Rhyan LaMarr is a 32-year-old filmmaker. He’s also a devout Christian who has always felt drawn to films that preached a message of faith. "A lot of people say Christian films are cheesy," he says. "But I like Christian films." In the summer of 2013, he saw a movie called I’m in Love with a Church Girl, which concluded with a stirring "altar call" scene: an invitation to faith. As people left the theater after the film, LaMarr saw members of the audience kneel in front of the screen as though it were an altar itself. "I want to impact people like that," he recalls thinking.
So LaMarr started writing a script. Titled Restored Me, it tracks an ex-con who gets duped into becoming a drug courier—a situation that nearly shatters his faith—until stirring pleas from his devout wife and daughter embolden him to take down his nefarious boss.
Restored Me Trailer
After receiving funding from a like-minded producer, LaMarr shot the movie in 2014 and edited it through much of 2015. He had big hopes for Restored Me, which he thought might ride the same wave that had made a big-screen epic out of a Bible story in Russell Crowe's Noah. "My biggest thing was that Hollywood was trying to make more faith-based movies, but they weren’t working," he recalls now. "I felt you had to be a believer to make it work."
In December of last year, LaMarr screened the finished film for distributors, hoping one would want to release the film in theaters nationwide. But to his surprise, no commercial distributors—not even ones known for taking on faith-inflected films—wanted to jump on Restored Me. Everyone told him it was "too gritty." Gradually, he began to feel he had simply pitched the wrong kind of audience. "If you’re making a film for your demographic, you can’t show it for people who don’t watch those films," he recalls.
LaMarr’s father suggested he screen Restored Me at a church in Miami in January. LaMarr went down to Florida for the event, convinced his cast to promote it on the radio, and wound up packing the church for the screening. The audience loved it. "It was the first time I saw what the film was supposed to be," he recalls.
Running on the buzz generated by the Miami screening, LaMarr booked further screenings at churches around the country: first 10, then 20, then 30. Restored Me was on its way to becoming a sleeper faith-based hit. "The Lord had showed me, ‘I don’t want you to do the Hollywood route,’" he recalls now.
The only problem? LaMarr wasn’t making any money off of it. He had begun to think of Restored Me as less of a business proposition and more an aspect of his faith.
That is, until someone connected him to Ryan Markowitz, head of distribution at a startup called Gathr.
Someone tipped off Markowitz that LaMarr had found great success sharing his film's message in communities of faith.
But Markowitz had a simple message of his own to share with LaMarr: "Stop! Stop! Stop!"
Gathr had created a platform to monetize the unconventional audiences that embraced Restored Me by shepherding them from churches to movie theaters. For five years, Gathr has offered its services to bring niche films to small but passionate audiences in movie theaters around the country. Kickstarter-style, Gathr invites filmmakers to demonstrate that a sufficiently sized audience exists in a given market by "tipping" a screening. When that happens, Gathr ships a digital copy of the movie to a participating nearby theater. (In its simplest deals, Gathr takes 10% of the ticket sales, the theater gets 40%, and filmmakers get the rest.)
As Restored Me was becoming a church-house hit, Gathr was refining its business model, adding a new focus on faith-based films. One such film, a Christian action film called Beyond the Mask had brought in about a million dollars in the first half of 2015, making it the third highest-grossing film on Gathr’s platform. Gathr CEO Scott Glosserman did some digging and found that while domestic box office returns have been mostly flat in recent decades, the faith film segment has grown from $30 million to $500 million over the same time period. (Gathr plans to launch a specific faith-film brand called Congregate this fall, largely so religious people can navigate to its website without accidentally exposing themselves to imagery from an indie horror film or sex farce on the mainstream Gathr platform.)
Markowitz contacted LaMarr, convincing him to move Restored Me away from church screenings and onto Gathr’s platform. LaMarr could still market the film to churches, but he would instead sell tickets in bulk to pastors who could then resell or give them to their congregations.
Around this time, LaMarr also entered into a business partnership with a Brooklyn-based nondenominational bishop named Eric Garnes, who became a producer on Restored Me and pledged to work on finding it a large audience.
On a Monday evening in June, Markowitz, LaMarr, and Garnes convened to test their new business proposition. Gathr hosted its first screening of Restored Me on the top floor of Regal Court Street Stadium 12, a downtown Brooklyn multiplex. The 200-seat theater was packed. Most audience members were African-Americans and affiliated with one of several local churches whose leadership occupied VIP seats near the front, rubbing shoulders with some of the film's cast.
Garnes stood in front of the screen and spoke to the crowd. "This film speaks on the power of restoration!" he preached to the enthusiastic crowd. (One woman periodically chimed in, "I know that’s right!") "You’ll see action, drama. You’ll have laughter, you’ll let your spirit be free and receive what comes forth."
He added, with a touch of the businessman, "I’ll expect you to champion this movie at the end of the day, over Facebook and social media. Now chant with me: Restored Me!"
"Restored Me!" the crowd chanted.
After the screening, the crowd was greatly pleased. (In an odd coincidence, Restored Me's plot also hinges on unorthodox use of movie theaters. The film’s villain owns a chain of them and distributes illegal drugs in film canisters.) The very scenes that might have turned off a broader audience—those stirring "altar calls" that brought the protagonist back to his faith—were the scenes that made the night memorable for the audience, soliciting further chants of "Uh huh" and "That’s right!" They were also the very scenes that made the film, for a certain audience at least, commercial.
After the film, members of the audience weighed in. "The message came through clearly," said one Brooklyn bishop in a VIP seat.
"The movie shows that it doesn’t matter where you began. It matters where you end up," chimed in another viewer.
A man with dreadlocks and a booming bass voice volunteered, "I had a tear coming out of one of my eyes."
Garnes urged the audience to share selfies taken in the theater, along with the hashtag #restoredme. "A lot of people won’t come to church, but they’ll come to a movie," he said. Then he pointed to Markowitz (one of the only white people in the room), explaining that the man's company would be helping to convene more theatrical screenings like this one.
The dreadlocked man turned around in his seat, nodding appreciatively toward Markowitz. "What up, G."
Streaming out of the theater, a few new fans approached LaMarr. "It’s gonna be a billion-dollar seller!" gushed one. Another was eager to talk about a regional screening strategy in northern New Jersey, including screenings in prisons.
In a small way, the evening was already a dream come true for LaMarr. "Today was the first time I ever saw my movie in a theater," he said. And he had 28 more Gathr screenings scheduled already. "To finally hear how it was supposed to sound was amazing. To see people’s faces glued to the screen was awesome. It makes you remember why you did this, why you had that 16-millimeter Bolex camera in Chicago in the wintertime."
Or, as LaMarr summed it up: "It reminds you that you’re a filmmaker."