The Star – Faithful Biblical Adaptation… Where’s the Faith-based Audience?

The year is 2014.

Hollywood wide-releases two films based on biblical accounts: Noah, and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

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The Big Christian Audience responds by complaining:

“Why does Hollywood hate us so much? Why can’t they make something that is safe for my whole family? Why can’t they respect the Bible as much as I respect the Bible?”

(See here, here, here, and here.)

 

 

Fast forward to 2017.

starDevon Franklin and the folks at Sony Animation wide release the animated nativity movie The Star on nearly 3,000 screens. When asked about the film, Franklin says:

“We really looked at the scriptures that everyone is familiar with, looked at all the gospels in order to pull the right information about the birth so that when we did the film, those moments would feel authentic…we really tried to honor scripture and that was the number one priority.”

And does the Big Christian Audience respond by running out on opening weekend to support this – a big Hollywood movie put out by a major studio working together with a bunch of Christians – a project that the filmmakers have gone out of their way to “honor scripture” in the making?

Nope.

The Star only made $10,000,000, giving it the dubious distinction as the worst opening on a Sony Animation film ever, and with a budget of around $20,000,000, I doubt that there were many uncorked bottles of champagne in the Sony offices.

People who study this sort of thing think that The Star will ultimately make money, as it could conceivably play up until Christmas (why didn’t they didn’t take advantage of the Christmas season and release it later, I’ll never know), and it will also make a lot of money in DVD sales, streaming, and other post-theater revenue areas. But, this less-than-stellar (see what I did there?) opening will probably not encourage the big studios to try this again any time soon.

The argument could be made that the Big Christian Audience is just fatigued. After all, The Star was released at the end of a trio of faith-based films (Same Kind of Different as Me, Let There Be Light), and that’s a lot of movies to support. Who’s got the time or money to see so many Christian movies? But this argument does not shine very bright. After all, neither of the other two films performed very well, especially when compared to 2015’s mega smash, War Room. It’s not like the Big Christian Audience emptied out its collective pockets to support Pureflix and Kevin Sorbo, so they got nothing left for the poor animated donkey.

They’re just not showing up.

Even when Hollywood tries to cater specifically to the wants of the Big Christian Audience by making a family movie in which the filmmakers go out of their way to be “largely faithful to the biblical narrative”, the Big Christian Audience just stays at home, apparently stewing over the secret agenda of Starbucks cups. Again. Didn’t we already have that hissy-fit?

That’s good and well. After all, the Big Christian Audience is under no obligation to support Christian-made films, any more than they’re under any obligation to support CCM artists, Christian radio, Christian politicians, or anything else labeled “Christian”, and if that were the end of it, there would be no reason to write this article.

But here’s the thing. In a few years, some big Hollywood studio will put out their own retelling of a biblical story. They’ll hire a non-Christian to direct it, and the story will be given a non-traditional treatment that won’t jive with the sensibilities of the Big Christian Audience.

And the BCA will immediately jump on their smart phones and share negative articles about the director’s controversial take on the subject. They’ll take to the social media airwaves to complain about it. They’ll threaten boycotts and cry “persecution” and play the victim, because this is what the BCA does.

They’ll lament, “Why does Hollywood hate us so much? Why can’t they make something that is safe for my whole family? Why can’t they respect the Bible as much as I respect the Bible?”

And a simple, animated donkey will trot into the picture and bray…

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A Response to Kevin Sorbo and “Let There Be Light”

Today, Kevin Sorbo made the following post to his Facebook page, in anticipation of his upcoming film, “Let There Be Light” which bows this weekend.

And although it’s doubtful that Mr. Sorbo will ever see this, I’d like to respond to some of the points that he made in his attempt to put bottoms in seats during those crucial opening days.

Mr. Sorbo writes:
“Hollywood used to make wonderful morally-steeped films, but those days are gone. Today, they seem to go out of their way specifically to show people of faith in a very negative light. The villain is often the priest, the cardinal, the pastor.”

There are two arguments here. One, that Hollywood doesn’t make “morally-steeped” films any more, and two, that Hollywood goes out of their way to show people of faith in a negative light.

I disagree with both arguments.

