American Cultural Christianity Roundup • the film edition • January 11, 2017

There have been several notable stories in the world of Christian-made film these past few days, and I wanted to summarize a few of them (and comment, of course) for my faithful readers.

1. The Case for Christ

Deadline ran a story this week about the upcoming PureFlix film, The Case for Christ, based on the successful apologetics book by Lee Strobel. The website ran the story with the provocative title, “‘The Case For Christ’ Teaser: Athiest Vs. Believers, From ‘God’s Not Dead’ Filmmakers

Three interesting points about this story.

First, the teaser trailer was actually released several months ago, but Deadline presented it as if it happened in the past week.

Second, while the title of the story is essentially correct, it does seem like Deadline’s editors are trying to stoke some sort of fires through the headline.

Third, I’m quite fascinated by the current trend in Christian-made filmmaking to take a popular book (even a nonfiction, largely non-narrative one like The Case for Christ) or song (see the other stories discussed in this post) and turn them into narrative movies. This seems like a studio mindset sort of thing to do, because it’s safe. Existing properties and familiar names are always the safer bet for box office returns, but doing this with songs seems to be a throwback to the 70’s and 80’s when it was done with some frequency in secular films (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Convoy, Take This Job And Shove It, Harper Valley PTA, Ode To Billy Jo, etc). But it’s something that has fallen out of fashion in recent years.

And while turning narrative books into movies is nothing new, examples of non-narrative books (like A Case For Christ) being turned into narrative movies are a bit harder to find. How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying did it in the late 1960’s, Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask) in the early 70’s, and more recently, He’s Just Not That Into You.

The Case for Christ is a bit different in that the book does contain narrative elements, but the bulk of the book examines the arguments for and against the Christian faith. It’ll be interesting to see how this material is handled in a narrative film.

Meanwhile, if it is successful, maybe we’ll see faith-based filmmaking pick up this trend and make narrative films for other hit non-narrative books like The Prayer of Jabez or Mere Christianity.

2. I Can Only Imagine

dennis-quaid-cloris-leachman

REX/Shutterstock

Speaking of turning songs into movies, the über-successful Christian song I Can Only Imagine is being turned into a motion picture starring Dennis Quaid, Trace Atkins, and Cloris Leachman.

 

For those who live on Mars, or outside the Christian bubble, I Can Only Imagine is a song that was originally released by the Christian supergroup MercyMe in 2001. The song imagines a person encountering heaven for the first time and being overwhelmed by the reality of being with God and loved ones for eternity. While I’ve enjoyed the song from time to time (even if it is arguably one of the most over-played songs in Christian music) I never dreamed that anyone would consider turning the song into a major motion picture.

I Can Only Imagine has a shelf life that other songs can only dream of. Here we are, over fifteen years after the song was initially released, and it remains in the iTunes top 10 Gospel and Christian song list.  The song has also been named the most played single in Christian radio history.

No wonder someone decided to make it into a movie.

To get an idea of where they will be taking this film (which apparently will tell the story of the writing of the song) you can read this article from Christian Post. That article details Bart Millard’s journey to write the song, and the film will undoubtedly explore that time of his life.

While I’m not terribly keen on the idea of turning a hit Christian song into a film, I’ve generally liked the work of the Erwin brothers in the past. So, I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen the final product, which is due to hit theaters in Spring 2018.

Now I just need to start working on that treatment for Lord, I Lift Your Name On High: The Film

[By the way, if any of my readers are in Oklahoma City, they are filming the last scene of the movie this Friday at the Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall, and they’re looking for extras. Read more here.]

3. God Bless The Broken Road

The Hollywood Reporter recently posted a story about former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson taking a role in another upcoming movie based on a popular song.

God Bless The Broken Road is also an interesting song-to-movie project, maybe even moreso than I Can Only Imagine, for a number of reasons.

First of all, the song is not a “Christian song”, but a country music song that is being turned into a film that falls into the “faith-based” genre.

Second, the original song (first recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt band, and more recently by Rascall Flatts) was called “Bless the Broken Road”, but the filmmakers added “God” to the title. A small adjustment to increase the appeal to the Big Christian Audience or a more complete title, considering the song lyric is “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you”?

Third, the film is being brought to us by various members of the God’s Not Dead team – director Harold Cronk, actress Robin Givens, producers Troy Duhon and Dustin Solomon, distributed by PureFlix. A filmgoer’s anticipation for this film might be directly impacted by that knowledge – in a good or a bad way – depending on their opinion of the GND movies. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what this team does with a non-GND property.

Fourth, the description of the film in IMDB ends by saying “…the film combines elements of faith, country music, and stock car racing while paying tribute to those who serve in the United States Military.”

