Asked to name a movie made in Cincinnati, 11 out of 10 people will probably say The Ides of March, a 2011 film that starred George Clooney as George Clooney (as usual); politicians as weevils; idealistic, naïve liberals as idealistic, naïve liberals; and Cincinnati as Philadelphia, I think.

You can see us in the movie, but it’s like one of those photo booth snapshots that make everyone look like a high school dropout. Our city comes across too Pittsburgh, too Cleveland: like Jimmy Stewart as Jimmy Hoffa.

And it was depressing. The—spoiler alert—message: Even the most saintly Democrat do-gooder candidates lie and cheat; politics is—stop the presses—a dirty business.

Hollywood is good at extravagant profanity, gratuitous sex, PC doctrine, stomach-flopping violence and subliminal stupidity. And those are just the kids’ movies. They are also very good at depressing.

Joe Boyd, president of Cincinnati film company Rebel Pilgrim Productions, screened several Hollywood movies as an awards judge and decided, “They were all great movies but I was thoroughly depressed after watching them. I just wished one was hopeful. People keep saying they want more hope and inspiration—more family-friendly movies.”

So Boyd and a few others are quietly making them. The graduate of Cincinnati Christian University has been a pastor at Vineyard Community Church in Sharonville, an actor on General Hospital, a Second City comedy performer, an improv comedian in Las Vegas and now a film producer. His top movie, A Strange Brand of Happy, featured Shirley Jones and scored 88 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes audience meter. It was filmed in Cincinnati and released in theaters last fall—all on a budget of less than $500,000, which would hardly buy Johnny Depp’s eye shadow in Hollywood.

To novice filmmakers, Boyd is the Warner Brothers of indie producers in Cincinnati. “We want to tell stories of hope in action,” he says. “That means we are doing some things that are faith-based. But mostly they are about how family and friends are the most important thing. Those are not groundbreaking topics but we feel there’s a lack of hope in Hollywood too often.”

Nationally, 2014 has been called “The Year of the Christian Movie” (Noah, Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, Heaven is For Real). As a contributor for the Huffington Post, Boyd asked, “What is a Christian Movie?” His answer: “This is when we will know that Christian movies have made it: When they don’t need the label to draw an audience. But I’m not naïve. It is the label that lets these movies, generally under $2 million budgets, exist.”

The notion of making movies without Hollywood studios, stars, theaters or publicity sounds like building a Mercedes with parts from Home Depot. Cars come from factories, not your basement. Movies come from Hollywood, not Loveland.

But the Henline family apparently didn’t get that memo. In a warehouse just west of Goshen, they re-created an ancient Greek city, Smyrna, right down to the papyrus plants. Their feature, Polycarp: Destroyer of Gods, set in the second century, is about an early Christian martyr, Bishop Polycarp, who was burned and stabbed to death for refusing to renounce his faith and hail Caesar.

The screenwriter is Jerica Henline, 21. The director is Joe Henline, 19. The executive producer is their father, Jerry Henline, who provides most of the financing and the soundstage—an unused building from his adhesive manufacturing business. The early clips are surprisingly sophisticated.

On film, the Smyrna marketplace, Hall of Judgment and city streets are convincing. You’d never know they were made from joint-compound, landscaping materials and building supplies. “I was at Lowe’s every single day,” says Art Director Daniel Stibral. “The lighting is key.”

He’s from South Dakota. Others in the cast and crew of more than 160 represented 20 states. The lead actor, Garry Nation of Texas, has the gravitas of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in his Moses robe.

On the day I visited the set, the crew was doing “pickups” to patch gaps and re-take scenes. The striped clapsticks smacked together, and the warehouse went silent for “action”—extras walked past the Hall of Judgment, two women shopped in the marketplace. They did it again and again and again…. Pretty soon it looked like real work.

I asked Jerica what she would tell someone who wanted to make a movie. “Don’t!” she laughs. “It’s a nightmare. If I had known before I started, I never would have done it.”

But ask her on another day and she would say it’s the experience of a lifetime.

The Henlines are keeping expectations on a short leash for release in February. But if Hollywood lacks hope, they have plenty. “It’s a timeless film,” Jerica says. “We don’t know what persecutions are in our future. Jesus gave all he had for us. It’s only right to give him all we have. That’s the martyr’s message.”

Churches, youth groups and schools could be the audience. Or it might be a lightning-bolt hit like another low-budget independent film with a positive message: Fireproof, a Christian movie dismissed by critics that became the highest grossing independent film of 2008, earning more than $33 million.

Independent films are catching on all over the country. But, “Something is happening in Cincinnati on several fronts at the same time, like a super collider,” Boyd says. “There’s an emergent entrepreneurial culture catching on.”

One reason is digital video, he says. “Now it costs virtually nothing to reshoot. What would have been a movie budget of $5 million to $10 million is now under a million. It’s possible to make money on a movie at a cost of less than a million if you are a good business person.”

There’s also a young generation willing to learn by doing, he says. “They are more savvy, more interested in filmmaking.”

And good actors are willing to work for less if they believe in the script and the message, he says.

For example, there is Hope Bridge, which Boyd worked on with Christi and David Eaton of InFuse Pictures. Filmed in Lawrenceburg and Lexington, Ky., it has big names—Booboo Stewart (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Chicago Hope)—and a positive message.

The Eatons had a suicide in their family, followed by the suicide of their friends’ son. “David and I couldn’t sleep,” says Christi. “It was like an epidemic. It seemed like it surrounded us. We could do fundraiser walks, but that only reaches the people who already know what’s going on. There had to be something greater to show people what the signs are.”

David suggested making a movie, and Christi replied by asking him if he had been drinking mimosas for breakfast. “Eight weeks later we wrote the script,” she says.

Boyd, who has a role in the movie, warned her that, “It will be either a nightmare or you will be addicted.” He was right. She is now working full-time on films, and can’t wait to launch another after Hope Bridge comes out next fall.

The story is about a young man looking for answers, she says. “Why would his father take his life? Why in the world? This person seemed so happy. It’s a mystery. People want to figure it out and fix it. So the son goes on this physical journey, but we are behind his mind, going through his mental and emotional journey as well.

“There is such an enormous amount to say—where there is hope there is life. Good things can come from tragedy and you can never give up. Our purpose goes beyond our family tragedy and healing and our friends losing their sons—if this movie can save one person’s life it was worth it all.”

The Henlines and Eatons agree that raising money is harder than finding good actors and crews. But Boyd says investors are catching on to public demand for positive stories.

Asked to name a do-it-yourself movie, 11 out of 10 people would say “You can’t do that.” But they said the same thing about self-published books that became bestsellers. They said it about newspapers (“Freedom of the press is for the man who owns one”) that now compete with blogs and Internet news sites.

Maybe the big picture is that little pictures are the future—starting small, then spreading to fill the empty place in Hollywood’s soul. We could use more light in that darkness.

As Goldwyn famously said, “If I were in this business only for the business, I wouldn’t be in this business.”