How George Lucas Helped Shape The Christian Film Industry

A long time ago, in a cinema far, far away…

Episode 1:  A New Resource

It is a period of spiritual war…

war-roomWar Room opened up last weekend in 1,100 theaters around the country, and made an impressive 11 million dollars. Not bad for a movie made with a 3 million dollar budget, and the movie’s just getting started.

Made by filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who also made Facing the GiantsCourageous and Fireproof, War Room is the latest offering in the burgeoning Christian film industry (read my thoughts on that idea here), and stands to turn a healthy profit, as all Kendrick-made films since Facing the Giants have done, thanks to good grass-roots style marketing and the legions of loyal Christian fans who consistently turn up to support their films.

Christian filmmakers, Kendrick brothers included, have been learning quite a bit from their secular counterparts these past few years – how to make a film look and sound better, how to help actors act better, and even (on the rare occasion) how to write a better screenplay.

But the thing that really stands out? How to turn a profit.

And this is what has gotten the attention of the big boys in Hollywood.

Of course, making money from art is not a new thing for Christians. Back in the days of Bach and his contemporaries, musicians and artists were commissioned by the church to create, giving us beautiful and important work that continues to be cherished today. Locally, churches have been paying artists for ages to minister as organists, choir masters, worship leaders, and praise band members.

And it’s also not a bad thing. “Don’t muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” Paul said in the book of Timothy. In other words, when people work hard, they should be able to enjoy some of the benefits of their labor. In filmmaking, that means if someone makes a movie, and it earns buckets of money, that filmmaker should be able to have a few buckets for themselves to do with as they please – even if the film is being made as a “ministry” or an “outreach”, and not just as typical profit-grabbing entertainment.

Of course, there are more and more potential buckets available for successful films. We have the obvious box office buckets, but if the film has been distributed in the traditional way, the majority of those buckets go back to the studios and distributors. So another option is the bucket of merchandizing.

And there are lots of buckets in movie merchandizing, even with Christian-made films.

Warrom-DisplayUnlike secular movies, where the merchandizing can run the gamut from video games tie-ins to kid’s meals at fast food restaurants, Christian-made movie merchandizing primarily means the creation and selling of what the Christian marketing world calls resources.

What are resources? One kind of resource is the study guide. These are written so that Christians can watch the film with their Sunday school or small group and then engage in a Bible study inspired by the film, and it’s something that is particular to the faith-based film genre. For example, Marvel doesn’t typically mass produce study guides to the MCU movies, nor does J.J. Abrams write study guides for his films, although they’d probably sell if they did.

[Undoubtedly they’d sell. Note to self: pitch study guide idea to Kevin Feige and J.J. Abrams]

But resources can also mean many other things, from church campaign kits, books inspired by the film, and original soundtracks featuring favorite CCM artists.

And then there’s the typical kitsch and tchochkes – baseball hats, coffee mugs, t-shirts, notepads, plush dolls, little wooden crosses, and the like. I would imagine secular companies have to be impressed by how effective the Christian Corporate Machine has become at taking films from idea to screen to marketplace.

For example, long before it ever bows onscreen, a film like War Room has been so incredibly well-strategized, planned, marketed, and produced, that I’m surprised the ever-popular Chick-fil-A wasn’t signed on for some product placement.

I can see it now… Ms. Clara goes into her War Room to pray, but when she’s sure nobody’s looking, she pulls out a bag of waffle fries and a white styrofoam cup of sweet iced tea emblazoned with that curly red chicken head…

Yeah, maybe that wouldn’t have worked.

Regardless of how they do what they do, it’s interesting to see how Christian filmmakers have joined their secular counterparts in mastering the business of movie marketing cross promotion and tie-ins.

And do you know who we have to thank for the overabundance of “resources” being produced for Christian-made films?

George Lucas.

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Episode 2:  The Merch Strikes Back

It is a dark time for movie merchandizing…

Yep, George Lucas.

That George Lucas.

You read it right, dear reader. I’m making the claim that George Lucas is the reason that every time a new faith-based film opens, the Christian bookstores and websites fill up with all sorts of movie-themed “resources” that help bring in more buckets of money for Christian retailers, publishers, filmmakers, producers, marketers, and everyone else involved in making and promoting Christian-made movies.

Most people under the age of 30 probably don’t realize that prior to Star Wars, movie marketing cross promotion was pretty insignificant. Yes, you had the occasional attempt to take advantage of the buzz created by a movie by making a strange toy version, like the odd “for ages 6 and up” shark game made by Ideal Toys when Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 6.48.53 PMJaws became such a monster hit. Certainly, toys and merchandise and even Christian-produced resources had been made based on movies and television programs, but usually with fairly limited success.

