The Shack – The Highest Grossing Christian Film To Give Away Free Resources?

shackThis weekend, the controversial faith-based film The Shack crossed the $30,000,000 box office mark. This put the film in fifteenth place in the Box Office Mojo list of highest grossing films marketed to the Christian audience (or as they say, “Movies produced by Christians that promote or embody their religion.“)

Considering that the movie has only been out for two weekends, it will undoubtedly climb higher on the list before all is said and done, and could potentially crack the top ten.

The film’s release renewed heated debate about The Shack, which was a controversial best selling book years before it was adapted for the silver screen. Calls of heresy and blasphemy from respected church leaders have kept many people from supporting this film, a decision that other respected church leaders see as a missed opportunity to share the Christian faith, if a believing movie-goer has the right tools at his or her disposal.

To help solve this problem, and possibly to answer some of the concerns of the detractors, the makers of The Shack put together an impressive, biblically-based discussion guide, as well as other materials, all available on http://theshackresources.com for free.

When I saw that The Shack had cracked the top 15 highest grossing Christian-made films, it made me wonder how the other films on the list handled their ministry resources in a similar way. To help answer this question, I did a simple search for each of the top 15 movies [“The name of the movie movie resources”] and looked for the official resource page provided by the filmmakers or studios. While most of these films have ministry-related products that are sold through Lifeway or Outreach (including The Shack), I was specifically looking at which high grossing films made it a point to give resources for free, for ministry’s sake.

The results of my research were mixed.

15. The ShackResources are free, including hard copies of discussion guides and resource DVDs.

14. FireproofResources are not free.

13. CourageousResources are not free.

12. RisenCombination of free and not free resources, the free resources include a downloadable 14 page conversation starter and a link to a free Bible study plan.

11. The Nativity Story – The film is from 2006, and I was unable to find any working links for resources, free or otherwise.

10. Soul Surfer – No resources available on film website, free or otherwise.

9. Son of GodResources are not free.

8. God’s Not DeadResources are not free.

7. Miracles from HeavenCombination of free and not free resources, the free resource is a downloadable sixteen page discussion guide, no Scripture references.

6. War RoomA whole bunch of resources, more than I’ve seen from any of the other movies, but none of them are free.

5. Heaven Is For RealThe website has a free ten page discussion guide, with Scripture refrences.

4. The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderA free education guide, but no ministry resources.

3. Prince Caspian – A free education guide, but no ministry resources.

2. The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe – A free education guide, but no ministry resources.

1. The Passion of the Christ – The film that started it all, from 2004. I was unable to find an official website for the film, so no resources.

While it saddens me that all of the top grossing Christian films don’t give away ministry resources,  I am heartened by the films that do. Also, I should point out that Affirm Films (the faith-based division of Sony) makes free discussion guides available for the movies they release, many of which are on the list above. You can see those study guides by going to the Affirm Films website.

However, I would encourage Christian filmmakers and producers – especially of films that make impressive profit – to use some of that profit to create tools that people can freely use to share the Gospel, and not just create ministry tools to increase the profit even more.

Thimblerig out.

[update: after the second weekend, The Shack has crossed $42M, making it number 11 on the list just behind The Nativity Story. It’ll push Soul Surfer out of the top ten very soon.]

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The Problem with Faith-Based Movies is that they are Faith-Based Movies

FaithbasedMovies_Chart_309x550_1I recently read a story over at The Wrap cleverly titled, “Faith-Based Movies’ Box Office Goes To Hell” that reported that the more recently released so-called “faith-based” films did not repeat the box office success of the springtime’s Son of God, God’s Not Dead, and Heaven is for Real.   You can see the little chart that they made over on the right.

Among people, the article quoted  Phil Cooke, who put forward the contention that films made with faith-based themes (as with any films aiming to connect with a subculture) would do better to wave a flag stating clearly that the film contains Christian values, so that the subculture can recognize that the film is okay for them to view.

I respect Phil Cooke, having had some interaction with him over the past couple of years, and I agree that what he is suggesting makes sense from a bottom-line point of view, but (and you might call me naïve) I’m tired of looking at filmmaking by Christians from the bottom-line point of view.

That’s what Hollywood has been doing since Passion of the Christ, and it’s not resulted in many better made films made by Christians – it’s mainly resulted in more and more films that succeed in preaching to the choir.  The sign of whether or not they are successful?  The infernal bottom-line – because the successful ones get the church bottoms in the seats, and that is all that matters.

