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Last fall, filmmaker Jon Erwin (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out, Woodlawn) issued a video challenge to the church to embrace filmmaking as the new Roman Road – a new way to reach the world with the Gospel. The video was well-made, and hit on many important issues for Christians to consider as we move ahead with our attempts to impact culture with our cinematic art. You can watch the video below, and pay attention to Erwin’s arguments at 1:54.

 

One of the questions this video raises, “Can a Christian film play in China?” grabbed me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve lived in China for the past four years, and while here I’ve enjoyed several Hollywood blockbusters on the big screen. Second, I’ve learned about the incredibly stringent guidelines that China places on the western films it allows to be shown in domestic cinemas.

Bottom line? A Christian blockbuster, as Erwin proposes, would have an incredibly difficult time showing up on a Chinese screen for a multitude of reasons. And considering that China is set to be the biggest film market by 2020, this is something that Christian filmmakers need to be considering as we become more and more serious about the films we are producing.

Which brings me to the point of this blog post. Considering China’s enormous untapped film market, and considering that Christians typically want their films to be a positive force in the world for the sake of the Gospel, what can filmmakers of faith do to try and ensure that their film stands at least a chance, however small, of being seen on Chinese screens?

I have three ideas, and unfortunately, none of them are easy.

1. We need to create true blockbusters.

Transformers 4: The number two highest grossing foreign film in China history.

Transformers 4: The number two highest grossing foreign film in China history.

Here’s where Erwin and I agree. Christian filmmakers, producers, investors, all need to be purposeful about creating real, true blockbusters, and this is not an enterprise to enter lightly. China typically only accepts blockbusters in the list of 34 foreign films that they permit to be shown each year, and the foreign movies that have done well in China share the following qualities of a blockbuster: they are four-quadrant, they have lots of big action set pieces (films aren’t typically dubbed into Mandarin, so the action has to keep the audience’s attention), they star big name actors and/or directors, they are parts of successful franchises, they have eye-popping SFX, and…

well… muscle cars and giant fighting robots are always a plus.

The typical small Christian-made dramas will not make a dent in things in China when produced as foreign-made films. In fact, they would never get chosen.

And so, we do need to attempt our own blockbusters, if we want our films to play onscreen in China.

Of course, the argument could be made that attempting a Christian-made blockbuster could very easily lead to our own Christian version of Battlefield Earth (one of the most horrid films ever made, in John Travolta’s attempt to make a Scientology blockbuster), but if done well, it could be also be pretty amazing.

If done well.

2) We Need To Take the “Christian” out of “Christian Blockbuster”.

Yeah, I know. This would be a deal-breaker to many Christian investors. I can hear the rich Christian businessman now: “What’s the use in dropping millions into a picture that won’t have a Gospel message?”

1-20My response to that question would be simple: Romans 1:20.

God reveals Himself in the artistry of creation. Why can’t we attempt to reveal Him in the artistry of our creation, too? There may be a time for being obvious, but as Jesus proved in his parables, there is also a time for just telling good stories and trusting God to do the rest, to make the audience work for their dinner – as Andrew Stanton said about storytelling.

For a film made by Christians to be big in China, the message would need to be shifted from preachy to artistry, or it would it would never be accepted. Christian filmmakers need to become more skilled in the use of imagery to convey our messages: metaphor, imagination, beauty, awe, wonder… these are aspects of artistry that are consistently missing from our films. Learning how to use these tools could not only make the films agreeable to the censors in China, but possibly to the unchurched in America as well.

Can you imagine a non-didactic film made by Christians that people around the world wanted to see because of the excellent storytelling and artistry? In fact, I posit that if we were to do this well, trying to make a film that would play in China could actually help save Christian filmmaking from itself.

[Just a note: Noah and Exodus, two very mainstream Hollywood Bible epics, weren’t accepted as one of the 34 foreign films allowed in China during the year they were produced. And these were big movies with big names made by big studios. But they didn’t stand a chance. Why? Because they were too biblical.]

3) We Need To Find Partners

Having said there is no place for the small dramas, another way to get the opportunity to tell our stories in China is by partnering in co-productions with Chinese companies. Any film producer who is truly interested in learning how to take advantage of the growing Chinese market should be in Hong Kong and/or the Mainland forging alliances and friendships with filmmakers, producers, and investors. The good thing about these sorts of films is that they can be smaller, which might help take care of the problem that making blockbusters is the only solution. Such films might not get the same financial returns, but they stand a better chance of actually being made, and would have the added benefit of getting the filmmaker’s feet in the door.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.59.51 PM

British actor Joseph Fiennes (R) and Chinese actor Dou Xiao attend the press conference of the movie “The Last Race” in Tianjin, north China, June 24, 2015.

A perfect example of this can be seen in an upcoming film, The Last Race, an unofficial sequel to the Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire. The film, which is due to be released this year, tells the true story of Eric Liddell (played by Joseph Fiennes of the upcoming Risen), the Olympic runner who went to China as a missionary after the 1924 Olympics and who died in a Japanese internment camp in 1945.

The Last Race was written and directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Shin, produced by Canadian Michael Parker, and distributed by Hong Kong powerhouse Alibaba Pictures Group (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). It’s hard to say how much the film will bring out Liddell’s faith story, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.
So, what do you say, Christians filmmakers, producers, writers, investors? Are you serious about making films that can have a worldwide impact or are you just satisfied to see your name on a marquee at the local cineplex after your church rented the space for the night?
Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 4.15.35 PMAre you willing to undertake the hard work, step out of your area of comfort, and for many of you – risk everything to try? Yes, you may fail. Unless your name is Spielberg or Cruise, you probably will fail. After all, as Erwin says in the video quoting an unnamed filmmaker, “If we knew how to make hit films that’s all we’d make,” and so even making the attempt is a gamble of epic proportions.
But this sounds like what filmmakers all around the world do every day.
So why not go for it?
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