First, Hollywood’s movies are still often steeped in morals, which is why people are able to make lists like this http://www.imdb.com/list/ls003913565/ and this https://www.thetoptens.com/most-inspirational-movies/ and this https://afineparent.com/building-character/best-family-movies.html. Yes, Hollywood produces some pictures that you might qualify as amoral, but a glance at the box office results for last year will show you that movies that are fundamentally amoral just aren’t as profitable as stories with a moral bent. And Hollywood – in general – follows where the money leads.

Which brings us to Mr. Sorbo’s second argument. In his post, Mr. Sorbo writes that “the villain is often the priest, the cardinal, the pastor”? Granted, that does happen from time to time, and when it does, it stings. But I would argue that you can also find plenty of movies where clergy are shown in a positive light (Signs, Les Miserables, Calvary, Silence, to name just a few). Conversely, you can find many more movies where non-Christians (or people of no spoken faith) are the antagonists or the unsavory characters.

This idea that Christians in general are unfairly singled out for mocking by Hollywood just doesn’t hold water, at least not in film and television. Maybe at Hollywood cocktail parties, but not so much onscreen.

ltblMr. Sorbo wrote:
“But Hollywood forgets that the majority of Americans believe, and the great success of faith-based films is proof that people yearn for stories that give them an honest spiritual environment, that make them feel at home.”

Which is it? Has Hollywood forgotten that the majority of Americans believe, or – since The Passion of the Christ – have they been going out of their way to try and service that demographic, to a varying degree of success? It seems that this “great success” of faith based films is at least partly because Hollywood has been helping the films get made and/or distributed.

Remember? The studios follow the money.

In a strange twist, this statement also seems to indicate that faith-based films often aren’t really as evangelistic as folks would have you believe, even though filmmakers and marketers often promote them as such. After all, if faith-based films are really made for the people who want to be made to feel at home (i.e, “the choir”) – how does that reach people outside the sanctuary?

This is fine, of course. Why shouldn’t Christian audiences have movies made for them, just like any other demographic? But the people selling these films need to just be honest when talking about the film’s goals.

Now, hold the phone. Am I saying that the filmmakers don’t want their films to be effective outside the Christian subculture? No, of course not. I’m sure that many filmmakers (including the Sorbos) desperately want their films to be tools to help share the Gospel with people who haven’t heard. But the nature of the beast is that faith-based films are made and marketed with the pre-saved audience in mind. Any post-saved individuals who happen to see these films and be impacted are more like some kind of evangelical collateral damage.

Mr. Sorbo says:
“If Let There Be Light is a success, more independent financiers will be greatly encouraged to follow this path and we can have a true impact on a new wave of original faith-based stories coming to the screen. Wholesome entertainment we can all enjoy!”

Sure. If “Let There Be Light” does well, it’ll mean more potential resources for other similar movies in the future. “A rising tide raises all ships”, after all.

But this comment raises a different question for me.

Which is it – wholesome entertainment or faith-based entertaiment? Why does it have to be both? As has been said ad nauseum among people who talk about Christian filmmaking, the Bible is often not very wholesome. It’s full of murder and deceit and lust and jealousy and all kinds of human mistakes. Truly authentic movie versions of most Old Testament stories would be only viewed after the kids were put to bed.

It’s time we separate these concepts, and allow faith-based films be true-to-real-life stories that aren’t necessarily constrained by the “family friendly” label. I’m not advocating gratuitous films, but films that honestly explore the human condition in order to honestly explore our spiritual condition.

Heck, even “Let There Be Light” isn’t “wholesome entertainment we can all enjoy”… it’s rated PG-13!

Mr. Sorbo writes:
Please help us to make this film a great success. Tell all your family, bring your friends, come see this film and make a statement that you stand against the tidal wave of darkness, and films that substitute intelligence with brutality, wherein dehumanizing negativity gets glorified.

See, I don’t get this. Sure, Hollywood makes brutal, dehumanizing films. They also make beautiful, life-affirming films. How will supporting “Let There Be Light” stand against the former? It’s not like the audience for “Let There Be Light” would go see the latest slasher film otherwise.

Go see the film because you want to see the film. Go see the film because you like Kevin Sorbo and want to support his work. Go see the film because you want to see more faith-based films being made. But don’t go see the movie because you think you’re taking some sort of a stand by doing so. It’s as useless as changing your profile picture to reflect your support of the victims of the latest tragedy and even more useless than writing that your “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims.

