May all your lightsabers be elegant.
May all your lightsabers be elegant.
Last weekend, the movie industry was collectively stunned when the Erwin Brother’s I Can Only Imagine sold $17 million dollars worth of seats (which roughly equals $1.5 billion in concessions) on a $7 million dollar budget, the 4th best opening for a faith-based film ever.
This weekend, Affirm Films’ new Christian-themed film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, will open, followed Easter weekend by Pure Flix’s third film in the God’s Not Dead franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. That’s three major Christian-made films opening across the nation in a two week period, films that have been made both as cinematic experiences as well as ministry opportunities.
This is one of the things that sets the so-called “faith-based film” genre apart from most other genres – the idea that the films are meant to be more than just entertainment, but entertainment with spiritual ramifications: an opportunity to learn about the Christian faith in a non-threatening, neutral environment for those outside the faith, or a chance for spiritual growth for people who are already followers of Jesus Christ.
To illustrate what I mean by this, on the website for I Can Only Imagine, we’re told, “A gripping reminder of the power of forgiveness, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE beautifully illustrates that no one is ever too far from God’s love—or from an eternal home in Heaven.” Paul, Apostle of Christ has a page on it’s website where James Faulkner, who plays Paul in the film, reads portions of Scripture as a tool for Christians observing the season of Lent. The makers of God’s Not Dead 3: Light in the Darkness say “GOD’S NOT DEAD: A LIGHT IN DARKNESS is a powerful reminder that in all circumstances, we are called to be a light for Jesus to a world in desperate need of hope.”
And so Christian-made filmmakers will often develop ministry tools to encourage churches and individuals to take the film as more than just entertainment. This can be interpreted in at least three ways: one, that the filmmakers are genuinely wanting their films to make a spiritual impression on audiences; two, that the filmmakers recognize that ministry resources are another revenue stream and an encouragement to sell bulk tickets to entire churches; and three, a combination of the two.
The second option might seem cynical, but it can’t be disputed that filmmaking – even Christian-made filmmaking – is big business. It’s especially indisputable now that we are living in a time where three modestly budgeted Christian-made films featuring well known actors are being released in thousands of cinemas across the country in two weeks. These films represent hundreds of filmmaking professionals, thousands of hours of work, millions of dollars of investment, and so it makes sense that many decisions connected to these films are directly related to the potential big payoffs that will hopefully accompany them. But at the same time, they are also legitimate means for opening discussions about spiritual and theological issues, and this is where the ministry tools come into play.
What about the three movies being released now? What sorts of ministry resources are they offering? Are they giving away ministry resources, charging for them, or both?
On the I Can Only Imagine website, we are directed to a page that links to a few different things. The first is a link to City on a Hill’s website where the majority of ministry resources are offered, including: a small group study ($39.99); a journal ($14.99); a leader’s guide ($14.99); a church campaign kit ($79.99); and others. Back on the movie’s website, you can also purchase Bart Millard’s autobiography, A MercyMe album, an I Can Only Imagine children’s book, and a host of other things including a bunch of framed art.
The website doesn’t list any free ministry resources other than some free downloadables such as video clips and web banners.
A trip to the Paul, Apostle of Christ website finds a much smaller resource operation going on, with more resources being given away. Like I Can Only Imagine, Paul‘s website offers a few free downloadable social media items, but they also offer a couple of ministry resources including a reasonably comprehensive discussion guide and a more concise church leader packet, all available as free downloads.
Interestingly, you’ll find no church campaign kits advertised on the Paul website, but I did some digging around and found out that Outreach is selling one for $49.95.
Our final stop on the Christian-made movie tour takes us to Pure Flix’s God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness webpage and the first thing that struck me when visiting this website was that you can tell that Pure Flix has done this before.
The main clue is the way they handle the campaign kit. It’s not just a simple Bible study or sermon guide selling from $49.45 to $79.99. Rather, it’s a kit to help your church buy out a theater and hold a premiere event experience complete with optional red carpet (extra $199) and backdrop for photos (extra $370 for a 9’8″x 7’2″ Jumbo Sleeve Banner). How much for this experience? Roughly $2,500. This is being billed as an experience where your church or organization would need to purchase at least 250 seats – essentially buying out the theater – and the cost would include many of the same things you get in a typical campaign kit.
Interestingly – and this is what sets Pure Flix apart from the other companies – you cannot purchase a church campaign kit without the theater buyout.
Here is a video they include explaining their strategy:
So your church’s options are two (A) buy out the theater and give away the tickets or (B) buy out the theater and charge your church members and guests to attend. Either way, Pure Flix is passing the costs down the line and insuring that they will sell out theaters. Is it a good ministry model? A good movie business model? Both?