And then, when George Lucas took us to that galaxy far, far away, things changed.

The key is found in one of the biggest blunders in movie studio history. Because Star Wars was seen as such a risk, Lucas made a deal with Twentieth Century Fox that he would take a cut in directing fees in return for having all the rights to licensing and merchandising, and then he sold the toy rights to Kenner for a flat fee of $100,000 per year.

Kenner was so unprepared for the popularity of Star Wars that they didn’t make near enough toys for the demand. If parents wanted to buy their child a new Star Wars toy for Christmas in 1977, they were forced to give the child a voucher for Star Wars toys that would not be manufactured and released for months, and Kenner went on to sell a staggering $100,000,000 worth of Star Wars toys during the first year alone.

That’s one hundred million dollars.

Worth of little plastic action figures and such.

For a movie that nobody had wanted to make.

In one year.

Since that time, the franchise has gone on to make well over 27 billion dollars, with only about 4.3 billion coming from the movies. That means around 23 billion dollars of revenue has come from merchandizing alone.

And with Lucas’s innocuous little space opera, not only was a merchandizing juggernaut born, but a new way of making movies as well. Suddenly, films started being greenlit based on how much peripheral material could be marketed alongside it, as well as potential box office.

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The Star Trek Happy Meal.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was actually a time when McDonalds and other fast food places didn’t sell Happy Meals connected to movies. In fact, McDonald’s first Happy Meal was an attempt to cash in on the space craze created by Star Wars, and it was based on 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Read this article for more information on the way the Star Wars marketing phenomenon evolved over time, impacting the majority of movies being produced, both then and now, both secular and Christian.

Episode 3: The Return of the Faith-Based Filmmakers

The Kendrick Brothers have returned to their home in Albany, Georgia…

And so now we live in a time where it is standard operating procedure for potential merchandizing to play a heavy role in the making of movies. And while Christians may not yet be at the place of the summer blockbuster, where merchandizing often seems to lead the film, we are definitely at the place where merchandizing is being utilized to bring even more profit to those who made the faith-based film.

And profit is important, even in the Christian film industry.

But I want to end this blog post with a pretty radical suggestion.

If we must have a Christian film industry, what if that industry did things differently? What if the movers and shakers made the decision to not be swept away by dreams of big box office and profit, like all the other film industries are, and like many of the other Christian media industries seem to be? What could be done, if we determined that we were going to be a counter-industry industry?

What if our Christian film industry – as a whole – pulled a Keith Green?

keith-green1Keith Green was a very popular but quite radical Christian singer in the 70’s and early 80’s, who famously (or infamously) gave away his records, telling people to pay what they were able, and he required Christian retailers to give away a copy of his cassettes for free with each one they sold, all to help spread the Gospel. Green’s giveaways reportedly sent shockwaves through the Christian music and retail industries at the time, but Green was known to be an uncompromising person when it came to his convictions.

And if today’s successful filmmakers of faith started insisting on doing something similar, imagine the modern day shockwaves!

What if many of those resources developed for movies made on a shoestring budget, but movies that turn out to be popular enough to go on to rake in ten or twenty or even forty-five times that in box office, were just… given away?

The study guides, the bible studies, the church campaign kits, the prayer journals, the baseball hats, and the little wooden crosses all available for whatever potential customers could afford to pay, even if it is nothing at all.

All to help spread the Gospel.

I know, I know… it’s a crazy idea.

I know Christian producers have to pay salaries, and I’m not suggesting they don’t. I know that Christian filmmakers want to be able to afford to plan out their next projects, and they should certainly do what it takes to do that. I know that some – like the Kendrick brothers – pour much of their film profits back into their home churches, and they should obviously continue to do that as they feel led.

And I know that they all need to put bread on their own tables, and provide for their families, and they certainly shouldn’t be muzzled while they are treading out the grain.

But I’m so frustrated that too many of the other Christian industries appear to be too much industry and not enough Christian. And since the film industry is the youngest of them all, and it’s the industry closest to my heart, why can’t it be the one to change course and do something different, and radical, and refreshing – even if it seems crazy, and unindustrial, and unprofitable?

After all, they thought Luke Skywalker was crazy for switching off his targeting computer when he was making that infamous trench run.

And Luke wound up saving the rebellion.

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God bless, and may the force be with you…

Always.

Update 1:  I just found out that the producers of the upcoming movie, Captive, are giving away a ton of resources on their website.  All the sorts of materials that are being sold on the War Room website are free for the Captive folks. I was already looking forward to seeing Captive, and now it’s even moreso!  Good job, Captive!

Update 2: I’ve heard some encouraging news.  Apparently, Giving Films – the production company behind the upcoming film, 90 Minutes in Heaven, have committed to giving all the profit they make from the film to charity.

