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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An End Times Movie in Two Minutes

We Christians just love our end times movies.

We’ve done bunches and bunches of them, from the classic A Thief in the Night trilogy to Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind movies to Nic Cage’s Left Behind movie reboot to movies with subtle names like Final: The Rapture and Tribulation and Revelation Road (1, 2 & 3) and The Apocalypse and The Remaining and Blink of an Eye and Pre-Trib! The Musical

That last one might not be real.

But, if you look at the bulk of Christian-made movies out there, and how many seem to deal with this topic, then you would have to conclude that we Christians must just love our end times movies.

But maybe you’ve never seen one of our end times movies, want to know what the big deal is, but don’t actually want to sit through 90 minutes of a Christian film? Well, Thimblerig comes to the rescue! If you watch this two minute clip from Community’s third season, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what our end-of-days movies are all about. In fact, Dan Harmon pretty well nails it.

Although I must admit that the Community clip does have a bit more nuance, subtlety, and artistry then our usual attempts at showing the end-of-days, but I think you get the picture.

Meanwhile, if you want to see some of my reviews of a couple of end times movies…

Here’s Left Behind, which was awful.

And here’s The Remaining, which was actually pretty good.

The Christian Response to Film Critics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an example:

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

And another:

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

And another:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, it’s not looking good.

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

1)  Film critics know their business.

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

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

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

2)  Practice contextualization.

Paul preaching at the Aeropagus

Paul preaching at the Aeropagus

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

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

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

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

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

3)   Let the story be the message

Blaine-Graphic

blaineglobal.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas • Thimblerig’s Review

One of the most challenging things about trying to review Christian-made films while living in China is that most of those films never find a screen in this part of the world.  They are too low-budget, too lacking in big names, and too religious.  Even Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe’s Noah didn’t play here because it was a biblical movie (a fact which would probably amuse the masses of religious people in American who hated the film because it was too un-biblical)!

What typically ends up happening is that I get a review out once the film has been released on DVD, which is sort of like surfing after the wave has passed.  I really appreciated that the Believe Me guys broke the business model by doing a simultaneous theatrical release/digital download, which meant my review for that film went out the same weekend the movie was released.  It’s to the point that I can comment on the trailer when it’s released, but not the movie, and that stinks!

But my community of Christian artist friends has been growing over the past several months, and I’m thrilled that one of my new friends, graphic artist Matthew Sample, agreed to do me the huge favor of watching the latest faith-based film to be released – Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas – and writing a review for me based on Thimblerig’s movie-watching scale (which you can read about here).

So, without further ado, I give you Matthew’s great review.  Enjoy!

Thimblerig’s Review of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas 

by Guest Thimblerigger Matthew Sample

Part of me wanted to run up to the ticket counter and say with my jolliest, bearded, and wonder-filled face, “I’m here for Saving Christmas.”

The rest of me goes to a church that does not celebrate Christmas.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Kirk. (Not the James, but the Cameron. Holler, someone, if you know what that’s referring to and where to find it in the film.) I dislike the secularization of our culture, and I love putting Jesus first. I’ve even grown up celebrating Christmas. But my church brings up some really good points. They will talk about the pagan past of Christmas, the commercialized shadow of the holy-day that it was… and don’t get them started about the Catholic church and the worship of images.

So I came to this film with two missions. First, to write this review for Nate, who—bless his NaNoWriMo heart—is in deep, deep novel-writing land. Second, to see if I can get my head wrapped around all this Christmas stuff.

What Kirk Got Right

la_ca_1113_saving_christmas

 

When Kirk’s right, he’s right. And he’s got some spectacular goodness going on in this film.

First, he and his creative team have centered this film squarely on Jesus. He filters everything about Christmas through Christ, and we should applaud Christian creatives everywhere when they glorify Christ. I don’t think it was a marketing decision, but something that Kirk sincerely seeks to infuse in everything he does.