Interestingly, on Pure Flix’s “premiere partner” FAQ page, they have this question and answer:
It’s hard to believe, but today the blog had it’s 300,000th hit! I wish I could figure out who the person was who took us over the 300K mark so that I could give them a prize, but since I can’t, I’ve decided to give everyone a prize! Also, I’m going to be counting down the top five posts of all time on the Thimblerig’s Ark blog.
But before we get to the top five, to celebrate this milestone, I’m giving away copies of my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, for anyone who would like to read it!
To get your free copy for Kindle, just click on the picture below and don’t forget to tell your friends! Share it on social media! Paint it on your roof for passing planes to see!
And let them all know that Thimblerig’s Ark will be free until Sunday, February 25.
And it would be really, really super cool if you actually gave the novel a try, and then took a couple of minutes to write a review on Amazon. I appreciate my 29 reviews, but want to get many, many more!
And just for fun, I thought I would show the five most popular articles to come from this blog since we began in 2014.
5. Nine Things I Learned from 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media. Yes, it’s over. (5,295 hits, published April 27, 2015)
In 2015, I decided to spend 40 days (and nights) consuming nothing but Christian media. It was a long 40 days, but in the end I think I learned some valuable lessons.
This article got a good bump when it was featured and discussed by Phil Vischer (the creator of Veggietales) on The Phil Vischer Podcast, episode 151.
4. A Memorial to the Family of Tambii Jee, lost on MH17 (11,673 hits, July 14, 2014)
How often do we hear about tragic events of the world, shake our head at the tragedy, and then go on with our lives?
On July 17, 2014, a tragic event far away struck very close to home for me. On that day, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, and one of the heartbreaking stories was a family of six, three of whom were my former students from Atyrau, Kazakhstan. The family of Tambii Jee was returning home to Malaysia after many years in Kazakhstan, and this blog post was my response to this tragic situation, sharing some memories of this sweet family, especially the youngest son Afruz, who was in my homeroom.
3. My Review of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Theme Park (12,403 hits, published July 19, 2016)
When Ken Ham’s Ark Park opened on July 7, 2016, my family was there. The ark was an impressive feat of building, but entertainment-wise, it was a letdown. “But it’s a ministry!” some would say. “Why should it be entertaining?” Considering that Ken Ham compared the place with the Disney and Universal parks, I would have expected the entertainment factor to be higher.
When The Friendly Atheist, an atheist blogger, linked to my review, the article blew up and was seen by thousands.
2. Unpacking that God’s Not Dead 3 Teaser (21,916 hits, published April 12, 2016)
If you would have asked me when I was writing this blog post if I thought it would be the second most popular post I would write, I would have laughed. But, the God’s Not Dead franchise is unarguably popular for a Christian film franchise, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my dissection of the claims made at the end of God’s Not Dead 2 would get so many visitors.
1. What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking? (107,234 hits, published March 25, 2014)
The post that started it all. God’s Not Dead had just been released, and reading a critical review sparked me to scribble down on my blog what I had been learning and thinking about since taking the Act One screenwriting course a few years earlier: the importance of Christians artists doing everything with excellence, including filmmaking.
And the bigger importance of the Big Christian Audience allowing Christian artists to do it.
And so, that’s it! Thank you, loyal readers, for being a part of this journey!
Enjoy reading Thimblerig’s Ark…
…and here’s to the next 300,000!
And if you haven’t gotten your copy of Thimblerig’s Ark, the ultimate groundhog novel, what are you waiting for?
In the ninth episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast, I give my thoughts on Pureflix’s first attempt at an original sitcom. The show, which is exclusively available on Pureflix’s streaming service, follows the Wilcox family as they relocate to rural Colorado from Atlanta. It’s a strange throwback to the sitcoms of the 1980’s and 90’s, almost a time-travel show in some ways. Does it work?
Follow this link to listen to the podcast, and then let me know what you think!
The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast is a part of the More Than One Lesson family of podcasts, and you can listen to it as well as other great film podcasts by visiting More Than One Lesson.
I’ve really been struggling lately. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression have been overwhelming. It feels as if my operating system has crashed, and I need to have a complete spiritual reboot.
It’s time to visit the Apple iChurch.
The first thing I do is try to sign on at www.appleichurch.com with my iChurch ID, but I can’t remember my password. Is it isaiah4031 or isaiah4110? I try to enter my password a few times. Too many attempts, and I get locked out. Great. Do they have to make it so complicated?
This means I’ll need to pay a visit to the Pastor’s Bar in an actual brick and mortar Apple iChurch building, so I have to make an appointment. When I check online, they’re all booked up for the next three days. But I can’t wait three days. I need to talk to someone today! I decide to take a chance and drive down to the iChurch building and see if I can sneak in and see one of the pastors between appointments.
