Are Christian Filmmakers Being Tapped To Direct Future Star Wars Stand-Alone Films?

A long time ago in galaxy close, close by…

The church had abandoned Hollywood. Then, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST struck box office gold, studios created FAITH-BASED DIVISIONS, and little Christian films made BUCKETS OF MONEY. Now Christian films have earned over a BILLION DOLLARS for investors and studios over the past thirteen years.

With the recent successes of Dr. Strange, directed by Christian filmmaker SCOTT DERRICKSON and Rogue One, the first Star Wars standalone film, are the forces behind Star Wars hopping on the faith-based bandwagon? Are budding Christian filmmakers being considered as the new hope for the venerable space-based franchise?

Only time will tell….

“The Erwin brothers, Harold Cronk, Kirk Cameron, they’ve all been discussed, especially for a movie about Yoda, which would involve all kinds of spiritual mumbo-jumbo,” an anonymous source told us. But this source, who met with us in a nearby Starbucks dressed in a stormtrooper costume and calling himself “TR-3R”, went on to say that the Christian filmmakers who have risen to the top are veteran brother team, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, creators of the Christian film hits Facing the Giants, Courageous, Fireproof, and 2015’s War Room.

tr3r“The big dogs at Lucasfilm like the Kendrick’s grass-roots style of filmmaking, as well as their overt handling of spiritual issues,” TR-3R said. “They think the Kendricks could take a Yoda standalone to some really interesting places, exploring the spiritual aspects of the Force, maybe telling about how Yoda became converted to the light side in the first place. Me? I imagine it happening in a golden field with lots of sunlight. The Kendricks like to do that. It’s their lens flare.”

Considering the Kendrick’s focus on family issues such as parenting and marriage, we asked the source the odds that a Kendrick-directed standalone film would also explore something of Yoda’s homelife.

“They never tell me the odds, but this is something fans have been clamoring for,” TR-3R said enthusiastically, trying unsuccessfully to sip his coffee through his stormtrooper helmet. “They’ve seen Yoda living as a crotchety old single dude, but was he a good husband? A good dad? He helped train all those force-sensitive kids, but what about his own kids? The big dogs think that the Kendricks could really explore a domestic side of Yoda that we haven’t seen before.”

The source went on to say that a successful Kendrick-directed Star Wars film would also open the door for other filmmakers of faith to step in, as the studio hopes to release a new Star Wars film every year from now until the apocalypse.

When we pressed TR-3R for more details, he grew noticeably agitated and began muttering something about seeing the new VT-16. Then, saying he had to get back to the office, TR-3R quickly slid a folded piece of paper across the table and bolted outside without another word. He jumped into a black 1976 Corvette and drove away.

Incidentally, the Corvette’s license plate read THX-1138.

Unfolding the paper, the first thing we noticed was that it was written on Lucasfilm stationary. It had been stamped multiple times with “TOP SECRET” in bright red letters, and the paper had the heading: “Potential Future Faith-Based Star Wars Projects.”

Then, the following items were listed:

forceThe Force’s Not Dead – set between Episode 3 and 4, a young Luke Skywalker attends Mos Eisley Agricultural College only to find that his moisture farming professor doesn’t believe in the Force. Luke stands up to him, determined to prove that the Force is real. The film ends with an extended Figrin D’an and the Modal Newsboys concert in the cantina while the professor gets run over and killed by a landspeeder outside. Potential director: Harold Cronk. Potential producer: David A.R. White. Release date: December 2019.

Ben Hutt – set in the time between Episodes 3 and 4, Ben Kenobi, masquerading as a Hutt prince, is falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother (a clone soldier in the Republic Clone Army). After spending years exiled in space, Ben returns to Tatooine to seek revenge, but ultimately finds redemption. Possible roles for Ewan MacGregor and Morgan Freeman. Potential producers: Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. Release date: May 2020.

I’ve Got A Bad Feeling I’ve Been Left Behind – also set in the time between Episodes 3 and 4, this film would explore the chaos and mayhem resulting when the Jedi vanish in an instant, leaving behind smoking piles of clothes and lightsabers. Possible starring role for Nicolas Cage as a force-sensitive sceptic. Potential director: Paul LaLonde. Release date May 2021.

Droid’s Night Out – set in the time between Episodes 4 and 5, R2D2 decides to take C3PO out on a night on the town, leaving Luke, Han, and Chewie to take on all of the etiquette and protocol responsibilities at the rebel base. Of course, mistaken identities and disastrously hilarious mayhem results. Potential director: The Erwin Brothers. Release Date: December 2022.

