Christian Film Distributors, What Are You Doing To Your Audience?

This month, three big Christian-made films are being released within a two week period.

I Can Only Imagine, the new film by the Erwin Brothers (Woodlawn, Mom’s Night Out) about the life of singer Bart Millard (of Mercy Me fame) is being released on March 15.

Paul, Apostle of Christ, the spring’s annual sword and sandal Bible movie starring Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) as Luke the apostle, is being released eight days later on March 23. [editor’s note: it was originally the 28th, but the date was moved up in February]

And God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in Darkness, the third film in the Pure Flix God’s Not Dead franchise, is being released a week later on March 30.

March 15, March 23, and March 30.

Guys, what are you doing to your audience?

First, it’s important to point out the key audience for these kinds of movies. While the people behind the movies probably hope that the films will be seen outside the Christian subculture, the truth is that all three were custom made for the Big Christian Audience. And if believers don’t turn up for any one of these films, then they will have miserable opening weekends, shortened in-cinema lives, and unfortunate box office returns.

So then why release them so closely together? If all three films are depending on the same audience, why put yourself into a position where you’re forcing that audience to choose between them?

Consider the average costs associated with going to see a film in 2018.

(JACOB AMMENTORP LUND/GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO)

According to Deadline, the average price of a movie ticket last year was about $9.00. Time tells us that the average price of babysitting is about $14.00/hour. And then if you want snacks at the movies, you’ll pay around $5.00 for the restrained purchase of a small drink and $7.00 for an equally restrained small popcorn.

Forget about a box of Junior Mints (another $4.00 if you don’t sneak it in after buying the same box at the Dollar Store for, yes, a dollar).

And then we have the miscellaneous costs. Transportation, parking, and dinner before the movie.

Now, let’s imagine a couple with children decides to support these films, but leave the kids at home. They will potentially spend about $80 each time they go, and that’s not including the miscellaneous expenses. So, if they support all three of these films, they will be spending close to $250 in the month of March in movies alone.

I don’t know any couples with children who budget that kind of money on movies.

Heck, you could pay $12.00 a month for unlimited movies on Netflix, including faith-based movies, all while staying in the comfort of your home eating snacks bought in bulk at Costco.

Samson-Malaysia-PosterAnd guys… all of this congestion… it’s so unnecessary! Looking over the calendar of faith-based films being released this year, there really aren’t that many on the docket. Samson, the last big faith-based release, came out in February, but there aren’t that many big budget releases happening this year aimed at Christian audiences.

And yet, we have these three, all jockeying for position, all wanting the same butts in the seats, and all bottle-necked around Easter.

The Christian faith’s most sacred time of year.

I can only imagine that this blog post will somehow find it’s way to the folks who make these sorts of decisions, and so I’m going to close by addressing them directly. And I’m going to call them Monica and Chandler to make it seem more personal, and because I’m currently binging old episodes of Friends.

Hi Monica and Chandler,

I really appreciate what you guys are trying to do by making and releasing films for Christian audiences. I’m grateful that you are exploring how to use the medium of film to promote the Gospel, and how you are improving the product you release with each passing year. Things really are getting better!

But you really need to do a better job thinking through this distribution thing next time. After all, it’s in your best interest to maximize the return on the investments made by the film’s backers, as well as to give your audience the chance to support the work that you do. It’s like if three studios released three superhero movies at the same time. None of them will do as well as they would have if there’d been some breathing room built into the releases. I don’t even work for Hollywood and I recognize this.

I have to confess – most of us don’t know or understand the mechanics of doing what you do, we just know the finished product. We don’t understand the politics behind the relationships of your companies, we just know that we want to watch what your company produces.

But if you claim to share our faith and share each other’s faith, then you need to work together in this sort of thing. Spread things out. Give us some breathing room. Allow us the chance to get our affairs in order between films. Even though we may not turn up to see your films every time like you’d like, you should really remove all the obstacles that would prevent us from doing so, should we want to.

It just makes sense.

Thank you!

Nate
(on behalf of the Big Christian Audience)

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“All Saints” Movie Review

(Guest review by K.B. Snodgrass)

All Saints is based on the true story of a dying church in Smyrna Tennessee and the unexpected events that surround Pastor Michael Spurlock, who is spending his first call as an Anglican minister, pastoring the remaining twelve members through the shut-down.

In the opening scenes, we meet the remaining older members of the church with their quirky personalities, and see how their little community has suffered loss as a bigger, more modern church has taken prominence in the community. We can see Michael’s heart, wanting to soften the hard blow his parishioners are preparing for. We realize that Michael and his family are not planning to put stakes in the ground in Smyrna. It is a simple stepping stone for a more prestigious call.