When you enter the Apple iChurch building, you immediately notice how big and shiny and minimal everything is. The building is has been purposefully designed to be all metal and wood and industrial. Then you notice the indy Christian music being played in the background. Is that Sufjan Stevens? The Brilliance? Propaganda? The next thing you notice is that the iChurch is constantly packed with people. Whoever said the church is in decline has apparently not stepped foot in an Apple iChurch, because they are always filled with people looking for the latest in spiritual help or theological technology. As you look past the simple wooden tables lined with tablets advertising the latest Christian self-help books, you see the goal: A long industrial-sized table with a half dozen pastors sitting on the other side, talking with the lucky few who booked ahead of time. Video screens behind each pastor flash Bible verses and times of appointments.
It doesn’t look good.
Since I don’t have an appointment, I get in a line that stretches from midway through the building all the way back to the massive glass front doors. And like every person in that line, I’m hoping I can get an appointment to see one of the pastors today.
It really doesn’t look good.
I’ve heard that the greeting ministry at the Apple iChurch is one of the hardest ministry jobs in the church. Everyone thinks that their problem is the Most Important Problem In The Building©, and these are the guys who have to listen to sob story after sob story, all with a patient smile on their face. Personally, I don’t know how they do it.
The young man who we are all waiting to meet is wearing one of the simple iChurch t-shirts with a nametag that says “Brock”. Brock has tired eyes, a Bible-shaped electronic tablet, colorful tats going down his left arm complete with Bible verses and biblical imagery, and an impressive super-beard (I remember when goatees were the poils du visage du jour in church ministry, but trends change). Brock is using the Bible tablet to take down personal information (“Can we contact you about tithing opportunities?” he says with a gentle and persuasive smile) but more importantly, he uses it schedule Pastor Bar appointments.
I’ve been in line for about forty-five minutes now, and I’m finally one person away from young bearded Brock. The woman in front me is in tears, probably telling the earnest greeter how her husband has been unfaithful, or maybe that she caught her children experimenting with drugs, or possibly she’s afraid she will lose her job. Whatever it is, she makes it clear through the sobs that she needs someone to pray with her.
But she doesn’t have an appointment.
Brock nods empathetically and tells her that if she’s willing to wait around, she might be able to see one of the pastors later in the afternoon, but there are no guarantees. The woman gets more insistent, saying that she drove for a couple of hours to get to the iChurch building, that she took time off from her job, that she is too busy to wait around. I guess Brock must hear these sorts of stories a couple of dozen times a day. He nods understandingly, and tells her that she can come back in the morning. Doors open at 10:00, and if she arrives by 9:45 she might be able to score a pastor visit if someone doesn’t show up for their appointment. The woman mutters “hipster doofus” and storms out.
Yeah, she won’t be reaching the Pastor Bar until sometime next summer.
Brock seems unfazed as he turns to me and smiles. But I can see that he has been fazed. His eyes are even more tired than they were a few moments earlier.
But I’m ready for young Brock. Standing in line, watching person after person try the same tactic, I figured out the perfect strategy: I will see his empathy and raise him a healthy dose of sympathy and a sprinkling of small talk. That ought to help with those tired eyes, and might just get me past him to the pastors sitting in the back of the room.
I shake my head, wordlessly communicating my understanding of how difficult people can be. I rub my chin, drawing attention to my own beard, letting Brock know that we are beard brothers. Brock visibly relaxes, and I can tell that my strategy is working. He’s already on my side. This will be a piece of cake.
“How you doing today?” I ask, mustering as much Andy Griffith friendliness into my voice as I can. Come on, pal, lay it on me. Before this is over, I’ll have Brock telling me all about his family, his girl problems, and which vaping bar he’s visiting this weekend.
“I’m well, thanks,” Brock says, looking back at his tablet. “What can I do for you?”
Hmm. So much for the small talk. Guess I’ll have to try a more straightforward approach.
“Well, I’ve been feeling pretty depressed lately,” I say.
“Been reading your Bible every day?” Brock asks, looking at his tablet.
“Of course,” I lie.
Brock looks up at me, his formerly tired eyes now piercing. He doesn’t believe me.
“Alright, not every day,” I admit. “But my brother’s always posting these Bible verse memes on Facebook, and I read those.”
“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers, tapping something onto the tablet. “Prayer life?”
“Oh, I pray all the time,” I answer more confidently. This part is true. I’m always asking God for things, and I pray before every meal.
“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers, tapping more onto the tablet. “Church attendance?”
I’m ready for this one. “Oh, I watch all the sermons that Pastor Axl streams. And I listen to his podcast, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.”
Pastor Axl is the founder of the Apple iChurch. He is a former executive from Silicon Valley who left behind a promising career in the tech world to start a church in his garage in Los Altos.
