I Can Only Imagine Spurs Copycat Productions

imagesA Thimblerig’s Ark Exclusive

This weekend, The Erwin Brothers shocked all of Hollywood when their $7 million budgeted biopic about a Christian musician bowed to the tune of a $17 million take at the box office. The movie’s numbers stunned all the analysts who had predicted it would make a much more modest $1.5 million to $8 million, and unconfirmed reports say that at least two studio executives who passed on the project have resigned and started frozen yogurt shops in their respective hometowns.

Thimblerig’s Ark is fortunate enough to have eyes and ears all over Hollywood, and so we were not so shocked or stunned to find out that wheels were immediately set in motion all over Tinseltown this weekend in an attempt to capture faith-based lightning in a bottle, as they always seem to do when a movie shocks and stuns them. Who can forget what happened after the phenomenal success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” back in 2002? Six months later we had to endure a spate of copycat movies trying to jump on the wedding bandwagon, with “My Somewhat Large Kazakh Wedding”, “My Huge and Dominating Somali Wedding”, and the surprisingly entertaining counter-programming attempt starring Mr. Bean,  “My Tiny Little Iberian Divorce.”

Our sources tell us that soon after the numbers started rolling in, representatives from all the major production companies started rolling out to Nashville to strike deals of their own with Christian songwriters in an attempt to have the next “I Can Only Imagine”. Yes, as we were tucked all snug in our beds with visions of Bart Millard dancing in our head, deals were being struck and IPs were being purchased all across Music City.

Here are just some of the movies that are reportedly now “in the works”:

1. “God of Wonders”  written by Marc Byrd and Steve Hindalong was reportedly purchased by representatives of Lucasfilm, who – our sources tell us – were impressed by the intergalactic themes of the song. Inspired by the partnership model set by the Erwin Brothers, George Lucas will reportedly co-direct with Steven Spielberg, and there’s talk that they will take a common last name “Lucberg” to complete the brother effect. Sources say that The Lucberg Brothers have north of $200M set aside for this big budget sci-fi worship project.

2. “God of this City” written by Chris Tomlin has been picked up by Christopher Nolan’s Syncopy Inc, with Nolan attached to direct. Our sources tell us that Nolan was attracted to the urban feel of the song, and imagines a biopic of Tomlin – shot entirely with practical effects – where we learn about the singer’s rise in the Christian music industry – having a string of number one hits, selling out coliseums and amphitheaters – while also learning Tomlin’s lesser known story of dressing as a dark avenging angel and fighting crime on the side. Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are rumored to be considering the part of Chris Tomlin.

3. “The Warrior Is A Child” by Twila Paris. There is little information about this collaboration, but sources tell us that helmer Patty Jenkins met with Paris for several hours at a back table in Nashville’s Frothy Monkey, pounding out details. One source suggested that certain words were overheard (“armor”, “sword”, “mystical beam of light”) that suggest that Jenkins is planning on taking Paris’s life story mythological, possibly piggybacking on the success of Wonder Woman to make the classic CCM artist’s story into a rousing action adventure film.

4. “Awesome God”, “Step by Step”, and “Screendoor on a Submarine” by Rich Mullins. A reboot trilogy planned around the life of the late singer/songwriter Rich Mullins is apparently in the works with helmer Michael Bay. Bay was said to have met with representatives of the Mullins estate in a double wide trailer outside of Wichita, Kansas where he laid out his plan to tell Mullin’s life story as an “explosive trilogy triptych” using each song as a framing device for each movie, the final movie being filmed entirely underwater in a screened-in submarine. Reportedly, the earlier low-budget indy film “Ragamuffin” will be decanonized and now officially referred to as a “Mullins Legend”.

5. “Friends” by Michael W. Smith. One of the most surprising acquisitions has to be Martin Scorcese’s purchase of Michael W. Smith’s evergreen song, celebrating the joy of Christian friendship. Does this signal a change of direction in the venerable director’s career? Is he moving away from serious dramatic films into the realm of lighthearted buddy movies? Or, will Scorsese take this staple of Christian high school graduations in a surprisingly dark direction? Only time will tell.

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

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

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

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

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

I disagree with both arguments.

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

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

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

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

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

Remember? The studios follow the money.

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

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

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

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

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

But this comment raises a different question for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, lots of us loved Hercules.

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An Outsider’s View of the Variety Purpose Summit on Faith and Family Entertainment

As a reviewer and commentator of Christian media who lives in China, I’m used to being on the outside looking in. If there’s a new movie released aimed at the “faith-based” audience, then I will see it, but it will often be months later. I read about deals being made and productions being planned, but it’s always from a great distance. Even with regular communication with friends who work full-time in that industry, and even though I’m able to stay on top of news about the industry thanks to the web, I’m still on the outside, far removed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in China, and I’m convinced that it is exactly where God wants me to be. But I feel like – and forgive the Flash reference – my Earth 2 doppleganger moved to Hollywood, made it as a screenwriter, and was just nominated for his fourth Earth 2 Emmy.

Yeah, the Earth 2 me lives on the inside, no doubt.

But every now and then, God throws the Earth 1 me a bone to help me not feel completely cut off; a glance or a step inside this niche industry that fascinates me so much.

Header_Purpose_2016-1This time, the bone I was thrown was a press pass to the Variety Purpose Summit, held Friday at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. This was an amazing gathering in which I was able to stand in the same room as many faith-based media movers and shakers as well as studio big-wigs, and I was finally given the chance to see first hand what happens when the curtains are pulled back.

Variety did a great job assembling professionals with many years working in Hollywood on all sorts of different levels, and these industry insiders talked at length on a variety of issues. Panels dealt with issues such as “Faith and Culture in Mainstream Entertainment”, “Succeeding in Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Finance and Production”, and “Multiplatform Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Storytelling”, to name just a few.

I want to focus on a few things I learned throughout the day.

Christians are alive and well in the heart of Hollywood

Over and over, I was introduced to producers, writers, directors, and investors who are people of faith and who have a desire to make great, accessible stories for everyone, and not be boxed in by the “faith-based” label. These filmmakers are working on projects with the big film studios that are broad and non-didactic, involve A-list actors and directors, and they are attempting to make films that people both inside and outside of the church would find accessible.

