“A love story is just so universal,” said Kevin Downes, producer of “I Still Believe,” opening March 13 in theaters. “These two people who love each other, what are they going to do in the face of life’s challenges and valleys?”
Revealing the early years of platinum-selling recording artist Jeremy Camp, the upcoming Lionsgate film features trending heartthrobs K.J. Apa (“Riverdale”) as Camp and Britt Robertson (“The Longest Ride”) as his college flame, along with Gary Sinise (“Apollo 13”) and country star Shania Twain portraying Camp’s parents.
Co-directors Jon and Andrew Erwin and collaborator Downes hope to make a global splash as “I Still Believe” releases on a larger scale than past faith-driven movies. Already receiving buzz from Entertainment Weekly, E! News, and MTV, Lionsgate plans to open the romance drama on more than 3,000 screens nationwide, including preview events in IMAX.
“Having the full support of Lionsgate is new for us,” said Jon Erwin at a press event for the film. “They’re treating this no different than they would ‘Twilight’ or ‘The Hunger Games’ or any of their huge releases. The ad buy is going to be big, just like any other movie. We’ve never experienced anything like it.”
Following their successful 2018 film “I Can Only Imagine,” which earned $86 million at the global box office, Lionsgate partnered with the Christian brothers to form a production company that would feed into its movie pipeline. “I Still Believe” marks the first release from that new entity, Kingdom Story Company, with several other films in development.
The filmmakers see demand rising for engaging, faith-conscious movies. “Look at what’s in the entertainment zeitgeist this past decade: ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘House of Cards,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’” said Erwin. “It’s basically us versus them, social Darwinism, with no clear sense of right and wrong. What has come out of that is a cultural yearning for innocence, hope, and optimism.”
Compared in early reviews to past hits “A Walk to Remember” and “The Best of Me,” based on Nicholas Sparks novels, the love story aims squarely at teens and young adults.
“Young audiences are going to go crazy over this movie, and not just because it’s K.J. Apa,” said Madeline Carroll, 23, who worked on the production team. “It’s because it’s real; it’s what they’re going through.”
Complex Origin Story for Grammy-Nominated Star
Known for radio hits such as “Walk By Faith” and “Give You Glory,” singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp wears his faith on his sleeve. He and love interest Melissa Lynn Henning met as students about the turn of the millennium at Calvary Chapel Bible College in southern California.
Nervous about a film based on events he lived, Camp figured he’d have lots of markup when he received the first script. “I was kind of blown away by it,” he said in a phone interview from Nashville. “How accurate and beautifully done it was showed me the heart behind this. They weren’t trying to make it something it wasn’t.”
Camp recalls how dating was hardly a steamy affair at their Christian school. “Co-ed movement to each others’ dorm rooms was definitely not as easy as they show it on-screen,” he said, chuckling at evangelical culture.
In the film, a love triangle quickly emerges as Camp and his friend Jean-Luc La Joie, frontman for long-running band The Kry, both have eyes for Henning. In real life, La Joie did show Camp the ropes on songwriting and stage presence, but he wasn’t vying for Camp’s girl.
“Another friend who was a Bible study leader was the one in love with Melissa, not my mentor in music,” said Camp. “But in the film, they couldn’t add another character, so they had to condense that aspect into Jean Luc. When I asked him, he said, ‘Of course it’s okay!’”
After an early breakup, Camp heads home to Indiana where his dad (Sinise) gets him to open up. Known for his nonprofit work supporting military veterans, Sinise rarely takes on major acting roles today but has been a longtime friend of the filmmakers.
“Gary’s performance is honestly my favorite part of the film because it feels so authentic,” said Carroll, who was on set throughout the three-month shoot. “He does so little with his reactions, and he’s never over the top. When you watch him do his scenes, you just feel like he’s your dad.”
Dilemmas far greater than teen angst await the budding relationship, as Henning contracts ovarian cancer. Even as their romance rekindles, with talk of marriage and future children, doctors soon report a hysterectomy will be necessary for her to survive.
“This is not a cutesy love story,” said Camp. “You’re going to see the reality of how I felt: the anger, anguish, and grief. Folks say, ‘That was a beautiful love story, with a lot of difficulties. But there is hope at the end of it.’”
Elevating Young Talent, Known And Unknown
Recently renewed for a fifth season, the Archie Comics-inspired teen soap opera “Riverdale” continues to be a ratings hit, including its tie-in music releases. Taking a chance on actor and singer K.J. Apa as the lead in “I Still Believe” seems to be paying off with advance buzz.
“We go after stars for our films because it services the goal of what we’re trying to do, which is to engage people,” said Erwin. “When people have a pre-existing relationship with the faces that they see on the screen, that is imputed worth.”
Between concert dates, Camp spent many days on set with Apa. “He cared so much about every detail,” said Camp. “He would pull me aside and ask: ‘How did you ask this question? How did you react in this moment?’ He wanted to make sure that how he was portraying me was accurate.”
With his extroverted personality and an openness about his faith, Apa was a natural fit to play the Christian radio icon. That their vocal tones and styles differ hardly bothers Camp. “I could hear the passion in his voice and how he took to heart what he was singing,” Camp said.
Both in front of the cameras and behind them, the Erwin brothers empowered emerging talent. During a set visit to Alabama last summer, when filming a beachfront sunset scene, media observed the pair coaching three understudy directors — including Carroll, who called the shots at times.
“Forming a production company with Lionsgate is such a big opportunity, it’s really unheard of,” Carroll said. “But instead of just wanting to enjoy it for themselves, Jon and Andy have brought in a group of young filmmakers that they’ve poured into and trained.”
At a launch event last year, Kingdom Story Company announced a slate of several films to be directed by up-and-coming directors including docudrama “Jesus Revolution” (with pre-production underway in California) and musical “The Drummer Boy.”
Jon Erwin becomes animated speaking about the brothers’ vision for future films. “It’s our bullpen, and we’re ushering them up through the system,” he said. “Mentorship can snowball our success. Andy and I are trusting this next generation of filmmakers will make far better films than we do.”
Kurt Warner Biopic Coming This Year
While promotional materials for “I Still Believe” sparkle with the youthful energy of its stars, the movie grapples with heavy themes of doubt, loss, and shattered dreams. The team hopes this engrossing story sparks deeper reflection.
“No one deals with their issues today because so many things distract us,” said Camp. “If you’re feeling down, pick up your phone and do some social media posts or watch something on Netflix — whatever it is. When isolating from reality is so prevalent, we need to have things thrown in our faces.”
For the Erwin brothers, “I Still Believe” will be their first of two planned major films this year. On Feb. 4, Variety reported Lionsgate has fast-tracked “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story,” a sports biopic on the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, for December 2020 release.
Aiming to set a higher standard for faith-driven films, Erwin wryly compares the brothers’ work to how Christ told parables. “Telling really relatable, emotional stories that people can understand without explaining it — like, who came up with that?” he asked. “We’re just storytellers serving the greatest storyteller of all time.”
Camp, still on tour while also supporting the film, is responding to a chorus of critics comparing the biopic with Nicholas Sparks novels.
“This is a real-life thing that happened, not a fictional love story,” he said. “It’s something where you can see today the effects of the people who went through it, especially me. When hardship happens and it’s not easy, there is still hope.”
Rated PG for thematic material, “I Still Believe” opens in theaters nationwide March 13.