But when a group of Karen refugees from Burma show up one of their last Sundays, Pastor Spurlock becomes interested in their plight. “I’m a pastor,” he claims, “And they’re members of my church.” Even with the plans for selling the building to developers in the works, Pastor Spurlock begins to do what he can for this refugee community, eventually entreating the general council to keep the doors of the church open long enough to attempt a farming venture that he hopes will provide for the immigrants as well as pay the overdue mortgage on the church building and allow it to remain open. The idea for the venture comes as Michael seeks direction and wisdom from God. God answers in a rain shower, which Michael reveals in a conversation with his wife. (No cheesy, wordy prayers spoken by this pastor. They all take place in his heart, or at least the audience can assume that was what happened in his quiet reflective moments).

It sounds like a predictable feel-good movie, but along the way there are many unexpected twists and we are drawn into the story of the refugees, who fought in the jungle wars of Burma before ending up at a refugee camp in Thailand and coming to America. Their endeavors are not without difficulty. They struggle with the same things all farmers do: the need for rain, the cost of seeds, finding buyers for their crops. As the farm takes shape, Pastor Michael’s character is tested, as are his relationships.

The strength of this movie is its plot and script, a story which has already told itself in a way that only God can write. The dialogue is believable, although at times poorly delivered, and the only preaching was where preaching was supposed to be. It is a story about a pastor, after all. Those scenes were kept short but poignant, leaving the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The themes are buried in a well-constructed script that subtly brings out things we all struggle with. Questions of our duty to the poor and lost, God’s call for our own lives, the way a marriage struggles and redefines itself through trials, and what to do when God allows for a not-perfect ending to your story. Michael clearly struggled with man’s plan versus God’s plans, and is often called out on that question by others. The answer to that struggle is addressed at the end of the film.

Overall, the plot and the script keep the audience engaged enough to put up with what occasionally poorly delivered lines. It took a few scenes for the actors to get their cadence, and admittedly some of the actors feel low-budget. But experienced actor John Corbett raises the bar for everyone and carries the story quite well himself.  After the opening scenes, which include an appearance of Christian comedian Chonda Pierce, the acting falls into a better rhythm. Using the refugees from the actual All-Saints church as actors created an authentic feel.  It was hard to tell that they were acting, as they perfectly played perfectly their roles of strangers in a strange land.

There is humor scattered throughout the film, but unfortunately a lot of the lines that were meant to be funny fall flat due to acting, or perhaps directing. The better humor was in a subtle irony that came out in various ways as characters’ lives intersected, such as the grumpy widower farmer who finds a comradery with Ye Win, the leader of the Karens.

Cinematography was my biggest complaint. In various shots, the framing was such that it almost felt like the camera was being held at an angle. The church itself is a beautiful building, and I wanted the camera to capitalize on the architecture and stained glass windows, but instead it was almost ignored, and at times we saw half of a banner or a strangely framed wooden beam that didn’t fit. At one point a harvest moon made an appearance, but it was mostly a missed opportunity for the artistic glimpse it could have been. There’s also an awkward end of scene shot in which the camera zooms in on a headlight in a rainstorm for several long seconds, taking away from the power of the scene that we’d just watched. Speaking of lights, there were several scenes where the lighting felt artificial, mostly in attempts to make it look dark inside. Perhaps those are personal preferences, but it seemed that the artistic eye of the technicians and cameraman needed a little honing.

I liked the movie. As far as faith-based films go, it was probably the best one I’ve seen since “The Song”. Not just for the story and the realistic portrayal of realistic people who have doubts and failures, but for the gentle reminder it gives of the way God works in every circumstance of our lives. Through lost jobs, marital strife, self-doubt and suffering, All Saints gives viewers a glimpse of the hope we have in Christ. There was no watered down theology to complain about. When the question is raised by Pastor Spurlock’s son Atticus why God would let something fail, Pastor Michael simply answers with a broken, “I don’t know.” But despite the struggles, Pastor Spurlock and Ye Win show us how God uses everyday people and every day situations to accomplish his purposes through faith. The movie doesn’t sugar coat things, but it does leave us hopeful. And who doesn’t want a little hope these days?

K.D. Snodgrass is a freelance writer, an aspiring crime fighter, a wife, and a mother of four. She enjoys spending time outside, reading, and of course, going to the movies. You can contact her at batlancer@gmail.com or visit her blog, The Rough Draft.  