Church, the fact that we expect this from our filmmakers – and that we don’t support them if they don’t package their films in a way in which we can approve – borders on sin.

Think about it.  One of the clearest commands in Scripture is Matthew 28:19, where Jesus calls his followers to go out into the world and make disciples.  But with our filmmakers, we’re happy for them to keep it in the bubble.  We want our filmmakers to massage us, make us feel good, make the sinful world look bad, and help us in our attempts to ostracize ourselves from the rest of society.

If you are in the church, and that is true for you, I have a few very important reflection questions for you:

When will we (the church) wake up and release our filmmakers to go out into the world?  When will we tell them to get out there and stop worrying about the subculture – just make good movies that draw all kinds of people?  After all, we release our missionaries – and support them financially – to go to the corners of the globe and do all sorts of things – medicine, engineering, teaching, social activism.  We do this because we trust that they will be living out their Christian faith as they serve the people to whom they’re called, that they will be Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), that they will represent us – and Christ – with honor and distinction.

But we don’t trust our filmmakers to do the same thing.  When will this change?

When will we stop requiring them to raise a banner that identifies them clearly before we agree to support them?  When will our mission-minded churches start to seek out filmmakers laboring in the fields outside the bubble to see how we can support their vision – and not just our own?

Now, if you are a filmmaker and you are reading this, I have a few important things to tell you:

You need to know that there are lots and lots of us in the church that want you to be the next Christopher Nolan, or the next Katherine Bigelow, or the next Tomm Moore, or the next Steve McQueen, or the next George Lucas.  We want you to make the big summer blockbusters and we want you to make the quiet art house films, we want you to be nominated for best original screenplay or best actress or best director or best picture.  We don’t really care if you are nominated for a Dove Award.  We don’t really care if you get the Newsboys or Audio Adrenaline to perform on the soundtrack.  We will rise up and call you blessed if you don’t involve Duck Dynasty at all.

What do we want from you?  We want you to be setting the standard for excellence in filmmaking.  We want to be able to look up at you and smile with the knowledge that you are one of ours, laboring away in the fields of the film industry, confident in the knowledge that you are where you are because the God of Heaven placed you there.  Praying for you to have an impact on the corner of the world He’s given you to have an impact upon.

And yes, I do understand that you want to feed your family.  I understand that you have to pay your student loans.  And I understand that the Christian subculture can potentially give huge returns to small investments.

But do it the same way everyone else does it – by becoming excellent at your craft.  Let the Hollywood producers worry about tapping into the faith based crowd, because they don’t really care if you are the one they’re pushing or if it’s someone from outside the family (Evan Almighty, anyone?  Man of Steel, anyone?  Did anyone see the way they pushed Aronofsky’s Noah?  And get ready for the push to support the famously irreligious Sir Ridley Scott and his Exodus).

Forget about all of that, and just make really good movies.

Personally, I’m thinking of writing a faith-based screenplay that focuses on a non-Christian Hollywood producer trying to make a faith-based film.  It could be one of the most entertaining comedies of the last ten years, and I could even add “Based on a True Story” as a title card.

Post Scriptum – I am not opposed to films made for the Christian subculture.  I just wish we could give as much energy and support to those films being made for secular audiences by believers as we do to those being made for us.

Post Post Scriptum – I just found out that Willie Robertson is executive producing the upcoming Left Behind film with Nicolas Cage.

I don’t have words.

Heaven is for Real – Thimblerig’s Review

Several months ago, I wrote a blog article that got some traction, entitled “What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking”.  In that article, I listed five things that I thought the church needs to do to give our filmmakers the freedom to make movies that can actually make a dent in the greater culture – which Christian-made films typically fail to do, for a multitude of reasons.

I’m in a bit of a conundrum about Heaven is for Real, the “faith-based” film I watched tonight.  Going into it, I didn’t know much about the story, except that it was based on the best-selling book by the same name.  My assumption was that this was another film produced by Christians for Christians, and that it would fit my five points perfectly.  But research has shown that I was wrong.

Yes, there were Christians involved in the making of the film – megapastor T.D. Jakes is one of the producers, and screenwriter and director Randall Wallace (screenwriter for Braveheart, director for Secretariat) has spoken openly about his Christian faith in interviews – but the film was not made by faith-based production companies (unlike Son of God and God’s not Dead), and so it sort of balances on the edge of the point of my article.