In the past ten years, Pastor Axl has grown the church to be an international powerhouse. He’s loved by progressives and conservatives alike, and is a rockstar in the world of pastors and skinny jeans. He’s been on Oprah, Colbert, Fallon, even sang carpool karaoke with Corden. Mentioning him is bound to score me some points.
“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers. More tapping. He doesn’t appear to be impressed. I try to catch his eye so I can work on my strategy, but he’s not looking up at me any more. Just tap, tap, tap.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Time to bring out the big guns.
Sincerity and desperation.
“Listen, Brock, I really need to talk to a pastor today. If there’s anything you could do to help, I would really appreciate it.”
Brock looks up and stares at me for what seems like eternity. Finally, he nods empathetically, looking past me at the line that is just as long as it was when I arrived forty five minutes before. He is struggling, trying to decide what to do. Did my big guns actually do the job?
Finally, he leans in and speaks in a quiet, conspiratorial voice. “If you’re willing to wait, there is the chance that we’ll have some time open up this afternoon. But I can’t make any guarantees.”
“This afternoon will be hard,” I mutter, panic rising in my chest. Brock does not see me as a beard brother after all. I’m just another middle-aged beard in the line.
Brock sits back up and nods again, saying, “Well, we open tomorrow morning at 10:00, and if you show up around 9:45 you might be able to score a visit with a pastor if someone is late for their appointment.”
I look back at the Pastor Bar, and see the pastors talking to the lucky few, some praying, some looking at tablets which probably contain a Bible or the latest Christian self-help book, or Pastor Axl’s autobiography, Pastor Axl.
I guess I have no choice.
“Thanks, I’ll be here in the morning,” I say.
As I turn to leave, I hear Brock talking to the next person in line. “What can I do for you?”
In the seventh episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast, I start a new series where I examine Hollywood’s attempts to tell “our” stories, or stories that are important to Christians. To that end, this week I took a look at 1993’s Oscar nominated Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough (Ghandi, Elizabeth), written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Misérables), and starring Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs and bunches of other movies) and Debra Winger (Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment).
Shadowlands tells the mostly true story of the unlikely relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham. Lewis, as most people know, was the writer of the Narnia Chronicles, the Space Trilogy, and dozens of other books dealing with everything from writing to Renaissance literature to Christian theology.
I chose to review this film because Lewis is the unofficial patron saint of Evangelical Christianity and I wondered how his life story would be handled by people with no faith-based agenda. The film is a masterpiece of biographical filmmaking, widely considered to be Attenborough’s finest work, with high praise for the acting of both Hopkins and Winger. But even still, it’s been criticized by Lewis devotees for not being entirely factual. I look and respond to these criticisms in the podcast.
Also, I’m very interested in what the Christian audience wants from Hollywood if they are making our films, and why the Christian audience should want Hollywood to tell our stories in the first place, and so I discuss these ideas as well.
I would be curious to know what people think of this subject, and so I’d invite you to comment after you’ve taken a listen.
The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast is a part of the More Than One Lesson family of podcasts, and you can listen to it as well as other great film podcasts by visiting the More Than One Lesson website.
I’m pleased to announce that the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast is up and running. The podcast has come about as a result of conversations with Tyler Smith of Battleship Pretension and More Than One Lesson, and will be hosted on the More Than One Lesson website.
If you are interested in the world of Christian media, specifically Christian filmmaking, this is the podcast for you. We will be examining Christian-made films thematically and artistically, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the budding Christian film industry.
Follow this link to iTunes to subscribe! And if you do, and if you enjoy it, please rate and review the podcast to help give it more exposure.
Click this link to enjoy the first full episode, which is an examination of the mega-hit, God’s Not Dead.
In honor of yesterday’s most important holiday Groundhog’s Day (why isn’t it a day off, Mr. Trump? That should have been your first executive order!), we’re pleased to announce that Thimblerig’s Ark will be free for download on February 3 and 4!
The second book in the series is nearing completion, and so you want to make sure you grab the first book while you still can. And tell your friends!
You already know about Noah. Just wait until you read the animal’s story.
Thimblerig is a little groundhog with big problems.
He’s a loner con-artist who’s losing his mojo; the wild dogs who run the forest harass him at every turn; he’s having vivid nightmares of apocalyptic floods; and worst of all, he believes he sees unicorns when everyone knows unicorns are only the stuff of legend.
But what one animal might call a problem, Thimblerig calls an opportunity.
In a moment of inspiration, he comes up with the ultimate con: persuade as many suckers as he can that a world-ending flood is coming; the fabled unicorns have told him where the only safe place will be; and only he can lead them to safety.
All for a reasonable price, of course.
When the flood really does come, Thimblerig has a choice: either save the ones who trusted him, or lose everything.
And that’s when he discovers that his problems have only just begun.
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!
Regent 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.
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.
This 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?
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).
This 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.