An Outsider’s View of the Variety Purpose Summit on Faith and Family Entertainment

As a reviewer and commentator of Christian media who lives in China, I’m used to being on the outside looking in. If there’s a new movie released aimed at the “faith-based” audience, then I will see it, but it will often be months later. I read about deals being made and productions being planned, but it’s always from a great distance. Even with regular communication with friends who work full-time in that industry, and even though I’m able to stay on top of news about the industry thanks to the web, I’m still on the outside, far removed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in China, and I’m convinced that it is exactly where God wants me to be. But I feel like – and forgive the Flash reference – my Earth 2 doppleganger moved to Hollywood, made it as a screenwriter, and was just nominated for his fourth Earth 2 Emmy.

Yeah, the Earth 2 me lives on the inside, no doubt.

But every now and then, God throws the Earth 1 me a bone to help me not feel completely cut off; a glance or a step inside this niche industry that fascinates me so much.

Header_Purpose_2016-1This time, the bone I was thrown was a press pass to the Variety Purpose Summit, held Friday at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. This was an amazing gathering in which I was able to stand in the same room as many faith-based media movers and shakers as well as studio big-wigs, and I was finally given the chance to see first hand what happens when the curtains are pulled back.

Variety did a great job assembling professionals with many years working in Hollywood on all sorts of different levels, and these industry insiders talked at length on a variety of issues. Panels dealt with issues such as “Faith and Culture in Mainstream Entertainment”, “Succeeding in Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Finance and Production”, and “Multiplatform Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Storytelling”, to name just a few.

I want to focus on a few things I learned throughout the day.

Christians are alive and well in the heart of Hollywood

Over and over, I was introduced to producers, writers, directors, and investors who are people of faith and who have a desire to make great, accessible stories for everyone, and not be boxed in by the “faith-based” label. These filmmakers are working on projects with the big film studios that are broad and non-didactic, involve A-list actors and directors, and they are attempting to make films that people both inside and outside of the church would find accessible.

And church? They need our support.

But hang tight, church… I’ll be talking to you later.

Two such filmmakers that stood out were Michael Carney and Matthew Malek, Carney is the writer, director, and producer of the upcoming Same Kind of Different as Me with Renée Zellweger, Jon Voight, and Greg Kinnear, and Malek is the producer of Martin Scorcese’s Silence, with Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver and which will be released later this year.

During their panel, both Carney and Malek emphasized over and over that films don’t have to be overtly Christian to be used by God, that art that is “good, true, and beautiful” will hit the mark (Malek). Furthermore, Carney pointed out that prior to the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, there was really no such thing as the Christian or faith-based film genre. Films that dealt with Christian themes and ideas did so organically as a part of their wider genre, and they often did so very well (Chariots of Fire, Shawshank Redemption, The Mission, for example). “Shed it!” Malek said, speaking of the faith-based category. “God’s going to do what God’s going to do!”

The Christian filmmakers in attendance received the message enthusiastically, but I’d like to suggest that they really aren’t the ones who need to be convinced. History bears that the “faith and family audience”, that coveted enormous demographic, only wants to support Christian-made films written and designed to preach to the them, and until that audience opens its mind and allows Christian filmmakers some leeway, we’ll continue just getting more of the same.

That said, it made me hopeful to see how passionate so many Christian filmmakers seemed to be about this issue.

Hollywood Still Doesn’t Get It

This trip to Hollywood was not the first filmmaking bone that God had tossed my way. The first was a month-long intensive screenwriting course I took in in Hollywood back in 2007 with Act One, a Christian organization that tries to help prepare believers to survive and thrive in Hollywood.

As well as learning about story structure, character building, and dialogue, Act One also taught students the realities of life in the business of filmmaking. We learned that 2007 was a significant time in the history of filmmaking in general and faith-based filmmaking specifically for two reasons. First, it was only three years after the release of Gibson’s Passion, a film whose success had caught Hollywood completely guard and whose success Hollywood wanted desperately to repeat, and second, the wider film industry was still in the midst of trying to figure out how the internet could be utilized as a delivery form for entertainment.

