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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christians are alive and well in the heart of Hollywood

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

And church? They need our support.

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

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

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

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

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

Hollywood Still Doesn’t Get It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Was Unseen and Unsaid

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

Unsaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unseen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I responded:

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

Takeaway

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

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

Us. You and me.

The Big Christian Audience.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thimblerig out.

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