Remember last December, when Kirk Cameron put out the call to his fans to “storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes” and help increase the audience score for his Razzie award winning film, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas? It was Cameron’s attempt to balance the critical reviews, which in the case of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, were abysmal. Thus, the Razzies.
Unfortunately, for Kirk Cameron, his efforts backfired when word got out to those outside of his fanbase. Having the faithful bring up the audience score was seen as gaming the system by many, and they decided to do some storming of their own. Suddenly Cameron found his audience score bottoming out (currently 30%), and his reviews filled with all sorts of derogatory nonsense.
The most recent Christian-made film to be released was this weekend’s Do You Believe?, put out by Pure Flix, the same film company that brought us last year’s surprise hit, God’s Not Dead. As seems to be par for the course, the film has been receiving fairly negative reviews from the critics (currently 10% on Rotten Tomatoes) and overwhelmingly positive reviews from the core audience (currently 82%).
And predictably, the Rotten Tomato plea has gone out from the folks at Pure Flix to the faithful.
In spite of what the anti-Cameronites thought about Kirk Cameron’s efforts, I don’t see anything wrong with encouraging your fans to rate and review your film. It’s grassroots campaigning, and say what you will about their films, but Christian-owned film companies are experts in grass roots campaigning. Pure Flix in particular has been hitting the core audience pretty hard these past few months. They’ve been using all sort of methods to get people excited to see Do You Believe?, posting pictures on Facebook, hosting several advanced screenings for big fans, doing interviews all over the world of Christian media, all in an effort to build word-of-mouth excitement.
It’s a given that the people who make up Pure Flix’s core audience are Christians. I think it’s also a pretty good bet that they are Christians who primarily interact with Christian media – watching mainly Christian-made films, listening mainly to Christian-made music, and reading primarily Christian-written books. Therefore, it stands to reason that Pure Flix would help nudge that grassroots audience in the right direction to increase the legitimacy and reputation of the film in the eyes of the world.
After all, don’t most of us feel like the critics are rarely right? If the critical score is low but the audience score is high, most of us will accept the audience score, because we’re audience, too. This means that if someone is on the fence about seeing a film, a high audience score might be just what it takes to nudge them into buying the ticket.
Having established that I don’t have a problem with the strategy of encouraging fans of a film to rate and review a film on a site like Rotten Tomatoes, I will say that I do have a problem with the attitudes that many Christians show to the reviews of secular critics. While Do You Believe?’s Facebook page is full of glowing comments about the film from the die-hard fans, it’s also sprinkled with the victimized viewpoint that the disagreeing critics are either evil, blind, or ignorant.
Here’s an example:
Please go to Rotten Tomatos and Post the Same review there as right now Only a couple positive ones are posted the majority have a Anti-Christian bent/agenda.
I can’t be surprised that critics knocked it. They are blinded by the ‘angel of light’ the counterfeit. However I thought it was incredibly impacting even a step above God’s Not Dead and I thought that was an awesome movie. These critics need a lot of prayer because I’ve watched movies they destroyed and I enjoyed them and those they rated so wonderfully absolutely horrible. Don’t give up the message will reach many.
I loved it. Go see it and decide for yourself dont be turned away by the ignorant critics reviews
I do believe that critic bias towards Christian-made movies exists. I’ve seen it with the reviews of Mom’s Night Out, The Song, and Believe Me, three films that were – in my opinion – the most accessible Christian-made films of 2014. These three films deserved to be judged on their merits, and not the fact that they were being marketed to the faith-based audience. But if you read the reviews, it doesn’t take long for the anti-Christian-film bias to become evident.
Incidentally, even The Passion of the Christ only has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 49%, and oddly enough, the highest ranked Christian-made movie is Phil Vischer’s Jonah: A Veggietales Movie (69%).
The problem is, if a bias does exist, then it’s a bias of our own making. Christian-made and Christian-subculture-marketed films have been so preachy, so poorly made, and so Christian-subculture-focused for so long, that I don’t know when secular critics will be willing to give our films the benefit of the doubt.
We’ve made our bed and now we have to lie in it.
But here we are, living in an interesting time when our films are starting to become mainstream, playing alongside secular films. This is vastly different than the story with most of our books and music, which tend to stay firmly entrenched within the subculture walls that we build for them. Our movies have such potential to burst the Christian bubble, but only if we Christians don’t screw it up.
So far, it’s not looking good.