Lumpawarrump’s Saving Life Day – set in the time between Episodes 5 and 6, Lumpawarrump is enjoying the annual Life Day extravaganza thrown by his sister until he realizes he needs to help out his visiting father, Chewbacca, who blames himself for Han Solo’s abduction by Boba Fett. Lumpy’s fresh look at Life Day provides Chewbacca the chance to see that the universe is bigger than his little problems, and that he needs to pull up his Wookie panties and go save his friend from the clutches of the vile gangster, Jabba the Hutt. The film ends with an extended wookie dance-off. Potential director: Kirk Cameron. Release Date: Life Day 2023, or perhaps Festivus.

star-war-roomStar War Room – set in the time between Episodes 6 and 7, Han Solo and Princess Leia’s marriage is in trouble, and it will take the efforts of the strange, wizened old Miss Maz to help Leia learn to tap into the force and save her marriage. The film ends with an extended force-enabled jump rope competition. Possible roles for Sadie Robertson as a young Leia and Alden Ehrenreich to continue playing young Han. Potential director: The Kendrick Brothers (if the Yoda movie is a success). Release Date: December 2024.

 

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Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week • September 10, 2016

We’re bringing back an old feature of the blog, Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week, where we link to stories from the past few days that Thimblerig finds to be of interest. We hope that you will find them interesting, too!

1. Q&A with Corbin Bernsen and his producing partner as Regent’s movie premieres

ily-webRegent University is premiering its first feature-length film, the faith-based romantic comedy “In-Lawfully Yours”, featuring Corbin Bernsen and written by Act One faculty member Sean Gaffney and Robert Kirbyson, and directed by Kirbyson [edited – thanks, Guy]. This is an interesting project, because it’s a low-budget indie film that is forgoing the theatrical route that so many faith-based films attempt, and releasing initially on Netflix.

It’s fascinating to see the variety of methods low-budget faith-based filmmakers are taking to get eyes on their films. For instance, Lifeway films recently bowed its film, The Insanity of God, on 550 screens for one day, and it was briefly the #1 film in per-theater average. In fact, it did well enough that it will have an encore showing on September 19. 

Other faith-based films have attemped the wide-release route, and with the exception of a couple of break-out hits (War Room, Miracles from Heaven), most have failed to make back their budgets.

The choice to have In-Lawfully Yours only on Netflix is an interesting one, and is quite possibly demonstrating the wave of the future for the faith-based genre of film.

Meanwhile, reading Bernsen’s thoughts on the subject is pretty interesting, so click on over and read what he has to say.

2. Pure Flix brings new titles to TIFF

I’ve been really interested to watch the growth of Pure Flix after the success of God’s Not Dead back in 2014. Previously a middling little independent faith-based film company, they suddenly found themselves sitting on a mound of box office gold when the film wound up pulling in over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales. Since that time, the company has expanded in numerous ways: the Pure Flix home streaming service; the Pure Flix U.S. distribution company (by far the most successful faith-based distributor on the market); and the lesser known Quality Flix, the International Sales and Distribution wing of the company.

The second interesting thing that Thimblerig found this week was a story detailing Pure Flix’s efforts to introduce four films at the Toronto International Film Festival, which could potentially lead to international distribution deals for these four films. The two big pictures Pure Flix is pushing includes the upcoming Hillsong concert documentary, Let Hope Rise, and the drama I’m Not Ashamed, which tells the story of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the victims of the Columbine massacre.

cet6ylnw8aepkn8This story interested Thimblerig because it’s a story about Pure Flix, a faith-based film company, on Screendaily.com, a secular film website. And the story is examining Pure Flix’s distribution efforts as if it were any other film company, and not one that is Christian-owned and operated. The story doesn’t contain any belittling, or any disrespect, or any winks or nudges or “know-what-I-means” – it’s business as usual.

But I thought we were at war?

3. Columbine martyr film seeks bold youth revival

The third interesting thing that Thimblerig found this past week was a story detailing that upcoming Pure Flix film, I’m Not Ashamed.

The film is apparently being released along with some pretty serious ministry efforts, including Pure Flix’s partnership with See You At The Pole and First Priority, all to help mobilize young people to see the film, with the hope of begining a “national movement of youth across the country propelled by the movie.”

This is the truly fascinating part of this faith-based movie push that has been going on for the past couple of years – this mixture of marketing and ministry. Christianity and capitalism.

