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Is family relevant? Film from Focus on the Family sparks controversy before hitting theaters

By Stephanie Earls Updated: May 4, 2014 at 8:46 am

"Irreplaceable," a new, feature-length documentary from Focus on the Family, premieres in a special one-night nationwide screening at more than 700 theaters Tuesday, but the film championing traditional family structure and marriage has collected controversy on its way to the big screen.

The film follows married father-of-four Tim Sisarich, executive director of Focus' New Zealand offices, as he embarks on a globe-trotting trip to explore the modern state and meaning of family and ultimately answer the question, "Are marriage and traditional family structure still relevant and worth fighting for?"

Given, the answer here is a resounding "yes," and Sisarich builds to this inevitable conclusion through interviews with Christian theologians, health and relationship experts and with parents themselves.

"If you look at the statistics, and again we debate these all the time, left, right and center, but the best place for a child - we're not saying it's the only place - but the best place for a child is an intact, biological mom and dad's home," said Focus president and chief executive Jim Daly. "Are there outliers to that? Absolutely. But that's where they do best."

As of early last week, more than a dozen theaters nationwide had sold out for the screenings, according to Paul Batura, vice president of communications for Focus. In the Springs, two of the three theaters that had signed on have already sold out of tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show. To meet demand, the Cinemark Carefree Circle and IMAX theater and the Regal Interquest Stadium 14 will offer encore showings. The documentary is also being shown at Tinseltown on East Cheyenne Mountain Boulevard.

However, speculation about the film's content - and its intent - led to early backlash from some LGBT groups in December, when trailers advertising the documentary began showing ahead of mainstream theatrical releases. In the months that followed, some theaters planning to show the documentary were threatened with boycotts and protests, Batura said.

A Change.org petition encouraging theater chains to refuse to host the screening had drawn close to 900 signatures as of last week.

"What is not acceptable is the fact that they are trying to pass this film off as a fair-minded or even 'feel good' documentary about love, family, and marriage," wrote Shalom Rosenberg of Belmont, Calif., who started the online petition. "This is not a documentary. This is anti-gay propaganda."

More recently, a venue in Ohio reportedly canceled its Tuesday screening in response to the controversy, Batura said.

"They're reacting before seeing the film. The real irony here is that the very week they dropped us, they were running the movie 'Bad Words' which contains pedophilia themes," he said.

Since stepping up to lead the conservative Christian ministry founded by James Dobson in 1977, Daly has worked to recast the organization as one focused on outreach and evangelism rather than condemnation. The foray into faith-based documentary filmmaking is meant to further the goal of spreading the group's message to modern audiences in a friendly way and via a familiar medium.

While earlier generations "were about a prophetic message that the culture's going in the wrong direction and we're going to reap the whirlwind if we keep going this way, an evangelist is willing to go out and sit down with people who don't agree with you to try to discuss and convince," Daly said. "I don't know anybody who's been beaten into a relationship with Christ."

Produced with Pine Creek Entertainment and Fathom Events, "Irreplaceable" is the first in a series of titles that touch on core family and social issues, including the dating culture and the issue of fatherless families. The film closes with a prerecorded roundtable discussion among faith leaders and family experts. Focus plans to release a new documentary every eight to 12 months.

"We're not going to compete with Hollywood," said Daly, whose aspirations are a bit higher. "There's a sense that culture is led by entertainment. Those discussions are being shaped in the area of entertainment well before it ever gets to politics. Just getting into the policy arena and slugging it out, we don't do that well."

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Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364

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