Since that time, people have started to figure out how to profit from the power of the internet (Netflix, Amazon, to name a few), but according to what we heard at Friday’s summit, most still have no idea how to reach that massive faith-based audience. After Gibson’s film, most studios quickly developed faith-focused divisions to try and recapture the lightning in the bottle, but attempts, with a few notable exceptions, have been largely unsuccessful.

IMG_6906Many of the panelists were the ones working in the trenches (DeVon Franklin, CEO of Franklin Entertainment and producer of Miracles from Heaven and The Star, an upcoming CGI faith-based film; Brian Bird, Executive Producer and showrunner of the cult favorite Hallmark show, When Calls The Heart; Steve Wegner, producer of the Dolphin Tale movies and Blind Side, to name a few), and they spoke about their experiences helping guide studios through the undiscovered country of successfully reaching a faith audience.

Several panelists also talked about the many non-traditional grassroots methods used in an attempt to mobilize believers to support the films and television programs being made for them. Methods discussed ranged from inviting pastors to early screenings of the films in an attempt to get them on board with the project, developing study materials where believers could explore the ideas raised by the films from a Christian context, and cultivating large followings on various social media platforms to help energize audiences when new films are being released.

thirty_three_ver10Sometimes these attempts have worked (Heaven Is For Real, God’s Not Dead, War Room), but just as often (maybe more often) they’ve failed, and the films haven’t lived up to their financial potential. A telling example came from Catherine Paura, the co-head of marketing for Alcon Entertainment, who spoke of her frustration when they were trying to market The 33. The film had all the right ingredients to be a hit with the faith audience: it was an inspirational true story where people in a potentially tragic situation survived at least in part because of their faith; it featured Antonio Banderes, a popular A-list actor; and it was designed to fit square in the category of a solid faith-and-family-friendly film.

“We did everything right,” Paura said, speaking of the marketing, but when the film opened the faith audience just didn’t turn up, and the film fared poorly at the box office.

Of course, one could argue that Hollywood is constantly in the business of trying to figure out the audience no matter the demographic, and the fact that they are so invested in figuring out the faith-and-family audience just means that there are enough of us to make us worthy of that investment.

The Value of Story

Throughout the day, panelist after panelist emphasized the importance of telling a compelling, well-crafted story. This is a message that all filmmakers need to hear, but especially those filmmakers and audiences (typically in the “Christian film” genre) who think that message trumps story.

Risen_2016_posterProducer Patrick Aiello shared that they took two years honing and perfecting the script for Risen before they began shopping it around.

“It’s all about content,” Matthew Malek insisted, reinforcing the idea of the power of a good story.

When moderator Jack Hafer asked his panel what the most important thing a content creator should consider when pitching, Steve Wegner said something that should surprise no one, but faith-based screenwriters should take to heart: “I have to love the story.”

Not the message, not the motivation for writing the script, but the story.

Another primary ingredient to good storytelling that was discussed across the panels was recognizing the value of being true to the characters and the situation, not being content to settle for caricatures and forced narratives. Esther Kustanowitz, a writer who also consults with filmmakers as a Jewish Community Consultant emphasized that “stories have to be authentic.”

The panelists seemed to share the idea that you influence through artistry, that you enable change by showing people their potential on the screen through story. “Government doesn’t change people, Hollywood changes people,” said Reza Aslan, CEO of BoomGen Studios. As an example, Aslan discussed Vice President Biden’s comment that America’s thoughts on homosexuality changed as a result of Will & Grace, not because of legislative influence.

Agreeing with the power of entertainment to affect change, DeVon Franklin added that people of faith need to learn to use that same instrument of well-told stories and empathetic characters to change the popular narrative that Christians are bigoted, uneducated, narrow-minded hypocrites.

What Was Unseen and Unsaid

For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed the day, and felt like my peek behind the curtain was time well spent. As I’ve been digesting my thoughts on the event, I’ve come away with two critiques of the event. These critiques don’t have anything to do with what was said, but what was unsaid, as well as who was unseen.

Unsaid

The elephant sitting in the back of the ballroom, undoubtedly noticed by everyone but not spoken about by anyone, was actually not an elephant at all, but a big red dragon named China.

Nobody, on any panel, at any time, said anything about the dragon.

This didn’t really occur to me until after lunch, when I was looking back over my notes, realizing how Ameri-centric the vast majority of the conversations had been. While there were a few references to international markets over the course of the day, the summit itself didn’t include any conversations regarding how the faith and family market can expand outside the 50 states into the international market, particularly China.