Mr. Sorbo writes:
Hollywood wants to shut out movies like “Let There Be Light,” because it does not fit their message. Help us deliver a message to them that there is another way!

This will be a short response. Hollywood doesn’t care about message, they care about box office and bottom lines. They follow the money, remember?

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/24/business/media/hollywood-movies-christian-outreach.html

Mr. Sorbo writes:
The story told in our movie touches people so profoundly because everyone at some point says goodbye to a loved one. The eternal question this film answers is: Is it a farewell forever or just a good night, I will see you in the morning?

Now see? This is the first thing written in this entire post that comes close to making me want to see this movie. This is the heart and soul of this film and should be the entire selling point of this Facebook post, not all the us vs. them, ‘Hollywood hates us and doesn’t make anything good’ jazz that came before.

Mr. Sorbo, as you’re talking about this film, give us the heart and soul of your movie as the reason to see it. Let us see your passion for the story, for the characters, for the themes you explore. Motivate us to stand in line to see your artistic vision onscreen, and stop trying to pressure us into standing in line to support some sort of culture war cause.

If you do this, maybe more of us will turn up.

After all, lots of us loved Hercules.

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Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast Episode 8 • The Faith-Based Film Label Controversy

Film Label Controversy

In the eighth episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast, I give my thoughts on the recent controversy that has been swirling since producer Mark Joseph discussed the need to get rid of the “faith-based” film label in an interview with Fox News. Joseph’s comments created quite a stir, and prompted a response from a few different people in the faith-based film business, most notably filmmaker Dallas Jenkins (“The Resurrection of Gavin Stone”), who disagreed with Joseph’s arguments.

Follow this link to listen to the podcast, and then let me know what you think!

The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast is a part of the More Than One Lesson family of podcasts, and you can listen to it as well as other great film podcasts by visiting More Than One Lesson.

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And just a head’s up… Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist will be coming out in just a couple of months. Keep your eye out for the sequel to Thimblerig’s Ark!

Pitch for the Christian Version of “Stranger Things”

 

The Christian media response to secular rap music was DC Talk.

The Christian media response to secular horror novels was Frank Perretti.

The Christian media response to YouTube was GodTube.

It was only a matter of time before there was a Christian media response to the summer hit, Stranger Things.

Gospileaks, the Christian media version of Wikileaks, has released this secret memo that was just sent to Moses Wesley, the CEO of the Koinonia Faith and Family Media Entertainment Group. Apparently, Peculiarer People (the Christian version of Stranger Things) has been greenlit and currently in preproduction.

Read the details below.

Title:

PECULIARER PEOPLE

Premise:

A one-hour thriller/drama concerned with life in the small town of Moriah, New York and the unusual things that happen there.

Logline:

When a young boy disappears, his widowed mother, a pastor, and his homeschool friends must confront frightening spiritual forces in order to get him back.

Synopsis:

Chapter 1: The Rapturing of Mark Falwell

1984, the Moody family basement. Four homeschooled boys are sitting in the basement, listening to Petra’s “More Power To Ya” [note: there are so many opportunities to take advantage of nostalgia for early 1980’s paraphernalia with this show idea – need to schedule a meeting with Lifeway and Family Christian bookstores to figure out how to cross-promote], while playing DragonRaid. [note: A Christian role-playing game that was popular in the 1980’s. They’ll be happy to bring it back, I’m sure]

The boys, all about age 10, are MATTHEW MOODY, MARK FALWELL, LUKE WHITEFIELD, and JOHN MCGEE. They are typical 10-year-old homeschooled children: respectful to parents, polite to each other, bright but not proud. In the game, they are using Scripture memorization in adventure campaigns, and in this scene, they are encountering the wicked dragon Abaddon, which they are fighting by quoting Scripture passages.