Thimblerig’s Review • Risen

risen_posterWe’ve been living in an unusual time of cinematic history, where it has become normal to find a film or two aimed squarely at the Christian filmgoing audience in the local cinema at any given moment, often making decent box office. While the presence of so-called “Christian” films has become so much of a given that they are now even mocked by the entertainment industry, what has not been a given is the quality of the films. They typically resonate with the intended audience, but don’t typically make much of an impact outside of that demographic. And they’re usually destroyed by most critics, both secular and Christian, in the process.

Why is this? Well, the reasons have been discussed far and wide (including right here on this blog), and hopefully filmmakers and film producers are starting to listen. Perhaps they are starting to heed the call to look beyond the bubble when casting the vision for their films. Maybe the time is coming that films produced for us will stop naval gazing, that filmmakers will put the kibash on creating works of propaganda rather than works of art. We can only hope that producers will begin to see the value in (to paraphrase the late Prince) giving the audience what they need, rather than what they want.

With the exception of a few slight missteps, Risen has the potential to do all of those things. Risen is a bubble burster (is that a word?), where the filmmakers have made a Jesus movie that isn’t focused on Jesus, and in the process, they’ve made a film that is potentially accessible to a large and varied audience.

maxresdefaultIn the film, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is a Roman military tribune stationed in Jerusalem who is entrusted by Pontious Pilate (Peter Firthwith the responsibility of overseeing the execution of one Yeshua of Nazareth (Cliff Curtis). When Sunday comes, and the body has vanished from the tomb, Pilate orders Clavius to find the body and squash any trouble before the Emperor arrives to evaluate Pilate’s job as the prefect of Judaea. With the hourglass sand running, Clavius sets out to prove that Yeshua is dead.

The goal of Thimblerig’s Film Reviews is to see how well movies made by Christians (or with Christian involvement) accomplish the five challenges I set out in my article, What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking. Those challenges are:

1.  Take more risks

2.  Challenge your audience

3.  Provoke your audience by raising questions without necessarily giving the answers

4.  Recognize that art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit

5.  Tell good stories

The reviews are honest about what the filmmaker has done well, and where improvement is needed.  I humbly acknowledge that making any film is a huge achievement, worthy of respect, and I hope my reviews are read with that in mind.

So, now to Risen, with a slight spoiler warning.

1. Did Risen take risks?

Let me put it this way: I’m amazed that Risen got made.

First, when you consider the thrashing the “faith-based” audiences gave to Aronovsky’s Noah and Scott’s Exodus, one would think that no studio would have the nerve to play around with the biblical narrative again. But here’s a movie that took that narrative and flipped it on its head, examining the story of Christ from an entirely different perspective. And best of all, the filmmakers managed to do it in a way that didn’t make the audience feel disrespected.

Jesus-2Second, as I said earlier, it was a risk to make a Jesus movie and barely show Jesus, and not even say the name “Jesus,” rather opting for the Hebrew name, Yeshua. I also admire that the filmmakers went the route of casting a non-white actor in that role, acknowledging that Jesus may actually have not been blond and blue-eyed. This is something that Hollywood doesn’t even have the nerve to attempt.

Third, the filmmakers also took a bit of heat for portraying Mary Magdelene as a prostitute, something that is not supported by the biblical text, but was a risky choice that was good for the film. It made Mary Magdelene’s journey that much more powerful, seeing that she went from being “known” by the majority of the soldiers in the barracks to knowing and following Yeshua, to the point of being willing to die for him.

[As an aside, did anyone else notice what Clavius’s assistant called Mary Magdelene when Clavius said she was mad? “Perhaps she’s a witch, sir. Shall I have her stoned?” I really want to know if the filmmakers gave Tom Felton this line because he played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films…]

Finally, the film took the risk of making the disciples look, as a group, like an absolute mess. When watching the film, you can’t help but wonder that this group of bumblers would actually be largely responsible for exporting the words and message of Yeshua to the world. Bartholomew is a blithering idiot, Simon Peter is a hothead, and the rest just stumble along barely making their way. The filmmakers were critiqued for this choice, but it holds true to the biblical account, and makes it even more amazing that the Christian faith actually made it out of Judea.

Kudos to the filmmakers for taking risks with this film.

2. Does Risen Challenge the Audience?

Risen was released by Affirm Films, which is one of the top studios producing, acquiring, or marketing films to the faith based audience. Recent projects have included War Room, Miracles from Heaven, Heaven is for Real and Mom’s Night Out. Affirm also publicizes itself as “the industry leader in faith-based film.” And so it’s not a surprise that Risen would fit that mold.

So, would the faith based audience be challenged by Risen?

