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.

Advertisements

Persecuted • Thimblerig’s Review

Continuing my series of reviews on 2014’s films made by Christians (the so-called “faith-based” films), last night I watched Persecuted, which was released theatrically this summer.  I want to get right to the point about this film.

What I liked about Persecuted:

Christians are finally become more technically proficient in the way we shoot our films, or at least in hiring people who know how to shoot a film.  Persecuted looks pretty good – being shot, framed, and edited well.  The cinematography was by Richard Vialet, and editing by Brian Brinkman.  I’m glad films made by Christians are finally starting to look as professional as secular films.

Christians are also finally finding the funds to shell out on quality performers.  In this case, the film has some familiar faces – including veteran actors James Remar in the title role, Fred Thompson as Luther’s Father father, Bruce Davison as the sinister senator, and Dean Stockwell as Luther’s ministry accountant.  [Sidenote – as a fan of Quantum Leap, I sure hope Stockwell was well paid for taking what was such a minor role.]  I’m also glad that Christian films are finally starting to be more professionally acted.  We must be learning something about the production side of things, which is good.

Finally, Persecuted is not a bad thriller.   It’s not necessarily a good thriller, but it’s not bad – certainly not bad enough to deserve the ridiculous 0% ranking that the film has gotten on Rotten Tomatoes.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t put the film much higher.

Why wouldn’t I go very high with my own RT score?

There are several reasons, and they mostly fall on the shoulders of writer/director, Daniel Lusko.

Technically, while the film was shot well, there was entirely too much darkness in this film.  This – coupled with the dark soundtrack – made it irritating to watch.  Perhaps – since the film ends in the light of day – the darkness was an attempt at symbolism?  If so, it didn’t work.  Not at all.  Honestly, it came across as an attempt to cover a low budget (which I can’t really say, since I curiously can’t find the budget of the movie reported anywhere.)  Regardless of the reasons, it was just unpleasant to watch – the speeches given in darkness with a single spot on the speaker;  just about every interior shot was in darkness, again with very focused lighting; it could have potentially been more powerful to have dark deeds being done in the light of day.

Second, the casting.  As much as I appreciate the career of James Remar, he was simply not the right actor for the role of John Luther.  Not even close.  Here’s why:

First, he’s supposed to be the son of Fred Thompson?  Really?  How old was Fred when he had him?  Ten?

Second, Luther’s wife appears to be about forty, and according to his IMDB page, Remar is nearly sixty.  Yes, older guys can marry younger gals and have children at an older age, but it just seemed too much of a stretch.

Third, considering the mistakes Luther makes in misguidedly trusting the people around him, he should have been a much younger man.  It would have made a lot more sense to have him as a very forty-something successful evangelist who is in over his head, thus trusting the counsel of the sinister senator, buying the accolades and weird backstage pep-talks of his second-in-command, and being stubborn about his faith to a fault, so that the experience teaches him humility.  As it is, I’m not sure what Luther learns over the course of the movie.

But I can forgive miscasting.  The thing I have a hard time forgiving is more philosophical.

I’m so incredibly bothered that someone would have the nerve to make a fictionalized movie with the title “Persecuted”, imagining possible future persecution of a fictional evangelist in America, while Christians are actually being persecuted in Iraq, North Korea, Central Asia, and many other places around the globe, right now.

I’m amazed that the filmmakers decided they needed to create a fictional story about John Luther, an American pastor, being hunted down by the U.S. government for refusing to support “The Faith and Fairness Act”, a multi-cultural religion law, when there is an actual American pastor who has been held in prison in Iran for the past two years for the crime of sharing his Christian faith, a person whose story is much more compelling and heart-breaking, because it’s true.

The more I think about it, the more bothered I am by the film’s fictionalized storyline, and not for the reasons the filmmakers hoped.  On the film’s website, we’re asked to be challenged by Persecuted “to consider how (we) would react if—and when—attempts are made to limit (our) own religious freedom.”

But the film doesn’t really do that at all.

Rather, the film looks at one man who – standing up for his faith – refuses to support a pluralistic religion bill that his senator friend (apparent friend) is proposing, and has his life and ministry torn apart as a result.  It seems to me that the film is more a lesson on being wise about the people in whom we put our trust, and not so much about limits on our religious freedom.

So, to back off the philosophical problems I had with this film, I’d like to go back to the writing.  I really, really had a problem with the writing in this film, and it was mainly because the film made several promises it didn’t keep.

First, there were the flashbacks to Luther’s conversations with his granddaughter daughter.  In those flashbacks, a relationship was set up between Luther and the girl, but we never saw her again.  Why make this relationship a big deal, but never give the audience the payoff?  You mean to tell me that in the end it’s more important that we see Luther surrounded by his ministry’s board than his family?  What that tells me is that the characters didn’t matter – just the Point the filmmakers were trying to make.  It was a setup with a disappointing lack of payoff.