This stood out to me, partly because I live in China, but also because just the day before I’d made my way to an IMAX theater in West Hollywood to watch Star Trek: Beyond. As the producer credits were rolling at the beginning of the film, the logo for Alibaba – one of the biggest companies in China – appeared.

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Even as an outsider, I know that everyone in Hollywood is trying to crack the China nut (so to speak) and figure out how to put films on screens in what will be the world’s biggest entertainment market in just a few years. At the same time, Chinese producers and media companies are trying to figure out how to profit off of American-made properties. Variety magazine itself has published story after story about this, and yet the summit didn’t have a single discussion on the issue.

This was a glaring omission to me, but I hope that next year there will be at least some energy devoted to taking our faith-and-family projects into China and other parts of the world.

[If you are interested in this subject, I’d invite you to read an article I wrote on this blog a few months ago, addressing this very issue. Read my analysis of the situation here.]

Unseen

War-Room_300While there were definitely many heavy-hitting super-knowledgable and experienced filmmakers at the summit (both on the panel stage and in the audience) I was surprised that there wasn’t more representation by well-known faith and family filmmakers who feel called to make films that do preach to the choir.

I would like to have seen and heard from more of the people who have released films that were aimed squarely at the faith audience over the past year, such as the Kendrick brothers, Kirk Cameron, the Erwin brothers, David A.R. White, etc. But with a few notable exceptions (Franklin, Bird, Aeillo), there weren’t many filmmakers speaking from the front who are making explicitly faith-based films.

While the event definitely supported my long-held contention that Christian filmmakers need to be making broad, accessible films, it would have been nice to have had a bit more balance with some more focus on the other side of the issue, examining questions like:

What is the vision of those who are called to make films that preach directly to the choir?

How do they see their films being used outside the church?

What are their successful business models? Are they different than those making broader films?

And it would have been nice to explore this question with folks making those films: can we make films that will both preach to the choir and also be embraced by the congregation?

[edit: an insider friend sent me the following message:

“I feel like some of the people you felt were missing from the discussion have actually been guests and even sponsors in the past.”

I responded:

“That makes sense. But having not been before, it seemed like a strange omission, especially after the big movies of the past year. And maybe it seemed even stranger because there weren’t really any discussions about (contrasting) the two ways of approaching the issue.”]

Takeaway

There were so many good things said at the summit and so many years of experience represented that I was overwhelmed to be a part of the event. I was humbled to be in the same room with people who live their lives focused on making films that will benefit and encourage and give hope, and the experience made me realize how much we folks on the outside need to be praying for wisdom and guidance for our brothers and sisters on the inside.

But folks on the outside? The problem isn’t Hollywood. The problem isn’t the filmmakers. The problem has been – and continues to be – us.

Us. You and me.

The Big Christian Audience.

This has been my contention since the beginning, and hearing all of these professionals talking about their projects, their desire to see their faith lived out in good films on the screen, their desire to be artists who happen to be Christian rather than “Christian artists”, I kept coming back to the truth that the art these folks are creating will be directly impacted by what we, the audience of faith, are willing to support.

And the problem is that we, the Big Christian Audience, tend to be overwhelmingly lacking in vision, only supporting those films that fit into our narrow interpretation of the Christian life. We are largely not interested in artistry, not interested in subtlety, and apparently not interested in films that can evangelize – considering that so many of us don’t care at all about the opinions of people outside our subculture regarding the films that are made for us. We are only interested in revelling in our status as “underserved”, demanding that Hollywood continue to service us, and we only care for those films that tickle our itching ears.

Frankly, this is something that Christian filmmakers and Hollywood simply have to deal with, and dealing with it is not an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination. But, for the fortunate few who manage to hit the right beats and press the right buttons, incredible profit awaits. And so they will keep trying.

IMG_6884It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out later this month when MGM and Paramount release it’s $100 million dollar epic remake of Ben Hur, a film that has been made for a wide audience, but which has also been made with incredible sensitivity towards the faith-based audience, even going so far as to bring on Mark Burnett and Roma Downey early in the process to help shepherd the process.