That’s what I’m talking about.  Way to go, Giving Films!

3 Reasons Why a Christian Film Industry is a Really, Really Bad Idea

“Too little, too late.”

That’s the phrase that kept coming to mind as I started to write a blog post where I, as a Christian, was going to argue against the building of a Christian film industry.

After all, Christians have been trying – on some level – to create a Christian film industry since movies began, and some would argue even earlier.  There were the Billy Graham films of the 1950’s, the apocalyptic Thief in the Night movies of the 1970’s, and a smattering of attempts by different Christian filmmakers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but these movies barely registered on the radar of people outside of the church.  As far as Hollywood was concerned, Christian movies were provincial affairs, unworthy of notice.

Mel-Gibson-and-Jim-Caviez-007Then in 2004, Mel Gibson shocked everyone to attention with his blood-soaked account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus – The Passion of the Christ, a film that cost 30 million to make and earned over 600 million.

Hollywood finally stood up and took notice.

It was as if Gibson, by successfully tapping into the largely untapped market of the “faith based audience”, had singlehandedly uncovered the fabled lost golden city of El Dorado, and the L.A. conquistadors immediately set about strategizing how to best invade and conquer this shining city on a hill.

The Armani-suited conquistadors didn’t waste time, but began attaching themselves to little-known Christian filmmakers who seemed to appeal to the Christian masses, eventually inking deals with the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof), Pureflix Entertainment (God’s Not Dead), Cloud Ten Pictures (Left Behind), and many others – helping provide the finances and distribution channels that would permit these filmmakers and film companies to continue making and marketing their products for the Christian audience.

And in the past couple of years we’ve seen several well-known individuals from outside the filmmaking industry also try to tap into the Χριστιανός zeitgeist – Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, Willie Robertson, to name a few – all doing their part to try and build up a Christian (or politically conservative) filmmaking industry in their own image, or at least one that lines up with their own personal theological interpretation of the faith or political ideology.

And now, here we have this little blog, a small voice crying in the wilderness, making the argument that creating a Christian film industry is absolutely the last thing that we Christians should be trying to do.

THREE ARGUMENTS WHY A CHRISTIAN FILM INDUSTRY IS A REALLY, REALLY BAD IDEA

1.  The audience – we want them to hang about, don’t we?

A Christian film industry would only succeed in driving the unchurched audience even farther away than they already are.

Hollywood stood up and took notice with Gibson’s “little indie film that could” because of the massive Christian support.  This huge group of people supported The Passion in a way they hadn’t supported a film before.  According to a Barna survey, roughly half of the movie’s audience identified as born again Christian, and the film was widely backed by Christian leaders of all denominational backgrounds because of the heavy lifting done by Mel Gibson to get them on board.

But the interesting thing about The Passion was how it was also seen by people who didn’t consider themselves religious.  That same Barna survey mentioned that one out of three Americans claimed to have seen the movie, a pretty stunning feat for any film.  Mainstream, indie, secular, Christian, whatever… any filmmaker would dream of numbers like that.

Isn’t that something?  The Passion of the Christ had an incredible return on its investment (both financially and spiritually), and while it was marketed to Christians, it was a movie everyone wanted to see, regardless of their faith.  In fact, I first saw The Passion in a packed movie theater in Almaty, Kazakhstan back in 2004, surrounded by people who had little to no idea who Jesus was, and they were blown away by the film.

But the faith-based movers and shakers seem to have forgotten the wide appeal of Gibson’s film.  Christian films continue to be made squarely for Christian audiences – and if some non-Christians happen to get dragged to the film by their Christian friends, then good on them, but the movies aren’t made for them.

Here’s the rub: if the movies were playing in churches, I wouldn’t have a problem!

But the movies aren’t playing in churches.  They’re playing in cinemas.  In malls and multiplexes.  Where people who don’t go to church like to go on a Friday night.

That’s the problem.

left behindWhat do these people see on their Friday night out?  They see Left Behind (RT score 2) playing beside Fury (RT 78) and Birdman (RT 94).

They see Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (RT 0) playing beside Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (RT 73) and Disney’s Big Hero 6 (RT 89).

If you aren’t seriously bothered by those comparisons, then I really wonder if you’re paying attention.

And with every subpar film effort made to expressly please the Christian masses, the respect of the non-Christian for our art and – yes – for our faith – goes down.  Just look hereherehere and here.  Those are films made in our name, folks, and you can almost hear the sounds of doors closing as the unchurched audience sees what is done in our name, and checks us off their list of groups to be taken seriously.

The creation of a Christian film industry will not improve this, and conversely, I contend that it will entrench us deeper into our misguided acceptance of poorly written, preachy, unambiguous films with underdeveloped low-dimensional characters, and cartoonish, moustache-twirling non-Christian antagonists.