It works this way: a company like Pure Flix makes a faith-based film and encourages everyone to bring vans full of church and youth groups, which will enable the message of the movie to be seen by thousands, but will also mean thousands of seats sold. The company develops curriculum and ministry resources to help underscore the message of the movie with those thousands, and then sells the curriculum for premium prices (with a few notable exceptions: Captive, 90 Minutes in Heaven, Ben-Hur being three).

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-48-19-pmThis is what continues to flummox me: a faith-based company like Pure Flix has huge financial success, and yet they continue to sell their ministry resources. The Kendrick brothers sell all their resources, too, even if their last movie made over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales.

As an American, I have no problem with this. It’s an example of capitalism at its finest. But as a Christian, it makes me pause. Imagine if Paul had charged the church at Ephesus for his letter? Or if Jesus had charged entry to the Sermon on the Mount? Since when did we become okay with ministry being about profit over being prophetic? Isn’t that at least part of the reason why the Reformation began?

Join Thimblerig next week, when we’ll be back with three new interesting things.

 

 

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

Christian films.

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

And then, in 2004, everything changed.

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

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

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

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

thimblerigs-film-reviews

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

1) Christian Films are often written in Christianese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Christian films typically tell much more than they show

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

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

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

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

And Christian culture loves exposition.

I mean, loves exposition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Christian films are generally Christian wishes being fulfilled cinematically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Christian filmmakers are not infallible 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t that make an interesting Christian film?

5) Christian films are hopefully evangelistic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woodlawn, War Room, and Unity

Living in China has its benefits – great food, meeting new unique people almost daily, and easy proximity to other equally interesting Asian countries, to name a few things. But considering I am something of a cinephile, the one big negative is my inability to see new American movies unless they are among the 34 movies chosen by the Chinese censors to be screened here.

This unfortunate situation is compounded by the fact that I write film reviews of a very specific, narrow genre of film – the so-called “faith-based” film genre, and faith-based films never make China’s cut of 34 films (but they could… read here to see how). This means I never get to see the films I like to review until months after everyone has stopped talking about them, which doesn’t give me a lot of capital in the relevance market.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.20.50 PMAnd so, with that understanding, I set out to review War Room and Woodlawn, two of the bigger Christian-made film titles that have recently been released to the home viewing market.

These are an interesting pair of films, and their splash into the culture was also interesting, for similar but opposite reasons. First, War Room, a little, relatively inexpensive film made by the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) did what Christian films rarely do, and made a huge return on its initial investment (budget of $3M, current box office $72.1M) even though it scored poorly with critics (34% on Rotten Tomatoes). Then, two months later, Woodlawn, a big football movie by the Erwin brothers (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out) set in early 1970’s Birmingham did something Christian-made films never do, and premiered to several mostly positive secular critical reviews (currently 83% on Rotten Tomatoes with 12 reviews), even as it failed to earn back its budget of $25M.

photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock

“I said right hand on green, Alex! Come on, pay attention!”

This intrigued me to no end. Not so much the story of War Room‘s success, as Alex and Stephen Kendrick are the closest thing Christian filmmaking has to a sure thing. The brothers could release a home video of their family playing Twister while dressed like Imperial stormtroopers, and the Big Christian Audience would still turn out in droves.

Actually, I’d probably watch that.

No, I was more interested that an openly Christian-made film replete with overt Christian themes and messages could be received positively by secular film critics, but be relatively ignored by the coveted Big Christian Audience. Especially when one considers that certain vocal members of the Big Christian Audience regularly blast secular critics as being biased against Christian-made films.

So, fickle Big Christian Audience, why didn’t you guys go out and see a film made for you that the critics actually liked? I don’t get you, and I can only imagine the frustration Christian filmmakers feel, trying to figure you out.

But I digress.

post_reviewsI was finally able to watch Woodlawn this past week with my kids, and for the most part, we enjoyed it. I could understand the critical response to the film, with Frank Scheck at The Hollywood Reporter writing that the brothers delivered “a feel-good, real-life inspirational story in a mostly engaging fashion.” And Joe Leydon at Variety, “the overall narrative mix of history lesson, gridiron action and spiritual uplift is effectively and satisfyingly sustained.” Even Tyler Smith – who, as the host of the More Than One Lesson podcast is a Christian reviewer who doesn’t give Christian films an easy pass  – wrote that with Woodlawn, the Erwin brothers had “thrown down the gauntlet for the Christian film industry.”

