Andre Van Heerden Talks about the Expansion of Cloud Ten Pictures
Andre Van Heerden is a wordsmith who has worked in nearly every phase of film production. CEO of Cloud Ten Pictures, he directed the Apocalypse series of feature films, wrote the scripts for Judgment and Left Behind: World at War, co-produced Left Behind: The Movie and Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, and produced Left Behind: World at War.
As CEO of Cloud Ten Pictures, together with Paul Lalonde, majority shareholder, Andre is re-introducing Cloud Ten as a major force in the Christian film market. I sat down with Andre at the Gideon Media Arts Conference and Film Festival to talk about Cloud Ten's latest developments, their plans for the future, and the re-establishment of the company's original vision.
There have been a lot of new developments at Cloud Ten Pictures in the last few months. You recently hired a Public Relations and Social Networking consultant.
Andre: We saw a new direction in that people were heading to the internet for everything, whether it was downloading music or checking out the newest YouTube video. Susan Boyle is a great example of someone who is really a no one that suddenly becomes one of the most well-known names, face, and voice around the world.
When you’re looking at that sort of hyper-realism marketing in terms of reaching people, we realized we don’t have enough of a presence on the internet or the social networking sites (Twitter or Facebook, or any of the ones coming out almost daily). We decided we need someone to be our face and voice connecting all the dots and being out there. We knew it had to be the right sort of person. They had to be a Christian, but also well-spoken, who knew the theological stance of our company and what our direction was. It needed to be someone who is passionate about films. That immediately narrowed it down. They also had to be media-savvy and know marketing; how to reach people.
We were already connected on some of these sites, and as we started looking at what we needed, I jokingly said, "You know, what we need is an Eric Highland." And someone laughed and said, "Yeah, that guy’s everywhere." We all laughed and joked, but I said, "Why not ask and see if he’s available?" He’s working for HOSFU, and at HOSFU he’s doing what we wanted; being the guy who represents the company. So we spoke about it, he said, "Why not?", and came onboard.
Eric has a background in boxing promotion, and if you know anything about promotion, you know those guys know how to build and prolong hype, so we were excited about that too.
In addition to hiring Eric, you began acquisitioning and co-producing films, among them Saving God. You’ve been known for apocalyptic films. Is Saving God a new direction for the company?
Andre: It is, and it isn’t. When we first began Cloud Ten Pictures, our mission was based on a love of film, a love of entertaining and wanting to reach people through that. Any good storyteller, or someone who loves to tell jokes (I enjoy both), knows there’s a punch line, a reason why you’re doing it. Ours happens to be sharing a message of hope, a Christian faith message.
When we first began, it was to produce, acquire, and distribute Christian-themed entertainment. At that time we were doing documentaries mainly, but then we got into feature films and loved it. We thought it was great. The end-times thrillers really came about because we were making them just a few years before the year 2000. Everyone’s focus was on what’s coming in the new millennium, and wondering if it was the end of the age. There was a real hunger and feeding off that sort of energy.
Even if you look at the Oscars for secular films, you see films that reflect the culture. When you watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Brokeback Mountain, etc., you can really see society’s mores and values and where they’re heading.
So the apocalyptic films were partially a result of society’s interest around the millennium, as well as a storyteller realizing that you had a tale with the greatest good vs. the greatest evil. Storytelling is all about conflict, and you can’t get better conflict than that. It’s an interesting, easy-pitch story that you can immediately grab people with.
When 2005 hit, we released Left Behind 3 and really started concentrating on doing one large picture. We had done the other apocalyptic thrillers and weren’t sure we wanted to keep doing that. There was also some issue of political control of some of the films, and we were fighting with that. So we really became quiet. We focused on some pictures we wanted to get made and tried to deal with some other issues.
We hit 2008 and suddenly realized that time had passed by quickly; more quickly than we thought. We had this movie we didn’t really get going because of the political problems and realized we had lost our way. We knew we needed to get back to why we were doing this in the first place. What was our mandate, and did we need to change it?
After some review, we knew we didn’t want to change our mandate; we still believed in it. I’d always been very much in the creative side: writer, producer, director. I knew I still had the same passion for reaching people who’d never step inside a church with a movie that they’d really be touched by. I wanted them to ask things like "Does the Bible really say this? Can I be forgiven? Can I find salvation?" Those sorts of bigger questions.
