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.

noah poster

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…

The-Star-Steven-Yeun-as-Bo-the-Donkey

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Free Names for Future Faith-Based Movies

Grace Has A Prayer
Are you a faith-based film producer or writer? Please feel free to use these suggested faith-based film titles at no cost. Just mention Thimblerig’s Ark in the credits.

Grace Has A Prayer
Redemption Corner
Once Saved
Faith’s Secret Grace
Heavenly Faith
Grace Resurrected
Amazing Faith
Saving Faithfully
Grace Away
Making Heaven
A Father’s Faith
Cherishing Grace
Faith’s Redemption

Any other suggestions?

 

 

 

Thimblerig’s Interview • Phil Cooke, Producer of The Insanity of God and Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

14978955I recently sat down and started to read the bestselling book, The Insanity of God, and found that while it was easy to pick up, it was nearly impossible to put down. The book is part life-story of Nik Ripken (not his real name) and his family, telling how they wound up as missionaries/relief workers in Somalia during the 1990’s, when the civil war was raging. It goes on to explore how watching the tiny Christian population try to survive in the middle of unimaginable difficulties changed him, and after leaving Africa, the calling he had on his life to try and learn more about the struggles of the persecuted church in the world – a calling that led him to many different “closed” countries – where he interviewed dozens of Christians for whom persecution was a part of daily life.

The book deals with real persecution, not the “Starbucks red coffee cup” kind of persecution most of us know in the west. Needless to say, the book is a challenging read, and is important to read so that we can better understand what our brothers and sisters are experiencing in other countries.

I was thrilled when I read that Lifeway Films, in partnership with the International Mission Board, was making a documentary based on the book. Real-life stories like this are much more inspiring and challenging then the fiction accounts of American persecution that we’ve seen in theaters over the past several years, and this is one of the first major films of its kind, a documentary exploring the trials of Christians around the world.

A bit of research led me to some more thrilling news when I found out that Phil Cooke was attached to the project as an executive producer. I’ve followed Phil for many years, and have long enjoyed his perspective on faith and the arts. I wasted no time contacting Phil to see if he’d be willing to answer a few questions about the film, and he was gracious enough to take the time to do so.

THIMBLERIG’S INTERVIEW WITH PHIL COOKE

Why don’t we start with a little bit about you, Phil. Who are you, where did you come from, what do you do now, and how have you gotten to do it?

2015132Cooke-1167edit I’m a pastor’s kid from Charlotte, NC who never had a call to preach myself.  However, as a teenager, I loved to make films.  My friends and I took my dad’s Super-8 movie camera and produced war movies, mafia movies, space movies – all kinds of terrible films.  I went to college as a music major (remember, I was a preacher’s kid), but a student in my dorm saw my film reels and invited me to the film department to learn to edit.  A professor was there who asked if he could show one of my films in his class.  When the film ended, it started a discussion, and the thought occurred to me that if I can do something with a camera that makes people talk like this – then that’s what I’m supposed to do with my life.  I’ve never looked back, and today I’m the founder of Cooke Pictures, a media production and consulting company in Los Angeles.

Who have been some of your biggest spiritual or theological influences?

My father was a huge influence on me.  He was a great student, had multiple graduate degrees, and taught me the value of reading.  My first job out of college was an assistant film editor on Francis Schaffer’s famous film series “How Should We Then Live?”  So I became a huge fan of this thinking.  Then I worked with Oral Roberts at the peak of his media ministry.  But probably the most influential influence has been our long time pastor in Los Angeles, Jack Hayford.  In my book, he could be the Protestant Pope.

How about your biggest creative influences?

As long as I remember I’ve gravitated toward creativity.  As a kid, I was always the guy who wrote the sketches for “skit night” at camp.  As far as influences, I take in everything.  I study advertising, I’m a museum hound, a movie buff, and a hardcore reader.

What are your three “desert island” films?

That’s a tough one, because I don’t think of films in that way.  But three I couldn’t live without would probably be The Godfather, The Seventh Seal, and Citizen Kane.  I’m also a big fan of campy science fiction films from the 50’s and 60’s.