Second, because of his desire to glorify God, he does not go about this endeavor solely on his own, but he made this film in Christian community. We creatives should not be mavericks, and filmmaking especially demands that we collaborate extensively with others. Over the past several films, Kirk has made a point to do these films with his family. They are all over the credits. He even made a point to highlight his sister, Bridgette—not Candace who also acts in films, but the sister who didn’t make it. I think that’s cool.

0157411f0d7cdbe4622494a77e435247He also is increasingly forging creative partnerships with a wide variety of Christians in the entertainment industry. In Mercy Rule, his last film that he made with his family, he teamed up with comedian Tim Hawkins. In this film, he’s teamed up with Darren Doane and several others. He has also promoted this film extensively by joining with high profile, family-oriented, Christian entertainers—the Robinson family, the Duggars, etc.—to get the grassroots word out. It looks like they all had a lot of fun doing it.

And he’s teamed up with Liberty University again, passing his creative knowledge to the next generation of filmmakers. We in the Christian filmmaking realm learn so much by books or by making mistakes. Mentorship is needed on every level. I’m so glad he’s maintaining this relationship with Liberty. No man is an island, and no generation is, either.

Third, the cinematographer did a great job. That’s something I can usually count on when I come to a Cameron film, but it bears emphasis. I don’t think there was an (unintentionally) ugly shot in film.

Fourth, I heard genuine laughter in the audience. And the audience was about a third to half full, which is really decent for a film not on opening weekend. Kirk’s audience showed up, and they seemed to sincerely enjoy some of the laughs. Granted, there were only about 10 genuine laugh moments and a few other moments that didn’t work as well… But this film really was about concepts, and the laughs served as oases in the milieu of holiday contemplation.

Fifth, as I think I’ve mentioned before, Kirk made this film about concepts. I like his experiments in narrative documentary; they seem more personal and authentic than his recent foray into fiction. I hope he keeps experimenting in this genre, and that the quality of concepts grows and matures as he continues.

What Kirk Got Wrong

It is the little foxes that destroy the vineyards, and the unexpected details that make or break a film. Every phase of filmmaking seeks to prevent as many of the little surprises from destroying the film. Inevitably, a few foxes remain.

The most prominent problem with the film is the overuse of slow motion. This has become a tendency with Kirk’s films, and I’m not sure if he is trying to capture a certain aesthetic, or if he ran out of material in post production… or if he is just in love with the view through a camera lens. It happens. We aesthetes can feel a certain amount of pleasure witnessing an event in all the gory detail. But it also makes the film seem tedious. The audience knows exactly what will happen, so the thrill of slow motion comes in what happens during that moment. And not much happens during those slow moments.

Honestly the film could have been a 30-45 minute film with a different edit. Not that the editor did a bad job—he did a excellent job balancing everything. It’s the sign of not having enough content. Either the concepts were not big enough to warrant an 80 minute film, or the concepts were not explored enough. I think the creative team could have developed the concepts more fully.

Kirk-Cameron_Santa-Saving-Christmas

 

As an example of an undeveloped story element, the film’s antagonistic force needed more antagonism. A better antagonist would have been the actor who plays the conspiracy theorist at the party and Arius in the Saint Nicholas section. A much more dynamic villain, he would be. Christian’s character is described as a scrooge, but other than having him look glum and leave the party for the quiet of his car, the filmmakers don’t show his scroogeness. He just complains. But even his complaints are groundless: Chris hasn’t actually done any research and easily cedes Kirk’s points as Kirk makes them. He is a living straw man, crafted to grouse until he metamorphoses into the awkward and exuberant convert at the end of the film.

As an example of undeveloped content, the regulative principle of worship never comes up. My church is Reformed, which means that they view the Bible and the Church from a perspective of the Protestant Reformers and the Puritans—Christ alone, faith alone, scripture alone…. Whenever well-minded people add their good ideas to our faith, those additions tend to cause problems after people forget about the reasons. This goes for worship, too. I can hear my pastor say, “Should December 25th land on a day of worship, many who claim Christ will stay home from meeting with Christ’s church—which God commanded—to stay home and unwrap presents—which God has not commanded.” That’s an interplay of concepts I would love to have seen in the film.

