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

Advertisements

The Act One Writing Program… Is It Worth It?

2016SummerAdWebsiteImage

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.

Thimblerig’s Review • Risen

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Take more risks

2.  Challenge your audience

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

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

5.  Tell good stories

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

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

1. Did Risen take risks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kudos to the filmmakers for taking risks with this film.

2. Does Risen Challenge the Audience?

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

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

Yes and no.

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

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

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

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

Which leads us to the next point…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.  Tell good stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Response To A Hopeful Screenwriter

I recently received an email message from an individual looking to promote their screenwriting. I was putting together a response and I realized that the advice I was giving this individual might be useful for others also looking to “break into the business.”

Here is the original email, unaltered except for taking out the writer’s name and location, followed by my response:

Hi my name is — . I live in — and I know that you’re on the other side of the world. I just had to ask do you by any chance know anyone that is interested in a  religous short screenplay? It has won three film festivals but is not getting the exposure/attention I wanted it to get.  I even have a great TV pilot ,but I have no way into breaking into this business as I have no agent. Plz contact me if you can help in any way.  Thanks again. 

Dear —,

Thanks for writing, and for asking my assistance in finding filmmakers to connect with your screenplays. Unfortunately, I don’t have any filmmaking friends who have announced that they are shopping around for new material, so I really can’t do anything for you in that regard. However, if you are really serious about having your work read and potentially produced, I have a bit of advice. You can take my advice, or you can ignore it with extreme prejudice – it’s your choice.

First, don’t ever, ever, ever take this cold call approach when trying to market your writing. Serious filmmakers are serious about their business, and they typically don’t pay attention to messages from people they don’t know. In fact, a cold call message is a pretty good way to make sure that your writing is never read.

Don’t cold call on the phone or email, don’t send unsolicited screenplays, don’t write unprompted self-promoting messages on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media outlet in an attempt to try and get someone to read your work. There are appropriate channels for getting your writing out there, and these are not them. So, do a bit of research, and use the right channels to get your writing into the right hands. It’s a bit of effort, but if you are serious about being a writer, you should be willing to put in the hard labor to accomplish your goals.

Second, take care with how you craft your correspondence. When you write to people in the industry, make it professional and formal, especially when they are people you don’t know. Don’t dash off quick emails on your phone, but take the time to write proper business emails with correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Use proper greetings and sign off your messages properly as well. The old cliche about not getting a second chance to make a first impression is a real one!

Also, avoid assuming familiarity, even if you feel like you know the person because they might have a familiar public persona. For example, don’t use internet shorthand like “Plz contact me”, as that’s a great way to ensure that people won’t, in fact, contact you. Let your correspondence communicate seriousness, and you stand a better chance of being taken seriously.

Keep in mind that none of this may matter, and your well-crafted message may be deleted just as quickly as your hastily jotted message. However, it might also be that a well-written letter would be such a novelty to your target reader that they actually stop and give it a glance. Stack the odds in your favor as much as possible.

Third, if you are really serious about “breaking into the business”, you need to go to the business rather than waiting for the business to come to you. In the film industry, the business is Hollywood. So, that means that if you are able, you should consider a move to the West Coast. But if you do, be patient, as the numbers of unemployed writers using free coffee shop wifi in L.A. attest to the fact that overnight screenwriting success is the stuff of fairy tales. Be prepared to work and wait.

When I was taking part in the Act One Screenwriting program back in 2007, industry professionals told us over and over that a screenwriter can expect a minimum of ten years between setting out to be a writer and actually making a living at it. I’ve seen this played out in the careers of other Act One alumni. Of those who stuck to screenwriting (and many have not), most are just now starting to come into their own, and we’re coming up on the ten year mark.

Also, remember that this pattern holds true when the writer is actually living in Hollywood while trying to develop their writing career. If you choose to live outside of Hollywood, the likelihood of industry success decreases exponentially. You can still be a writer, but you may have to go about it differently.

Fourth, do it yourself. If you really believe in your writing but you’re also too impatient to go the traditional route, then make your film yourself. Study the business of filmmaking, find some like-minded creatives, get a decent digital camera (use your iPhone!) and invest in some editing software, put together an Indigogo campaign, and build your writing into an indie film project. It won’t be easy, and the end result might not be so great, but when the credits roll you will have gained experience and put your ideas onscreen, which is a substantial accomplishment in and of itself.