And church? They need our support.

But hang tight, church… I’ll be talking to you later.

Two such filmmakers that stood out were Michael Carney and Matthew Malek, Carney is the writer, director, and producer of the upcoming Same Kind of Different as Me with Renée Zellweger, Jon Voight, and Greg Kinnear, and Malek is the producer of Martin Scorcese’s Silence, with Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver and which will be released later this year.

During their panel, both Carney and Malek emphasized over and over that films don’t have to be overtly Christian to be used by God, that art that is “good, true, and beautiful” will hit the mark (Malek). Furthermore, Carney pointed out that prior to the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, there was really no such thing as the Christian or faith-based film genre. Films that dealt with Christian themes and ideas did so organically as a part of their wider genre, and they often did so very well (Chariots of Fire, Shawshank Redemption, The Mission, for example). “Shed it!” Malek said, speaking of the faith-based category. “God’s going to do what God’s going to do!”

The Christian filmmakers in attendance received the message enthusiastically, but I’d like to suggest that they really aren’t the ones who need to be convinced. History bears that the “faith and family audience”, that coveted enormous demographic, only wants to support Christian-made films written and designed to preach to the them, and until that audience opens its mind and allows Christian filmmakers some leeway, we’ll continue just getting more of the same.

That said, it made me hopeful to see how passionate so many Christian filmmakers seemed to be about this issue.

Hollywood Still Doesn’t Get It

This trip to Hollywood was not the first filmmaking bone that God had tossed my way. The first was a month-long intensive screenwriting course I took in in Hollywood back in 2007 with Act One, a Christian organization that tries to help prepare believers to survive and thrive in Hollywood.

As well as learning about story structure, character building, and dialogue, Act One also taught students the realities of life in the business of filmmaking. We learned that 2007 was a significant time in the history of filmmaking in general and faith-based filmmaking specifically for two reasons. First, it was only three years after the release of Gibson’s Passion, a film whose success had caught Hollywood completely guard and whose success Hollywood wanted desperately to repeat, and second, the wider film industry was still in the midst of trying to figure out how the internet could be utilized as a delivery form for entertainment.

Since that time, people have started to figure out how to profit from the power of the internet (Netflix, Amazon, to name a few), but according to what we heard at Friday’s summit, most still have no idea how to reach that massive faith-based audience. After Gibson’s film, most studios quickly developed faith-focused divisions to try and recapture the lightning in the bottle, but attempts, with a few notable exceptions, have been largely unsuccessful.

IMG_6906Many of the panelists were the ones working in the trenches (DeVon Franklin, CEO of Franklin Entertainment and producer of Miracles from Heaven and The Star, an upcoming CGI faith-based film; Brian Bird, Executive Producer and showrunner of the cult favorite Hallmark show, When Calls The Heart; Steve Wegner, producer of the Dolphin Tale movies and Blind Side, to name a few), and they spoke about their experiences helping guide studios through the undiscovered country of successfully reaching a faith audience.

Several panelists also talked about the many non-traditional grassroots methods used in an attempt to mobilize believers to support the films and television programs being made for them. Methods discussed ranged from inviting pastors to early screenings of the films in an attempt to get them on board with the project, developing study materials where believers could explore the ideas raised by the films from a Christian context, and cultivating large followings on various social media platforms to help energize audiences when new films are being released.

thirty_three_ver10Sometimes these attempts have worked (Heaven Is For Real, God’s Not Dead, War Room), but just as often (maybe more often) they’ve failed, and the films haven’t lived up to their financial potential. A telling example came from Catherine Paura, the co-head of marketing for Alcon Entertainment, who spoke of her frustration when they were trying to market The 33. The film had all the right ingredients to be a hit with the faith audience: it was an inspirational true story where people in a potentially tragic situation survived at least in part because of their faith; it featured Antonio Banderes, a popular A-list actor; and it was designed to fit square in the category of a solid faith-and-family-friendly film.

“We did everything right,” Paura said, speaking of the marketing, but when the film opened the faith audience just didn’t turn up, and the film fared poorly at the box office.

Of course, one could argue that Hollywood is constantly in the business of trying to figure out the audience no matter the demographic, and the fact that they are so invested in figuring out the faith-and-family audience just means that there are enough of us to make us worthy of that investment.

The Value of Story

Throughout the day, panelist after panelist emphasized the importance of telling a compelling, well-crafted story. This is a message that all filmmakers need to hear, but especially those filmmakers and audiences (typically in the “Christian film” genre) who think that message trumps story.

Risen_2016_posterProducer Patrick Aiello shared that they took two years honing and perfecting the script for Risen before they began shopping it around.

“It’s all about content,” Matthew Malek insisted, reinforcing the idea of the power of a good story.

When moderator Jack Hafer asked his panel what the most important thing a content creator should consider when pitching, Steve Wegner said something that should surprise no one, but faith-based screenwriters should take to heart: “I have to love the story.”

Not the message, not the motivation for writing the script, but the story.

Another primary ingredient to good storytelling that was discussed across the panels was recognizing the value of being true to the characters and the situation, not being content to settle for caricatures and forced narratives. Esther Kustanowitz, a writer who also consults with filmmakers as a Jewish Community Consultant emphasized that “stories have to be authentic.”

The panelists seemed to share the idea that you influence through artistry, that you enable change by showing people their potential on the screen through story. “Government doesn’t change people, Hollywood changes people,” said Reza Aslan, CEO of BoomGen Studios. As an example, Aslan discussed Vice President Biden’s comment that America’s thoughts on homosexuality changed as a result of Will & Grace, not because of legislative influence.

Agreeing with the power of entertainment to affect change, DeVon Franklin added that people of faith need to learn to use that same instrument of well-told stories and empathetic characters to change the popular narrative that Christians are bigoted, uneducated, narrow-minded hypocrites.

What Was Unseen and Unsaid

For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed the day, and felt like my peek behind the curtain was time well spent. As I’ve been digesting my thoughts on the event, I’ve come away with two critiques of the event. These critiques don’t have anything to do with what was said, but what was unsaid, as well as who was unseen.