Their game is interrupted by Matt’s mother calling him to dinner. The boys are disappointed, but immediately obey the mother and pack up the game, putting everything away nicely. The boys go to leave, and in the process, we meet Matt’s sweet and friendly sister, HOPE, who – sitting on her bed cross-stitching, waves to them as they pass her room. The boys thank Mrs. Moody for her hospitality and then get on their bikes to ride home. [note: lots of good opportunities to model appropriate behavior and healthy family life here. Cross-promotion with Focus on the Family?]

echo-bikesThe boys are laughing joyfully and singing songs together as they ride home. First, Luke peels away as he reaches home, then John, until Mark is riding by himself in the darkness. The lights on his bike start to flicker, and then suddenly a menacing, dark figure stands on the road in front of him. Shocked, Mark crashes his bike in the forest and takes off for home on foot. When Mark arrives home, he opens the door to find the house empty. He locks the door, and then glances at a note on the refrigerator to see that his mother and older brother are at a Bible study.

He’s home alone.

Mark picks up the phone as is about to call the Bible study when the barking dog draws his attention back to the door. The shadowy figure can be seen through the fogged glass window, and it uses some sort of diabolical supernatural dark magic to open the lock from the outside. [note: will have to figure out how to film this so it’s not too scary for our family audience] This sends Mark scurrying out the back door and into a little shed. He looks around desperately for anything to help him. The only things are an old dusty Bible and an old Psalty toy. He grabs them both and then falls to his knees and begins to pray. The lights start to flicker in the shed, and then with one final flicker off and then back on, the shed is empty.

Mark is gone.

[Cue Title Card]

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The next morning, the scene opens with our first view of PASTOR ZECHARIAH TAYLOR. He’s brushing his teeth, looking at himself in the mirror, humming “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” To establish that he is the pastor, he should be shown putting on a pastor’s collar.

Next, we are back in the Falwell house, where we meet Mark’s mother, ELISABETH FALWELL, who is talking to her son, AARON FALWELL. Turns out that when they’d returned home from Bible Study, they’d both assumed the other had checked on Mark. And now, he’s not in his room. Considering that Mark never disobeys, Elisabeth calls Mrs. Moody to see if Mark had been invited for a sleepover.

article-2120538-12578041000005DC-949_634x422The Moody’s are having a nice breakfast together [none of that frustrating Spielbergian dysfunctional family going on here – the children are listening and respecting the parents, the mother is preparing a lovely breakfast, the father is leading the children in morning devotionals] and Mrs. Moody tells Elisabeth that Mark had left promptly at 6:30 as had been agreed. Elisabeth’s concern grows. She prays.

The next scene shows the homeschool boys arriving at the public library to study together. As they lock their bikes, they are approached by two young bullies, LOT and JUDAS, who start to make fun of the boys’ faith – as evidenced by their “The Lord’s Gym” t-shirts [note: check and see what sort of Christian t-shirts were sold in the mid-1980’s. We want to be accurate here]. The boys – struggling with meekness and confidence issues – are too timid to stand up for themselves, and so they let the boys bully them. Having won, the bullies finally leave.

Cut to the public school, where we find Hope (who, being older, has started attending a public school part time) walking down the school hall with her accountability partner, DORCAS. Hope is confessing to Dorcas that a boy named Ace Temptor has been talking to her, and had even asked her on a date to help her study for her Christian history test. Dorcas is righteously angry, since Ace is a well-known womanizer who doesn’t attend church, and she and Hope had taken an abstinence pledge together. Hope is defensive and denies that anything bad will happen. Dorcas knows better, but Hope has changed since starting public school. As Hope walks away, Dorcas prays for her.

TheApostleNow we see the steeple for Mt. Moriah Community Church, where Pastor Taylor is the minister. As he enters his office, his secretary hands him a cup of coffee and tells him that Elisabeth Falwell is waiting for him in his office. Pastor Taylor goes to her (leaving the door to the office open, of course) and listens to her story. Elisabeth is concerned that Mark is gone, and Pastor Taylor suggests that perhaps he is at the Christian bookstore reading or listening to the latest CCM cassettes. Elisabeth wonders if Mark could have been raptured, but since no clothes were left behind, the pastor says he doubts it. They pray together.