Still, I think it’s valuable to take the time to look at the film, and to see how it did on my five points – and to see what we Christians can learn from this Christian film that was not wholly made by Christians.

The Synopsis

As the opening credits roll, we see that that Heaven is for Real is based on a true story that happened to the Burpo family of Imperial, Nebraska in the early 2000’s.  Todd Burpo (nicely played by Greg Kinnear) is a typical midwestern everyman who installs and repairs garage doors, coaches the high school wrestling team,  volunteers with the local fire department, and pastors a small church.  Todd and his wife Sonja (British actress Kelly Reilly) are in a loving relationship and have two young children, Cassie and Connor.Kelly Reilly

Over the course of the first act, we learn that the Burpo family has a pretty good life, filled with supportive friends in a quintessential small-town atmosphere (including a nicely understated performance by Thomas Haden Church).  The family has ups and downs (broken bones, kidney stones, financial difficulties), but these challenges serve to bring the family closer together rather than pulling them apart.

The movie switches gears when, after a family getaway to Denver, four year old Connor falls ill.  Todd and Sonja try to treat him at home until it becomes obvious that the illness is more serious than they thought, and so they rush him to the hospital.  When they arrive, the doctors discover that he has had a burst appendix, and take him to the OR for emergency surgery.  As the boy’s life hangs in the balance, Sonja gets on her cell phone and starts calling her friends for prayer, and Todd goes to the hospital chapel to pray, where he explodes at God for possibly taking away his son.

heaven-is-for-real-greg-kinnear-sliceThe boy recovers, and then Todd discovers that his son didn’t just sleep through his surgery, but apparently went on a little trip to heaven.  Over the course of the film, Connor tells Todd what he and Sonja were doing while he was being treated, describes seeing and hearing angels sing, recounts spending time with Jesus (and Jesus’s horse), and relates meeting with various family members that he couldn’t have known.

This revelation shakes Todd to the core as he struggles to understand what his son has experienced and he is confronted with the actual reality of the heaven about which he has spent his life preaching.

Because of Todd’s openness about Connor’s experience, he is mocked by townsfolk, nearly loses his position at the church, and finds a wedge driven into his relationship with his wife.

What I liked about the film.

1.  It was extremely well acted.  Greg Kinnear, specifically, does a fantastic job leading us down the road of Todd Burpo’s crisis of faith.  Kelly Reilly did a great job (loved her in Flight).  Thomas Haden Church was underused, but is a joy to watch.

[A note to all the wealthy Christians who read this blog – this is the caliber of actor we should be helping our directors afford!  Actors don’t have to actually be Christian actors to effectively play Christian roles.  In fact, if they are professionals, they will enjoy the challenge of playing well-written characters of any background, and the Christians on the shoot might actually be able to share their faith in the process.  So start writing those checks!]

2.  The movie had one of the most realistic and complementary portrayals of a Christian couple of any movie I’ve seen.  This is a pastor and his wife who are quite often hot for each other, and they aren’t afraid of showing affection.  This is a couple that  also loses patience and argue when they are upset with each other, demonstrating that yes, pastors and pastor’s wives are people, too.

lead3.  The film was technically as good as any film out there.  I was a bit concerned at first that the film would look like a made-for-tv film, but the cinematographer quickly took away that fear.  It was a beautifully shot film.

Now, to the five points of my original article, the five things the Body of Christ can do to help filmmakers who are Christians make better films.

1.  Allow the artist to take risks

Heaven is for Real is an extremely safe story based on an extremely safe novel.  Ironically, this movie failed to take a very specific risk – and this is where the secular producer’s influence was so keenly felt – by not having a more clear Gospel presentation.  This is ironic to me because I certainly don’t advocate that a Gospel presentation is absolutely necessary for a film made by Christians.  In fact, the problem with most faith-based films is that they often shoehorn the Gospel into the storyline, and the end result feels forced.  Heaven is for Real is a film that could have used a bit more clarity in the subject of heaven and how one gets there, and it could have been seamlessly added considering the subject matter.  For heaven’s sake, the climax of the movie was a sermon preached to a packed church about heaven where the name of Jesus is mentioned, and Todd doesn’t even explain the Christian understanding of how one gets there!