The bottom line is – if you are serious about being a screenwriter, then you have to be willing to take it seriously. Learn the craft, give it all of your energy and focus, and then be willing to fail, because most hopeful screenwriters do just that.

But anything worth doing is worth risking failure, I think.

Best of luck with your writing!
Nate

Web: www.thimblerigsark.com
Blog: thimblerigsark.wordpress.com
Facebook: /ThimblerigsArk
Twitter: @RNFleming

Thimblerig’s Guide for Watching Christian Films (for People who aren’t Christians)

Christian films.

Fifteen years ago they were found almost exclusively on the shelves of Christian bookstores. Online streaming at that time was virtually non-existent, they didn’t typically play on the regular movie channels, there wasn’t a “Christian Film” section at Blockbuster video, and the odds were that if you were outside of the Christian subculture, you would never see a Christian movie.

And then, in 2004, everything changed.

The Passion of the Christ, the highest grossing independent film of all time, sent an electric jolt through the American film industry. Realizing that an audience actually existed for movies that talked about the Christian faith as something other than a punchline, the major Hollywood studios wasted little time setting up “faith-based” divisions to try and figure out how to best exploit service this previously-neglected demographic.

posterSince then, non-religious theater-goers have seen more and more “faith-based” films being advertised on the coming attraction posters of their local cinemas. Films with ecclesiastical names like “Heaven is for Real”, “God’s Not Dead”, and “Ninety Minutes in Heaven” starring well-known Hollywood actors such as Nicolas Cage, Greg Kinnear, and Jennifer Garner were – for the first time – sharing the stage with typical secular films.

In this brave new world, a regular Friday night movie-goer could walk up to their local megaplex and inadvertently wind up sitting in a movie made by Christians, largely for Christians, and walk out afterwards feeling as if they’d just watched The Big Short without Adam McKay’s explanatory fourth wall breaks.

And so, as Lonely Planet helps guide confused travellers wandering the globe, I’ve developed this guide to help non-religious folks understand what might have just happened if they accidentally wandered into a Christian film.

thimblerigs-film-reviews

*caveat – these are generalizations, and specific Christian films may or may not follow these guidelines. Thimblerig accepts no responsibility for such films.*

1) Christian Films are often written in Christianese

The first thing you need to learn when visiting any country is how to say important phrases in the local dialect. Watching Christian films is no different, as our films are peppered with the dialect of the early 21st century American Christian, a dialect known as Christianese. And for some reason, we don’t do subtitles.

[Note to Pureflix: consider adding subtitles to God’s Not Dead 2]

how-to-speak-christianeseSome basic samples of Christianese that you may encounter in our films:

“Does he know Jesus?” – “Is he a Christian?”

“Does he really know Jesus?” – “If he’s a Christian, why doesn’t he go to church?”

“She’s lost, and needs to come to Jesus!” – “She’s not a Christian, but she should be. And she should attend church regularly.”

“You need to ask Jesus into your heart.” – “You need to become a Christian.”

This is usually followed by “The Sinner’s Prayer”, a prayer that a person recites to become a Christian. This a controversial prayer in Christian circles, because it is not Biblical, meaning that it’s not found in the Bible.

“They have a heart for the lost.” – “They want people who aren’t Christian to become Christian. Oh, and they want them to attend church regularly.”

“God is telling me…” – “I have an opinion that I want to share with you, and by putting God’s stamp of approval on the comment, it will have weight and gravitas. Even if it is just my own opinion.”

“I’m blessed!” – has different meanings, depending on the context. If the person has just gotten something good, it means, “God’s given me some good stuff!” If it is said in response to a personal inquiry, it means, “I’m doing fine, thank you.” Ultimately, it’s an attribution to God for whatever is happening in the Christian’s life.

So, in a Christian film, you might find dialogue like this:

This is just a cursory introduction to the language of many Christian films. For more detailed information about the Christianese dialect, I’d recommend that you visit the Dictionary of Christianese.

(Incidentally, if anyone in the Christian film industry would like to option my Bob and Dave script, please let my people know.)

2) Christian films typically tell much more than they show

One of the most important lessons a traveler can learn when exploring a new part of the world is the importance of saying “I don’t understand” rather than “that doesn’t make sense.”

And if there’s one thing about Christian films that doesn’t make sense to people it’s our propensity to tell. Yes, our films tell. They tell, tell, and tell, and then they tell some more, much more than they show, breaking that cardinal rule of storytelling.

“There’s too much exposition in that Christian film,” the secular critics complain. “They tell us everything!”