Unsaid

The elephant sitting in the back of the ballroom, undoubtedly noticed by everyone but not spoken about by anyone, was actually not an elephant at all, but a big red dragon named China.

Nobody, on any panel, at any time, said anything about the dragon.

This didn’t really occur to me until after lunch, when I was looking back over my notes, realizing how Ameri-centric the vast majority of the conversations had been. While there were a few references to international markets over the course of the day, the summit itself didn’t include any conversations regarding how the faith and family market can expand outside the 50 states into the international market, particularly China.

This stood out to me, partly because I live in China, but also because just the day before I’d made my way to an IMAX theater in West Hollywood to watch Star Trek: Beyond. As the producer credits were rolling at the beginning of the film, the logo for Alibaba – one of the biggest companies in China – appeared.

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Even as an outsider, I know that everyone in Hollywood is trying to crack the China nut (so to speak) and figure out how to put films on screens in what will be the world’s biggest entertainment market in just a few years. At the same time, Chinese producers and media companies are trying to figure out how to profit off of American-made properties. Variety magazine itself has published story after story about this, and yet the summit didn’t have a single discussion on the issue.

This was a glaring omission to me, but I hope that next year there will be at least some energy devoted to taking our faith-and-family projects into China and other parts of the world.

[If you are interested in this subject, I’d invite you to read an article I wrote on this blog a few months ago, addressing this very issue. Read my analysis of the situation here.]

Unseen

War-Room_300While there were definitely many heavy-hitting super-knowledgable and experienced filmmakers at the summit (both on the panel stage and in the audience) I was surprised that there wasn’t more representation by well-known faith and family filmmakers who feel called to make films that do preach to the choir.

I would like to have seen and heard from more of the people who have released films that were aimed squarely at the faith audience over the past year, such as the Kendrick brothers, Kirk Cameron, the Erwin brothers, David A.R. White, etc. But with a few notable exceptions (Franklin, Bird, Aeillo), there weren’t many filmmakers speaking from the front who are making explicitly faith-based films.

While the event definitely supported my long-held contention that Christian filmmakers need to be making broad, accessible films, it would have been nice to have had a bit more balance with some more focus on the other side of the issue, examining questions like:

What is the vision of those who are called to make films that preach directly to the choir?

How do they see their films being used outside the church?

What are their successful business models? Are they different than those making broader films?

And it would have been nice to explore this question with folks making those films: can we make films that will both preach to the choir and also be embraced by the congregation?

[edit: an insider friend sent me the following message:

“I feel like some of the people you felt were missing from the discussion have actually been guests and even sponsors in the past.”

I responded:

“That makes sense. But having not been before, it seemed like a strange omission, especially after the big movies of the past year. And maybe it seemed even stranger because there weren’t really any discussions about (contrasting) the two ways of approaching the issue.”]

Takeaway

There were so many good things said at the summit and so many years of experience represented that I was overwhelmed to be a part of the event. I was humbled to be in the same room with people who live their lives focused on making films that will benefit and encourage and give hope, and the experience made me realize how much we folks on the outside need to be praying for wisdom and guidance for our brothers and sisters on the inside.

But folks on the outside? The problem isn’t Hollywood. The problem isn’t the filmmakers. The problem has been – and continues to be – us.

Us. You and me.

The Big Christian Audience.

This has been my contention since the beginning, and hearing all of these professionals talking about their projects, their desire to see their faith lived out in good films on the screen, their desire to be artists who happen to be Christian rather than “Christian artists”, I kept coming back to the truth that the art these folks are creating will be directly impacted by what we, the audience of faith, are willing to support.

And the problem is that we, the Big Christian Audience, tend to be overwhelmingly lacking in vision, only supporting those films that fit into our narrow interpretation of the Christian life. We are largely not interested in artistry, not interested in subtlety, and apparently not interested in films that can evangelize – considering that so many of us don’t care at all about the opinions of people outside our subculture regarding the films that are made for us. We are only interested in revelling in our status as “underserved”, demanding that Hollywood continue to service us, and we only care for those films that tickle our itching ears.

Frankly, this is something that Christian filmmakers and Hollywood simply have to deal with, and dealing with it is not an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination. But, for the fortunate few who manage to hit the right beats and press the right buttons, incredible profit awaits. And so they will keep trying.

IMG_6884It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out later this month when MGM and Paramount release it’s $100 million dollar epic remake of Ben Hur, a film that has been made for a wide audience, but which has also been made with incredible sensitivity towards the faith-based audience, even going so far as to bring on Mark Burnett and Roma Downey early in the process to help shepherd the process.

Will the Big Christian Audience turn up for Ben Hur or will they stay away? One of the things that the summit clearly demonstrated to me was that investors and studios will be watching, and the movies we will see being released in the next few years will be greatly affected by the answer to that question.


A special thank you to Variety magazine for extending me the press creds, and Hollywood, it’s been a blast! I’ll see you when the next bone has been thrown!

Thimblerig out.

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Thimblerig Goes Hollywood

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

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

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

Hollywood, get ready for Thimblerig!

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The Act One Writing Program… Is It Worth It?

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I’ve had several people contact me and ask me to share my experiences with the Act One program. Rather than just cutting and pasting my response to this question into different emails, I thought I would just post it here to answer the question once and for all:

Is Act One worth it?

Before I get to that question, let’s start with a little teaser about Act One, in case you aren’t familiar with the organization.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I have lived overseas for the past fifteen years. I chose to attend the Act One Writing Program back in 2007 while living in Kazakhstan and working with the Kazakhstan English Language Theater (KELT). I had dreams of expanding KELT to include filmmaking, and so I chose to take part in the writing program while home for the summer.

Unfortunately, when I returned to Kazakhstan after taking the program, life stepped in the way, as it is want to do, and I had to put the film plans on hold. I continued writing and theater production, but was forced to watch my filmmaking dream wither on the vine.

Now I live in China, where filmmaking is growing in leaps and bounds, and I have long-term plans to resurrect that dream. I’m developing a few live action film ideas, and I’m also adapting my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, into an animated feature screenplay.