Will the Big Christian Audience turn up for Ben Hur or will they stay away? One of the things that the summit clearly demonstrated to me was that investors and studios will be watching, and the movies we will see being released in the next few years will be greatly affected by the answer to that question.


A special thank you to Variety magazine for extending me the press creds, and Hollywood, it’s been a blast! I’ll see you when the next bone has been thrown!

Thimblerig out.

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The Act One Writing Program… Is It Worth It?

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I’ve had several people contact me and ask me to share my experiences with the Act One program. Rather than just cutting and pasting my response to this question into different emails, I thought I would just post it here to answer the question once and for all:

Is Act One worth it?

Before I get to that question, let’s start with a little teaser about Act One, in case you aren’t familiar with the organization.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I have lived overseas for the past fifteen years. I chose to attend the Act One Writing Program back in 2007 while living in Kazakhstan and working with the Kazakhstan English Language Theater (KELT). I had dreams of expanding KELT to include filmmaking, and so I chose to take part in the writing program while home for the summer.

Unfortunately, when I returned to Kazakhstan after taking the program, life stepped in the way, as it is want to do, and I had to put the film plans on hold. I continued writing and theater production, but was forced to watch my filmmaking dream wither on the vine.

Now I live in China, where filmmaking is growing in leaps and bounds, and I have long-term plans to resurrect that dream. I’m developing a few live action film ideas, and I’m also adapting my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, into an animated feature screenplay.

But this leads us back to the question: was Act One worth it? As a person whose route to the film industry has been anything but direct, would I recommend that hopeful Christian artists spend the money and a month in L.A. working with professional film industry people, studying the process of writing or film production with Act One?

The short answer is yes, to both questions.

My Act One experience was transformational for me as as a writer, and my short time there also had a profound impact on my life as a Christian. That month in L.A. helped me see how artistic endeavors could be more than ego aggrandizement, and the huge potential for created art to bring glory to the One who created Art.

Any believer who is considering entering into the film industry (or even believers who just want to develop their own artistic sensibilities when it comes to film) can find great benefit from investing in the Act One program.

Just as I did.

The three reasons why I feel this way:

1)  The Friendships and Relationships Developed

My involvement in Act One has led to some great relationships with people who are in Hollywood, working in the film industry. Getting to know them, I have developed the utmost respect for people living their faith in the trenches, and I see them as missionaries as much as anyone I’ve met while living and working overseas. My Act One friends helped me edit my first novel, dialogue with me frequently about my thoughts on Chrisitan filmmaking here on the blog, and even taught the excellent screenwriting class I took at Asbury last year (Andrea Nasfell, writer of Mom’s Night Out and other films).

Without Act One, I would have been hard pressed to know any of these people.

2)  The Power and Value of Story

Act One champions the power and value of story, and this is something that Christian filmmakers need to learn. While you could probably get much of what was taught in class from a book, there was the added and very real benefit of sitting in a classroom with twenty other passionate students, all working through the same issues, listening to stories by film industry professionals. I felt, for that month, that I had found my people – people who loved movies, loved talking about them, analyzing them, dreaming about making them. And we went on a month-long journey together.

As a class, we spent time looking at examples of strong cinema storytelling and having discussions about why those examples were strong. We learned how to develop and pitch our story ideas, including holding a pitch session with actual producers. We heard stories from successful screenwriters and producers, where they told about the challenges, difficulties, and rewards of pursuing this particular line of work. Act One brings in top of the line talent to teach and get to know students; faculty with years and years of collective experience, and we soaked up every day.

My only regret was that the month was too short.

3) The Diverse Christian Perspective

As much as I loved developing the relationships, as much as I soaked up learning about the power of story, the best thing about Act One was that everything was done from a Christian perspective. Believers from all different backgrounds took part both as students and as teachers, and I felt right at home in that atmosphere. It reminded me of my experience living overseas, where the differences of our denominations and traditions weren’t as important as our being faithful Christians in difficult or stressful situations.

I was also relieved that Act One wasn’t trying to train us to go out and build a Christian film industry (although the program certainly equipped us to be a part of faith-based filmmaking), rather they were training us how to survive and thrive as Christians in the secular film industry.