However, just as you have to take culture of origin into consideration when watching a foreign film, the Christian film viewer who is not actually a Christian should take the culture of origin into consideration.

And Christian culture loves exposition.

I mean, loves exposition.

preaching-1The best example of this is found in a style of preaching called “expository preaching,” where the preacher spends days or weeks studying a passage from the Bible in depth, and then on Sunday morning, they stand in front of the congregation (audience) and explain everything the passage has to say, verse by verse – sometimes word by word.

The preacher will go deep into the cultural and historical significance of the passage of Scripture, even down to the meaning of certain key words in the verse’s original language of Hebrew or Greek.

The idea behind this is that if one can come close to understanding the original meaning of the ancient document, one might better understand what God intended by that Scriptural text, and better figure out how it can be applied to our lives today.

Oh, and by the way, we Christians also love application.

So, in a nutshell, we explain the message very specifically in church so that there is no chance of confusion, and so that the listener can apply it to their own lives. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the uninitiated that we do the same in our films.

Rather than criticizing our films for being over-expositional, maybe secular critics should critique how well our films handled that over-exposition.

3) Christian films are generally Christian wishes being fulfilled cinematically

It’s important to understand the mentality of people when you visit a foreign country. What do the people of that country hope for? What aspirations do they have? How do they view the world?

Some people misunderstand the Christian mentality. They think that we’re a bunch of “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” people, avoiding reality and clinging to a fantasy about a benevolent old guy who lives in the clouds.

That’s not the case, though. Christians know the reality of the world. We know perfectly well that things can be really, really bad. That things can go south in an instant. But we also know how we wish things were (or in Christianese, how we pray for things to be). So, our films are typically a strange amalgamation of reality and fantasy wish-fulfilment.

For example, we know it’s tough to raise kids, and so our films have no problem showing struggling parents. But we also love a good redemption story, and so in our films someone prays and the runaway kid will make a big personal change (Christianese, repent) and come back home, prodigal-style. This is what we wish would happen with every errant child.

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 3.10.14 PMWe also know that marriage is tough in reality, and that not all marriages survive, and so our films will show the difficulty of marriage. But we also believe that God can repair any relationship, and so in our films someone prays and ultimately our film marriages work out. This is how we wish marriages would always work out.

In reality, we know that God always answers prayer but that sometimes the answer is “No.” But in our films, we like to focus on when God says, “Yes!” For example, someone prayed to win the big game? Check, game won. Someone prayed to restore the broken marriage? Check, marriage restored. Someone prayed for the sick person to be healed? Check, healing has happened, and death has been defeated.

We like our films family friendly, non-offensive, and easy to watch. We like our films to make us feel better about ourselves as Christians. We typically avoid subjects like the certainty of death, the reality of doubt, and the in-the-dirt nastiness of the mistakes that we make in life. It’s just nicer when things turn out alright, isn’t it?

If you love happy endings, you’ll love watching our films.

4) Christian filmmakers are not infallible 

No country you visit is perfect. You know that amazing 5 star hotel, right on the beach? Just a half mile down the road you’ll find people sleeping in hovels and working for pennies. That tourist site that houses ancient ruins that you’ve always dreamed of seeing? It’s all managed by a corrupt government of cigar smoking fat cats who could care less about the orphans running on the streets.

It’s the same with Christian filmmaking. Our filmmakers are not infallible, and they will make strange decisions, and they will focus on curious things from time to time. You don’t have to forgive us for that, but we do hope that you’ll understand.

godsnotdead2-1For example, if you are paying attention to Christianity in America right now, you might notice that many church leaders are promoting a persecution narrative for American Christians (rather than for global Christians who are actually being persecuted). This might be perplexing to you, because you know that American Christians actually have incredible freedom to practice their religion. But the narrative is out there, and it’s even worming its way into our films.

You see, for the longest time, American Christianity has been the big kid on the block politically, financially, culturally, and other -ally ways, but it’s not the case any more. We American Christians are still coming to terms with the fact that we’ve lost power and influence, that our voices aren’t as loud as they used to be, that people often simply don’t care what we think any more.

And we’re certain that – as a result – persecution is coming.

And even though we’ve had our expository preachers tell us that according to the Bible, persecution is a guaranteed part of the Christian experience, we are still terrified that it will really happen. Because we like the “Christians are victorious!” narrative. Remember our wish-fulfillment filmmaking? We want to wind up on top, even though that pretty well goes against everything Jesus taught.