2.  People don’t like message movies.  Seriously.

A Christian film industry would excel at creating movies that are heavy on message and light on story and character development.

After all, that is what we’ve been creating, almost exclusively, since the dawn of so-called Christian filmmaking.

But here’s the crazy thing: people don’t like message movies, especially poorly made ones.

elysium-dvd-cover-36Remember how angry Christians got when the rumors hit that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah would be a pro-environmentalist screed?  Why?  Because Christians disliked the message.  Neil Blomkcampf and Matt Damon’s Elysium was roundly blasted by conservatives.  Why?  Because they disliked the film’s liberal message.

The message of a movie should be like the caboose of a train – carried along by the other elements of the film – story, dialogue, character, cinematography, acting – and not the other way around.  The message of a well-made film will hit you hours later when you’re lying in your bed, while the message of a poorly-made message-heavy film will steamroll you over while you’re sitting in the cinema.

Granted, if you like the message that the message movie is presenting, you might fool yourself into thinking that you like the movie, but odds are you really only like the message and you’re tolerating the movie.  Again, if we are producing these films only for ourselves, and we’re showing them in churches on Sunday nights or at youth retreats, then we should feel free to knock ourselves out and preach away.

However, we aren’t making our Christian message movies in a vacuum.  The world is watching, and they are not getting our message because they don’t like our message-heavy movies.

3.   Further self-isolation is a big, short-sighted mistake.

A Christian film industry would drive us to close our ranks even more than we already have.

After all, the hard truth is that people who aren’t Christians already rarely read our books.  People who aren’t Christians already have little to no interest in listening to our music.  They typically don’t visit our blogs, subscribe to our magazines, attend our universities, shop in our gift shops, tune into our television programming, or take advice from our talk shows.  They’re rarely interested in attending our churches, our Bible studies, our home groups, our prayer meetings, or our revivals.

We’ve done quite a good job building a subculture for ourselves, isolating ourselves from the influences of the world, but in the process we’re also isolating our influence from the world!

newswAnd now we find ourselves stuck in the gravitational pull of a cultural black hole.  Religion has always been a huge factor in public discourse in the United States, but since a height of relevance in the 1950’s, Christian cultural influence has been in a steady decline.  In another study, the folks at Barna have shown that this decline will continue so that, unless something changes, by the time my one year old is college-aged, he will be in the definite minority.  I should say that he will be in the minority if he is following Christ – and it is my daily prayer that he will be.  But my son will need to know how to live and work in a post-Christian world.

And that post-Christian world that is coming will have very little interest in supporting or encouraging a Christian film industry.

THE ALTERNATIVE TO A CHRISTIAN FILM INDUSTRY

Believe it or not, I’m not saying that we should never make films for Christian audiences.  We should!   They should be fantastic films, just like films made for any subculture can be fantastic!  But that should not be the focus of our efforts.

Rather, we should focus on those Christians trying to make it in Hollywood right now – writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, CGI gurus, etc – who are currently studying and working in the Hollywood system, who need to be built up and encouraged by the church while the church still has the resources and relevance to be able to support them!  Rather than insisting that they produce middling message-heavy stories for Christian audiences, we should be encouraging them to learn how to tell their stories and live their lives within the system that will be there in the future.

We should be building these believing artists up so that they can have an impact on the lives of the unchurched writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, and CGI gurus with whom they work.

We should be helping them to make movies whose posters would be proudly displayed on any mall cinema or multiplex.

We should be helping them get the training and experience and connections that they can use to make films that would have big premieres on red carpets with paparazzi and gowns and tuxedos and limousines.

We should be providing them with the proper tools and support so that the movies they make can be well-made enough to be nominated for Critic’s awards and People’s Choice Awards and Golden Globes and Oscars.

Instead of putting all our money and resources into creating movies that we can enjoy in our isolation, we should be investing in our filmmakers who are out on the mission field of Hollywood, helping them to make movies that can take the cultural landscape by storm, that can hit the widest of audiences, and trusting God to use those efforts to reach the unchurched audience how HE would reach them.

After all, we are called to live with that unchurched audience, not in closed ranks, regardless of how much influence we have.  We aren’t to be conformed by the world (Romans 12:2), we shouldn’t be of the world (John 15:19), but we are to be salt and light in the dark world (Matthew 5:13-16) and bearers of a great light to the people who walk in darkness (Isaiah 9:2).

Maybe, just maybe, in our generation or the next – that great light will be seen flickering with 70MM projection on an Imax screen, to thunderous applause.

Below are a few good places to start if you want to find some Christians to support in Hollywood.   Just click on the logo to go to the organization’s website:

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