NEW YORK -- Rick Santorum was glad-handing a friendly crowd at a cocktail reception the other night, seeking support just as he did for many grueling months on the 2012 campaign trail for the Republican presidential nomination.
But this time he wasn't looking to get on a ticket -- well, not yet, anyway -- but rather, to sell tickets. Movie tickets.
Many might not know that Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and darling of America's social conservatives, is now a movie mogul. In June, he became CEO of EchoLight Studios, a Dallas-based Christian film company that produces and distributes what it calls faith-based family films. In the past few weeks, he's been promoting his first theatrical release since taking over; Aptly, given the season, it's a Christmas film.
"The Christmas Candle," which features Scottish singing sensation Susan Boyle in a minor speaking role, is about a minister in a small 19th-century English town, at odds with his congregation's belief in a blessed, miracle-producing candle.
Based on the book by Max Lucado, it opened Friday in more than 300 cities across the country -- none too soon, says Santorum, who believes Hollywood has fallen down when it comes to Christmas films.
"Name a Christmas movie produced by Hollywood that has anything to do with Christmas," Santorum said at a recent Manhattan screening of his film. "Not elves and Santa Claus and reindeer and `The Polar Express' -- some of these are very good movies, uplifting, wonderful, but none of them mention what Christmas is about! None of them mention the birth of Jesus Christ. That is remarkable."
It's also one of the reasons he got into the movie business, he says, capitalizing on his newfound visibility after the 2012 campaign. Santorum quit the race in April of that year, ceding to eventual nominee Mitt Romney, but his surprising performance in the hard-fought primaries left him, at least for the moment, as a prominent social conservative voice.
"After the campaign, I had this newfound gift: fame," he said. "People knew who I was, all across the country. And I thought, well, how could I take this gift and help God and country?"
Santorum says he's a big movie fan. (Asked what his favorites are -- besides "The Christmas Candle," of course -- he mentions "It's A Wonderful Life" and says he also plans to see the "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.") But there's a lot about current fare he doesn't like.
"Look, violence for the sake of violence is not a good thing," he said. "Sex for the sake of sex is not a good thing. That doesn't mean there can't be sex or violence or language in a movie if it's put in the context of what it is and the effect of it, the consequence of it. But if it's just gratuitous, that's another thing."
At the Manhattan screening, Santorum shook the hands of filmgoers and chatted about the film. Though the invited guests were upbeat, critics have been mixed.
The Tulsa World called the film "stiff when it needs to be alive, colorless when it needs to be shiny." The Washington Post, on the other hand, said that "in spite of hammy histrionics requisite for the genre, it is not at all a turkey." The Hollywood Reporter noted its "positive message," but also its "hopelessly stodgy execution." It also called Boyle "hopelessly stiff."
EchoLight is distributing the film in the United States, but did not produce it. Santorum says he and EchoLight did suggest several changes, some of which made it in, but not all. There's a moment toward the end that personally irked him, he said, but his artistic opinion on that point did not win the day.
Santorum says his studio is now working on several new movies, with three scripts in development. His tenure hasn't been entirely filled with peace and goodwill: Soon after taking over, the new CEO clashed with two former executives at the studio over financial and other issues. The executives were fired, and EchoLight subsequently sued them for breach of contract, among other things.
As for his own timetable, Santorum isn't certain, and that's partly because he hasn't ruled out the possibility that he'll be on the campaign trail again sometime soon. He offered a quick "Sure!" when asked if he's open to running again.
A lot will depend on personal factors, he said. "You put a wife and seven children through a run for president -- particularly the run I made, which was a lot of grass-roots knocking on doors -- and the time away from your family is pretty taxing. And there's the financial aspect of it. I've got seven kids, three in college, three more on the way, so it's a big financial commitment to do that for me, because running for president doesn't pay."
He does seem to have strong opinions on other potential GOP nominees. Without naming names (though the question was about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) Santorum said: "We need someone who's an authentic conservative." Some potential candidates, he said, "tend to be apologists for certain positions that Republicans hold, instead of being advocates for those positions."
As for his future, he says, "We'll see where we are a year from now. But in the meantime, I am all in with this (movie-making), and we'll see how it goes."