We go to The National Institute for Atheist Science Research, where the atheist scientists are putting on protective suits and descending down some dark stairs. The leader of the atheist scientists is STEPHEN DAWKINS, a serious and humorless man, and right now he is especially upset. There is no prayer here, only hard and cold science. The scientists enter into the darkness of a big room and find their worst nightmare, a giant squishy gross demonic-looking substance. [note: we’ll definitely need some money for SFX]

Drew-Barrymore-in-Firesta-010This brings us to the introduction of another very important character, a mysterious girl who doesn’t talk. She is walking through the woods getting hungry [note: symbolizing spiritual hunger? I’ll talk to my nephew] when she comes upon “Ten Boom’s General Store and Bible Wholesaler”. When she goes into the store, she is tempted to steal some food, but upon seeing a Bible, changes her mind and approaches the sweet old lady working the cash register. The old lady, FANNY TEN BOOM, has pity on her and gives her some food.

Back in the library, the boys are interrupted in their diligent study by the friendly librarian, MR. LOGOS. Mr. Logos invites the boys to come back to his office, where he shows them his new ham radio, and they discuss how they can use it to encourage missionaries all over the world. But their excitement is interrupted by the arrival of Pastor Taylor, who says he needs to talk to the boys. The pastor takes them to the librarian’s office, where he asks them questions about Mark’s disappearance. He recommends that it would be better if they didn’t go looking for their missing friend, which puts the boys in a quandary as they balance their respect for authority and their desire to find Mark.

Ten Boom blesses the food the mysterious girl has in front of her, and then as the mysterious girl eats, the old woman tries to get her to talk. She asks the girl’s name, but the girl can’t answer. The old woman notices that the girl has a tattoo of a dove on her arm, and the mysterious girl indicates her that the tattoo is her name. Ten Boom calls a local Christian homeless shelter and tells them about the girl named DOVE.

In a strange dark room full of atheist scientists, they are listening to phone calls over sophisticated scientific equipment. They listen to the old woman’s call and then dial 666 on their inter-office phone. Dawkins picks up the phone, and he smiles wickedly. They’ve found the girl!

1235168795Pastor Taylor comes to Elisabeth’s house and starts to look around, trying to figure out what might have happened to Mark. She shows him the shed where Mark disappeared and finds – under some straw, and under a shaft of light – a small Psalty toy. The lights flicker and the camera shows Pastor Taylor sensing something in his spirit. “I need the church’s help on this one,” he tells Elisabeth, rushing out heroically to make some phone calls.

In the Moody home, the family is eating dinner. The father says that after dinner he will be joining the church search party to help look for Mark, and Matt continues to be bothered by not being able to help. They have a conversation about authority and respect. Hope, meanwhile, is struggling because she likes Ace, but she knows he’s also such a bad influence. She asks a question which leads her father to tell the story of his coming to Christ, a transformative experience that changed him from a hopeless sinner to a responsible family man. Hope makes the decision at that point that she will try to share her faith with Ace, no matter what – that she will save him. And simultaneously Matt makes the decision to help find Mark, no matter what. [note: they are both acts of defiance that will have consequences later on – bad choices that will earn good lessons]

After dinner in his bedroom, Matt uses his walkie-talkies to contact Luke and John. They decide to meet and look for Mark, even though it is disobeying their parents. Over the walkie-talkie, Matt prays for forgiveness, even while feeling that God will understand. Matt takes off on his bike, but as he’s leaving, he sees Ace climbing the frame of the house into Hope’s room. This is bad, but Matt doesn’t have time to counsel his sister. He rides off into the increasing gloom to find his friend.

hqdefaultUp in Hope’s room, she is working on her Christian history homework when there is a tap on the window. She’s shocked (but secretly happy) to see Ace outside, and she lets him in, where he promises to help her study her Christian history homework. It’s a perfect opportunity for Christian witness, she thinks. She doesn’t realize that Ace has other plans. Inappropriate plans. [note: a good lesson about opening the window of your heart to let Satan into your house]

Back at Fanny Ten Boom’s store, there is a knock on the front door. Ten Boom opens the door to find a representative from the Christian homeless shelter, who smiles and asks about the mysterious girl named Dove. But it’s not really a representative from the Christian homeless shelter – it is an evil atheist scientist looking for the mysterious girl. The evil scientist knocks the old woman on the head and she slumps to the ground. The mysterious girl goes running, but is cornered by two more evil scientists. She focuses her energies on them [note: good time for more SFX – “Stranger Things” goes too subtle on this part, we need to have a glorious light shining from above, perhaps the sound of angel voices?] – cries out “No weapon formed against me shall prosper! ISAIAH 54:17!!!” and the two evil scientists fall to the ground, unconscious. Dove runs out into the forest. Dawkins steps out of the general store, looking into the woods, scowling evilly.