Of course, all the reviews also pointed out that the film was not perfect, and there were some problems (not the least of which was the tiresome “the government is persecuting Christians” subplot), but ultimately the critics judged Woodlawn on its merits as a film. And since the conclusions were mostly positive, I think we can all agree that that is real progress in the arena of faith-based filmmaking.

So kudos to the Erwins for the accomplishment, even if Woodlawn wasn’t the Christian blockbuster you were hoping it would be.

But when I went to write my review of the film, a funny thing happened. Being late to the game was a problem once again. But this time it was because for every critique or compliment I’d think about writing, I’d remember that I’d read that same thought – usually more eloquently expressed – in one of the reviews published last fall, when people were actually writing reviews of the film.

In short, I didn’t have anything new to say about Woodlawn. And I didn’t want to write a review when I didn’t have anything new to say. It was a good lesson for me to avoid reviews until I’ve seen the movie, even if I have to wait a few months. You got that, God’s Not Dead 2? You’ll probably have until the summer before I get around to you, unless you want to send me an advanced screener…

I was walking home from work, about to throw out the idea of writing about Woodlawn altogether, when something hit me. No, it wasn’t a bus or a bicycle, (although that is a real danger here in China) but rather it was a big plot point of the film, and a parallel from the film to the true story of the two sets of filmmaker brothers, the Erwins and the Kendricks. And I knew what I wanted to write about.

That is, unity and the mindset of these Christian filmmakers.

imageBefore I get into that, let me go back to Woodlawn for a moment. You have to remember that this film is based on a true story, and the truth is where it derives most of its power. For example, when Sean Astin’s character shares the Gospel with the entire team, and the entire team responds to his call to choose Jesus, an event like that really happened. When, in the film, the team dedicates their season to Jesus – win or lose – that really happened. When, in the film, Woodlawn’s rival team also hears Hank’s message and chooses Jesus as well, that really happened. When, in the film, the two teams become one in Christ, even as they play each other in the championship game at Legion Field, that event really happened.

It’s really important to remember that while the Erwins had to take some creative licence on certain details for the sake of the film, the large events really happened. And that is powerful. Actually, that’s where the potential power in Christian-made films really lies – not in creating unrealistic Christian fairy tales where we show what we would like to see God do in the world, but films that show the world that God really does “show up,” and when He does, He does some pretty amazing things.

Even in the lives of our Christian filmmakers.

If you think about it, the story of the Erwin brothers and the Kendrick brothers could be the same as Woodlawn‘s pre-faith football teams. Two sets of filmmaking brothers, both trying to help establish Christian filmmaking as something to be taken seriously, both enjoying a reasonable amount of success, both trying to connect with the same broad, fickle demographic.

They could be bitter rivals.

Maybe they should be bitter rivals.

But they’re not.

And this is a testimony to the unifying nature of the Gospel.

wl1aRemember the climax of Woodlawn? The big championship match between Woodlawn and Banks, the historic game that brought huge crowds out to Birmingham’s Legion Field in 1974? The interesting thing is that in the film, the game wasn’t noteworthy because of who won or lost the game. It wasn’t noteworthy because it featured two of the best high school players in the nation. It wasn’t even noteworthy because of the record-breaking number of people who came out to see the game.

No, in Woodlawn, the game was noteworthy because of the way the unifying nature of the Gospel brought these two rival teams together. Certainly both teams wanted to win, but the film demonstrated that what really mattered was that both teams were playing in a way that demonstrated the power of God in their lives.

In the same way, of course both the Kendricks and the Erwins wanted their respective films to do well in the box office. In his video essay, “Woodlawn Keynote: This Is Our Time“,  Jon Erwin even talked about the need for Christian filmmakers to be thinking in terms of creating blockbusters with explicit Christian themes and messages, and it was obvious that he was hoping for Woodlawn to take off the way that War Room had.

But for reasons only marketing people might be able to definitively figure out, it didn’t happen. The Big Christian Audience that flocked to War Room and even God’s Not Dead largely stayed home when Woodlawn premiered, even though Woodlawn had all of the requisite beats for a faith-based film, was better received critically, and had many of the same Christian film movers and shakers behind it.

But here’s the cool part – days after Woodlawn was released, the Kendricks posted this on their facebook page:

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 2.50.59 PM

A couple of weeks later, Stephen Kendrick posted this picture on Facebook:

kendrick

The Kendricks were doing their part to let their audience know that Woodlawn was in their wheelhouse, acting as if the Erwins weren’t the competition, even if they were players on a different team.

Even if their films were competing for that same demographic.

The Kendricks were communicating that there was something bigger going on then winning bragging rights for box office success.