Overall, the concepts of the film could probably fit on one sheet of paper. It’s a very simply structured film, with a collection of introductions, three main arguments, and then a collection of endings. The many introductions and endings indicate that the main story did not have enough content for the film, or that the creative team had a middle, but couldn’t figure out how best to begin or wrap up the content.

The Golden Groundhog Ceremony

Cue red carpet music. Turn on the spotlight. Brush up on your What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking if you need to get a refresher.

Films made by Christians should take risks. 1/2

I’m giving Kirk half a golden groundhog for this. He’s the only Christian I know in his genre, he made a film about an issue inside the church, and he portrayed jolly old St. Nick in a brawling pub fight. Credit where credit is due: he’s got his view of the world and he’s not afraid to say it. Yet he chose a relatively safe topic, one where he will get a lot of support from his base, and he’s starting to settle into a particular style.

Films made by Christians should challenge the audience. 0

Kirk’s audience is primarily Christians, and most of them are in agreement with him. I’ve gone back and forth on this point, and I can’t sincerely give Kirk a groundhog for this one. The film reinforces concepts that the audience is convinced of for the most part. Perhaps this will motivate some to think twice about their lack of joy and glorify Jesus more in December and all year round. I hope so.

Art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit. 0

Unfortunately, this genre will almost always fail on this point. I’d love to see Kirk keep perfecting this as he improves his craft—not removing the truth from his work, but crafting his presentation of that truth to make it more powerful and more poignant.

Films made by Christians should raise important questions. 1/2

How we worship God as a body of believer’s is one of the most important questions we should think about. How we glorify Him with our lives is another. Who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how we should respond to His wonderful kindness are also excellent questions discussed in the course of the film. However, the core moral predicament of the film seems contrived.

Christian films should tell good stories. 0

The film told several stories. A scrooge’s redemption, the nativity, a vignette of Christmas tree shoppers, a retelling of the St. Nick myth, and the various quirky scenes at a Christmas party. As a filmmaker, I wish I could say that these stories moved me emotionally. Unfortunately, most of the interesting stories were unessential to the actual plot, and the creative team could have told all the stories in more engaging and creative ways.

Conclusions

So did this film change me profoundly? I wish it had. If you read this, Kirk, and I hope you do, here’s what would have made this film more profound to me.

First, I would use less slow motion. You don’t want to get rid of it entirely, because you have a look to maintain and it is kinda cool. But I would only focus on a few key moments when you really want to bring home a concept… and let those moments be the times that we slow down and linger.

Second, let Christian be the main character and the Arius guy be the villain. I like you, Kirk, as sage, but a sage never works very well as the protagonist. A sage is too knowledgeable and doesn’t change enough over the course of a story. In contrast Christian exhibits the most powerful character arch, but I would love to have him come face to face with the real antagonist lurking behind the scenes. Also, concepts have consequences: I would love to see his choices lead to something beyond mere hurt feelings. If the men cause harm because of their beliefs or lack thereof, or rise above the harm that they have caused, we have the makings of a more sympathetic hero and better interplay between the major concepts.

Third, I would include more concepts. I would present more of the real problems that Christians have with Christmas, and find more and better ways to deal with those problems. This would call for more time in the script stage and in preproduction. But the more time spent crafting our content before we roll film the better.

Thanks for listening to me, Kirk, and whoever else reads this. I can’t wait to see your next film. I love the way you strive to lift up Jesus. Keep serving God. I’m rooting for you.

Golden Groundhogs Saving Christmas

166332_1723873691747_2945331_nMatthew Sample II is a digital illustrator who likes, makes, and supports Christian film. In his spare time he writes a graphic novel which he will someday share with the eager world. If you want to see some of his artwork, check out his blog or his sketch club. If you want to argue with him about movies or Christmas, feel free to connect with him via Facebook or Twitter.