Meanwhile, the boys have reached the spot where Mark disappeared, and they start looking for him, while the rain begins to fall.

999git_winona_ryder_059Back at the Falwell house, the phone rings, and Elisabeth picks it up. There are strange sounds, like devils playing ping pong, and there’s also breathing. Suddenly, very weak and quiet, we hear a child’s voice feebly singing the chorus to Petra’s More Power To Ya, followed by a loud screech, an electric shock, and the phone falls to the ground. Elisabeth cries to Aaron that it was Mark, that she knows her son’s voice, and Mark always loved Petra.

Back in the forest, the rain has started pouring. The boys are yelling, shining flashlights, looking for Mark. They are encouraging each other, building each other in the faith, quoting Scripture, even as they look. Suddenly, they hear the crunching sounds of someone coming through the underbrush, they turn their flashlights, and shine their lights into the face of Dove, whose face seems to be glowing from some inward radiance, even as she is soaked in the pouring rain.

FADE OUT

 

 

 

 

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Thimblerig Goes Hollywood

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I’m excited to be attending the Variety Purpose Summit on Friday this week as a member of the press, and will be reporting on the summit here on the blog as well as on Twitter, which you can follow here. This summit, sponsored by Variety magazine, looks at the state of faith-based media, especially focusing on television and movies.

Look for up-to-date information about what’s going on in the world of Christian entertainment, possible interviews with industry insiders, and reports on what it feels like to be a plebe in the middle of a conference like this.

Also, if anyone else who reads this blog will be there, I’d love to meet up for a cup of coffee and say hello! Just drop me a line.

Hollywood, get ready for Thimblerig!

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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.

The Ballad of Dr. Bill Story, Christian Cardiologist

[This story is dedicated to Christian film critics who actually critique films made by their fellow Christians – just as they would any film – and don’t just give free passes because the films are made “in the family”.]

UntitledI want to tell you about my friend, Dr. Bill Story. Dr. Bill is a great guy; he coaches his son’s little league baseball team, teaches a couple’s Sunday School class with his wife every weekend, volunteers with his daughter’s Scout troop at an animal shelter as often as he can, and more. With Dr. Bill, what you see is what you get. He’s the real deal.

Dr. Bill loves his family, and he loves his work as a cardiologist. He became a doctor because he dreamt of using his gifts as a cardiologist to help share his Christian faith. He says that he wants to heal people’s spiritual hearts as well as their physical ones. He shares that vision regularly with men’s groups and church groups whenever he can.

Dr. Bill is an amazing guy.

Dr. Bill’s patients love him. They come mainly from the churches he visits, because they want to encourage and support Dr. Bill’s dream, and Dr. Bill works really hard to help them with their heart issues. He prescribes meds, diagnoses medical problems, and has even started working on surgery over the past few years, all within the confines of the churches who support him.

When you consider that Dr. Bill didn’t go the traditional route to become a cardiologist, it’s even more inspiring. You see, Dr. Bill trained himself. He read books, talked with others interested in cardiology, moonlighted in a surgery ward, used trial and error, and prayer. And the result? He has accomplished the amazing. He is probably the most dedicated doctor I know.

I really, really admire Dr. Bill.

Recently, Dr. Bill performed major open heart surgery in the main operating theater at the big university hospital in our city. It was huge, because it meant that Dr. Bill was finally going to be able to make an impact outside of his supporting churches. It was covered by all the big secular and Christian media companies, and – maybe you heard about it? If you didn’t watch the live streaming, you really should go back and watch the videos. There were some real harrowing moments when Dr. Bill nearly lost the patient because of some small mistakes (Dr. Bill is only human, after all), and there’s some talk that the patient will have lost some motor functions after he recovers, but he is alive.

Here are some reviews of that surgery, from some of the people who watched the live stream:

“Dr. Bill is a great man of God, and his surgery was an amazing testimony to the power of prayer. Just think about it – he was touching that man’s heart, and that man is still alive today!” Pastor Dale Srudge, Rural Heights, Alabama.

