effect of: "I want an outdoor mountain-climbing movie."

From there, Werner took the idea to producer John Shepherd, and the two of them hashed out a few more ideas for the film's concept. "We came up with a nugget for the story about two climbers. We wanted elements that would create life choices," Werner said.

Werner then took a one-page synopsis about two climbers with conflicting personalities overcoming an obstacle to six different groups of screenwriters in Los Angeles. Each writer wrote a one-page treatment from that description.

According to Werner, "There were some treatments that I wondered what they had read."

Based on the strength of the treatment, Werner and his committee chose writers Robert Pierce and Patrick Egan, who wrote the script in increments. Then Werner and Shepherd edited each increment. "If we need to have a stronger bump of our Christian worldview, we do that," Werner said.

Four must-do's WWP also mandates that four points be present in all films they produce. First, the film must show fatal flaws. Werner said that in Christian terms, the fatal flaw is the lost or desperate condition of humans. "We all have issues that we struggle with," he said.

Second: "We want to show the outside force -- something the hero can't change. We look at this as the sufficiency of God," Werner said.

The third goal of a WWP film is that there must be a point when the hero makes an important decision. Finally, the hero must evidence a change based on the decision.

After the script is completed, then comes the hiring, the filming, the directing, the accounting and everything else involved in making a major motion picture. "Making a film is mostly management," Werner said.

And all that management is done in about a year. "It takes a year to make a film if you really push it," Werner said. The concept for "The Climb" was born last January, and the film will be released Feb. 22 to coincide with the Olympics.

Coincidentally -- or maybe not -- "The Climb" was filmed in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, which is where some of the Olympic events will occur.

"'The Climb" will be released in 15 theaters across the Twin Cities alone and in 40 theaters across the United States. During the first week of June, the film will air on national television.

"'The Climb' will have you on the edge of your seat at some parts, and crying at others," Bosshardt promised. "It's quality family entertainment."