Another promise that wasn’t kept was with the senator.  Here he was – the big scheming senator – the guy who was putting Luther through all this hell – the main antagonist – and he’s offed in a heartbeat by order of the president, and Luther’s nowhere nearby when it happens.  Are you kidding me?  This is the guy that arranged Luther’s whole predicament, and he doesn’t even get to be a part of the climax?  It should have been the senator, deciding to get his hands dirty, chasing Luther up the mountain.  It should have been the senator that Luther is FORCED to kill to protect the FBI agent.  But no, it’s this nameless strange assassin – the dog on the senator’s leash – who is in the climax for some inexplicable reason.  What a misfire on the filmmaker’s part.

This brings me to ANOTHER set up lacking a payoff… when the FBI agent was talking to Brad Stine’s character – asking him suspicious questions about the senator, it seemed like the FBI was quietly investigating the senator,but it was dropped, never discussed again.  Why?  What was the point?

The lady in the ministry van, who loans Luther a phone, and then she’s gone?

The drug addicts who witnessed Luther being set up.  We see them for a moment, and then they’re gone?

The young priest who drives Luther away from the bad guys, uploads the incriminating video, and then he’s gone?

Luther’s shot in the friggin’ back – with a hole in his spine – but he still drives away and fights to the bitter end?

The man's shot in the middle of the back, and he's still going on?  Is this Rambo?

The man’s shot in the middle of the back, and he’s still going on? Is this Rambo?

I could go on, but the longer I’m thinking about this movie, the sloppier it seems.  So, rather than continuing to nitpick the problems, let me look at my five standards for filmmaking by Christians, as written about here, to see how Persecuted stands up.

Films made by Christians should take risks.  

Considering that Christian filmmakers haven’t tackled the political thriller genre that much – unless you include the end-times movies – I’d have to give props to the makers of Persecuted for trying a unique mashup of genres.  However, it’s unfortunate that the film was rather paint-by-numbers political thriller, with no genuine surprises or twists to surprise or shake the viewer.  This was unfortunate, and meant that ultimately, the film was not very risky.

Films made by Christians should challenge the audience.

If the audience was the “faith-based” audience, there was no challenge here.  Yes, the filmmakers stated that they wanted to challenge the audience to imagine a time when we’re losing our religious freedoms, but it didn’t succeed.  Perhaps because it was so focused on one man’s story, and he was put there by his own lack of judgment in the character of those around him, it just didn’t feel prophetic or even relevant.  If anything, the core audience who saw this film were probably the folks who already think that politicians are sitting in Washington trying to figure out how to bring about the destruction of all Christendom.

And the character of John Luther is supposed to challenge us in our faith, but with all he’s going through, Luther remains robotically steadfast – which is admirable in real life, but disappointingly uninteresting in a character in a film.  After discovering his father’s unfortunate death, the only crisis of faith Luther appears to have is standing on the cabin porch and screaming, “Are you not true to your name?” and then he’s back to the business of surviving, with nary a tear shed.  His father was executed, for heaven’s sake!  Because of the choices that Luther made!  The man should have a moment of brokenness at some point, but he never seems to arrive at that point.

Art is Art, the Pulpit is the Pulpit

This film preaches all over the place, with a disturbing mixture of Christianity and conservatism.  It would have been more appropriate to call the movie Didactic: The Movie.  That’s all I have to say about that.

Films made by Christians should raise important questions

On the one hand, it could be argued that Persecuted raises the question – what will happen if your government turns against you?  But is that really an important question to raise?  Our country is so polarized that the question is a hot button question, feeding the paranoia of the kind of Christian who think Left Behind and God’s Not Dead are brilliant movies just because they talked about God in a nice way.

But for those Christians, I don’t think it’s the kind of question that really needs to be raised.  Ragamuffin came a lot closer to asking the right questions – looking unapologetically at the personal struggles of a Christian icon.  Believe Me – using self-depreciating humor – made Christians look at themselves and ask important questions about how well we think things through.  Mom’s Night Out, asks Christian moms at the end of their rope to consider what really matters.

These “faith-based” films all asked more important questions than this Persecuted, a film which wants to be a lot more important and relevant than it really it is.

Christian films should tell good stories

I think I’ve already shown that Persecuted falls woefully short of this.  If the filmmakers had cast a younger lead, if they’d followed through with the promises they made, and if they’d filmed a few more scenes in the light, it might have been a stronger story.  Unfortunately, it failed.

A test I always put to a faith-based film is to ask this question – would I be happy to show this film to friends who don’t attend church?  Showing Persecuted?  Nope.  I wouldn’t do it.

jonah_a_veggietales_movieAnd in conclusion – while I don’t put a lot of stock in the RT rating system when it comes to “faith-based” films – I think we, as Christians, should pay attention to what the secular reviewers say – since we should desire our films to reach beyond our Christian subculture.  I find it fascinating that the highest rated “faith-based” film I could find at Rotten Tomatoes was Phil Vischer’s 65% scoring, “Jonah: A Veggietales Movie.

The lesson I take from that?  Christians need to make more movies with talking vegetables.

And by the way, if you don’t, you should really listen to the Phil Vischer Podcast.  It’s the most intelligent, reasonable, and entertaining culture-examining podcast by Christians that you’ll find.

Even if Phil does insist on playing that annoying ukelele.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t have words.