But this leads us back to the question: was Act One worth it? As a person whose route to the film industry has been anything but direct, would I recommend that hopeful Christian artists spend the money and a month in L.A. working with professional film industry people, studying the process of writing or film production with Act One?

The short answer is yes, to both questions.

My Act One experience was transformational for me as as a writer, and my short time there also had a profound impact on my life as a Christian. That month in L.A. helped me see how artistic endeavors could be more than ego aggrandizement, and the huge potential for created art to bring glory to the One who created Art.

Any believer who is considering entering into the film industry (or even believers who just want to develop their own artistic sensibilities when it comes to film) can find great benefit from investing in the Act One program.

Just as I did.

The three reasons why I feel this way:

1)  The Friendships and Relationships Developed

My involvement in Act One has led to some great relationships with people who are in Hollywood, working in the film industry. Getting to know them, I have developed the utmost respect for people living their faith in the trenches, and I see them as missionaries as much as anyone I’ve met while living and working overseas. My Act One friends helped me edit my first novel, dialogue with me frequently about my thoughts on Chrisitan filmmaking here on the blog, and even taught the excellent screenwriting class I took at Asbury last year (Andrea Nasfell, writer of Mom’s Night Out and other films).

Without Act One, I would have been hard pressed to know any of these people.

2)  The Power and Value of Story

Act One champions the power and value of story, and this is something that Christian filmmakers need to learn. While you could probably get much of what was taught in class from a book, there was the added and very real benefit of sitting in a classroom with twenty other passionate students, all working through the same issues, listening to stories by film industry professionals. I felt, for that month, that I had found my people – people who loved movies, loved talking about them, analyzing them, dreaming about making them. And we went on a month-long journey together.

As a class, we spent time looking at examples of strong cinema storytelling and having discussions about why those examples were strong. We learned how to develop and pitch our story ideas, including holding a pitch session with actual producers. We heard stories from successful screenwriters and producers, where they told about the challenges, difficulties, and rewards of pursuing this particular line of work. Act One brings in top of the line talent to teach and get to know students; faculty with years and years of collective experience, and we soaked up every day.

My only regret was that the month was too short.

3) The Diverse Christian Perspective

As much as I loved developing the relationships, as much as I soaked up learning about the power of story, the best thing about Act One was that everything was done from a Christian perspective. Believers from all different backgrounds took part both as students and as teachers, and I felt right at home in that atmosphere. It reminded me of my experience living overseas, where the differences of our denominations and traditions weren’t as important as our being faithful Christians in difficult or stressful situations.

I was also relieved that Act One wasn’t trying to train us to go out and build a Christian film industry (although the program certainly equipped us to be a part of faith-based filmmaking), rather they were training us how to survive and thrive as Christians in the secular film industry.

That being said, my relationships in Act One also introduced me to several weekly Bible studies and prayer groups in the Los Angeles area, helped me get to know many of the great churches that are hard at work ministering in those parts, and led me to learn about many of the other fantastic Christian organizations ministering in Hollywood, such as Hollywood Prayer Network and 168 Film, to name just a couple.

So, is Act One worth it? Even if you don’t wind up living in a 900- zip code? Well, I couldn’t be farther away from the biz, but since 2007, but I’ve used what I learned at Act One over and over.

I used it in developing Thimblerig’s Ark as well as other projects both published and not.

I used it while working with the theater in Kazakhstan.

In my writing classes here in China, I use it quite often, taking students through intense novel and short story writing.

I use it when analyzing films with a critical mind.

Along those lines, I use it all the time when putting my thoughts together for writing about the Christian Film Industry for this blog, with much of what I wrote in What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking coming directly from what I learned in Act One.

And so, yes, Act One is absolutely worth it. It’s worth the money you pay, it’s worth the time you spend away from your family, it’s worth the mental energy you will bring to the table. And if you have the desire to be a part of the film industry and to do it in a way that is true to your faith as a Christian, it is most definitely worth it.

I just wish I could do it again!

To apply for the Act One Writing Program, click here. And while I didn’t take the Producing & Entertainment Executive Program, I’ve heard good things about it as well. Click here for more information.

NOTE: The deadline for applying for the 2016 summer program is May 25, 2016, so don’t delay!

And by the way, nobody from Act One asked me to write this. I just really believe in the program.

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

Hollywood Finally Notices Success of Christian Films

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Hollywood has finally noticed the success of Christian films such as last fall’s War Room and 2014’s God’s Not Dead!

Los Angeles, California – Alex Boese of the Spaghetti Harvest Media Marketing Group (SHMMG) of San Bernardino, California announced at a press conference on Monday that his company has decided to take a page from the faith-based handbook. This year, SHMMG will begin encouraging studios to release secular film advertisements with relevant Bible verses.

A Hollywood po

A big Hollywood power lunch meeting from the 1950’s.

“At a recent big Hollywood power lunch meeting at Soho House,” Mr. Boese said, “I convinced some of the town’s biggest players that using the Bible is the best way to attract the elusive faith-based audience, a key rising demographic that has proven to have very deep pockets when they feel they are being serviced.”

Mr. Boese went on to explain that “faith-based” films (also known as “faith and family” films, “family-based and faith-building” films, “faith, family & family, faith” films, and “building family and faith in the faith and family building” films) have gained popularity over the past few years, in large part thanks to the grass roots social media marketing efforts of the small independent studios which produce them.

A key way these studios have utilized social media is by producing images showing key verses from the Bible and a logo of the film that can be easily shared from Christian film fan to Christian film fan. Often the images will also show stills from the films to help drive the Bible verse point home.

“If we want to attract that F&F audience, we have to play by their rules,” Mr. Boese commented. “If that means using the Bible to sell tickets, then so be it. After all, if the Bible is good enough for Christians as a marketing tool, then it’s good enough for us.”