That being said, my relationships in Act One also introduced me to several weekly Bible studies and prayer groups in the Los Angeles area, helped me get to know many of the great churches that are hard at work ministering in those parts, and led me to learn about many of the other fantastic Christian organizations ministering in Hollywood, such as Hollywood Prayer Network and 168 Film, to name just a couple.

So, is Act One worth it? Even if you don’t wind up living in a 900- zip code? Well, I couldn’t be farther away from the biz, but since 2007, but I’ve used what I learned at Act One over and over.

I used it in developing Thimblerig’s Ark as well as other projects both published and not.

I used it while working with the theater in Kazakhstan.

In my writing classes here in China, I use it quite often, taking students through intense novel and short story writing.

I use it when analyzing films with a critical mind.

Along those lines, I use it all the time when putting my thoughts together for writing about the Christian Film Industry for this blog, with much of what I wrote in What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking coming directly from what I learned in Act One.

And so, yes, Act One is absolutely worth it. It’s worth the money you pay, it’s worth the time you spend away from your family, it’s worth the mental energy you will bring to the table. And if you have the desire to be a part of the film industry and to do it in a way that is true to your faith as a Christian, it is most definitely worth it.

I just wish I could do it again!

To apply for the Act One Writing Program, click here. And while I didn’t take the Producing & Entertainment Executive Program, I’ve heard good things about it as well. Click here for more information.

NOTE: The deadline for applying for the 2016 summer program is May 25, 2016, so don’t delay!

And by the way, nobody from Act One asked me to write this. I just really believe in the program.

An Open Letter to Ann Coulter Regarding that “Idiotic” Ebola Doc

Dear Ms. Coulter,

This afternoon I read your  August 6, 2014 online column, in which you wrote an article entitled, “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded to Idiotic“.  In this article, you questioned the life choices of Dr. Kent Brantly, the doctor who went to Africa with his family last year to serve a two-year fellowship through Samaratin’s Purse, and by extension, you questioned the life choices of anyone who has made a similar choice.  In this letter, I will respond to some of the things you said in that article, and give you some suggestions for future articles.

Ms. Coulter, you started your article by citing the enormous amount of money (nearly 2 million) spent to bring Dr. Brantly and humanitarian aid worker Nancy Writebol home, saying that any good that he may have done was overwhelmed by Samaratin’s Purse’s decision to spend such an amount on two people.

In principal, I would agree with you.  Samaratin’s Purse raises support for those individuals they send out, and so they have a responsibility to the ones who give – to use that money wisely.  As I thought about this, I started to wonder if perhaps you donate to Samaratin’s Purse, and so your disagreement with the way the money was spent was somewhat personal?  If so, you should take some solace in the knowledge that the organization requires that all people who serve with them have evacuation insurance.  This means that there is a pretty good chance that the tab for evacuating the two two Samaratin’s Purse workers would have been at least partially picked up by insurance.

But at the end of the day, if you disagree with the way any charitable organization uses the funds they raise, you are free to choose another charity or non-profit.  In just a moment I’ll have some suggestions for you about some organizations that might better suit your desires to “care for your own first”.

Next, you lamented that Dr. Brantly chose to go serve the people of Ebola-ridden West Africa rather than staying in his own godless homeland and practicing medicine somewhere like Los Angeles, where he may have been able to share his faith with a successful Hollywood producer, thereby potentially influencing the greater culture by influencing a culture maker.

This is where you started to lose me, Ann (do you mind if I call you Ann?).  Not because I don’t think Christians should be in Hollywood, but because there are already so many Christians in Hollywood right now, toiling (like their brothers and sisters overseas) in near anonymity.  Reading your article in which you put so much emphasis on Dr. Brantley’s potential influence a Hollywood power broker, I wondered why you spend your time tearing down the work of Dr. Brantly rather than building up the ones doing the very thing you wish the Ebola doctor would do?

And as a Christian who has spent a bit of time in Hollywood attempting this, allow me to speak for the others saying that I don’t see Dr. Brantly’s story as a competition or a distraction.  In fact, there’s a pretty good chance some up-and-coming Christian screenwriter may pick up his or her laptop and start coming up with a rough draft of the Ebola Doc’s story, and go on to make a fantastic biopic!  Wouldn’t that be amazing?

