I n Fall Into Winter, Lori Loughlin’s first movie since the 2019 college admissions scandal, the actress will take on the role of a woman whose brother secretly sells the family candy shop to her nemesis. Surprisingly, though, Fall Into Winter will not appear on Loughlin’s longtime home, the Hallmark Channel, the television extension of the Christian film movement, which out-woked its audience in 2020 by running an ad featuring two women briefly kissing.
At the time, Bill Abbott, the then-CEO of Hallmark’s parent company, promptly stepped down to launch rival GAC Media and its Great American Family channel, pledging to outflank Hallmark with family-friendlier programming that “celebrates American culture, heritage, and lifestyle.” Some fans balked, likening Abbott’s language to a holly-scented dog whistle. “GAC has become a sanctuary for bigots,” a blogger from Colorado posted, calling the network “a carbon copy of the Hallmark Channel, minus the diversity initiatives.”
Hollywood PR crisis experts, on the other hand, call it the ideal reentry point for Loughlin, who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, admitting to paying $500,000 to have her daughters enrolled at the University of Southern California as crew recruits despite never playing the sport. She served two months in prison in late 2020.
“I think it’s a good move,” says Evan Nierman, CEO of global PR firm Red Banyan, noting that celebrities looking to redeem themselves have more options than ever. The channel, now known as GAC Family, is both gentle and noncontroversial—buzzwords for convicted felons aspiring for an act two—with a Christian audience that’s more forgiving than a typical fan. (The Lord’s Prayer instructs anyone hoping to be forgiven to extend the same courtesy to others.) Regardless, Nierman contends that a court sentence shouldn’t equal a career death sentence. He predicts once-canceled celebs may soon follow a similar career path. “If Lori does this successfully, it will become a template moving forward. Others may do the same, provided it works out for her.” (Loughlin couldn’t be reached for comment.)
Fortunately, a growing convoy of squeaky-clean creative vehicles are queuing up, should the need arise. The Christian Movie Database (CMDB), an online database founded in 2015 to chronicle the growth of the Christian film industry, currently lists 3,090 movies—more than 80 percent of which were released in the past 15 years. That industry, which operates independently from mainstream Hollywood, began in earnest in 2004 with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (the most successful independently financed film of all time, grossing $622 million worldwide after costing a mere $30 million to make). Christian content was once synonymous with bad acting and production, says CMDB founder Marty Jean-Louis, but The Passion of the Christ changed everything. “Suddenly people saw that Christian films could generate revenue and have excellent production value, and perception started to change, thanks to Mel Gibson,” Jean-Louis says. “It also doesn’t hurt when you start having Hollywood actors in Christian films.”
Kirk Cameron, for example, the former Growing Pains star, has produced eight titles under his faith-based production company, CAMFAM Studios, most recently Lifemark, detailing the last-minute decision of an 18-year-old girl to choose adoption over abortion; and The Homeschool Awakening, exploring “honest answers to homeschooling’s most frequently asked questions.” (Cameron famously became an evangelical Christian at the age of 17 while playing Mike Seaver, asking for dialogue that wasn’t in line with his faith to be cut from his script.)
So despite being bloodier than a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick, The Passion of the Christ birthed a cottage industry that went on to produce eight of the ten highest-grossing Christian movies of all time, including Fireproof (2008; $33.5 million), Courageous (2011; $35.7 million), Soul Surfer (2011; $47.1 million), God’s Not Dead (2014: $64.7 million), Heaven Is for Real (2014; $102 million), War Room (2015; $67.8 million), and Miracles from Heaven (2016; $62 million). Suddenly, people at Sherwood Baptist Church realized that the problem wasn’t Hollywood coming to Georgia, but that movies weren’t coming out of Georgia. They resolved to grow a culture other than agriculture.
Perhaps Loughlin is following the pious playbook of perennial bad boy (and now twice saved by Christ) Shia LaBeouf. On the heels of gnarly allegations in 2020 ranging from strangulation to shooting stray dogs for sport, LeBeouf converted to Catholicism earlier this year after a “miraculous change in perspective” while researching the life of Italian saint Padre Pio for an upcoming biopic. A YouTube interview with Bishop Robert Barron and LaBeouf was viewed more than a million times in one week, eliciting near-unanimous praise in thousands of comments along the lines of “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future” and “#pray4shia.”
Some may never forgive Loughlin for bribing her kids’ way into an elite college. Her most faithful fans, though, almost certainly will be more inclined to celebrate the long-awaited reunion of former Full House costars Candace Cameron Bure and Andrea Barber, both of whom also have films on GAC’s 2022 holiday slate. (The network is already the home of Full House and Fuller House.)
“This is a big deal,” says Rachel Carrington, a freelance writer and Hallmark superfan in South Carolina who covers Loughlin for Culturess. She explains that Abigail Stanton—Loughlin’s character on When Calls the Heart, the long-running Hallmark Channel series about life in a small mining town—was a series “stalwart,” the wise friend whom everyone in town relied on for advice. She even became the mayor. Carrington’s voice grows soft with emotion at the mention of Loughlin’s abrupt departure. “A light went out when Lori left,” she says. “I don’t know about the whole college admission scandal—and who am I to judge anyway? She was sentenced to prison, did her time, and is being forgiven by fans and offered a chance at redemption.”
Who am I to judge? She was sentenced to prison, did her time, and is being forgiven by fans.
Even the Hallmark Channel, which once assured Entertainment Tonight that it “did not have any plans to cast [Loughlin] in the future,” recently announced that her popular Garage Sale Mysteries series would be returning.
Abbott, meanwhile, is doubling down on his salvific star, whom he now refers to as “America’s sweetheart.”
“We talk three times a week,” he recently told Variety, referencing multiple upcoming projects Loughlin is set to lead on the network. “At the end of the day, [Loughlin] represents all that is positive about entertainment, and she has had a stellar career—not only on screen but also the way she’s conducted herself personally, in terms of being someone who has a track record of doing the right thing in the world at large, aside from whatever happened. I don’t know the details. She’s beloved and for good reason. We’re very proud of our association with her, and we want to make her part of the fabric.”