Mr. Boese’s comments were briefly interrupted as a man started shouting about cheapening Scripture by using it to sell products, but he was quickly ushered out by SHMMG employees. The incident was quickly forgotten by those in attendance. [note to editor: consider redacting this paragraph]

Mr. Boese ended his presentation by revealing several different advertisement mockups that SHMMG had developed. He announced that these Bible advertisements would be likely soon begin showing up on each respective film’s social media feeds, pending approval of each film’s marketing department.

“This is a new day of partnership between Hollywood and the faith-and-family-based community,” Mr. Boese said confidently. “And by the way, using the Bible this way should help us to sell a LOT more tickets.”

Time will tell, Mr. Boese. Time will tell.

For more information, read this article.

onlinelogomaker-010516-1942

 

Christian Moviegoers, Do You Even Know What You Want?

Woodlawn-PosterJon and Andrew Erwin’s Woodlawn just scored another fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the 9th positive review out of ten, giving the film a pretty solid 90% rating, although with an admittedly small sampling of reviews.

As I wrote about before, this sort of thing is unprecedented in the world of Christian-made filmmaking. Phil Vischer’s animated “Jonah: A Veggietales Movie” was the previous high-ranking film of the genre with a 65% from 55 reviews.

And yet, curiously, as of this writing, Woodlawn has only made about 5.5 million in ticket sales in 1,553 theaters. At this time in War Room‘s release, it had made over 15 million in 1,135 theaters. God’s Not Dead had made 12 million in 780 theaters.

The only conclusion I can reach is that compared to War Room and God’s Not Dead, or even the much less overtly Christian faith-based football movie, When The Game Stands Tall, the Big Christian Audience is not supporting Woodlawn.

And I just don’t get it.

Fellow Christian moviegoers, brothers and sisters who make up the casual movie-going target demographic for Christian-made films, I don’t understand you.

I really don’t!

So often I’ve heard you complain about how badly you want Hollywood to make movies that you can take your families to see, movies that reflect your values, movies that treat your faith with respect. I’ve heard you gripe that Hollywood – which you abandoned a long time ago – doesn’t get you, your wants, and your needs for entertainment.

But then, when one of your own makes just the sort of film that you’ve been clamoring for, a film that apparently rises above the standard “Christian movie”, a movie that is actually a pretty good movie, with high production values, recognizable and respected actors, and a compelling and relevant true story, what do you do?

The vast majority of you just… stay home.

55c2a97f776f726211004f8dAnd the craziest thing? Woodlawn is a film that is right in your wheelhouse. Up until now, the audience has been largely Christian, and that audience has given the film a CinemaScore of A+ (the last time a film did this? War Room, which you turned out for in droves). Woodlawn hits all the right beats for a Christian-made film, with faith-based film regular/hobbit/Goonie/Rudy – Sean Astin – sharing the gospel right at the top of the film, the film also features a sympathetic Christian protagonist struggling to be true to his faith and his life’s calling in the face of immense opposition, and it winds up with a feel-good rousing sports-related climax.

This is a film that was made for you, but for some odd reason, you aren’t there for this film.

I don’t get you, brothers and sisters. I really don’t.

The thing that I really don’t get is that with Woodlawn, this movie that was made for you, we also have a Christian-made movie that is actually being treated kindly by secular film reviewers, and this doesn’t typically happen for Christian-made movies.

War Room? 37%. God’s Not Dead? 16%. Little Boy? 20%. Do You Believe? 18%.

Woodlawn? 90%.

And you aren’t showing up to support it.

So, members of the Big Christian Audience, just so you understand what you are doing by not supporting Woodlawn: you are sending Hollywood a clear message that quality filmmaking doesn’t matter to you.

To be honest, at this stage of the game, I’m not sure what matters to you, and I’m one of you! Imagine how perplexed the suits in Hollywood must be!

And it makes me wonder – do you even know what you want?

The real irony is that Woodlawn director, Jon Erwin, defended you when Mom’s Night Out was getting high audience praise but low critical reviews. In an interview with The Blaze, Erwin said, “What you see is a group of underserved people who have not felt appreciated who now have an outlet and a voice and an ability to celebrate themselves,” Erwin said of the fans’ positive reviews. “Hollywood and the mainstream press doesn’t understand these people.”

Hollywood and the mainstream press aren’t the only ones.

Fellow movie-going Christians, thanks to the mega-mixed messages that you are sending to the filmmaking gatekeepers, thanks to the way you are being so flakey of your support of quality Christian-made films, the next few years of Christian-made filmmaking will probably be pretty interesting.

But not in a “quality Christian-made film” way. Rather, it will probably interesting in a “more of the same old, same old” kind of way.

Thanks so much for that.

And yes, that was sarcasm.

Thimblerig’s Interview • Screenwriter Andrea Nasfell, Mom’s Night Out

My first foray into screenwriting came back in the summer of 2007, when I took part in Act One’s Writer’s Program, and experienced my first taste of the Christian community in Hollywood. That time was transformational to me as I learned about the craft and business of screenwriting in a faith-focused context, and I enjoyed the relationships I gained as I became a part of the ever-growing Act One alumni community.

MNO_OfficialPoster_LowLast May, I was thrilled to hear that Andrea Nasfell, another member of the Act One community, had written Mom’s Night Out, that rare film made for the faith-based market that would be released widely, in over 1,000 theaters.

When I finally had the opportunity to watch Mom’s Night Out, I loved it. I especially appreciated the casting choices, the quietly subversive and revolutionary nature of the film, and the writing, which I found to be funny, smart, and heartfelt. Mom’s Night Out was one of my favorite films of the year, and I continue to be proud that it was written by a fellow Act One alum.

You can read my review here.

Last January, I had the surprising pleasure of taking a screenwriting class taught by Andrea as a part of Asbury University’s Master of Digital Storytelling program. It was a tough academic experience, where we were required to produce quite a bit of writing in an eight-week period, but I loved every minute of it. It reminded me of my time at Act One, and I really felt like I was in my element.

When the course was over, I presumptuously approached Andrea and asked if she would mind sharing some of her thoughts about being a successful Christian screenwriter with the readers of the Thimblerig’s Ark blog, and she graciously agreed.  I’m happy to present that interview to you.

andreaNate

First of all, please tell a little bit about yourself.