“If my heart stopped, I would want Dr. Bill to be the one to restart it. He has annointed, healing hands.” Mrs. Emma-Lou Johnson, 75. Johnson City, Tennessee.

“That was the best heart surgery I’ve ever seen IN MY LIFE! Dr. Bill is AWESOME!” Heather, 12. Chicago, Illinois.

“When I try to picture a great American Christian man of God, who is promoting American and Christian values from surgery to the sanctuary, from the pulpit to the prep ward, I think of Dr. Bill.” Dr. Ted Bear, DoctorGuide Magazine.

And best of all, because of the support of his church communities, Dr. Bill’s surgery was one of the biggest live-streamed surgeries of the year, receiving an A+ at SurgeryScore. The medical establishment had to pay attention, because the numbers of views were so impressive. There were even folks watching from as far away as China!

Dr. Bill’s life is just one big miracle after the other.

Unfortunately, this high-profile surgery brought out the critics. Biased secular critics said that Dr. Bill’s work was “sloppy”, “amateurish”, and “barely proficient.” Further, the secular critics had the nerve to compare Dr. Bill’s work to the surgeons out in Los Angeles who have been performing heart surgery for years. Given, those surgeons have lost fewer patients then Dr. Bill, and their patients who survived have had fewer complications as a result of their work. But when they look at Dr. Bill, all these critics can do is focus on his mistakes.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, because these critics are secular, and of course they would hold Dr. Bill to a different standard, because he is an outspoken Christian cardiologist.

But what I can’t understand is the Christian critics who do the same thing. The critic over at Christian Medical Today said that Dr. Bill’s lack of training made his operation “irresponsible”, and they suggested that he might want to reexamine how he’s going about reaching his dream. The critic at Relevant Surgery went further, expressing that Dr. Bill should just go back to administering basic healthcare clinics out of his church, but leave the heart surgery to the “professionals.”

I have this response to these so-called “Christian” critics who would attack their so-called “brother”:

Dr. Bill is a committed Christian, he really loves God, and he is doing everything he can to honor God through his surgery. His surgeries may not be as effective as those of his secular colleagues, and he might lose a patient from time to time, but is that really what matters here? After all, he’s only treating other Christians so why would we judge his medical practices by the “standards” of the world?

And don’t forget – surgery is really, really hard. It takes a long time, and lots of practice, and people to practice on, and lots of extra blood, and the scrubs and doctor’s gloves and such. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy, and not just anyone can do it.

Which brings up the big question: if these critics are such experts on doing open heart surgery, why don’t they go out and do some open heart surgery themselves? If they think being a cardiologist is so easy, why don’t they go out and unclog some poor fat bastard’s arteries and see what happens?

They don’t, because they can’t.

Remember the words of Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds

All the critics can do is complain and make Dr. Bill’s life difficult, not to mention all of the other Dr. Bills out there in the world who could be inspired by his success. Are they jealous? Is their criticism a sign of spiritual immaturity? Maybe they’re just failed medical students who can’t stand seeing someone else become what they were not able to become. I don’t know.

But it’s sad. And it’s especially sad when you remember how great Dr. Bill is, and how wonderful and inspiring his life dreams are. Why can’t the critics just realize that, and get on board the Dr. Bill train, where the destination is Peace, Joy, and Happiness?

Dr. Bill has a big open heart surgery scheduled for the middle of summer, and rumor has it that he’ll be operating on his first atheist. I’m sure it will be publicized in all the big Christian podcasts, magazines, websites, and so on. When it comes, you can help Dr. Bill by making sure you support it. Gather your youth group, your Sunday school class, your small group Bible study, and buy the group licence to watch that live stream. Buy the Dr. Bill Study Guide and Prayer Journal and give a copy to your friends! Convince your pastor to use the four week preaching series, “Give Us A New Heart, the Dr. Bill Story Story” and don’t forget to invite seekers!

Most especially, go onto Healthy Tomatoes, the surgery review aggregator, comment, and give Dr. Bill a high rating. Remember, by doing all this, you will be helping to send a message to the Big Medical Establishment that we want more cardiologists, doctors, and surgeons just like Dr. Bill!