You see, Ann, here’s the thing about the many L.A.-based Christians you ignored in your article – many of them are not just trying to engage the ones who are influencing the culture, but they are actually trying to influence the culture themselves!  And they need our help and support as much as those who would go overseas!

ARTICLE SUGGESTION #1

If seeing the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread in Hollywood is truly your goal, let me challenge you to research and write about  those who are trying to accomplish that very task. And since I know you’re a busy lady, let me help you get started.  Here are just a few of the excellent organizations equipping Christians to survive and succeed in Hollywood:

Act One: Writing for Hollywood

The Actor’s Co-op

Christian Film and Television Commission

The Hollywood Prayer Network

And you can find lots more here.

Unfortunately, Ann, I found that your article just went disappointedly downhill from your Hollywood reference.  I would like to respectfully request that you reconsider a couple of very important points.

You concluded mistakenly that Christians go overseas to escape the culture wars – to avoid being called “homophobes, racists, sexists and bigots.”  There are a couple of problems with this.  First, Christians have been leaving their homelands to share the fantastic news of Jesus Christ since Paul and Barnabus went on their first missionary journey in Acts 13.  That’s nearly 2,000 years of Christian missionary history, and while some through the years may have gone to escape an uncomfortable home situation, most were heading to much more difficult conditions and would perhaps have preferred facing the relatively harmless issue of being called names to what they had to endure as they lived as foreigners in unfamiliar cultures.

In fact, this gives me another idea for a future article for you!  Isn’t this fun?

ARTICLE SUGGESTION #2

Rather than spending time accusing folks like Dr. Brantly of going to difficult spots to avoid being called names, why don’t you help bring attention to some of the Christians who are undergoing actual physical persecution and death for their faith, and some Christians who choose to leave the comfort of home to help them?  That would make for a fantastic article!

For example, you may have heard a little story in the news recently about Christians in Iraq being systematically exterminated by Islamist thugs?  Looking through the archives of your blog, I notice that you haven’t written about them (the Christians – not the thugs), and so that would make a great start on a worthwhile article for your website.

Again, to help with your research, here are a few links:

A story about Christian children being beheaded by ISIS

A personal account from a Christian in Mosul

Iraq’s Largest Christian Town Falls

There are many more stories about the atrocities being committed in Iraq, but I expect you have a staff who can help you find them, so I won’t do it here.  I don’t want to take bread out of someone else’s mouth.

But this does bring me to the conclusion of your article, Ann.  This is where you claim that Dr. Brantly (and again – others who make the same kind of life choice he made) have some good old fashioned delusions of grandeur.  You wrote:

“But serving the needy in some deadbeat town in Texas wouldn’t have been “heroic.” We wouldn’t hear all the superlatives about Dr. Brantly’s “unusual drive to help the less fortunate” or his membership in the “Gold Humanism Honor Society.” Leaving his family behind in Texas to help the poor 6,000 miles away — that’s the ticket.”

This is the point where I think you may have skipped a regiment of medication, or had too much red bull, or spent too much time in the sun.  Let me tell you, Ann, international mission work is the last enterprise one goes into for the purposes of being perceived as heroic.

Given, we Christians have our missionary heroes who inspire us to be more faithful and to step out and take risks  – heroes who have paid the ultimate price to go to places like ebola-infested Liberia, or the dangerous jungles of Ecuador, or even the wild woods of New Jersey – but the vast majority of missionaries do not leave the comforts of home because they have dreams of having statues of their martyred selves erected on various seminary campuses.

The dirty little secret is that most missionaries go overseas knowing that they will be serving in virtual anonymity, that they will spend an inordinate amount of time struggling to understand a culture and a language that is not their own, that they are choosing to watch from afar as family members back home are born, others marry, and still others die – while they are absent.  And they do it because it is their calling.

Ann, this concept of a calling may be hard for someone outside the church to comprehend, but since you write so passionately about America’s desperate need for God, I think you must understand.  But for the sake of those others, I’ll just say that Christians believe that God is at work in the world (not just in America – I know, hard to imagine what with Manifest Destiny and all), and He calls His people to certain times and places to do His work.  This includes the doctors who practice with Hollywood bigwigs in Los Angeles as well as those who go to “disease-riddled cesspools” to help people who are unable to find help anywhere else.