Andrea

I always wanted to be a writer, even as a little girl. At first I thought I would be a novelist, but then in high school I fell in love with movies and realized they have to start with words on a page. So I got a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay and tried to figure it out. I studied Media Comm in college and went to L.A. for a semester to study film. I was hooked – I loved L.A. and knew I wanted to stay. Luckily, my fiancée was just as excited about L.A. Now he’s my husband and he’s a producer. We live in Burbank with our two kids who were both born here in California.

Nate

How did you become a screenwriter?

Andrea

It’s a gradual process, but it starts with lots and lots of writing. I attended the Act One program, and that was a huge jumpstart for me. I met a mentor who was a working screenwriter, and she is still a good friend. I joined her writer’s group and they put me through the ringer. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I developed my voice. Finally, a friend from Act One met a producer looking for a writer for an indie film. He read my work, I pitched a take on his story, and he hired me. That script never got made, but later that producer formed a bigger company and I have written ten scripts for him since.

Nate

Please describe your working day as a writer.

Andrea

I have to write in the hours that my kids are in school, so that’s how every day is structured. Drop them off, make coffee, write, pick them up and try to be present with them rather than in my work at that point. It’s not always easy, especially when there are deadlines. There is a lot of juggling that happens.

Nate

Congratulations on the success of Mom’s Night Out, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Can you tell a little about your involvement bringing Mom’s Night Out from idea to screen?

Andrea

At the red carpet premiere of Mom's Night Out

At the red carpet premiere of Mom’s Night Out

The process started when David White at Pure Flix came to me asking if I’d be interested in writing something for moms. There had been a number of successful faith-based films for men – especially the Sherwood movies – but nobody had tried the female audience. David and Andrea had just had their second baby and she was very interested in a movie about motherhood. So I pitched them this idea and wrote it for hire for them, with the expectation that it would fit into their TV or DVD model at the time. But then Kevin Downes – a friend of David’s – read it, and he took it to the Erwins. All three of them had two children under the age of 3 or 4 at the time, so they “got it” immediately and wanted to be involved. Kevin acquired the film to make with Jon and Andy, whose October Baby success got Sony into the picture. It kept getting bigger from there. Jon rewrote it to make it more cinematic – he had significantly more budget and was able to add scenes and characters, honing it to get the actors he wanted, which he did. The nice thing was that I felt like they really understood the original vision, and they kept the main skeleton of the story the same, while adding some really fun things. So in the end, I still felt like it was my movie, even though Jon had kind of made it the “deluxe” version!

Nate

The film had some great laugh-out-loud moments. Who are your comedic influences – from the worlds of screenwriting, standup, television, or elsewhere?

Andrea

I fell in love with movies in an era when there were a lot of successful “comedies with heart” and those were the films I wanted to emulate — Father of the Bride, Sister Act, Mrs. Doubtfire, even going back as far as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Back to the Future, and Tootsie (which I think is probably the best comedy of all time). I also really loved those movies like Adventures in Babysitting, Bringing Up Baby, or It Happened One Night where everything goes wrong in one long, zany day or night. More recently there was Date Night, which I had high hopes for, but I felt like they bowed to the modern need for “edginess” in a way the story didn’t require. But those in particular were inspirational films to me. I’m sad we’ve gone a different direction with comedy in recent years because I think the heart part of the comedy is what makes them endure. Those are all still terrific movies when you watch them today.

Nate

What was your role in Mom’s Night Out while it was being filmed?

On the set with Jon and Andy Erwin

On the set with Jon and Andy Erwin

Andrea

The screenwriter doesn’t usually have much to do once the cameras roll. Occasionally I have been called up to adjust a scene or help solve a logistics problem by adjusting the script, but in the case of Mom’s Night Out, I visited the set in Alabama for a couple of days and that was it. It’s such a joy for a writer to visit though – it’s like seeing your imagination come to life. To watch as a huge group of people bring words to life is very exciting.

Nate

Looking back on the experience, is there anything you wish you could change about the finished product? Any scenes that you wish you could have added, or wish had been left out?

Andrea

I really loved Jon’s version of the script, and we had talented and hilarious actors who added their own bits to it – I was really happy in the end. The only thing I wondered about was the fact that in the early drafts both Sondra (Patricia Heaton) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) had careers that were discussed more explicitly. I think, had those elements of their character remained in the final version, it might have opened up a better conversation about all types of moms rather than pegging them all as stay-at-home moms (which many of the films’ critics assumed, but was not ever said explicitly in the film, except about Allyson.)

Nate

I was frustrated that Mom’s Night Out was the criticized for “reinforcing traditional gender roles” and for featuring a protagonist who was a stay-at-home mom. How do you respond to those criticisms?

Andrea

Sarah Drew as Allyson

Sarah Drew as Allyson in Mom’s Night Out

I was frustrated too! We fully expected to be panned by critics because of the faith elements of the movie, but that was almost overlooked completely. We were shocked that a movie that was supposed to be a love letter to moms, recognizing their hard work and allowing them to laugh at their frustrations was called “anti-feminist” and criticized for daring to have a stay-at-home mom as the protagonist. I always thought the point of feminism was for we as women to be able to choose our own paths and not be limited by any societal expectations. But apparently that is true only if you choose a full-time career. One of my pet peeves is when women turn on each other instead of giving a hand up, so my biggest frustration was with female critics like the one who said, “Why didn’t she just quit whining and get a nanny?” Wow. I think many of them saw the film was rewritten by a man and directed by two men and completely disregarded my involvement. But Jon and Andy chose this film because they saw the joys and pains of their own wives and wanted to recognize them.

The other side of that coin is that the male characters were criticized for being incompetent, which is completely untrue if you think carefully about it. Anything that seems like incompetence (excepting Marco, I guess) is in Allyson’s imagination, not what actually happens. The rest is a series of unfortunate mishaps that they handle quite well, in my opinion. It’s a comedy, people. Lighten up!

Nate

As a Christian, what are some of the challenges you have faced being involved in the film industry?