 

The Depressingly Low Expectations Of Christian Filmgoers

This morning Darren Doane, the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, posted the following tweet:

https://twitter.com/TheDoane/status/535594602338983937

What’s happening for Doane and Cameron’s movie at Rotten Tomatoes is similar to what you’ll find if you look at many of the recently released so-called faith-based films: extremely low critic ratings and unreasonably high audience ratings. Let’s look at some of the results of other Christian-made films:

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 8.58.23 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 8.59.35 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 9.00.03 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 9.00.42 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 9.02.17 AM

What exactly is going on?

Is there a secular critic bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, it will be treated differently than a movie of a different genre?

Even if the movie is brilliant, it will not get a fair shake?

Is there a faith-based audience bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, the quality of the movie will be given a free pass as long as it portrays Christians in a good light, talks positively about Jesus, or has Scripture passages used in a semi-appropriate fashion?

Even if the movie is terrible, it will be received positively if it meets the criteria?

Personally, I think there is a bit of both going on.  Yes, there are secular critics who will not approach a Christian film without adding the caveat, “…for a Christian film”.   But one hopes that a critic will be able to separate that particular bias from what they experience on the screen and write a candid review that explores the positives and the negatives of the film.

And yes, there are plenty of Christians who will gladly support anything as long as what they are seeing on the screen reinforces or promotes what they already believe.  Thus you have hundreds of positive reviews on the Left Behind website from ordinary people who make the movie sound like the best film ever made, rather than the enormous cinematic shamble that it was.

But critic bias is by far the less alarming and less surprising issue of the two on the table.  I’m much more disturbed by the way so many Christians will line up around the block to embrace any movie that builds up their worldview – regardless of the film’s quality.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many Christians have become so needy to see their points of view on the screen that they’ve become blind to what makes for a quality film at all.  At least that seems to be the case, considering the way we rally behind so many poor filmmaking efforts, treating them like the best thing since the last poor filmmaking effort.

Yep.  Our expectations have grown depressingly low.

There has been a two-pronged effect on Christian-made films that I see as a direct result of the low expectations of the target audience.

First, the low expectations force the filmmakers to sacrifice good storytelling on the alter of hitting all the right beats to please the Christian audience.  I’ve discussed this point before, in my article What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking, so I will move on to the second point.

Second, the low expectations damage our potential to be taken seriously by people outside the church, as they see us vehemently defending films that are so badly produced.

Our films are not taken seriously.  

What did George Costanza say about Christian rock on Seinfeld?  “I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.”

If George were still around today, he might also say, “I like Christian films.  They’re positive.  They’re not like those real films…”

We did it to ourselves with a Christian music industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, we did it to ourselves with a Christian publishing industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, and now we’re trying to do it to ourselves again by building a Christian filmmaking industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture.

And it’s a huge mistake.

This “circle the wagons” mentality does little to help with building the kingdom of God, but does much for building up walls between the church and the greater culture.

In his Salon article entitled, Christian right’s vile PR sham: why their bizarre films are backfiring on them, writer Edwin Lyngar says some pretty damning things about what is happening in American culture as a result of this past year’s Christian filmmaking efforts.  Lyngar says:

The people who create and consume Christian film are neither mature nor reflective. They are at their core superstitious, afraid and tribal. They self-identify overwhelmingly Republican and shout about “moochers” while vilifying the poor. They violate the teachings and very essence of their own “savior” while deriving almost sexual pleasure from the fictional suffering of atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Hindus, and even liberal Christians. To top it all off, the stories they tell themselves are borderline psychotic.

Is this what it means to be salt and light to a dying world, that the followers of Christ come off as ‘neither mature nor reflective’?  That we’re seen as ‘superstitious, afraid and tribal’?  That our stories are viewed as ‘borderine psychotic’?  I realize that this is just one man’s opinion, but I don’t think we Christians can afford to dismiss opinions like his, because I don’t believe that his opinion is so uncommon.