And then, as I researched the Erwins, I found that for every interview that mentioned the success of War Room in general or the Kendricks in particular, the Erwins responded in kind.

For example, in one interview Andy Erwin responded to a question that referenced War Room like this:

[We are] honored by those that have plowed the way like Stephen and Alex Kendrick … and so many others that have worked hard to prove there is an underserved market. Hollywood has taken notice and as one of us wins, we all win as Believers in the industry. War Room has done amazing and we are excited to be up next. God is on the move!

Certainly the argument could be made that these filmmakers don’t have a choice but to put on a publicly supportive face, that the circle of successful Christian filmmakers is so small that they have to get along, that even Hollywood filmmakers act like they get along because you never know who you’ll be working with (or for) in the future.

But for the sake of argument, and because I typically like to think the best of people, I’m going to imagine that this display of unity between the Kendricks and the Erwins is not typical Hollywood flattery and apple polishing. Rather, these men are striving to live Jesus’ call for his followers to be unified (John 17:20-23), for the ultimate goal that the world would know Him.

401_401_5And their story inspires me, even as I try to live out my faith. This display of unity in the face of a variety of wins and losses (both box office and critical response) inspires me to do my part to seek unity within the family of God where I am. And it makes me ask; do I look at the work of fellow Christians and see competition to be beaten, or do I see their success as my success, and their failure as my failure, because we’re brothers and sisters in Christ on a common mission in life?

And to put an even sharper point on the question for me, do I even see this when I look at the fickle Big Christian Audience, and all of the people who attempt to service that audience with films, with music, with books, even with the Christian kitsch and tschokies?

What about the Christians who hold different political beliefs than me?

What about the Christians who are in different denominations than me?

What about the Christians who are different races than me?

Do I even champion unity with these people, for the sake of the Gospel?

Do I?

Ouch.

Back to Woodlawn and War Room, neither film is perfect, and to be perfectly frank, neither film is my kind of film. In fact, if I were a “brother” from either family, I would want take these films in much different directions. But while I may not be an Erwin or a Kendrick, I am glad to know that these men are still my brothers in the family of God, and I appreciate that they’ve taught me something important about my faith in the way they live their lives.

In an interview with gospelherald.com about Woodlawn, Jon Erwin said:

Woodlawn is a story about one team making a decision to love God and love each other. What if what we see now began to multiply and what if everyone made the decision to love God and love each other – what difference would that make in America today? If we lived out the sentence that Jesus said 2,000 years ago – “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love each other as yourself.”

Amen, Jon.

Amen.

Christian Responses to Secular Film Reviews • What NOT To Do

War-Room_300Specifically, War Room.

Mostly unedited comments from alleged Christians to a critical review of War Room. Follow the link above to read the review and see the comments in all of their glory.

“This review is laughable in it’s hatred of Christians and by the numbers, people are fed up with anti-Christian bigotry.”

“If you are unable to set aside your own beliefs and base the movie off of its own merrits, you should not be reviewing movies.”

“I never listen to reviews like this for a valid opinion about a film. Do you know why? Because any film review that talks about the evangelical agenda has an agenda of its own which is anti-faith and anti-God.”

“I hope [the reviewer] has the courage to challenge the God he will not follow to see how He responds to an honest, open-minded and humble seeker”

“The Godless in Hollywood hate that anything that pushes back on their statist agenda is more than welcomed by the general American public.”

“I am not surprised by your Hollywood critique of War Room.”

To the reviewer: “…all you’ve got is name-calling, slander, maligning, gossip, trash-talking and other sins of your tongue, which is the only obviously remaining weapon of a godless, atheistic lost sinner with no real weapons.”

“I only logged on to this to see what the guy had to say. He is a non-believer. What do you expect? … As for the reviewer . . . throw a rock into a pack of dogs. Who yelps?”

“To a spiritually dead, hollow progressive this film is an affront to the pathetic lackluster purposeless life that their 5star reviews cater to.”

“The lost in our midst need to see this movie.”

“This Critic… is a moron.”

“What part of “made $11 million the first weekend with a $3 million
budget” did you miss?”

“Predictable bigoted review. Try some Preparation H for your butt-hurt…”

“Don’t hide behind your silly claim that you are some kind of movie critic. If you don’t like such movies, don’t go. Your loss. I wonder if you go to church regularly (not too busy are you?)”

“It’s disgusting how the blogosphere conspires to bash Christian movies. You don’t want to see a faith-based movie? Don’t buy a ticket for one.”