Andrea

One of the challenges is that I’m just not interested in writing the things that are “hot” in the marketplace, so I have to find other niches to fit in. I’m not interested in writing Bridesmaids (and I actually sat in the theater in front of some women who walked out because they thought Mom’s Night Out was going to be in that genre and it wasn’t). That’s just not my style. So I don’t fit in a lot of places, and I often have people tell me, “You should get a meeting at Hallmark.” That’s fine too, but I think there is a mainstream movie audience that wants wholesome but still funny and adventurous stories. And many of them are not opposed to having issues or characters of faith in them. The problem is that many of those audience members are gun shy, because the marketplace is flooded with stories that are cynical, raunchy or just disappointing. They’ve been burned, and movies are expensive, so it’s hard to get them out to the theater.

Obviously one of my own biggest challenges has been meeting the expectation of a “Christian movie audience” as perceived by producers while also creating something artistic and true. It’s a very difficult position as a writer, when the marketing team and the producers need that moment that seals the deal for pastors, while at the same time you want to create something challenging and artistically beautiful. It’s a balancing act and it’s not always in your control. (I’ve had scenes added to scripts on-set, because the producers didn’t think they had enough on-the-nose content for marketing the film.)

Nate

How can Christians outside Hollywood support Christians working in Hollywood?

Andrea

Go see their movies! The only thing that matters to decision makers in Hollywood is money. That is the only thing. You will get more of whatever makes money. Period. And they stay employed and making more product when that happens. Certainly pray for them to find opportunity and stay strong in their faith as well.

Nate

What are your thoughts on Christian filmmaking? Where do you see it going in the future?

Andrea

I never make predictions. There are too many unexpected blockbusters and surprising disappointments. It’s good old William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” But I will say that, in my experience, there are a lot of secular companies recognizing the potential of the church-going audience and trying to figure out how to capitalize on it. Some of them are going to succeed and some of them are going to fail. They need good Christian artists to help as cultural language-translators to figure it all out.

Nate

“Faith-based” films are typically also expected to be family friendly, but the Bible is often not family friendly. How would you advise Christian artists as they think about portraying the grittier sides of life?

Andrea

I don’t know if I completely agree with this, but I understand how it might look that way from the outside. There are certainly movies like The Song, Blue Like Jazz, To End All Wars and others that have been fine to delve into certain grittier subjects. It’s just like with any secular movie genre – each movie is made for a particular audience, and a good amount of Christian movies make a bundle of their money from church licensing or word-of-mouth from pastors and other Christian leaders. Those people are going to be hesitant to bring films into their church building or to send their parishioners to the theater if it’s going to bring them blowback over offensive content. So yes, the filmmakers consider that and cater to it. My opinion is that we should choose film content that matches the audience we serve, rather than sanitizing or dumbing down the content to the point that it doesn’t seem real. If you need it to be church and family friendly, choose a story about churches or families rather than about war or drug addiction. Make those movies for a different audience and be okay with them not being shown in church. Maybe you’re actually making a mainstream movie that happens to have elements of faith, instead of a movie branded by faith-based production and distribution.

You’re right that the Bible isn’t family friendly, but the Bible is told in words and not pictures that take viewers through experiences the way movies do. I’m sure blood squirted everywhere when David chopped off Goliath’s head, but we should consider how helpful it is to glorify that moment if we’re making that movie. As artists we can be responsible to the spirit of a grittier piece while at the same time being responsible to the audience that experiences it.

Nate

What final advice would you give to Christians who want to become involved in any aspect of filmmaking?

Andrea

IMG_9964

The Nasfell family at the premiere of Mom’s Night Out

I’ll go back to my Father of the Bride and Planes, Trains and Automobiles hero and quote Steve Martin. “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” There are lots of reasons why people get opportunities in Hollywood, and some of them aren’t related to talent. But nobody keeps working in Hollywood without talent and hard work, and that’s the only part you can control. The worst thing for Christians in Hollywood are those filmmakers who come out here saying “God called me” but yet they aren’t talented and they won’t put in the work. Yes, God can open opportunities, but you have to be prepared enough to take them.

Nate

Finally, do you have any projects in the pipeline that you’d like to share?

Andrea

I have a couple of films in development and one that is shooting right now. I can’t share too much, but it’s another comedy, set in a mega-church, and I’m really excited for you to find out more soon!

A big thank you to Andrea for taking the time to answer my questions, and for openly sharing her experiences and her thoughts about screenwriting and filmmaking for people of faith.

To find out more about Andrea:

Andrea Nasfell on Twitter: @AndreaNasfell

Andrea Nasfell on IMDb: IMDb

Andrea Nasfell’s blog: ahundredhats.wordpress.com

Mom’s Night Out: www.momsnightoutmovie.com

And if you enjoyed this interview, check out past Thimblerig interviews!

Michael B. Allen & Will Bakke, makers of Believe Me

Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers

Richard Ramsey, director of The Song

Doc Benson, writer and director of Seven Deadly Words

Tyler Smith and Josh Long, co-hosts of More Than One Lesson podcast

Stay tuned to the Thimblerig’s Ark blog for more interviews with artists doing interesting work in the name of Christ, and come join the Sacred Arts Revolution conversation over at Facebook!

 

Thimblerig’s Interview • Richard Ramsey, Writer and Director of “The Song”

photo courtesy of City on a Hill Productions

photo courtesy of City on a Hill Productions

I am thrilled to present an interview with Richard Ramsey, the writer and director of the feature-length film The Song, which was released in theaters last fall and just came out on DVD on February 10.

Ramsey is also the Creative Director of City on a Hill Productions, an organization that uses storytelling to “inspire hope and offer a vision of the beauty of a Christian life.”  I’m personally very excited at what these folks are doing, especially when I read that their mission includes the following ideas:

We strive to craft multimedia resources for churches with the same level of artistry and sophistication that exists in the best Hollywood films. Our work includes design, development, recording, production, and post-production, and we provide multimedia consultation, instruction and training.

We want to help build a church where what you see and hear is just as engaging and relevant to your life as what you watch on television every night.

Our work seeks to create a gateway to Christ for people who wouldn’t have otherwise considered Jesus as a direction for their lives.

