The Christian Response to Film Critics

screen-shot-2014-11-21-at-2-12-32-pmRemember last December, when Kirk Cameron put out the call to his fans to “storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes” and help increase the audience score for his Razzie award winning film, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas?  It was Cameron’s attempt to balance the critical reviews, which in the case of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, were abysmal.  Thus, the Razzies.

Unfortunately, for Kirk Cameron, his efforts backfired when word got out to those outside of his fanbase.  Having the faithful bring up the audience score was seen as gaming the system by many, and they decided to do some storming of their own.  Suddenly Cameron found his audience score bottoming out (currently 30%), and his reviews filled with all sorts of derogatory nonsense.

The most recent Christian-made film to be released was this weekend’s Do You Believe?, put out by Pure Flix, the same film company that brought us last year’s surprise hit, God’s Not Dead.  As seems to be par for the course, the film has been receiving fairly negative reviews from the critics (currently 10% on Rotten Tomatoes) and overwhelmingly positive reviews from the core audience (currently 82%).

And predictably, the Rotten Tomato plea has gone out from the folks at Pure Flix to the faithful.

10337720_875483579174765_1755178833449566882_nIn spite of what the anti-Cameronites thought about Kirk Cameron’s efforts, I don’t see anything wrong with encouraging your fans to rate and review your film.  It’s grassroots campaigning, and say what you will about their films, but Christian-owned film companies are experts in grass roots campaigning.  Pure Flix in particular has been hitting the core audience pretty hard these past few months.  They’ve been using all sort of methods to get people excited to see Do You Believe?, posting pictures on Facebook, hosting several advanced screenings for big fans, doing interviews all over the world of Christian media, all in an effort to build word-of-mouth excitement.

It’s a given that the people who make up Pure Flix’s core audience are Christians.  I think it’s also a pretty good bet that they are Christians who primarily interact with Christian media – watching mainly Christian-made films, listening mainly to Christian-made music, and reading primarily Christian-written books.  Therefore, it stands to reason that Pure Flix would help nudge that grassroots audience in the right direction to increase the legitimacy and reputation of the film in the eyes of the world.

After all, don’t most of us feel like the critics are rarely right?  If the critical score is low but the audience score is high, most of us will accept the audience score, because we’re audience, too.  This means that if someone is on the fence about seeing a film, a high audience score might be just what it takes to nudge them into buying the ticket.

Having established that I don’t have a problem with the strategy of encouraging fans of a film to rate and review a film on a site like Rotten Tomatoes, I will say that I do have a problem with the attitudes that many Christians show to the reviews of secular critics.  While Do You Believe?’s Facebook page is full of glowing comments about the film from the die-hard fans, it’s also sprinkled with the victimized viewpoint that the disagreeing critics are either evil, blind, or ignorant.

Here’s an example:

Please go to Rotten Tomatos and Post the Same review there as right now Only a couple positive ones are posted the majority have a Anti-Christian bent/agenda.

And another:

I can’t be surprised that critics knocked it. They are blinded by the ‘angel of light’ the counterfeit. However I thought it was incredibly impacting even a step above God’s Not Dead and I thought that was an awesome movie. These critics need a lot of prayer because I’ve watched movies they destroyed and I enjoyed them and those they rated so wonderfully absolutely horrible. Don’t give up the message will reach many.

And another:

I loved it. Go see it and decide for yourself dont be turned away by the ignorant critics reviews

I do believe that critic bias towards Christian-made movies exists.  I’ve seen it with the reviews of Mom’s Night Out, The Song, and Believe Me, three films that were – in my opinion – the most accessible Christian-made films of 2014.  These three films deserved to be judged on their merits, and not the fact that they were being marketed to the faith-based audience.  But if you read the reviews, it doesn’t take long for the anti-Christian-film bias to become evident.

20512493_main_zoomIncidentally, even The Passion of the Christ only has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 49%, and oddly enough, the highest ranked Christian-made movie is Phil Vischer’s Jonah: A Veggietales Movie (69%).

The problem is, if a bias does exist, then it’s a bias of our own making.  Christian-made and Christian-subculture-marketed films have been so preachy, so poorly made, and so Christian-subculture-focused for so long, that I don’t know when secular critics will be willing to give our films the benefit of the doubt.

We’ve made our bed and now we have to lie in it.

But here we are, living in an interesting time when our films are starting to become mainstream, playing alongside secular films.  This is vastly different than the story with most of our books and music, which tend to stay firmly entrenched within the subculture walls that we build for them.  Our movies have such potential to burst the Christian bubble, but only if we Christians don’t screw it up.

So far, it’s not looking good.

But I’m a hopeful person by nature, and so Christians, rather than calling foul or lamenting the spiritual deficiencies of people you don’t know, I have a few things for you to understand that can help you become an intelligent player in the conversation, as our films gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world.