And it all comes back to the depressingly low expectations that we have for the art being produced by us, for us, and in our name.

The irony is that Christians would be the first to stand up and say, “High expectations breed high results, and low expectations breed low results!” with regards to most things in life:

Education?  Aren’t Christians known for homeschooling our kids because we have high expectations for their education?

Employment?  Aren’t Christian employers known for holding employees to higher standards?

Ministry?  Aren’t we disappointed when people in positions of ministerial authority don’t live up to our high expectations?

And yet when it comes to filmmaking – as evidenced by the overwhelming support given to many of the not-so-great faith-based films that were released this past year – our expectation for quality Christian art is shockingly low.

And it just doesn’t make sense.

Meanwhile, not only was the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas out this morning stumping on the social media platforms for people to speak out at RT, but the man himself, Kirk Cameron, posted this on his Facebook page:

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 2.12.32 PM

I can appreciate the grass roots campaigning of Cameron and Doane, and I haven’t had the chance to see Saving Christmas yet to speak to the movie one way or the other, but what about this…

What if – instead of just flocking to a film’s Rotten Tomato page and putting up happy reviews to support the filmmakers – we showed that we have the capability to use our higher order thinking skills, and write critically honest reviews that discuss both the good and the bad about the film?

What if – instead of just flocking to the Facebook pages of filmmakers who believe the way we believe and gushing about how much we love their movies, or flaming about how much we disliked the movies, as the case may be – we do the same thing and give them constructive feedback so that they can improve the next time out?

What if Christians do the really heavy lifting and raise the bar on our expectations for films made in our name, helping our filmmakers by expecting them to make great movies that even the secular critics would have a hard time dismissing?

Folks, unless we start to adjust our expectations, unless we break the model set for us by the music and publishing industry, unless we start doing our best to pursue excellence in the films we are allowing to be produced in our name, we might very well find Mr. Lyngar’s heartbreaking prophecy coming true.

The fundamentalist community will continue to shrink until they start telling themselves—and those they hope to win over—more honest and humane stories… Christian film with its cardboard characters and heavy-handed messages will only drive an increasingly diverse and media-savvy populace away. Failing a profound change of heart, the best this community can hope for are films so bad no one will bother to watch them.

A Comment on Kirk Cameron’s “Saving Christmas” Trailer

Yesterday, while playing working on the internet, I came upon the press release for Kirk Cameron’s upcoming film, Saving Christmas.  This morning, thanks to a link on Cameron’s Facebook page, I was able to see the trailer.

I typically don’t comment on films based only on the trailer, but I felt compelled this morning to scribble down a few thoughts.  And I hope that these thoughts are read through this lens:  I like Kirk Cameron.  I really do!  I appreciate Cameron’s public stand for his faith in Hollywood.  I enjoy watching his Way of the Master witnessing encounters.  I did not like Fireproof very much, but I thought Cameron did a decent job in the lead role, and that he is definitely a camera-friendly actor.

But the trailer for Saving Christmas…  oh, the trailer…

Patience, grasshopper. The link will come in time.

For the past few months, I’ve been watching films made for the faith-based audience with a critical eye, and while I’ve appreciated that many people of good faith lie behind these efforts, I’ve found myself largely disappointed with the finished products (you can see my reviews here, here, here, and here).  I’ve come to the conclusion (and I’m not the only one – by any stretch of the imagination) that while we Christians are getting more proficient technically, we continue to spin our wheels as storytellers.  We produce largely didactic films that are aimed squarely back at us – the Christian sub-culture of America.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with making movies for ourselves, but there are two problems with what has been happening with Christian-marketed films over the past few years.  First, the films we make for ourselves are as healthy for us as a steady diet of marshmallow peeps.  Sure, a peep every now and then won’t kill you, but if that’s all you are eating, you will not be very healthy at all.  Second, we’re not also making films that hit outside the sub-culture, thus doing ourselves a huge disservice and frankly – not being obedient to the evangelistic nature of the Gospel in the expression of our art.