Do these categories represent the new four quadrants in American Christian-targeted filmmaking?

4. The Ark Encounter

Finally, in a non-film related note, this past summer I was able to attend the grand opening of The Ark Encounter in Kentucky. I detailed that visit in a review of my experience which you can read here.

However, the folks at the Ark Encounter recently tweeted an announcement about a new display which will be opening soon.

Yes, it is a viscious dinosaur being released into an arena filled with excited fans, like Gladiator meets Jurassic Park. See my review of The Dinosaur Kingdom II for similar displays.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week • September 10, 2016

We’re bringing back an old feature of the blog, Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week, where we link to stories from the past few days that Thimblerig finds to be of interest. We hope that you will find them interesting, too!

1. Q&A with Corbin Bernsen and his producing partner as Regent’s movie premieres

ily-webRegent University is premiering its first feature-length film, the faith-based romantic comedy “In-Lawfully Yours”, featuring Corbin Bernsen and written by Act One faculty member Sean Gaffney and Robert Kirbyson, and directed by Kirbyson [edited – thanks, Guy]. This is an interesting project, because it’s a low-budget indie film that is forgoing the theatrical route that so many faith-based films attempt, and releasing initially on Netflix.

It’s fascinating to see the variety of methods low-budget faith-based filmmakers are taking to get eyes on their films. For instance, Lifeway films recently bowed its film, The Insanity of God, on 550 screens for one day, and it was briefly the #1 film in per-theater average. In fact, it did well enough that it will have an encore showing on September 19. 

Other faith-based films have attemped the wide-release route, and with the exception of a couple of break-out hits (War Room, Miracles from Heaven), most have failed to make back their budgets.

The choice to have In-Lawfully Yours only on Netflix is an interesting one, and is quite possibly demonstrating the wave of the future for the faith-based genre of film.

Meanwhile, reading Bernsen’s thoughts on the subject is pretty interesting, so click on over and read what he has to say.

2. Pure Flix brings new titles to TIFF

I’ve been really interested to watch the growth of Pure Flix after the success of God’s Not Dead back in 2014. Previously a middling little independent faith-based film company, they suddenly found themselves sitting on a mound of box office gold when the film wound up pulling in over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales. Since that time, the company has expanded in numerous ways: the Pure Flix home streaming service; the Pure Flix U.S. distribution company (by far the most successful faith-based distributor on the market); and the lesser known Quality Flix, the International Sales and Distribution wing of the company.

The second interesting thing that Thimblerig found this week was a story detailing Pure Flix’s efforts to introduce four films at the Toronto International Film Festival, which could potentially lead to international distribution deals for these four films. The two big pictures Pure Flix is pushing includes the upcoming Hillsong concert documentary, Let Hope Rise, and the drama I’m Not Ashamed, which tells the story of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the victims of the Columbine massacre.

cet6ylnw8aepkn8This story interested Thimblerig because it’s a story about Pure Flix, a faith-based film company, on Screendaily.com, a secular film website. And the story is examining Pure Flix’s distribution efforts as if it were any other film company, and not one that is Christian-owned and operated. The story doesn’t contain any belittling, or any disrespect, or any winks or nudges or “know-what-I-means” – it’s business as usual.

But I thought we were at war?

3. Columbine martyr film seeks bold youth revival

The third interesting thing that Thimblerig found this past week was a story detailing that upcoming Pure Flix film, I’m Not Ashamed.

The film is apparently being released along with some pretty serious ministry efforts, including Pure Flix’s partnership with See You At The Pole and First Priority, all to help mobilize young people to see the film, with the hope of begining a “national movement of youth across the country propelled by the movie.”

This is the truly fascinating part of this faith-based movie push that has been going on for the past couple of years – this mixture of marketing and ministry. Christianity and capitalism.

It works this way: a company like Pure Flix makes a faith-based film and encourages everyone to bring vans full of church and youth groups, which will enable the message of the movie to be seen by thousands, but will also mean thousands of seats sold. The company develops curriculum and ministry resources to help underscore the message of the movie with those thousands, and then sells the curriculum for premium prices (with a few notable exceptions: Captive, 90 Minutes in Heaven, Ben-Hur being three).

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-48-19-pmThis is what continues to flummox me: a faith-based company like Pure Flix has huge financial success, and yet they continue to sell their ministry resources. The Kendrick brothers sell all their resources, too, even if their last movie made over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales.

As an American, I have no problem with this. It’s an example of capitalism at its finest. But as a Christian, it makes me pause. Imagine if Paul had charged the church at Ephesus for his letter? Or if Jesus had charged entry to the Sermon on the Mount? Since when did we become okay with ministry being about profit over being prophetic? Isn’t that at least part of the reason why the Reformation began?