This is exactly the mindset that this blog has promoting for the past year!  So, I’m happy to do my small part to help promote City on a Hill, and help them further their mission.

To the interview…

I really enjoyed my casual China-to-Kentucky Skype conversation/interview with Ramsey last fall, when The Song had just been released in theaters all across America, and I’m glad to share notes from that online meeting with you.  But before we get to the interview, allow me to present the trailer for The Song.

Richard, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed for my Thimblerig’s Interview series.  Why don’t we start with you telling a bit about yourself and how you got involved in filmmaking.

I was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Before I can even remember, we moved to Houston where my dad got a job. While in high school in Houston, I was really into theater and loved acting and storytelling from that perspective.

After I graduated with a degree in theater from the University of Houston, a youth minister approached me and asked me to take over a youth drama group. My wife (girlfriend at the time) and I started writing plays for them to perform, and we really enjoyed it.  A lot of times as an actor you are at the mercy of the world view of the writer, and that was no longer the case for me.

Eventually my wife and I decided to try something with professional actors. We did a twenty minute film and entered it into a film festival, and from there I met the staff of City on a Hill productions in Louisville.

Several years later I moved to Louisville to join their staff. I’ve cut my teeth on a number of short films over the years, and The Song is my first feature length film.

Photo shamelessly swiped from Richard Ramsey's Facebook page

Photo shamelessly swiped from Richard Ramsey’s Facebook page

What were some surprises you had as you went from making shorts to a full length feature film?

The stamina that was required, as everything takes longer. If something takes you a week with a short film, it takes you eight weeks with a feature.

Also, I don’t want to use the word persecution, as that word is overplayed, but I think I was surprised by the prejudice I saw in the responses of some critics and audiences.

Prejudice because the film was a faith-based film?

There are times when people come into a film knowing it’s by an evangelical filmmaker and they can read the worst possible interpretation of things, because of prejudices. I’ve seen it done or felt it done to previous filmmakers or films I’ve seen, but to be honest, I underestimated it and was taken aback by it when I experienced it with The Song.

What do you think it will take to overcome that sort of prejudice?

I think it’s going to be a matter of individual filmmakers building credibility for themselves and the industry as a whole over time. I think it will also take a few breakout films to teach people not to necessarily expect certain things, and shake up the prejudices. And while not always the solution (Nicolas Cage in Left Behind), sometimes it will mean attaching big names to add some mystique to the projects.

Sadly, many Christians don’t care about overcoming filmmaking prejudice, they just want their faith-based films to have a clear presentation of the Gospel.  How do you respond to that idea?

That’s why most evangelical art is utterly abysmal, because we rate its merits on a purely utilitarian basis. I think that’s why many of our church buildings are ugly, because we don’t value beauty or mystery. We want all the answers, and we want everything spelled out for us, and we want to imagine that the movie is crystal clear, even to the most obtuse viewer. If we hold the parables of Jesus to that same standard, most would be found wanting. I can only think of one parable by Jesus that overtly depicts a conversion, and that is Luke 18:9-14, where the man says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” If it’s not the point of every story Jesus told, why should it be the point of every story we tell? It’s a ridiculous, unbiblical standard.

the-songHow did these ideas play into your writing and directing The Song?

The phrase I had in my head was actually from the parables of Jesus, and that was, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” I’ve had people criticize me, saying that the film doesn’t contain the Gospel, but it’s actually in there. I gave you two dots and trust you to connect them. I don’t write for the most obtuse viewer I can imagine. It’s not fun to do that as a writer, and it’s not fun to engage with that as a viewer. I wanted to write a movie that worked for the reasons movies work, and a movie that looked like life, and I tried to use Jesus as a storytelling model.

How would you advise a Christian artist who wants to create something that reflects reality, including the ugliness of sin?   What’s the balance?

I try to strike this balance: the difference between simulated sin and committed sin. You can’t simulate being nude in a sex scene, or saying the Lord’s name in vain. You either do it, or you don’t. What are you simulating? And what are you actually committing?

You also have to acknowledge market realities. Sure, you could make an R-rated film as a Christian, but you have to ask yourself why you’re doing those things and ask this important question – what are pastors and other Christians going to encourage each other to see?

Concerning this notion of simulated and committed sin, when you were making The Song, how did you handle intimate scenes between men and women?  I’ve heard stories that Kirk Cameron had his wife stand in for the intimate scenes in Fireproof to maintain the purity of their marriage.  Did you do anything like that?

maxresdefaultFor our honeymoon scene, our lead actor had his wife stand in, which was a personal conviction he had at the time.  It’s not something I would be compelled to always do, like a hard and fast rule, but I was happy to honor the actor’s convictions.

There are a couple of schools of thought from an audience perspective and a Christian filmmaking perspective that actors in a Christian film need to be like ministers, because they are the carriers of the Gospel, and their lives should meet the standards of ministers. I disagree with that. I think it is true that the writer, the director, your high-end crew members are ministerial. They’re shaping the world view and controlling idea of the story. But the actors are people who could be ministered too, as much as anyone else. They can learn and grow from being in a Christian film. That’s not to dehumanize them and turn them into a project, I want to honor them, their convictions, their journey, their space, but at the same time I don’t put actors on the side of the line that treats them as pastors.

What projects do you have coming up?

City on a Hill does many Bible based DVD series, and we have one coming up in the spring on the Beatitudes.   As far as feature length films go, it will be a time of assessing where we go forward from The Song. I am in preliminary talks with some people involved in a true story that I would like to do, and all I can say is that if I get to that story, when it comes time to make the announcement, it might just break the internet.

Many thanks to Richard Ramsey for taking the time to talk to me and take part in this interview.

Make sure that you rent or download a copy of The Song today!  A Thimblerig’s Review should be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks.

Richard Ramsey on Twitter: @RichieRamsey

City on a Hill Productions on Twitter: @COAHStudio

The Song on Facebook and Twitter: /TheSongMovie & @SeeTheSong

Stay tuned to the Thimblerig’s Ark blog for more interviews with artists doing interesting non-conformist work in the name of Christ, and come join the Sacred Arts Revolution conversation over at Facebook!