And so, with that being said, here’s the trailer.

So, here’s the deal.  Kirk Cameron is in a unique position.  He is an outspoken Christian in Hollywood who can actually push film projects forward.  He has his own production company (CAMFAM studios) that has partnered with Samuel Goldwyn to help get his films out to the public.  He is – more or less – a household name.

And yet here he goes – down that same didactic trail – once again.

And I just don’t get it.

I don’t get why someone like Kirk Cameron doesn’t try to take his radical faith, and express it in a way that would not only build up the people inside the church bubble, but challenge them as well.

I don’t get why he doesn’t take his clout in the subculture and challenge believers to express their faith in more creative, less didactic ways.

I don’t get why Cameron won’t trust God to use the ambiguity of well-made art just as well as He can use the clarity of well-prepared preaching.

I don’t get why he won’t make a film that would interest someone outside the sub-culture.

It’s not a matter of courage.  You can’t argue against the fact that Cameron is a brave man.  He’s courageous enough to work the streets sharing his faith – even to some pretty rough folks…

He is principled enough to stand in the public square and say exactly what he believes to be true, even though it can be one of the most career-damaging things a celebrity can do these days…

He took a very public stand on purity, that in his films (and in life) he would not kiss any woman other than his wife, and – of course – he was mocked for taking such the stand…

And yet, here he is, with a film that predictably looks like just another salvo fired in the Christmas/culture wars.  And it looks like it will come ready-packaged with all the things that make “faith-based” films so laughable to everyone – except to those in the sub-culture.

By watching the trailer, I sadly predict these things about Saving Christmas:

1. It will be on-the-nose message-heavy with a plot that will feel like it was tacked onto the message.

2. It will have awkward and predictable attempts at humor.  For example, does the trailer really have a black guy at the end saying, “Can I get an amen!” while all the (mostly) white folk in the background awkwardly answer “Amen!”?  Seriously?

3. There will be no ambiguity.  It’s not going to raise any questions among the faithful – but it will just reinforce the sub-culture’s beliefs.  Rub my back, and I’ll rub yours!

4. It will be a completely safe film for it’s faith-based audience, and the only challenge will be to go on ahead and celebrate Christmas the way you want to celebrate it, even in the face of what we American Christians laughably call “persecution”.

And here’s the rub with what will probably happen with this film:  It will be seen by very few – if any – people outside of the Christian sub-culture.

Get that?  Non-believers will not go see this film.  Not because of Kirk Cameron (although for some, Cameron might be the one that keeps them away).  The bigger issue is that they won’t go see this film because they don’t take our films seriously.

And isn’t that a shame?  Christian-made films should be so well-made, so well-written, so well-acted, so thoughtful and haunting and beautiful and compelling – that people can’t stay away.

But so many of the extremely talented people who are working hard to make “faith-based” films are so bound up in making films to please the sub-culture, that I just can’t imagine how it will happen.

And that’s the pity of it.

Now back to play work.

Edit:  I read an interview with Kirk Cameron where this exchange takes place:

What is your favorite movie?

KIRK: “I’m not really a movie guy.”

What? Kirk Cameron isn’t a movie guy?? I burst out laughing at the realization once again that people aren’t always what you expect them to be. 

KIRK: “My kids watch movies. But normally I just see half of one on a flight, and I usually don’t have headphones, so I only catch every other line anyway. I’m more of a book lover, actually. Most people think of me as a story guy, I mean, I make movies. But I really like non-fiction better. Although Pilgrims Progress is my favorite novel.”

He laughs when he says his mind works more in blueprints and charts and graphs. Who knew that one of the world’s biggest Christian Hollywood stars doesn’t even watch movies? Give him a book on systematic theology or the dating of Revelations and he’s happy.

The fact that Cameron isn’t “a movie guy” doesn’t give me a great deal of hope.