If you aren’t a Christian, then our cries of persecution in America probably seem ridiculous to you, and might even serve to create more and more animosity from you towards us.

And in a height of irony, I can imagine the animosity building to the point that our focus on making movies that stoke the fires of fear could actually turn out to be the catalyst for actual persecution. In other words, I can imagine that our fear of persecution could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wouldn’t that make an interesting Christian film?

5) Christian films are hopefully evangelistic

Countries that have bustling, successful tourist industries convince people that when they visit, they will never want to leave.

Christian filmmakers have a similar goal with their films. If you are not a Christian, they hope that their films tells about the Christian experience so clearly that after watching you will also want to become a Christian (Christianese, give your heart to Jesus). 

“Really?” You say, befuddled. “Then why use all of the insider language that I don’t understand? Why break the traditional rules of storytelling to the point where I’m too distracted by exposition to see the value in being a Christian? Why all this talk about persecution when all I see is Christians making noise? Why does it seem less like these Christian films are trying to attract me, and more like they’re trying to push me away? Why do they make it so hard?”

I know, I know. Reaching you with our films seems more like an afterthought, and your becoming interested in Jesus as a result of our films would just be some sort of religious collateral damage.

The only thing I can say is that Christian filmmakers are working in a business. An industry. And they have to serve multiple masters, just like all filmmakers, and that affects the films that are made, no matter what the hope of the filmmaker might be.

Christian filmmakers have to please their investors, who are usually also Christians. And they are often Christians who love expository, on-the-nose, don’t-mess-around preaching. They can be less interested in artfulness and more interested in admonition. Their purpose is communication usually at the expense of craft. Their goal is to put out the Message, and the medium is simply utilitarian, like a jeep or a Swiss Army knife.

Also, since Christian filmmaking has started to become big business, the filmmakers also have to please the secular studios, who might be footing the bill for distribution or marketing. And the studios need to be convinced that the product that the Christian filmmaker is developing is going to put the behinds of the Big Christian Audience into the cinema seats.

who-is-your-audienceThis means that Christian filmmakers have to ultimately please that Big Christian Audience.

Make one misstep, and the Big Christian Audience won’t turn out, and the filmmaker might not get the chance to make a second faith-based film. Play his cards right, and he stands to make a 2000% return on his film’s initial investment, which will make everyone happy. His career will be set.

So you can see, that even if a filmmaker has a heart for the lost, and a desire to see thousands of people come to Jesus, her ability to make a film that would actually be evangelistic is restrained by the forces pulling her in other directions, forces that – ironically – want to be evangelistic, too.

6) And by the way, we make a lot of End Times movies

Statistically speaking, if you accidentally walk in on a Christian film, it’s likely to be a movie dealing with the end of the world, or the End Times. This might be connected with #4, and I’m not going to say a lot about it other than to say that for some reason, we have a certain segment of the Christian filmmaking community that is absolutely fascinated with the end of the world.

This is even though in Matthew 24:36, Jesus himself told us that nobody will know when the end will come. Go figure.

You can see an amazing IMDb list of Christian End Times movies here.

Thimblerig’s Guide to Christian Films is woefully incomplete, but what do you expect from a blog article? If you truly want to see an actual guide, then feel free to start me a crowdsourcing campaign, or put me in touch with the fine folks at Zondervan, and we’ll see what we can do.

Meanwhile, may this guide help the next time you stumble into a movie starring Kirk Cameron or Kevin Sorbo, or the next time your well-intentioned Christian friend invites you over and pops in a movie made by a pair of brothers named Kendrick. Maybe, because you have some insight into their culture and mindset, you’ll better appreciate their intentions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should Christians Support Christian Content?

A Friday afternoon thought…

War-Room_300This afternoon, I was watching a video review of one of the recently released Christian-made movies, and the reviewer said the following:

“Christians, we need to support Christian content, because if we want to get better content we need our films to make more money, because it’s going to take money to make the next one.”

I’ve heard this argument many times, but is it true?

If Hollywood rewards success by making more of what was successful, doesn’t our support of problematic movies just mean that we’ll be getting more problematic movies in the future? The success of Transformers 1 did not mean that we got better Transformers movies, we just got bigger and louder Transformer movies.

Are we just due for bigger and louder Christian-made movies that still have the same issues?

What do you think? Will the success of a movie like War Room mean overall better Christian films in the future, or just more movies like War Room with better production values?

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.

star-wars-george-lucas-alec-guiness

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.

trekblog1

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.

SZSjFpl

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!