In looking at that, I thought about my parents. They love romantic comedies. Would they ever watch a horror film? No. Would others of my friends who like adventure movies watch a heavy drama? No. I realized that different people like different things. We were missing the boat by focusing on one type of story.
I remember screening one of the apocalyptic thrillers and seeing old ladies cringing and being scared while young guys at the front are going "Yeah!" I realized we needed to do a movie that captures the little old ladies as well. We want to be reaching everyone, and that’s hard to do with one film. So it was a conscious effort to do something deliberate.
Saving God is a good example. It’s an urban film for an audience we hadn’t reached before. True to Cloud Ten form, it was a case of not really knowing what we’re doing but knowing where we wanted to go, so we just did it. [The first picture I directed was Revelation. I’d never worked with film in my life, but they asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, "Absolutely! Let’s do it."] So we’re jumping in where the Lord provides and hoping that we’re guided along the way.
When we watched Saving God last night, it reminded me that there’s not a lot out for the urban audience with a faith theme other than Tyler Perry’s films.
Andre: Especially something you can show without having to apologize for the language or the culture. It’s very difficult trying to be gritty and real without being offensive. But as a screenwriter, I find that when somebody doesn’t know how to do something and they’re ad libbing, they throw in expletives. I’m angry at this person, therefore I swear. It’s lazy and you don’t need to do it. More often than not, you can get rid of it and people don’t miss it. You can make those moments just as dramatic or even more dramatic by finding a different way other than the clichéd way of doing it.
We really struggled with how best to approach this story, which is gritty and deals with real emotions, real lives and problems, and still capture people and make the world seem real. If the world’s not real, people aren’t going to connect with it. It was a real struggle to achieve that.
Who is the audience you’re reaching for when you read or write a screenplay or acquisition a film?
Andre: It all begins with the story. Whether you’re a screenwriter trying to get a movie made, or a marketer trying to market to someone, different stories appeal to different people. Sometimes I’m surprised when someone comes up to me and say, "Oh, I really loved this movie," because I wouldn’t have expected it to interest them. You never know and you don’t want to pigeonhole people.
For certain movies, we go after certain audiences. For instance, we have a horror picture we’re really excited about, so we’re going to go after the same people who watch pictures like Saw and Hostel. We’ll go after the horror and thriller sites that we haven’t gone after before. We want to be smart because it is a business and we’re trying to reach people and make it popular. At the same time, we don’t want to be just reaching to the choir. If a film has a comedic element, we’ll go after people who enjoy comedies, and not just Christians who enjoy comedies.
When you talk about a Christian theme, what kind of elements have to be present?
Andre: Ask a hundred people that question and you’ll get a hundred very forceful and very passionate and very different answers. Most people have very strong opinions about it. For us, I purposely stay away from the term "Christian film," because I believe there’s no such thing. If you're a Christian, you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and a film can't do that.
Can a movie have a Christian theme? Absolutely. If it's entertainment, is it first and foremost an action, a horror, a drama, a Western? I think those are better classifications. When Brokeback Mountain came out, it was a Western. I'm sure the filmmakers would call it that. It happened to have a gay theme. Our films have a Christian theme. That's why I use that term specifically.
What makes it a Christian theme? You have a complete spectrum. Some people look at Spiderman and say "Good over evil." That's a Christian theme. I would argue no, because most movies have a sort of good over evil theme, and they're not all sharing the Gospel message. Does a movie have to share a Gospel message to be considered a Christian theme? Not necessarily. I would say it's the overall motivation, the overall feeling. What is the reason this movie is made, and who is it going to reach out to?
I think it's a very subjective thing. I think it's going to touch people in different ways. The movie Amazing Grace, one of the bigger budget ones that came out recently, was about a very Christian man. It dealt with the subject of abolishing slavery, something Christians should support. Is that a Christian themed movie? I don't know. I think you get into danger when you pigeonhole things too much. A lot of times it's derogatory.
I'd rather see a review that says it's a good action movie or a good thriller. I remember one of my favorite reviews to this day, and what I remember as one of my best ones ever, was only two stars out of four. It was a review in Hustler magazine for Revelation.
Someone asked me if I knew we got a review in Hustler magazine, and I said, "What? The porn magazine?" I wondered how we ended up in there, but they loved the theme and they loved the antagonist. I thought, "Wow! We reached into that audience. We got a review. That's really something." It was only two stars out of four, but it was a great two!
What has made it possible for you to accelerate production and acquisition like you have?
