In 1956, five American missionaries were killed by Waodoni tribesmen in Ecuador. The story gained recognition through a Life magazine spread and a book, Through Gates of Splendor. Now, 50 years later, a documentary and feature-length movie are putting the incident and its aftermath in front of a new generation.
Actor Louie Leonardo, who plays Waodani warrior Mincaye, and producer Mart Green on location for "End of the Spear."
"End of the Spear," the feature-length adaptation of the story, will be released theatrically nationwide Jan. 20, 2006. The film is already being buoyed by the recent release of the documentary, "Beyond the Gates of Splendor," on DVD and VHS.
This one-two release platform is part of a strategy being developed by Mart Green, founder of Mardel Christian and Educational Supply, who began Bearing Fruit Communications in 1998 in hopes of making today's society understand the Bible's relevance.
Bearing Fruit produced the documentary in 2002, and its reception led Green to then create Every Tribe Entertainment. Every Tribe's mission is to create feature films fashioned after the documentaries.
Green believes both companies can work together to "tell stories from the world to the world," as he told EthicsDaily.com in a recent phone interview from his office in Oklahoma City.
"Our model for the movies has always been to touch a broad audience," he said, noting that his vision tasks Bearing Fruit with producing documentaries for the church, while Every Tribe will focus on feature adaptations for the public at large.
The combination of "Beyond the Gates of Splendor" and "End of the Spear" will let this model stretch its legs.
Green expects between 10,000 and 15,000 churches to screen the documentary in advance of the January 2006 release of the film.
"The documentary will help fill in some of the gaps" of the movie, he said. A documentary screening kit is available to churches for free, with the producers asking that screenings be attended by at least 50 people. They've already mailed 8,000 copies of a 40-minute cut of the documentary (a 96-minute version played in theaters and at festivals, where it won several awards).
This strategy is distinctly different from that of, say, the producers of the "Left Behind" films, which recently embraced an "alternative distribution model" of using churches exclusively as their public exhibition platform. "Left Behind: World at War" played on 3,000 church screens the weekend of Oct. 21-23 and was available in stores on DVD and VHS Oct. 25.
Green said he'd love to see more positive films being released every month, regardless of the distribution and exhibition strategy.
"We'll cheer on anyone else who's doing that," he said. "We're under-serving the market with great films."
Whereas churches paid a licensing fee (dependent on church size) to screen "Left Behind: World at War," screening kits for "Splendor" are free and, in many ways, an extended preview of "End of the Spear," whose release is less than three months away.
"Spear," already completed and rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, won the $50,000 grand prize from the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, Ind., on Oct. 21. The festival, founded in 1991, recognizes positive and inspirational films.
"Spear" focuses on Mincaye, a Waodani warrior involved in the missionaries' slayings, and is told from the Waodani point of view. Another significant character is Steve Saint, the five-year-old son of Nate Saint, who was killed. Steve Saint also narrated the documentary and figured prominently in the story it fashioned.
Nate Saint was speared to death Jan. 8, 1956, along with Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian and Jim Elliot after making contact with members of the Waodani tribe—one of the most violent groups anthropologists have ever documented.
The documentary recounts the circumstances surrounding their deaths, as well as the remarkable journey of reconciliation that occurred between the Waodani tribe and the missionary families.
Green first heard Mincaye's story in 1997. He encountered it again in 1998, and its impact led him to believe it would be a movie one day—but he had no inkling he would even be involved.
"I was raised not to go to movies," said Green. But the silver screen lay in his future, and Bearing Fruit and Every Tribe were the result of his conviction about Mincaye's story.
Green said both the documentary and feature film were produced for less than $20 million, and now they have $12 million for aggressive marketing and promotion.
The movie's tagline is "Dare to make contact." That's also the marketing catchphrase and the name of the promotional resources Web site (www.daretomakecontact.com).
The producers even have licensing agreements for various products associated with the film.
"There will be a select group of quality products that will match the film," said Green. They include t-shirts, hats, jewelry, books and even shadow boxes displaying miniature spears made by Waodani tribe members. Bearing Fruit has stated that 50 percent of the proceeds from the film and ancillary products will benefit the Waodani and other indigenous peoples.
A promotional e-mail sent Oct. 21 read: "The movies shaping our culture can change if Christians make contact. This story grabbed the attention of the world 50 years ago, and with your help it will do it again. Help make the story number one on opening weekend, and you'll draw the world in with you."
"Spear," co-written and directed by Jim Hanon and shot across 13 weeks in Panama, will unspool in 1,200 theaters in January.
"We call it a smart release," said Green, noting that the theaters will be specifically chosen based on certain criteria—like where "The Passion of the Christ" performed spectacularly, or theaters that pull strongly the over-50 crowd, which likely remembers the incident.
M Power Releasing is handling theatrical distribution, and Fox Home Entertainment will release it on DVD and VHS in summer 2006.
"When 'The Passion of the Christ' came along, it really opened the exhibitors' eyes up," said Randy Slaughter, president of M Power. He told EthicsDaily.com "Spear" will play in all the major and most medium-sized cities.
Slaughter said his ability to get a film released depends on the strength of the film itself. After 35 years in the business, he's convinced "Spear" is a contender.
"Everybody seems to come out of this film with a different feeling or a different thought," he said. "To me, it's the story of the ultimate faith and the ultimate forgiveness."
"For almost two hours, you are living the experience," he added, "and that's what movies are all about."
Slaughter also believes in the people, like Green, behind the movie.
"These people are definitely committed to the film and everything necessary to get the word out there," said Slaughter. He learned about that commitment firsthand when Green and company invited him to Oklahoma City to meet the filmmaking team.
While there, Slaughter attended a prayer breakfast at Green's home.
"I called my wife and I called my partner and said, 'Well, this is different,'" said Slaughter, adding that Hollywood habit puts business in an office or restaurant, not a home.
"I was just amazed at the love and the power that these people had for each other," said Slaughter. "I was sold on the people before I was sold on the film" because he hadn't even seen it yet.
But when he did, he was hooked.
"We believe in it," said Slaughter. "I firmly believe this picture is going to be successful."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
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