1)  Film critics know their business.

ebert-siskel-favoritesGet it?  Critics are – by and large – professional journalists.  While there are exceptions, most of the critics you find represented on an aggregator site like Rotten Tomatoes have spent years studying and learning film.  It’s their job, just like it’s the job of the elementary schoolteacher to know 6th grade Mathematics, or the job of a endocrinologist to know hormones.  To dismiss their criticism outright as some form of religious persecution or spiritual blindness is – in and of itself – ignorant, and in doing so you miss out on an opportunity for growth both for yourself and the filmmakers you are trying to support.

The fact is, if the movie has artistic or cinematic merit then the critic will usually acknowledge that merit, regardless of the agenda of the film.  We can actually see this in the current reviews for Do You Believe?, and the fact that most critics are saying things like the movie is well-filmed, Mira Sorvino’s performance is effective, and the car crash at the end is impressive.

However, their job is to look at films critically (thus the name of the occupation).  This means that they will clearly point out bad writing, plot holes, structural difficulties, unbelievable characterizations, and so on.  Again, Christian filmgoers, understand that this is their job.  And guess what?  They actually don’t only score Christian-made films in the low range.  Currently, the number one movie of the weekend was Insurgent, and it only has a 32% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Sean Penn’s The Gunman has a 14% (and he’s *gasp* an agnostic liberal!), and Accidental Love (a film with a star-studded cast and extremely worldly subject matter) has a bottom-scraping 6%.

2)  Practice contextualization.

Paul preaching at the Aeropagus

Paul preaching at the Aeropagus

In missions, contextualization is the process of learning a new culture so that you can learn the best way to present the Gospel message to that culture in a meaningful way.  Christian filmmaking, while not new, has become a new force in the cultural landscape, and we must learn that landscape – both as audience and artist.

How do we do that?  We learn about quality of film by watching acclaimed films that aren’t necessarily Christian.  Since our films are playing alongside secular films, we must understand what makes secular films good so that we can make our own films better.

If you’re comparing the Christian film you’re watching to other Christian films, then you’re making the same mistake of those biased critics I mentioned above.  You aren’t understanding the culture, and you’ll continue to find yourself both rejecting and being rejected by that culture.  Sure, Scripture tells us being rejected is a part of being a follower of Christ, but that doesn’t mean we actively seek rejection by not learning the craft.  Imagine if a doctor was proud that he was rejected for having patients die on his table, saying, “Jesus was rejected, and so am I!  What a happy man I am!”  It’s a ridiculous example, but it’s what happens so often for Christians regarding filmmaking.

I’m not suggesting that a Christian watch hours of R-rated material (although the rating should never be the sole arbiter of your decision process), because there are plenty of critically-acclaimed PG and PG13 rated films.  Watch those films and pay attention to why they’re good.  Read the reviews after you’ve watched to see why they are appreciated.  Disagree if you will, but understand the critic point of view.

In other words, actively watch acclaimed films so that you can understand why people appreciate them, then you might come closer to understanding why our films get reviewed the way that they do.

3)   Let the story be the message

Blaine-Graphic

blaineglobal.com

I’ll keep my final point simple.  As you accomplish #2, I would hope that you would learn the importance of wanting more than just a good message in the films being made for you.  Love the message, sure, but don’t stop there, demand well-told stories.

The clarion call is, “Support Christian movies so that we can send Hollywood a message!”  But here is the problem:  if the message you’re sending Hollywood is that we don’t care what you make for us as long as you include the message, then all you will get will be message movies, poorly made.

That should bother you, especially as you think about my first two points.  But the point has been made over and over again on this blog, as well as other places, so I won’t belabor it.

Finally, with regards to Pure Flix’s latest call for improving the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the people that love the film should absolutely go and review and rate the film.  But when you do, be prepared for two things:

First, don’t be surprised if the word gets out, and the haters do the same thing to Do You Believe? that they did to Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas.  Just be prepared.

Second, when that happens, remember the message of the cross that the Pure Flix guys were trying to convey in their film, and respond to those haters the way that Christ responded to you when you came to him.  Not with more hate, not with hostility, not with complaints of persecution and abuse, but with love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  Same goes for the critics who may seem as hostile to our message as they are to the medium in which we present it.

Because when you think about it, it’s not our movies that will ultimately transform the cultural landscape – it’s when Christians truly act like Jesus to the rest of the world, especially in the face of rejection.

Unbroken: The Alternate Ending

unbroken_ver4_xlg[Read to the bottom to find my faith-based alternate ending to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.]

The 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge is on Day 7, and I’ve been pleased by some aspects of this journey (starting a daily devotional habit, discovering some interesting music, connecting with lots of fun people), and disappointed in others (that Christians have this weird fascination with copying the world’s fads, that the big players in Christian media like perpetuating a pretty myopic view of the world, that if our stories don’t have specific “come to Jesus” moments, the Christian media marketers won’t touch them).