Join Thimblerig next week, when we’ll be back with three new interesting things.

 

 

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • May 17, 2016

It’s been a slow few weeks, and considering I have a personal boycott of anything having to do with the presidential election and I’m tired of people arguing about bathrooms, I thought I would reinstate the old “Three Interesting Things” I’ve found recently as I’ve been jumping around the internet.

Today, I’ll be writing about Lecrae, Phil Vischer, and The Flash.

1. Lecrae Signs a Deal with Columbia Records

lecraeThis is tremendously exciting news for a number of reasons. But for me, I’m excited because it shows that secular companies recognize and reward artistic excellence, even when it comes from *gasp* Christians.

This news also flies in the face of the American persecution narrative that is so popular in certain Evangelical circles these days. If things were so bad for American Christians, would one of our top artists be getting deals with major labels?

Let’s take a moment and look at this particular artist.

Over the past few years, Lecrae has had songs reach #1 on the Billboard charts, won two Grammy awards, and has appeared on secular national television performing his music (see the video above). These things wouldn’t have happened if he cared about his artistic integrity less than he did sharing his faith, and I think his story should inspire all Christian artists to work hard on achieving excellence in both things.

Believing artists, take your craft seriously, do it with all excellence, and the world will notice and respond.

2. Phil Vischer’s Patreon Page

You might know Phil Vischer as the creator of Veggietales. Well, I have been a loyal listener of the Phil Vischer podcast for the past couple of years, which I wrote about in a past article. I highly recommend this podcast for those of you who want fun and reasoned discourse on all sorts of important issues. Phil and his co-hosts Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor do a great job breaking down stories of the day and discussing them from a Christian perspective.

Recently, Phil announced that he was starting a Patreon account so that the podcast gang can branch out and do more. I’m personally excited to see what this might mean, and am happy to encourage Thimblerig readers to consider supporting Phil’s Patreon as well.

So, if you aren’t familiar with Phil and his podcast, go check it out!

3. The Runaway Dinosaur

CiM_J7dUoAAK_JaOkay, technically, this isn’t a news story I found online. It’s an episode of my family’s favorite television program, The Flash. And if you don’t watch The Flash, know that it delivers, week after week.

My family loves it, my toddler thinks that he is the Flash (see the video below), and I’ve been consistently impressed by the way the show delivers action with heart. Grant Gustin is the perfect Barry Allen/Flash, and in this past week’s episode (directed by Kevin Smith), the show outdid itself, taking us to places we’ve never been before. And darned if I didn’t get a bit teary-eyed by the way they wrapped up Barry’s time with the Speed Force. Great job to Gustin and the cast, Kevin Smith, writer Zack Stentz, and producer Greg Berlanti.

If you aren’t watching The Flash, then what are you waiting for? Binge the past two seasons and get caught up in time for the summer hiatus.

Photo by Christopher Patey

Photo by Christopher Patey

Having said that, I do have one word of criticism for The Flash and the other superhero programs produced by Greg Berlanti, and I’ll mention it in the off-and-not-likely-chance that he reads this article.

Mr. Berlanti, I appreciate that you are committed to diversity with the programs you produce, attempting to represent all different aspects of our society. For example, I thought it was bold and brave that you made the potentially controversial choice to have the West family be African-American rather than Caucasian, that you’ve consistently had strong female characters as well as male, and that you have quietly introduced homosexual characters, all in an attempt to reflect society.

But, in my opinion, you’ve left out one group of people, and it’s pretty glaring.

Where are people of faith?

Almost 90% of Americans identify as religious, and yet we see no people of faith (not counting ancient Egyptian religion) in any of your superhero programs. No character turns to their religious beliefs to help them grapple with receiving super-powers, no character mourns the loss of another character by praying in (or out of) church, no character reads any sort of sacred text as inspiration or goes to a priest to discuss what is happening in the world, no talking heads discuss the theological ramifications of super beings in the background on Central City talk shows.

It’s a pity, especially when a nuanced handling of the topic could increase the potential power of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, putting them over the top of being great dramatic/action television.

So, Mr. Berlanti, as a “fan of faith”, I’d love it if you’d consider representing my people in your programs as well.

By the way, here’s my toddler (Noah, the fastest three year old alive) recreating a Flash sprint through the ferry terminal here in Shenzhen, China, complete with the slow motion scenes. And yes, we are planning on getting him a Flash costume when we are back in the U.S. this summer.

Thanks for joining us for Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day! Look for a new episode next week, and feel free to share your own interesting stories!