Andre: When we made the end-times thrillers, we were very focused on what we were doing. To our detriment, we weren't focused on what others who were doing other projects were doing. So as we started saying "Hey, we're back," and letting people know we're trying to do 3 – 6 movies a year, we started getting more people sending us more products.
We looked at them and one of the first movies we acquired was a shorter film called Smuggler's Ransom. The production values aren't as high as some of the others, and it's really a lower budget, but there's a really strong salvation message. It touched me and I said to Paul LaLonde, one of the executives of Cloud Ten, that we had really missed our way.
We have this heart and want to share the Gospel, and people come to Christ in many ways. So we asked ourselves why are we not supporting other filmmakers, and is there any reason not to? So we made a very conscious effort to find other titles. Once you start doing that, more will come. And as you're talking with people you start hearing these other stories.
There's an old cliché that if you give then you receive, and we thought "Wow, we've been fools. Why haven't we been doing this?" So we picked up another feature called Genius Club, with Tom Sizemore, Stephen Baldwin and Patricia Helfer. It has a very high-concept story and was made by a friend of ours, Tim Chey, who I've been connected with for years. It's great to be working with him now.
We picked up another called Treasure Blind. It's a really touching story about this older guy, a grandfather, who's focused on finding Civil War gold. It has a treasure hunt angle to it that's really kind of cool. He has this blind eight year old grandson dropped on his doorstep and he's never looked after kids. The little actor who plays this boy is blind himself and is a phenomenal actor in his own right. It has a real family relationship dynamic with a treasure hunt angle. We really enjoyed that one.
We picked up Inspired Ambition, which is a TV series with Erica Lane. It's being shown on Sky Angel and TBN in prime time slots. Erica opened us up to the music world, and we wondered why we haven't been in the music world. We have a good distributor who is happy with us, so why aren't we doing anything in the music world? There are so many good Christian artists out there who have these wonderful voices and they're just not getting the exposure. So we thought, "Let's do that as well."
At Cloud Ten, we've always kind of joked around about, "Hey, do we have any idea what we're doing?" "No, not really." "Well, let's get out there and do it anyway." One big joke was that we were going to call the record label "No Clue Entertainment."
Are you moving into development for television now?
Andre: We started looking at some concepts for developing a TV series. We came from a TV series background in Bible prophecy, and we enjoy doing that. We really built an audience that liked that and we'd like to get back there again. But every time we tried to put something together, other things sidetracked us.
In addition to everything else we're doing, we're also working on two documentaries. One is called Shadow Government and comes out in October. It's with a well-known author Grant Jeffrey, who is a prophecy expert who's written over 40 books on prophecy and world governments.
We're in the process of putting a piece together for a documentary on dragons. As a little boy at heart, dragons and dinosaurs get me excited. So we kind of have a lot going on and the TV series is waiting in the wings.
Are you aggressively looking for other projects and artists?
Andre: I’d say we're aggressively looking for the ability to make other projects that we currently have. I'd say five or six are on the front burner and are partially financed. We're looking for other like-minded individuals to get involved, or for people who are looking for a straightforward investment opportunity. We've had great returns on investments in the past. We want to approach it honestly as a business and be up-front with it.
We're still reading scripts and synopses and we're here (at the Gideon Conference) meeting with authors and seeing what other stories we want to make. There are some really great ones here.
I was also meeting with Greg Mitchell who is writing the screenplay for Apocalypse 5. That's something we're actively heading into production on. It's tempting to get excited about that, forget everything else, and just work on Apocalypse 5.
What about the advances in technology for streaming video, video on demand, etc.? Are you studying that for your business, and what do you see in the future for Cloud Ten?
Andre: I get the daily downloads of all the news events, whether it's from the studio level, distributor level, or independent level. They're all taking about new distribution methods, different windows, ways to do video on demand, and even the best ways to do theatrical. We're always keeping an eye on that – what's working, what's not working, and why.
There's a whole argument about 35 millimeter film vs. the Red One camera, and if the theaters are going digital. If they are, who's paying for it? All sorts of things. We keep a good eye on that and want to be a company that is on the front side of that and embraces it, rather than fighting it and being on the back.
But some of our movies are still being sold on VHS. As crazy as that sounds, there are still people who want those. We realize that exists, but we still want to be on the front end. We get legal notices that people are putting our movies on the internet and downloading and watching them illegally. At one point we wondered if we should do something to try and stop this, but then we thought that if someone finds Christ through a bootleg version, God must have His purpose. So we're just going to keep working and do the best that we can.