“The entire problem with Hollywood is that they are accepting on everything EXCEPT faith based films. If they would have an open mind and actually watch the film for what it is & do away with all of the vulgarrities & sexual story lines, there would be a major change in Americas society!”

Some random thoughts after wading through the morass of that comment page.

1) Christian commenters, you complain about a Hollywood anti-Christian bias, and then you go and act like this? Are you familiar with the term, “self-fulfilling prophesy”?

Internet Christian Living 101:  The comments you make on websites like this will either draw people closer to Christ or push them away. The truth of the matter is that if I wasn’t a Christian, most of the comments on the page I referenced would make me glad that I wasn’t, and would push me further away.

Christians, remember James 3:7-12, and replace “tongue” with “keyboard”, and you’ll get the idea.

2) Yes, a Christian-made film has made it to the #1 place in the box office, and if that makes you proud, then you also have to be prepared for that film to be disliked and even trashed by secular critics. That’s a part of the game. This is even more relevant for reviews written about movies aimed at the evangelical Christian audience, and not necessarily because of a religious bias (although that certainly exists).

Rather, I contend that the negative reviews are written because our films generally don’t hold up to the best of Hollywood standards. They just don’t. You can deny that, or you can encourage filmmakers to up their game, but until the quality of our films change, they will continue to be critically reviewed.

And it will continue to not be pretty.

4cfdefdc-5bc2-4281-9d00-7b9135a2cd40-Inez-Harrell3) The comment, “It’s a film made for Christians, so what did the reviewer expect?” holds absolutely no water. War Room is a Sony Pictures production, not a Sherwood Baptist production. It was released by a secular film studio into a thousand secular theaters, marketed for release by a secular marketing company, advertised on secular television, websites, and newspapers.

We didn’t seem to have a problem with any of that, but for some reason, when a secular reviewer gives a negative review of the film, we have fits of righteous indignation?

Brothers and sisters, if we’re going to run with the big dogs, we have to be willing to suffer a nip here and there. And if we can’t handle the idea that our films might be critically reviewed by secular critics, then we should consider pulling out of the secular film business altogether and only show our movies in churches and summer camps.

4) I am more concerned that an apparetly non-Christian reviewer would have such a visceral negative reaction to our films than I am that they write about that visceral negative reaction. What happened to being a “pleasing aroma”?

5) Along those lines, if you are one of the people who is impressed by the box office returns of War Room, imagine the box office if the Kendrick brothers weren’t satisfied to only make message movies aimed at the evangelical audience. Imagine if they intentionally made movies that attracted people outside the Christian subculture, and didn’t simply see them only as collateral damage. Imagine the box office, and not only that – imagine the potential eternal gains.

It kind of blows the mind.

Next movie, maybe?

#5) Finally, brother and sister Christian, don’t attack critics. Just don’t. You have no idea how stupid it makes all of us look, and how unappealing it makes the Christian faith appear to be. Engage critics in friendly discourse, argue points of good filmmaking, permit them their own opinion, but stop using the review’s comment section to question the critic’s eternal destination or to preach Scripture at them.

Just stop, I beg you.

Christians, we need to grow up and do better. Believe it or not, the world is watching.

Incidentally, the same reviewer also gave Fifty Shades of Grey an abysmal review. You don’t find the comment section of that review filled with angry messages from BDSM fans, or even fans of the books.

maxresdefaultThings that make you go “hmmm”…

Update:

It made me sad to watch this video with the guys at Collider.com, and especially to hear John Campea’s reasoning for not reviewing faith-based films – at least partially because he didn’t want to open himself to the kind of negativity he saw on the Cinemablend review.

And if any of those original commenters on that original review of War Room happen to read this, I hope that you feel plenty ashamed for blackening the name of Christ in the way you responded. Do you realize that people outside the church are talking about your misbehavior, and it’s not in a way that is bringing glory to God in any way, shape, or form?

I think it’s time you go into your War Room and repent, brothers and sisters. And I don’t mean any of that ironically.

How George Lucas Helped Shape The Christian Film Industry

A long time ago, in a cinema far, far away…

Episode 1:  A New Resource

It is a period of spiritual war…

war-roomWar Room opened up last weekend in 1,100 theaters around the country, and made an impressive 11 million dollars. Not bad for a movie made with a 3 million dollar budget, and the movie’s just getting started.

Made by filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who also made Facing the GiantsCourageous and Fireproof, War Room is the latest offering in the burgeoning Christian film industry (read my thoughts on that idea here), and stands to turn a healthy profit, as all Kendrick-made films since Facing the Giants have done, thanks to good grass-roots style marketing and the legions of loyal Christian fans who consistently turn up to support their films.