Ultimately, I’m finding that I don’t like or appreciate the various machines that exist in Christian media, but I don’t doubt that each machine represents lots of people who are doing their best to live faithful lives for Jesus.

One happy surprise I found was that Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is sold by Christian retailers.  This surprised me, because it was a film made by a filmmaker who doesn’t appear to be a Christian, and (spoiler alert) it lacks a conversion sequence.  My family sat down to watch the film last night, and like so many, we were touched by Louie Zamperini’s amazing life experiences, and the strength that he exhibited time and time again.  The film handles issues of faith carefully and respectfully, which throws a bit of cold water on the idea that the movers and shakers in Hollywood have it out for Christians.

After the past week, I’d say that it’s more likely that the movers and shakers in Hollywood have it out for the corporate, industrialized, politicized Christianity that is so prevalent in America these days.  And with good reason.  Corporate Christianity can be irritating, holier-than-thou, out-of-touch, unintentionally and imminently mockable.  Corporate Christianity (like it’s secular brothers and sisters) loves to stir up controversy, to sensationalize for profit, and they love that the vast bulk of the faithful will eagerly swallow whatever pills they ship out to the neighborhood Christian bookstores.

The problem I have with the corporate side of my faith is that it runs so counter to the faith we’re called to in the Scriptures.  Christianity is supposed to be relational, but Corporate Christianity is driven by profit – not people.  Christianity is supposed to be about humility, but Corporate Christianity is about putting our stars up on pedestals to be loved and admired.  Christianity is about loving your enemies, but Corporate Christianity is about building bubbles so that we don’t have to interact with those who believe differently than we do.

Keep in mind, once again, I’m talking about the machine, not most of the people behind the machine.  My interaction this past week with some of the people behind the machine is that they are doing their best to follow Jesus.  Many of them are incredibly creative, and are just looking for ways to express that creativity.  They are intelligent, passionate, and concerned for those people outside of the Christian faith in a sincere and loving way.

But back to Unbroken… watching Jolie’s film got me thinking, what if some film company that produces films for the typical Christian audience had gotten their hands on Louie Zamperini’s story?  A version that would have pleased the machine?

Just for kicks and giggles, I decided to imagine how that faith-based version of Unbroken might have ended.

In case the PDF doesn’t show up on your screen, you can also click this link:

Unbroken Alternate Ending

The Thimblerig Do You Believe? Little Cross Challenge

Keep reading to see what the Thimblerig’s Do You Believe? Little Cross Challenge is…

I just watched the trailer for trailer for Pureflix’s upcoming new film, Do You Believe?, and after the success of God’s Not Dead, it looks like the filmmakers are attempting to up the ante, going from a film with four separate stories that eventually interact to perhaps as many as twelve.

Christian filmmakers continue trying to establish themselves, and continue their attempts at being taken seriously by non-Christian and cynical Christian moviegoers. To help with this, Pureflix has taken part of God’s Not Dead‘s $60,000,000 (edit, now being reportedly close to $100,000,000) worldwide box office and invested it in casting some familiar faces (Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin, Cybil Shepherd, Lee Majors).

I wish Pureflix all the best with this new film, and only hope that the filmmakers took some of the constructive criticism of God’s Not Dead to heart when developing Do You Believe? (including the critiques in my own review).  As I’ve said before, Christians have the greatest story ever told to tell, and we should be making the best films on the market.

Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 8.41.05 AMThat being said, I find myself rather unsettled by the end of the trailer, and the focus on the tiny little wooden crosses.  Knowing that a huge part of filmmaking these days (Christian or otherwise) is merchandizing, I fear that come March 2015, the tiny little wooden Do You Believe? crosses will be mass produced in China or Venezuela and sold in Christian bookstores and Walmarts all across the fruited plains.

This fear has led me to create “The Thimblerig Do You Believe? Challenge”, and I invite anyone to join me in this challenge at any level.

The Thimblerig Do You Believe? Challenge

So here goes:  I officially state here and now that if the makers of Do You Believe? do not sell little Do You Believe? wooden crosses as a part of the merchandising of this film, I will personally donate $200 to the charity of David A.R. White’s choosing.

Also, if the makers of Do You Believe? use some of that 60 million to make the crosses but give them away, or even if they sell the crosses but give all the proceeds to charity, I will donate the money.

I know $200 is not much when compared to the potential revenue of what could be the next WWJD bracelet, but to me, it’s pretty substantial.  I feel particularly strong about this since Do You Believe? apparently focuses on the importance of the cross, and it would be particularly distasteful and even despicable if they turned the cross into just another avenue for building profits.

Hopefully that won’t be the case.

Anyone want to join the challenge?  The more people that join, the more likely the message will get back to the folks at Pureflix.

(Special thanks to Doc Benson for posting about this on Facebook, and drawing my attention to the trailer)