Speaking of films, you’ve produced two that are coming out in the next couple of months, with The Insanity of God playing in theaters on August 30 and Hillsong: Let Hope Rise releasing on September 16. Starting with The Insanity of God, what can you tell us about this film?

4817_the-insanity-of-god-poster_AC09Nik Ripken was a long time missionary in Somalia, but when his son died in the field, he began to question what it was all about.  Traveling to the most desperate places on the earth, Nik began to see things he’d never realized before – especially the levels of Christian persecution that are out there.  Another producer, Craig Martin brought the book to my attention, and we felt it was a story that needed to be told.

Reading The Insanity of God, a book which so clearly portrays the suffering of the persecuted church, had a profound effect on me. If you are willing, can you talk about the impact producing this film has had on you?

During the filming, I had a number of moments where I saw just how unserious I have been about the gospel.  In America, we launch a boycott when we can’t say a prayer at the beginning of a high school football game.  But overseas, people are being raped, beaten, tortured, and beheaded everyday for their faith.  Their commitment is so far beyond anything I’ve ever had to give.

Considering all of the talk we hear in America about the loss of religious freedoms, what would you say a film like The Insanity of God has to say the American church?

First – we need to do more to help.  These are our brothers and sisters, and we can’t sit idly by and continue watching.  Second – although right now it’s nothing like what’s happening overseas, believe it, it’s coming our way.  There’s no question in my mind that we’re seeing Christianity being more and more marginalized in our culture, and I don’t think it will be long before it gets very serious.  I’m reminded of the recent quote by Catholic Cardinal Francis George:  “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

Turning to your other film, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise is a much different film, and has been billed as a “theatrical worship experience.” Can you unpack that idea a bit?

hillsong_let_hope_rise_xlgI’ve been a long time friend of Pastor Brian Houston and his leadership team at Hillsong Church and had the opportunity to teach the entire church staff in Sydney a few years ago.  Their worship band, Hillsong United has sold out the Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, and Red Rocks, and is one of the most popular bands in the world.  In our research for the movie, we discovered that 50 million people sing Hillsong music every Sunday!  So producer Jon Bock first developed the concept, and I helped raise the money, and we started working.  Essentially, the movie is a behind the scenes look at their most recent world tour.

What were some of the challenges and joys of making a feature-length film about a worship band, albeit a very successful worship band?

Money.  It’s always money!  Feature films simply cost a great deal to produce, market, and distribute that it’s critical that you have an idea that audiences will be interested in, and we believe we have that in Hillsong, which has become a global brand.

Turning from the specific to the general, what are your thoughts on the state of the faith-based film industry and where do you see it heading in the future?

IMG_0873I’ve been involved in both Christian and secular media for a long time, and I’m very gratified to see that Christians are finally understanding the importance of telling a story well.  In the past, most Christian producers got so wrapped up in the message, they often put that message inside a very unappealing package.  But today we live in the most distracted culture in history, and the competition is simply too great.  How we tell the story is just as important as the story we tell.

Do you have any advice for Christians looking to get involved in the entertainment industry – faith-based or otherwise?

Yes – be the best at whatever you do.  In Hollywood, nobody cares if you’re a Christian or if God called you to make a movie.  But if you’re a great actor, director, writer, or whatever – that will get their attention.  Once they respect your talent, they’re more likely to be interested in what you believe.

Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share with us? What’s on the burner?

Phil at CBSOur company – Cooke Pictures – is largely a client driven media production and consulting company, so we’re always involved in amazing projects.  Just a few of our current clients include The Salvation Army, the YouVersion Bible App, and The Museum of the Bible (opening in Washington, DC in 2017).  Beyond that, we’re talking to a number of major secular networks about television projects.  Honestly, my great passion is feature documentaries.  I wish more Christians understood that with a limited budget, a fascinating documentary can be far more influential than a badly produced drama.

Finally, where are the best places people can go to keep up-to-date about your activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc)?

My blog is at philcooke.com, I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @philcooke, and I’m on Facebook as well.

To find a theater near you that will be showing The Insanity of God, take a look here.

Hillsong: Let Hope Rise will have a wide release on September 16.