Christian filmmakers, Kendrick brothers included, have been learning quite a bit from their secular counterparts these past few years – how to make a film look and sound better, how to help actors act better, and even (on the rare occasion) how to write a better screenplay.

But the thing that really stands out? How to turn a profit.

And this is what has gotten the attention of the big boys in Hollywood.

Of course, making money from art is not a new thing for Christians. Back in the days of Bach and his contemporaries, musicians and artists were commissioned by the church to create, giving us beautiful and important work that continues to be cherished today. Locally, churches have been paying artists for ages to minister as organists, choir masters, worship leaders, and praise band members.

And it’s also not a bad thing. “Don’t muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” Paul said in the book of Timothy. In other words, when people work hard, they should be able to enjoy some of the benefits of their labor. In filmmaking, that means if someone makes a movie, and it earns buckets of money, that filmmaker should be able to have a few buckets for themselves to do with as they please – even if the film is being made as a “ministry” or an “outreach”, and not just as typical profit-grabbing entertainment.

Of course, there are more and more potential buckets available for successful films. We have the obvious box office buckets, but if the film has been distributed in the traditional way, the majority of those buckets go back to the studios and distributors. So another option is the bucket of merchandizing.

And there are lots of buckets in movie merchandizing, even with Christian-made films.

Warrom-DisplayUnlike secular movies, where the merchandizing can run the gamut from video games tie-ins to kid’s meals at fast food restaurants, Christian-made movie merchandizing primarily means the creation and selling of what the Christian marketing world calls resources.

What are resources? One kind of resource is the study guide. These are written so that Christians can watch the film with their Sunday school or small group and then engage in a Bible study inspired by the film, and it’s something that is particular to the faith-based film genre. For example, Marvel doesn’t typically mass produce study guides to the MCU movies, nor does J.J. Abrams write study guides for his films, although they’d probably sell if they did.

[Undoubtedly they’d sell. Note to self: pitch study guide idea to Kevin Feige and J.J. Abrams]

But resources can also mean many other things, from church campaign kits, books inspired by the film, and original soundtracks featuring favorite CCM artists.

And then there’s the typical kitsch and tchochkes – baseball hats, coffee mugs, t-shirts, notepads, plush dolls, little wooden crosses, and the like. I would imagine secular companies have to be impressed by how effective the Christian Corporate Machine has become at taking films from idea to screen to marketplace.

For example, long before it ever bows onscreen, a film like War Room has been so incredibly well-strategized, planned, marketed, and produced, that I’m surprised the ever-popular Chick-fil-A wasn’t signed on for some product placement.

I can see it now… Ms. Clara goes into her War Room to pray, but when she’s sure nobody’s looking, she pulls out a bag of waffle fries and a white styrofoam cup of sweet iced tea emblazoned with that curly red chicken head…

Yeah, maybe that wouldn’t have worked.

Regardless of how they do what they do, it’s interesting to see how Christian filmmakers have joined their secular counterparts in mastering the business of movie marketing cross promotion and tie-ins.

And do you know who we have to thank for the overabundance of “resources” being produced for Christian-made films?

George Lucas.

star-wars-george-lucas-alec-guiness

Episode 2:  The Merch Strikes Back

It is a dark time for movie merchandizing…

Yep, George Lucas.

That George Lucas.

You read it right, dear reader. I’m making the claim that George Lucas is the reason that every time a new faith-based film opens, the Christian bookstores and websites fill up with all sorts of movie-themed “resources” that help bring in more buckets of money for Christian retailers, publishers, filmmakers, producers, marketers, and everyone else involved in making and promoting Christian-made movies.

Most people under the age of 30 probably don’t realize that prior to Star Wars, movie marketing cross promotion was pretty insignificant. Yes, you had the occasional attempt to take advantage of the buzz created by a movie by making a strange toy version, like the odd “for ages 6 and up” shark game made by Ideal Toys when Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 6.48.53 PMJaws became such a monster hit. Certainly, toys and merchandise and even Christian-produced resources had been made based on movies and television programs, but usually with fairly limited success.

And then, when George Lucas took us to that galaxy far, far away, things changed.

The key is found in one of the biggest blunders in movie studio history. Because Star Wars was seen as such a risk, Lucas made a deal with Twentieth Century Fox that he would take a cut in directing fees in return for having all the rights to licensing and merchandising, and then he sold the toy rights to Kenner for a flat fee of $100,000 per year.