Apparently, this calling is a part of the story of Dr. Kent Brantly, as it is with so many others who leave the comforts of home to be the hands and feet of Christ in distant (or near) lands.   You can read a very telling testimonial to Dr. Brantly’s life here, written by one of his university professors, where you can find out just what motivated him to go practice medicine in Africa.

Which leads me to a final suggestion for a future article for you.

ARTICLE SUGGESTION #3

I know it’s not your style, but I would finally recommend that you consider writing an article where you take back most of the things you said in your August 6th article, and possibly even – shudder – apologize.

I know, I know, but just let me share my final interesting fact about overseas missionaries, especially Americans.  Many are extremely interested in the politics of their home country, and many are politically conservative.  Twenty years ago, they were not able to keep track of what was going on back home, but thanks to the internet, they are more able than ever before to pay attention to what’s going on back home.

By attacking the life choice to which these people have been called you are cutting yourself off from a segment of the population who would ordinarily agree your stance on political issues.  Not only are you cutting yourself off from the missionaries, but also from those folks who don’t feel called overseas but feel passionately supportive of those that do.

I’m not suggesting a boycott or anything, but I want you to see that with that one simple misinformed article, you made lots of conservative Christian folks realize that our more liberal friends may have been correct in their dislike of your opinions.  After all, if you got this one so horribly wrong, what else are you wrong about?

Just a thought, Ann.  Just a thought.

Thanks for taking the time to read this letter, and I’ll look forward to reading some of those articles on some future page of http://www.anncoulter.com!

Sincerely,
Nate Fleming

 

What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking?

 

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This morning I read a review of the film God’s Not Dead over at Gospelspam.com, and was struck by the thesis of the review, which is found in the title, “God’s Not Dead but Christian Screenwriting Is.”

The review had plenty of good to say about the film, but also plenty to say about the problems currently found in Christian filmmaking – specifically the writing.  This issue brings up strong feelings and thoughts in me, as I am a Christian, and I have been a student of screenwriting since 2007.  I’ve written screenplays (both produced and un-produced), and have recently published my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.  I felt led to respond to the article in the comment section at Gospelspam, and then decided to reproduce the bulk of my comments here.

Let me say from the start that my intention with this article is not to attack my fellow Christian artists.  I generally have great respect for anyone who carries an idea from imagination to the screen, and with Christian artists, I also respect the intention behind the process.  And I know that there are probably some very good independently made Christian films that try like crazy to break out to a larger audience, but are unable to do so for many different reasons.  The intent of this article is more to express my frustration of the limitations faced by Christian artists, put there by the church at large.

flanneryFor centuries the church was the main sponsor of amazing art.  Christians were responsible for setting the tone of art for the culture, and we have the amazing work of artists such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and many others as the fruit of that labor.  But for some reason Christians have rarely been able to accomplish dramatic storytelling effectively on any large scale, which is ironic, considering that we are the custodians of the Greatest Story Ever Told.  While there are the occasional mold-breakers (thinking about C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor in the literary world, to name a couple), modern Christians seem to have a hard time jumping feet-first into the story-telling deep end, telling a compelling story that will go beyond the church walls.

This is a multi-layered conversation, and it is thankfully a conversation that is taking place among many creative Christian writers and artists.  In 2007 I was privileged to take a month long intensive screenwriting course in Hollywood with  Act One, an organization that trains Christian writers and producers how to write and produce good films with integrity.  It was one of the most stimulating months of my life, as we wrestled with these issues on a daily basis.  From that time, and since, I’ve thought of three major hurdles that Christian artists face when attempting to write, sing, or film something that will have the potential to impact the world.  For the sake of this article, I will focus on Christian filmmaking.

The first problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to be SAFE.  When is the last time a big “faith-based” film had an R rating because of it’s true depiction of sin?  It’s a huge dilemma, because we – as followers of Christ – don’t want to sin ourselves in making a film, or encourage sin, but this really handcuffs us and our ability to realistically portray life.  If you are a Christian, when was the last time you saw a Christian film that truly challenged your faith?  What was the last Christian film that asked questions without giving answers?  Does the greater Christian culture allow for that?

