Could Columbus be the third hub for the film industry in Georgia?
Outside a fourth floor elevator at St. Francis Hospital, the Lord was at work.
That is how Stephen Kendrick sees it. Along with his brothers, Alex and Shannon, they make up the highly successful Georgia-based Christian film company Kendrick Brothers Productions. Earlier this year, a chance meeting with Evangel Temple Pastor Paul Thomas proved instrumental in paving a path for a movie that was shot in Columbus this summer.
The on-location filming of “Overcomer,” a story of a high school cross country runner’s journey to find her identity and faith, concluded Friday. It is the sixth feature film by the Kendrick Brothers since 2003 and follows the critically acclaimed 2015 release of “War Room,” which was one of the top 10 gross earnings Christian films of all-time, bringing in almost $67.8 million.
“Overcomer” will be released in theaters across the country next August with AFFIRM Films, a division of Sony Pictures, in control of the marketing and distribution. “War Room” was shot on a $3 million budget. Though Stephen Kendrick will not release the budget for “Overcomer,” he said it was more than “War Room.” It far exceeds the $20,000 budget for their first film, “Flywheel,” which was shot in Albany, Ga., and released 15 years ago.
“We believe that God has led us to this theme, this team and to Columbus to shoot this summer,” the three brothers said of the production.
And that became evident at St. Francis, where Kendrick was scouting for a place to shoot hospital room scenes.
“One of the define appointment moments was we showed up at St. Francis Hospital, cold call,” Stephen said. “I randomly hit fourth floor and this lady was like, ‘Who are you?’ I was like, ‘Can we see one of your empty rooms? We want to come here and be sick.’”
Of course, he was joking. But what happened next wasn’t a joke.
Kendrick’s aunt, Carole Collins, who along with her husband, Ron, runs International Friendship Ministries in Columbus, showed up on the fourth floor.
“It was like, ‘Why is she here?” Stephen said.
Not long after that, Thomas, who was making his hospital rounds, showed up on the fourth floor.
“This guy walks out of the elevator, and my aunt says, ‘This is the pastor of the most praying church in Columbus,’” Stephen said.
Thomas also sees the meeting as “a divine appointment.”
“I was across the street at Starbucks in a meeting when something told me that I needed to head to the hospital,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even get in my car, I just walked over. I don’t normally start on the fourth floor, but that’s where I went. ... I don’t think it was an accident. The Lord connected us that day.”
Prayer and a Kendrick Brothers film go together in a powerful way. Their movies, which also include “Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof” and “Courageous,” have been called sermons on film. One of the stars in “Overcomer” is Alex, who plays a high school coach forced to transition from basketball to cross country as the school’s population declines because the town’s largest employer went out of business.
“They all have a powerful Gospel message,” Thomas said of the films. “And they are good movies, which is the cherry on top.”
That belief in prayer is why the meeting with Thomas was so important, Stephen said.
The two left the hospital and went to Evangel Temple on Veterans Parkway. Thomas offered use of the church for the Columbus production office and a relationship that was critical in the film’s production was established. A scene in the movie was filmed behind the church.
“All of this stuff just started happening,” Stephen said. “We show up and this unity of prayer happens here.”
Thomas set up three pastor meetings and more than 50 area churches came together to assist the filmmakers, doing everything from providing extras for the movie to cooking home-cooked meals for the cast and crew.
“All of these things happened because of that outside-the-elevator moment,” Kendrick said. “My aunt said she was praying, and the Lord said go to St. Francis. Those kinds of things have been happening. So many amazing things happen and there is no explanation other than the Lord.”
Another remarkable thing happened, as well.
The movie touched hundreds of people in Columbus when they started filming last month. Yet, most all of those people kept their experiences in a tightly held circle. They did not post on social media, instead they honored the requests of the production company to keep the filming as low-key as possible.
And they did this, despite filming in public and private locations across the city. A third of the local filming was done at Brookstone School in north Columbus.
“We have requested from the local people to have this on a need-to-know basis,” Stephen said. “They have honored that. The people here at Brookstone have honored that. The churches have honored that. It has been beautiful.”
As Kendrick Brothers worked throughout the city, the company tried to limit the production’s footprint, which limited the attention.
“If you show up somewhere and you got 27 giant Hollywood trucks blocking the driveway, people know something is going on,” Stephen said. “We have shot on private property and tried to honor the locations where we have gone.”
The first day of the shoot happened at a home in Bibb City.
“One of the things about Bibb City is it has a story that resonates with this movie,” Stephen said. “You got this community wrapped around this manufacturing plant that was there. Then when that shut down, that whole area was devastated. This movie is telling basically that story, but it’s on a whole-town level.“
Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau, which houses the newly established Columbus Film Commission, met with representatives from the movie early in the process. Bowden was surprised at how quiet the production was kept. The Film Commission was not heavily involved.
“They pretty much did their own thing,” Bowden said. “They are a well-oiled machine.”
One of the things that worked in the Kendrick Brothers favor was another faith-based film, “My Brother’s Keeper,” by producer Ty Manns. That film was wrapping up in Columbus as “Overcomer” was starting.
“I think there was some confusion,” Bowden said.
Also, Kendrick Brothers did not use the name of the film while in Columbus. All of the local shoots were marked with small signs that blended in with the political yard signs and simply read “6K,” which signified the company’s sixth film.
“People would pass those signs and think it was a race,” Bowden said. “Most people had no idea what was going on.”
The full economic impact of the filming is not yet known. But for two months, the production company has been renting locations, hotel rooms and purchasing meals for a crew and cast that has exceeded 100 most of the time.
People who know Columbus will easily be able to pick out locations where the film was shot when it is released next summer.
In addition to Brookstone, St. Francis and the Bibb City residence, a home in Midtown, Flat Rock Park, Cooper Creek Park and the Chattahoochee RiverWalk were used. The new sound stage that is a collaboration between the W.C. Bradley Co. and Columbus State University was also used.
“Columbus will be featured and seen all over the world — in 80 countries,” Stephen said. “In the movie it’s a fictitious town named Franklin, we don’t even say what state. The reason we did that is almost every state has a city named Franklin. In the movie this big manufacturing plant shuts down and so many people are leaving town. You will be seeing a lot of beautiful shots of the city.”
So, how did this not become the social media buzz the last six weeks? How did the Kendrick Brothers do this is relative secrecy in plain view?
Thomas is also amazed.
“They came in here and said if you bring attention to us, that is not going to help us,” Thomas said. “They asked the pastors not to stand up in the pulpits and talk about this. And they understood because they wanted to help them. ... It’s almost like the Lord gave them favor.”
Through a combination of non-disclosure agreements and simple requests, the need to keep it quiet worked — and worked well.
There has been limited news coverage on the Kendrick Brothers film during the six weeks of production. WTVM had a short report in late June, but it had little information and did not include the name of the movie. About two weeks ago, Christian media from across the country, including Focus on the Family and the Christian Broadcasting Network, were brought to Columbus to see the making the of the film. Most of the work done by those outlets will be released next summer in the run up to the film’s release.
The Ledger-Enquirer was the only local media outlet given access to the set and Stephen Kendrick, with the agreement that the story would not publish until the production here was concluded.
Stephen, who is the film’s producer, has appreciated the way people in Columbus have handled the situation.
“Some have just said, ‘I get it,’” he said. “If you think about it, it is like, ‘I am about to tell you I am going to throw a big birthday party for my wife this coming weekend. It is a surprise. Please don’t post on social media that I am going to do a surprise birthday party for my wife.’ People get it. They support it. And it’s beautiful.”
Connie Mansour, the director of communications at Brookstone, was one of those who got it. For two weeks, the production was being shot in and outside the school. They used classrooms, the media center, a gym, locker rooms, the track and the walkways around the campus. Mansour was even one of the extras in the film.
“We didn’t publicize it and they didn’t publicize it,” Mansour said. “From our viewpoint, it wasn’t public information. And it was part of the agreement that we would not release and information. ... They were such great people to work with.”
Brookstone will be one of the most identifiable locations in the movie. They used the school’s Cougar mascot and its royal blue colors and “B” logo. But they did change the name of the fictional high school from Brookstone to “Brookshire.”
“It’s only a few letters we swapped out,” Kendrick said, laughing. “We looked at Brookstone and said, ‘What can we do that’s similar to that? We can keep the B and colors.’ The name of the school was not integral to the story, so that worked out well.”
But the cooperation of Brookstone was integral, Stephen said. The school’s board agreed to lease the facility to the production company.
“This school is not a Christian school, but it’s run by Christians,” Stephen said. “They did this whole prayer walk on the campus, inviting people to come pray over all the locations before we even showed up. They did that.”
Another reason the production was on the down low, was many of the actors are not mainstream Hollywood stars, but are easily identifiable by those who watch faith-based movies.
In addition to Alex Kendrick, author, speaker and actress Priscilla Shirer stars in this film, playing the school principal. Shirer also started in “War Room,” which was directed by Alex.
Shari Rigby, an actress who appeared in “October Baby,” plays Alex’s wife in the movie. Aryn Wright-Thomson, a teenage actress from North Carolina, is making her movie debut as Hannah, the cross country runner central to the film’s plot.
The actors enjoyed filming in Columbus.
“I love the southern hospitality,” Rigby said. “My husband and I primarily live in Los Angeles. The common denominator is when we are out and doing something, ‘We are not in LA anymore. We are in the South.’ It has been different — but fantastic.”
As the filming concludes and the production moves into the editing stage, Stephen said he could not have been more pleased to shoot the movie in Columbus.
“I want to thank Columbus for how well they have treated us,” he said. “The people here have been wonderful. The churches here have been very welcoming, loving and hospitable. We have enjoyed getting to know the people of Columbus. Our crew from across the nation has been so blessed by Southern hospitality in this city, eating at the barbecue restaurants, drinking the homemade smoothies, visiting these mom-and-pop restaurants and walking down the riverwalk.”