Yes and no.

risen-clavius-marymagdalene-1024x304I think there are aspects that might challenge a Christian. For example, looking at the Scriptures from a different angle would challenge many. Evangelical Christians (who make up the bulk of that faith-based demographic) have a way of holding onto Scripture tightly, not permitting any deviation for fear of the corrupting influence deviation can have. This is understandable when dealing with exegesis and Bible study, but creates severe limitations on artistic interpretation.

In the case of Risen, the filmmakers have walked the tightrope of being true to the biblical account, but also taking creative licence in several different areas for the sake of the narrative. And for the most part it works, and the results may challenge some believers to be willing to look at Scripture from different points of view.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the film goes far enough in challenging that core audience. There are beats in the story that feel like they were added so that the faith based audience would be happy, and I desperately want my brothers and sisters in the film industry to stop making movies just to make us happy. At least not all the time.

For example, I was so excited to see that the film was dealing with a skeptic, but was let down that the film allowed us to see Clavius make the decision to become a believer. It felt like this choice was shoehorned into an otherwise excellent script in order to hit those beats that the faith based audience would demand.

Which leads us to the next point…

3.  Provoke your audience by raising questions without necessarily giving the answers.

As I said before, the film took us on Clavius’s journey from skeptic to believer, and I don’t know about you, but I long for the Christian film that doesn’t feel the need to show the skeptic making a definite decision. In fact, if Risen had ended with some question as to whether or not Clavius had believed, it might have been more effective in provoking conversation on the question of belief from the non-faith-based audience.

1122563Christopher Nolan’s Inception did “question” wonderfully well, and people still have arguments about that maddening ending with the spinning top. Was Cobb awake, or was he still in the dream? But our Christian made films have a very hard time with the concept of the ambiguous ending. I think we’ll be demonstrating a higher level of maturity when faith based audiences begin to permit ambiguity – at least from time to time.

4.  Recognize that art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit

Risen was good art until the last ten minutes of the movie. Things I really liked:

The setup, the action scenes, the character of Clavius and his interactions with Pilate, the investigation (even though I knew the answer to Clavius’s question, I was fascinated watching him try to figure it out).

I thought the scene when Clavius finally encounters Yeshua was wonderfully mysterious, especially when Yeshua vanishes, taking everyone by surprise. In that scene, Fiennes did a great job expressing everything he was thinking through body language and facial expressions, and you could imagine what was taking place in his mind as he wrestled with the truth about what he had just witnessed.

I enjoyed the disciples and their journey across the desert, loved watching Simon Peter develop in the short amount of time we saw him, thought it was brilliant that Clavius’s skills as a soldier was put to use helping protect this fledgling group of Yeshua followers, how it demonstrated the respect he’d developed with his assistant as they were found out in the ravine.

I enjoyed the way the filmmakers interpreted the fishing trip, and the dark figure on the beach yelling instructions. I even thought the healing of the leper was nicely done.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 3.46.01 PMBut then we get to that last scene with Yeshua – The Ascension. At that point, we were taken out of the film and dropped directly into a pew. And compared to the artistry of the rest of the film, the scene seemed rushed and thoughtless, like it was there because the audience would demand it.

It was not the ending that the rest of the film deserved.

5.  Tell good stories

As the rest of my responses have insinuated, Risen did an admirable job with storytelling, much better than the typical faith-based film. The concept of the film was brilliant, and the execution was extremely well done for the first ninety minutes of the movie. If the film had found a way to wrap things up more quickly after that impressive scene with the flock of starlings, I would have said that the film was great, rather than just really good.

As it was Risen represents a huge step in the right direction for films being made and marketed to the faith-based audience. It’s a film I would gladly watch with friends who don’t share my beliefs, and I would feel no regrets or embarrassment (with the exception of the last ten minutes), which is not usually the case. It was extremely well cast and acted, the cinematography was good, the locations were authentic, the soundtrack fitting… I could go on with the things the filmmakers did well.

But the main shortcoming brings us back to where we usually find ourselves – the misguided attempt by people putting out faith-based movies to please and not challenge the faith-based audience, to give us what we say we want, and not what we need.

We’re past the baby food, y’all. We’re ready for some meat and potatoes.

By the way, Peter Chattaway at Patheos does a good job of getting information out about films that are of interest to the “faith based” audience. Here are some links to some of his stories leading up to the release of Risen.

Apparently, Risen was originally called Clavius. That seems like a good name change.

And in the original version, Clavius had a Jewish lover named Rachel. I really wish they’d kept Rachel in the final version of the film, as it seemed like Clavius would have benefited from that relationship.

Finally, Mary Magdalen was originally going to play a larger role in the film, going with the disciples to Galilee. I also wish they’d have kept this in, as MM was a well-formed character, as opposed to ten of the twelve disciples.