But I don’t blame Todd Burpo for this.  I blame T.D. Jakes.  If I were pastor/producer T.D. Jakes, I would have insisted on it.  Certainly, the film is not a Billy Graham Crusade production, but making a film about heaven where the unchurched audience isn’t even told how to get there is irresponsible.

One last thing about presenting the Gospel in film.  This isn’t something that has to be heavy-handed and shoehorned and forced, like we Christians so often do in the films we make.  One of my favorite examples of this being done successfully is in the 1997 film, Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg.

2.  Challenge the audience

Image of Jesus from the film, supposedly painted by a young Lithuanian girl who had visions of Jesus.

Image of Jesus from the film, supposedly painted by a young Lithuanian girl who had visions of Jesus.

Heaven is for Real succeeded at this, for the most part.  If you consider the faith-based audience, I believe they were challenged as they were presented with the story of a child who claimed to have seen heaven.  The film (and the book before it ) generated a healthy amount of controversy among Christians (as have several of the other books that tell stories of people seeing heaven), since many Christians believe that God has given us all the revelation we need in the 66 books of the Bible (73 for Catholics), and that we aren’t to add to what we’ve been given.  Others believe that God still speaks, and can and will give such revelations as He sees fit, and they may have been challenged by the realistic portrayal of a pastor who didn’t accept the revelations blindly.

The non-Christian audience was perhaps challenged as they were given a pretty clear picture of heaven presented by a four-year-old boy who couldn’t have known the things he claimed to know.  While most non-Christians might enjoy the film as a modern fairy tale, some may have been challenged and intrigued by the picture of heaven which Connor paints.

But I still would have liked that audience to have been challenged more clearly with a clear Gospel message.

3.  Art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit, and while they might cross paths from time to time, they are different animals

This was one of those rare moments where the two did cross paths, and it was done well.  I believe this worked because Randall Wallace and Greg Kinnear gave us such a well-rounded picture of a tent-making pastor that we accepted his place in the pulpit as a natural place.

4.  Ask questions, but don’t feel like you need to provide all the answers

In the case of Heaven is for Real, the question was – did Connor really experience this visit to heaven?  Thankfully, the filmmakers never try to answer the question definitively.  The bigger question is connected to Todd Burpo and his own struggles with the his faith and his understanding of Connor’s vision.  Yes, the movie had a resolution, but it was not as tidy as it could have been.  We’re left still wondering what exactly happened to the boy, but we’re also left with the confidence that the Burpo family is going to be alright.  The ribbon is tied, but it’s not a completely perfectly tied bow.

5.  Tell good stories

In this case, Heaven is for Real succeeded.  It’s a fascinating story, made even more fascinating by the claims of truth made by the real Todd Burpo and the filmmakers. But the good story is made even better by a well-directed screenplay, a stellar cast, and fantastic cinematography (Nebraska is a beautiful state).  It was fantastic to make the film a crisis of faith for Todd, and while watching, I could easily put myself into his shoes, wondering how I would have dealt with such an experience.

In conclusion, Heaven is for Real is not without problems.  Heck, the supposedly true story behind the movie is not without problems.  But as a movie aimed at the faith-based audiences, the film is well-made, and can provoke some interesting discussions about the nature of heaven, and what we can know about it.

And most importantly, it can open discussions on how we are able to go there!

Golden Groundhogs Heaven

Heaven is for Real: 4/5 Golden Groundhogs

Mom’s Not Dead, for Real! The Movie

Mom's Not Dead for Real

FAITH BASED FILM OF 2014 COMING THIS SUMMER!

“Mom’s Not Dead for Real”

Kendrick, an older bearded student studying philosophy at Reed College, has a vivid dream one night that heaven is for real. When he wakes up, his wicked professor, Dr. Hercules, mocks his beard and his dream, telling him that his mom, Debra, had gone out with some friends the previous night and died… and NOT gone to heaven.

Of course, the pure-hearted Kendrick refuses to believe it, and sets off on a hero’s journey to find her. Using information from the snakeskin given to him by his uncle Hannibal, Kendrick builds an ark, and as he, Trace Adkins, and Hermione Granger sail off to find his mom, wacky hijinks ensue.

Will Kendrick be courageous enough to face the group of fireproof rock giants who have taken his mom, or run the risk that she could be left behind in a shack… forever?