EXCLUSIVE: Several years ago, after the death of his father, Corbin Bernsen — well-known for his role in L.A. Law — wrote, directed and starred in Rust, a feature that he created to explore his own faith. The 2010 film follows a man of the cloth who loses his faith but eventually finds his way back. Bernsen has continued to produce faith-based films, most recently partnering with Pat Robertson’s Regent University on his latest — a romantic comedy, In-Lawfully Yours.
With the success of low-budget films in the genre and the failure of big studio films such as Ben-Hur, Bernsen talked about why he got into the faith-based movement, why he thinks they succeed or fail and the film students they have helped along the way.
His latest outing in this genre came out of a partnership with Regent University where he tapped 73 students — all of whom will graduate with a film credit under their belts. “Here are kids who really want to make movies so it was a way to help them. By doing this, we’ve let kids in film school know what it’s really like to be part of a movie that has distribution. And they come out of film school with a real credit on a film. And these kids were doing real jobs — hair and make-up, AD, art department, transportation – all aspects of filmmaking. They had real responsibilities. I actually praised our crew as it’s hard enough to make a film, but they mentored the kids underneath them while also keeping on schedule.”
The film school itself, surprisingly, has won about 418 film awards — and includes two student Emmy awards (which they won last year) and two student Academy Awards as well. They also won first place for comedy in the 2016 College Television Awards.
The Dean of the school who has been in the job for five of those award-winning years, said that after Bernsen had appeared on the 700 Club with Pat Robertson, the preacher asked the professor to do a film with the actor that would involve the college. Robertson is the founder, chancellor and CEO of Regent University, which is an accredited college. He is also the liaison between the Christian Broadcasting Network, Inc. and school which was founded in 1978 in Virginia Beach, VA.
“So we figured out how to match the curriculum with the film,” said Dr. Mitch Land, the Dean of Regent’s School of Communications & the Arts. Land is also an executive producer on the film.
Bernsen was sent three scripts from Dr. Land, and one was written by Sean Gaffney, one of the school’s professors who previously worked at Warner Bros. as a story administrator in the feature story department from 2007 to 2013.
“The original film was called Jesse and Naomi and was loosely based on the Story of Ruth in the Bible. So that’s the story we picked to do our feature film. We lined up our courses to help facilitate the production, and we started working with Corbin’s film company and together co-produced this film,” said Dr. Land.
The romantic comedy stars Chelsey Crisp (Fresh off the Boat), Marilu Henner, Bernsen, Philip Boyd (Tyler Perry’s The Have and the Have Nots) and Joe Williamson (Grey’s Anatomy) and begins with a husband cheating on his wife (Crisp) who becomes involved with the town pastor and they find a new life with each other. Also, two professors from the college have speaking roles and one professor is a casting agent on the side.
One of Regent University’s alumni is Tony Hale who has won two Emmy Awards himself for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Veep. Another is Cheryl McKay who adapted The Ultimate Gift in 2006 which starred James Garner; she is still working in the business.
“There is clearly a market for these films,” said Dr. Land, citing the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Alex Kendrick’s War Room (the Kendricks have done a number of faith-based films). “Doing a feature film that is commercially available and sold and has their names on it propels our students’ careers. We don’t have a lot of money to do a lot of feature films, but we will keep doing them. There is no way to learn this craft better than actually doing them. And having mentors helping them with on-the-job training really catapults their learning curve. The more we can connect our curriculum to these kinds of projects, the better. I wish we had millions so we could do this constantly, but we are grateful to God for this opportunity.”
The entire cost of the film was $625K and the University fully financed it. In-Lawfully Yours, produced also by Bernsen and Chris Aronoff through their Los Angeles-based Home Theater Films, was shot between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. It is being distributed via Cinedigm on Sept. 6 on VOD and Digital HD.
In-Lawfully Yours, is about broken lives “and they don’t get fixed the way you think it will be done,” said Dr. Land. “It’s about judgmental people and it is not overly sentimental, but it is about second chances, and it’s still a faith-based film.”
Bernsen and Aronoff previously produced the 2014 film Christian Mingle, which had a small theatrical release before it was distributed in VOD and DVD. It was when Bernsen was promoting that film that he came upon Regent University and the film school. But, the actor/filmmaker has been producing faith-based films for about seven years now.
“After my Dad died, it struck me holding his bag of ashes, I thought what does this mean? Where has this great guy gone? I wrote a movie that basically wanted to explore faith and it was called Rust,” said Bernsen. “The next thing you know, I was drawn to making movies that were, for the lack of a better term, faith-based. I did this to explore my faith and my own relationship with God and Christ. I’m a Christian. In the middle of that, with the world getting darker and darker and stranger and stranger, there is now a growing demand for this kind of (product) so that sort of built on what I was doing on a personal level, and then we decided to do this as a business.” He added: “I’ve been writing these films and is not motivated by money and it just so happens to be that the faith-based films became popular.”
Bernsen said as the world grows darker, he is trying just to bring some balance to people. “I think it’s important to put some light in and let people know there is good out there. It’s not that I’m trying to push religion on them, I’m not trying to do that. All I’m trying to do is to shed some light.”
Of course, once the big studios realized that faith-based films could make money — for instance, God’s Not Dead came out of nowhere three years ago and grossed $62.6M on a budget of only $2M — there was a number of them that looked for projects immediately. Since then, the industry has seen the $100M+ budgeted Ben-Hur from Paramount bomb at the box office while the modestly budgeted Randall Wallace film Heaven is for Real (based on the best-selling book of the same name) succeed from Sony. War Room also was highly profitable with a $67.7M take but, once again, had a teeny budget of only around $3M.
Other films, not coming from the studios but from those in the faith, seem to work well overall with the core audience of moviegoers and there are a number of films to prove that: Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011) come immediately to mind. All these films have kept budgets low and, in doing so, have become very profitable.
“I think the future is bright as long as they are writing truthful movies,” said Bernsen. “You have to look at the motivation for making it. When you redo or pander, it can blow up in your face. I want everyone to succeed. I know a lot of work goes into it, and I don’t want anyone to fail. People can tell the difference in films made for the art and for the heart. I can also sniff out films made for the dollar, and I think audiences feel that, too. It’s a very tricky business to say, let’s go make them. Those of us who understand God’s presence and God’s grace, understand that there are stories that need to be told. There are 100 stories to tell. The darker (society) gets, the greater the opportunity. I think there are going to be people that rise above and shine. I hope to be one of them but I can’t count that. I just do what I have to do.”
Here’s his latest: