The story of how three guys who used to be empty seats in church ended up leading one of the largest multi-denominational church events in history.
Jeff Pries, a pastor at Irvine-based megachurch, Mariners Church, was an All-American pitcher from UCLA who went on to be the first pick of the Yankees in the 1984 draft. Several injuries later, he was out of the game. “My life had been a dream, and suddenly it was over. I thought God was punishing me for some reason, and I couldn’t imagine why,” Pries remembered. He moved to Seattle and began drinking heavily. In a stupor one night, he found himself brought home by a person he didn’t know. It was rock bottom. “When I woke up at my own front door, I knew I had to come home to God,” said Pries. Almost immediately, he returned home to OC, went back to church, and re-enrolled in college to become a pastor.
Years later, John Ward ended up moving to Newport Beach from Beverly Hills after his wife’s pleas to raise children outside of the congestion of LA. She also wanted them to return to going to church. After grumbling at every church they visited, Ward found Mariners, where he heard Jeff Pries giving a sermon about the romantic comedy, Sweet Home Alabama -- the same type film Ward had written at such Hollywood companies as Lakeshore Entertainment, etc. Amazed at the sight of a pastor speaking about the Bible in pop culture terms -- even openly discussing his personal failings and daily struggles -- struck Ward, so he became a regular, although sitting on the back row.
Weeks later, while editing a new spiritual espionage script he had written, Ward wasn't satisfied. He wanted to add more Biblical depth. It was midnight, and he searched his mind for resources when he remembered Pries. “I went on the Mariners website, looked him up, and emailed him asking for help on the screenplay,” Ward recalled. “I knew he’d think I was crazy so I included my imdb page, my agent’s phone number, everything I could think of to prove I was serious – plus I offered him lunch… steak lunch,” Ward said with a grin.
Pries took the bait, and almost immediately, they became the best of friends. Soon after, Pries turned the tables, “I had a pet idea of my own, and after awhile, I decided to spring it on him,” he said. Pries, in charge of small group Bible studies at Mariners, had noticed a steady lack of interest in Bible study groups there. He had long dreamed of creating a short film which would parallel the content of a given Bible verse, but demonstrate it in a modern setting. He pitched the idea to Ward, and together they made that dream a reality.
The Liquid DVD series was born. After securing a seven-DVD publishing deal, Pries and Ward began making their films, adapting the Bible into the modern day.
Along the way, Pries encountered an old teammate from UCLA, Todd Zeile. Todd, a 16-year Major League veteran of 11 teams (such teams as the Dodgers, Mets, Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs, and Rangers), had just retired from the Mets and had embarked in a new career as a movie producer. Pries recalled, “My old roommate from the minor leagues, Al Leiter, had played with Todd in New York and said I should give him a call. So I did just that – out of the blue. Todd was thrilled to hear from me after all those years, and we all had lunch.”
Todd was on a journey of his own. He had just been dragged through the mud in a movie experience he deeply regretted from the beginning. Years later, he still can only quip, “It was a very painful, very expensive, learning experience – I learned what not to do.” Todd, a father of four, wanted to make movies he could be proud of, and that reflected his ever-increasing sense of faith. In his new pals Ward and Pries, he found the outlet for just that.
However, no project they tried to put together ever worked. “We just couldn’t find a movie that wasn’t a $100 million blockbuster,” said Zeile. “But what we did do during that time was become great friends.”
While developing big Hollywood films that they couldn’t get into production, Ward and Pries always included their buddy Zeile into all of the Liquid films they were making. “I wrote him as a weatherman, a surfer dude, and a rock star,” said Ward.
At the wrap of their final Liquid film, The Ten, in which they chronicled the Ten Commandments, the three friends sat together chatting about what was next. “We all felt we’d just scratched the surface with these characters and this concept,” said Ward. “That’s when we knew the moment had come. We had to take a leap of faith and make our first feature film. We had to finish what we’d started.”
Ward went to work on the screenplay and “I AM” was born. Yet, with the end of Liquid, Mariners Church’s role as financier had ended. When it came to financing the movie, Ward and Zeile were on their own. “It was bittersweet,” said Pries of his new role as Executive Producer, “I was still at Mariners, and very proud of what we’d accomplished, but I knew that in making the movie, I would have to step back a little bit. I was still a pastor, and I had a job to do, but at the same time I wanted to help finish what I’d started.”
Ward and Zeile shot the movie in a few weeks using the same crew they’d come to trust in making seven Liquid films together. “We evolved into something between a family and a pirate ship,” said writer/director Ward of his crew.
With a finished film, which is most often described as a “Christian Crash”, they garnered a deal with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. With home video squared away, the filmmakers turned their eyes to theatrical exhibition. “We talked with just about every studio in town, and none of the numbers made sense. The release wouldn’t be able to reach everyone in the country, and it was incredibly expensive for everyone involved,” said Zeile, “So we decided to try something new.” Pries added a pastor’s perspective, “We set out to make a movie that didn’t give you all the answers, a movie that made you want to talk after you saw it. Seeing it in a theater doesn’t lend itself to a larger, meaningful conversation.”
Ward had examined the success of “High School Musical” on DVD. He’d seen how the film would debut to a huge audience and then release on DVD so rabid ‘tween fans could continue the movement further. He pitched the idea of morphing into a faith-based version of the model to Zeile and Pries. They’d open the movie in churches in and around October 10, 2010 (10.10.10). After churches screened the movie on their campus, the movie would release on DVD. “During our experience with churches through the Liquid films, we found that most of them had large screens and great sound systems,” Ward recalled.
“Until now, Hollywood has been asking churches to send their people to the movie theater,” added Zeile. “Now we were assisting churches in keeping people on their campus instead of driving them away, and hopefully attracting a few new people in the meantime, to fill that empty seat.”
Pries had a friend who was familiar with a direct-to-church satellite company called Church Communications Network (CCN) out of the Bay area, which had beamed some of the faith world’s biggest personalities direct to churches for over ten years. After a few meetings, they were convinced that CCN was the right outlet to reach churches, and they proceeded to convince Fox of the same.
Yet before the ink could dry on the contract, CCN filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and ceased to exist.
“It was like Apollo 13, just like that, we were lost in space. We’d gambled on a direct-to-church release only to have the company getting to the churches disintegrate before our very eyes,” said Ward. With few options, they decided to hire the staff who’d recently been laid off by the closure. “Suddenly, we were running a marketing business,” he added. “It was a trial by fire, but it allowed us an incredible opportunity to tailor our experience with churches to just the way we wanted it to be.”
Part of that experience was offering the movie to churches free of charge – something the CCN model had never done. “We wanted churches to know that we were serious – that we genuinely wanted them to experience this movie,” said Zeile.
Within weeks, they had nearly 2,500 churches signed up to show the movie, from every state, virtually every denomination, in churches located all around the world.
For Pries it was the fulfillment of his pastoral dream he’d kept to himself until a total stranger emailed him out of the blue. “I became a pastor to reach out to normal guys like me who’d given up on church and become empty seats,” said Pries. “To see this crazy ride end up with a movie that’s helping fill empty seats in churches all around the world… it shows me how God brings it all together.”