Facing_the_giantsThe second problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to be PREDICTABLE.  When I was doing drama in summer camps in Kazakhstan, a friend pointed out that the representation of Satan was always more interesting than the representation of Jesus.  He also said that it wasn’t saying much, because Satan was fundamentally not so interesting because no matter the drama presentation, he always acted the same way, and the same was true of Jesus.  I see this carried through in expectations for Christian filmmaking – the protagonist and the antagonist usually act a certain way, and if they don’t, the film won’t be received well.  What does the audience want?  The non-Christian needs to become a Christian, and the Christian needs to find “victory” of some sort.  My major disappointment with the Kendrick brother’s film, “Facing the Giants”, was that it was a wonderful opportunity to show how a Christian deals with failure, but in the end the filmmakers decided to make it a fairy tale where a prayer changes the direction of the wind.  It was predictable, and the film was wildly successful.

The third problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to PREACH TO THE CHOIR.  With the exception of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, how many films made by Christian filmmakers have made any sort of dent in the culture beyond the church walls?  When is the last time a film made by Christians received substantial praise from non-Christian film reviewers?  This past weekend, God’s Not Dead had good box office – earning a respectable $9.2 million, but how much of that cash was from non-Christian wallets?  The film also currently has a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is high for the typical Christian-made film.
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Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming film, Noah, is a very interesting case to me, and it is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for some time.  Unfortunately, a  big reason that I’m hopeful for the film is that it was NOT made explicitly by Christians, and while the studio also wants a piece of the “faith-based audience box office pie”, Aronofsky made the film he wanted to make.  I am much more interested in this film than I am in God’s Not Dead or the recent Son of God, because it will be everything a typical Christian film is not:  it will be a dangerous film – forcing the viewer to rethink the traditional way of viewing the story of Noah; it will undoubtedly be unpredictable, because Aronofsky is not handcuffed by an allegiance to modern evangelical sensibilities; and finally, thousands and thousands of people are going to be flocking to see it, and not because of their church allegiance.

How cool would it be if a film made by Christians could make the box office that Noah will make, with audiences from every different walk of life?  Here are my tips on how the body of Christ can come closer to making that happen:

1)  We need to permit our artists (writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers) to take more risks.  And artists, whether you are permitted or not, take more risks.  Did you really get into your artistic field because you liked playing it safe?  Why play it safe with the most important thing you have to say?

2)  We need to encourage our artists to challenge rather than stroke our sensibilities.  A pearl is made when dirt is irritated inside the oyster, after all.  And so artists, don’t wait for permission.  Start challenging your audience.  They will undoubtedly resist you, but we need to be challenged or we’ll stagnate and fade away into irrelevance.

3)  We need to recognize that art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit, and while the two might cross paths from time to time, they are completely different animals.  This goes for everyone.  Does everyone truly understand this?  With all the recent criticisms of Noah because it “is unbiblical”, I have to think that lots of people don’t.  Read here for more of my thoughts on this.

4)  We need to be okay with movies that don’t give all the answers.  If they succeed in asking some good, deep questions, they might actually open the doors to conversations where answers can be explored.  Artists, isn’t part of our job to provoke questions?  Don’t feel you have to end every sentence with a period

5)  And most importantly:  tell good stories.  As Frank Capra famously said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”  If you are an artist, the quality of your work should be at the top of your list of considerations.  Jesus wasn’t known for telling mediocre stories that ticked off all the correct religious boxes.  He was known for telling compelling stories that challenged his listeners while communicating God’s truth.  Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus?

I need to conclude this article by saying once more that I do respect that there are Christians out there trying to bust into the filmmaking business, and I wish them well.  I just hope we can figure out how to tell The Story – truly the Greatest Story Ever Told – in the manner in which it deserves, and in such an excellent way that people outside the Christian subculture will receive it.

Update:  If you have read this far, and you want to read more of my thoughts on this subject – especially as related to what artists of faith need to do – please go here for my follow up article:   What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking Episode 2

You can also respond further about the things brought up in this article here.

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtFinally, if you would like to see me trying to put my words here to practice, then download my new novel, Thimblerig’s Ark!  It’s the story of Noah’s Ark from the animal’s point of view, and here’s what has been said about it:

“A great romp!”

“…couldn’t put it down…”

“A powerful story!”

“…seems like a children’s book, but its themes are more adult.”

For the price of a latte at Starbucks, you can own this novel, and help an independent first-time author at the same time!