Kenner was so unprepared for the popularity of Star Wars that they didn’t make near enough toys for the demand. If parents wanted to buy their child a new Star Wars toy for Christmas in 1977, they were forced to give the child a voucher for Star Wars toys that would not be manufactured and released for months, and Kenner went on to sell a staggering $100,000,000 worth of Star Wars toys during the first year alone.

That’s one hundred million dollars.

Worth of little plastic action figures and such.

For a movie that nobody had wanted to make.

In one year.

Since that time, the franchise has gone on to make well over 27 billion dollars, with only about 4.3 billion coming from the movies. That means around 23 billion dollars of revenue has come from merchandizing alone.

And with Lucas’s innocuous little space opera, not only was a merchandizing juggernaut born, but a new way of making movies as well. Suddenly, films started being greenlit based on how much peripheral material could be marketed alongside it, as well as potential box office.

trekblog1

The Star Trek Happy Meal.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was actually a time when McDonalds and other fast food places didn’t sell Happy Meals connected to movies. In fact, McDonald’s first Happy Meal was an attempt to cash in on the space craze created by Star Wars, and it was based on 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Read this article for more information on the way the Star Wars marketing phenomenon evolved over time, impacting the majority of movies being produced, both then and now, both secular and Christian.

Episode 3: The Return of the Faith-Based Filmmakers

The Kendrick Brothers have returned to their home in Albany, Georgia…

And so now we live in a time where it is standard operating procedure for potential merchandizing to play a heavy role in the making of movies. And while Christians may not yet be at the place of the summer blockbuster, where merchandizing often seems to lead the film, we are definitely at the place where merchandizing is being utilized to bring even more profit to those who made the faith-based film.

And profit is important, even in the Christian film industry.

But I want to end this blog post with a pretty radical suggestion.

If we must have a Christian film industry, what if that industry did things differently? What if the movers and shakers made the decision to not be swept away by dreams of big box office and profit, like all the other film industries are, and like many of the other Christian media industries seem to be? What could be done, if we determined that we were going to be a counter-industry industry?

What if our Christian film industry – as a whole – pulled a Keith Green?

keith-green1Keith Green was a very popular but quite radical Christian singer in the 70’s and early 80’s, who famously (or infamously) gave away his records, telling people to pay what they were able, and he required Christian retailers to give away a copy of his cassettes for free with each one they sold, all to help spread the Gospel. Green’s giveaways reportedly sent shockwaves through the Christian music and retail industries at the time, but Green was known to be an uncompromising person when it came to his convictions.

And if today’s successful filmmakers of faith started insisting on doing something similar, imagine the modern day shockwaves!

What if many of those resources developed for movies made on a shoestring budget, but movies that turn out to be popular enough to go on to rake in ten or twenty or even forty-five times that in box office, were just… given away?

The study guides, the bible studies, the church campaign kits, the prayer journals, the baseball hats, and the little wooden crosses all available for whatever potential customers could afford to pay, even if it is nothing at all.

All to help spread the Gospel.

I know, I know… it’s a crazy idea.

I know Christian producers have to pay salaries, and I’m not suggesting they don’t. I know that Christian filmmakers want to be able to afford to plan out their next projects, and they should certainly do what it takes to do that. I know that some – like the Kendrick brothers – pour much of their film profits back into their home churches, and they should obviously continue to do that as they feel led.

And I know that they all need to put bread on their own tables, and provide for their families, and they certainly shouldn’t be muzzled while they are treading out the grain.

But I’m so frustrated that too many of the other Christian industries appear to be too much industry and not enough Christian. And since the film industry is the youngest of them all, and it’s the industry closest to my heart, why can’t it be the one to change course and do something different, and radical, and refreshing – even if it seems crazy, and unindustrial, and unprofitable?

After all, they thought Luke Skywalker was crazy for switching off his targeting computer when he was making that infamous trench run.

And Luke wound up saving the rebellion.

SZSjFpl

God bless, and may the force be with you…

Always.

Update 1:  I just found out that the producers of the upcoming movie, Captive, are giving away a ton of resources on their website.  All the sorts of materials that are being sold on the War Room website are free for the Captive folks. I was already looking forward to seeing Captive, and now it’s even moreso!  Good job, Captive!

Update 2: I’ve heard some encouraging news.  Apparently, Giving Films – the production company behind the upcoming film, 90 Minutes in Heaven, have committed to giving all the profit they make from the film to charity.

That’s what I’m talking about.  Way to go, Giving Films!

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?