But I’m a hopeful person by nature, and so Christians, rather than calling foul or lamenting the spiritual deficiencies of people you don’t know, I have a few things for you to understand that can help you become an intelligent player in the conversation, as our films gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
1) Film critics know their business.
Get it? Critics are – by and large – professional journalists. While there are exceptions, most of the critics you find represented on an aggregator site like Rotten Tomatoes have spent years studying and learning film. It’s their job, just like it’s the job of the elementary schoolteacher to know 6th grade Mathematics, or the job of a endocrinologist to know hormones. To dismiss their criticism outright as some form of religious persecution or spiritual blindness is – in and of itself – ignorant, and in doing so you miss out on an opportunity for growth both for yourself and the filmmakers you are trying to support.
The fact is, if the movie has artistic or cinematic merit then the critic will usually acknowledge that merit, regardless of the agenda of the film. We can actually see this in the current reviews for Do You Believe?, and the fact that most critics are saying things like the movie is well-filmed, Mira Sorvino’s performance is effective, and the car crash at the end is impressive.
However, their job is to look at films critically (thus the name of the occupation). This means that they will clearly point out bad writing, plot holes, structural difficulties, unbelievable characterizations, and so on. Again, Christian filmgoers, understand that this is their job. And guess what? They actually don’t only score Christian-made films in the low range. Currently, the number one movie of the weekend was Insurgent, and it only has a 32% on Rotten Tomatoes. Sean Penn’s The Gunman has a 14% (and he’s *gasp* an agnostic liberal!), and Accidental Love (a film with a star-studded cast and extremely worldly subject matter) has a bottom-scraping 6%.
2) Practice contextualization.
In missions, contextualization is the process of learning a new culture so that you can learn the best way to present the Gospel message to that culture in a meaningful way. Christian filmmaking, while not new, has become a new force in the cultural landscape, and we must learn that landscape – both as audience and artist.
How do we do that? We learn about quality of film by watching acclaimed films that aren’t necessarily Christian. Since our films are playing alongside secular films, we must understand what makes secular films good so that we can make our own films better.
If you’re comparing the Christian film you’re watching to other Christian films, then you’re making the same mistake of those biased critics I mentioned above. You aren’t understanding the culture, and you’ll continue to find yourself both rejecting and being rejected by that culture. Sure, Scripture tells us being rejected is a part of being a follower of Christ, but that doesn’t mean we actively seek rejection by not learning the craft. Imagine if a doctor was proud that he was rejected for having patients die on his table, saying, “Jesus was rejected, and so am I! What a happy man I am!” It’s a ridiculous example, but it’s what happens so often for Christians regarding filmmaking.
I’m not suggesting that a Christian watch hours of R-rated material (although the rating should never be the sole arbiter of your decision process), because there are plenty of critically-acclaimed PG and PG13 rated films. Watch those films and pay attention to why they’re good. Read the reviews after you’ve watched to see why they are appreciated. Disagree if you will, but understand the critic point of view.
In other words, actively watch acclaimed films so that you can understand why people appreciate them, then you might come closer to understanding why our films get reviewed the way that they do.
3) Let the story be the message
I’ll keep my final point simple. As you accomplish #2, I would hope that you would learn the importance of wanting more than just a good message in the films being made for you. Love the message, sure, but don’t stop there, demand well-told stories.
The clarion call is, “Support Christian movies so that we can send Hollywood a message!” But here is the problem: if the message you’re sending Hollywood is that we don’t care what you make for us as long as you include the message, then all you will get will be message movies, poorly made.
That should bother you, especially as you think about my first two points. But the point has been made over and over again on this blog, as well as other places, so I won’t belabor it.
Finally, with regards to Pure Flix’s latest call for improving the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the people that love the film should absolutely go and review and rate the film. But when you do, be prepared for two things:
First, don’t be surprised if the word gets out, and the haters do the same thing to Do You Believe? that they did to Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. Just be prepared.
Second, when that happens, remember the message of the cross that the Pure Flix guys were trying to convey in their film, and respond to those haters the way that Christ responded to you when you came to him. Not with more hate, not with hostility, not with complaints of persecution and abuse, but with love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Same goes for the critics who may seem as hostile to our message as they are to the medium in which we present it.
Because when you think about it, it’s not our movies that will ultimately transform the cultural landscape – it’s when Christians truly act like Jesus to the rest of the world, especially in the face of rejection.