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.

 

 

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The God’s Not Dead $100M Lawsuit

god is not deadAccording to the Hollywood Reporter, David A.R. White and Pure Flix are being sued for God’s Not Dead. For $100,000,000.

That’s one hundred MILLION dollars.

And no, they are not being sued by a horde of angry atheist philosophy professors. Rather, they are being sued by a duo of fellow Christian filmmakers.

Again.

The new lawsuit is brought to you by director and producer Michael Landon, Jr (the son of Little House on the Prairie‘s Michael Landon – not relevant, but interesting) and writer Kelly Kullberg, wherein they allege that Pure Flix used Kullberg’s story ideas without proper credit or remuneration in God’s Not Dead.

The suit can be seen here in its entirety if you enjoy reading legal documents. If you don’t, I’ll summarize.

According to the suit, Kullberg and Landon wrote the script for a film called Rise, based on the story of a fictional Christian university student being harassed by an atheist philosophy professor. At some point while the script was being developed, Kullberg pitched the idea in detail to a potential investor, that person went on to share details of the story with Ted Baehr from Movieguide®, and Baehr shared those details with David A.R. White while they were on some kind of a “working vacation.”

The suit alleges that White and others in Pure Flix had been struggling to break story for Proof, an apologetics film they’d been developing, and this was the subject of his and Baehr’s discussion on said vacation. Further, the suit alleges that Baehr went on to tell White elements of Kullberg’s story that had been told to him by this potential investor, perhaps unaware that these elements were the intellectual property of Landon and Kullberg.

The next thing you know, Pure Flix drops Proof and not long after makes God’s Not Dead. That movie, as we all know, went on to make buckets of money (the suit says $140,000,000, but the internet says it is closer to $100,000,000). Either way, the overwhelming success of God’s Not Dead enabled Pure Flix to expand their operations exponentially; they developed a distribution wing that allowed their films to open wider than ever before, they became more involved in film production, they expanded their presence in the overseas market, and perhaps most significantly, they started a Netflix-esque home streaming service to attempt to meet the needs of the enormous faith-and-family-film demographic.

Interestingly, a similar lawsuit was brought against Pure Flix last year for $10 million. In that suit, producer John Sullivan and writer/actor Brad Stine alleged that they had also developed a script that closely followed the God’s Not Dead story line, the aforementioned Proof. But in their case, they had actually been working closely with White and Pure Flix to develop the script before they’d been dropped like a soggy eggroll.

[editor’s note: the suit doesn’t actually say anything about a soggy eggroll.]

Kullberg alleges that White was so inspired by the ideas behind Rise that he pulled out of Sullivan and Stine’s script, hired new screenwriters to write God’s Not Dead, and the rest is history.

On the one hand, it’s interesting that in both cases, White allegedly heard details from both story ideas, and details from both versions wound up in the finished product of God’s Not Dead. In Landon and Kullberg’s case, the similarities are pretty staggering, and it makes quite a compelling argument that it could very well be a case of copyright infringement.

On the other hand, people come up with similar ideas all the time, especially in Hollywood. Just look at these somewhat recent examples: Jobs and Steve JobsUnfriended and Friend Request; Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. In the case of the atheist professor and the Christian student, both Landon & Kullberg and Sullivan & Stine developed the same basic idea independently. Not to mention that that variations of that story have been floating around for years.

So, what do we do with this? Is it typical Hollywood shuck and jive, just with a somewhat “sacred” bent? Is it another example of how absolute financial success corrupts absolutely? Is it more proof that Christians in business are just as susceptible to temptation and greed as anyone in business?

Is it another example why a Christian film industry is a bad idea?

Maybe. Maybe not. But it is a situation worth looking at as a cautionary tale (regardless who might be right, and who might be wrong), especially for Christians who are looking at getting involved in business or the arts, or just about anything where windfall profits are a possibility.

Meanwhile, those of us on the outside will sit back and watch how it plays out. Personally, I’m rooting for this to be resolved amicably, and then for Pure Flix to do the very meta move of developing this as the plot for God’s Not Dead 3.

Written by all six screenwriters, of course.

By the way, click this link to find some more details about the development of Sullivan and Stine’s screenplay by screenwriter Sean Paul Murphy, who was working with White and Pure Flix to help develop the script along with his writing parter, Tim.

[edit: Some people have commented that if the script wasn’t copyrighted, then Landon and Kullberg really don’t have a case. If you read the entire suit, you’ll see that Rise was copyrighted. The suit says, “Kullberg registered the Rise screenplay with the Writers Guild America in 2010 and with the United States Copyright Office in 2012.”]

What’s REALLY Offensive About The SNL Parody of God’s Not Dead 2

Last weekend, Saturday Night Live aired a movie teaser that was a parody of the Pure Flix film, God’s Not Dead 2. In the parody, a religious baker is forced to go to court to defend God’s honor after she refuses to bake a cake for a gay couple.

As you might imagine, the response has been across the board. On the pro-SNL trailer side you have people saying this:

Cineblend called the parody “hilarious” and said that it was “one of their best pieces in the past couple of years.”

Buzzfeed said that the parody was “brilliant” and “spot on.”

Vulture said the parody was “inspiring”, although there may have been some tongue in the cheek of that one.

Others have been just as clear regarding their less positive feelings about the parody:

The Blaze said it was “sacrilegious.”

CharismaNews said it was “blasphemous.”

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, actor Pat Boone called the parody “anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, cowardly, “diabolical” and even demonic.”

And when Pure Flix founder (and most-active-actor) David A.R. White linked to a story about the trailer on his Facebook page, fans of the God’s Not Dead movies were quick to rush to the film’s defense, saying things like:

“This movie must have really rattled the enemy’s cage.”

“Evil will never let a good thing go unchallenged, and your movies are very good things. That SNL would mock you means you have arrived, Mr White. Your success is huge so go make more good movies!”

“If SNL did a skit about Allah, there would be a bloody war. Why is it ok to bash Christianity but no other faith?”

“The simple fact is that if they are mocking it, they are afraid of it. Despite the blasphemy and ignorant childishness of the liberals at SNL, this is a victory for Christians.”

“This is disgusting. But it qualifies as persecution, doesn’t it. If they hated us, they hated Him first, but I hate to see God almighty mocked this way. But it’s like what was said in the first movie. “How can you hate someone that you say doesn’t exist?””

And the kicker…

“Hell will be full of SNL individuals.”

Here’s the rub…

SNL was not mocking God.

I know, I know… the name of the parody is “God is a Boob Man”, which on the face of it, seems to be making fun of God and mocking those who believe in God, regardless of their faith (after all, “Allah” is the Islamic word for “God”).

But SNL wasn’t aiming at God with this parody, they were just using the idea of God to push the message of their parody video.

Using God to push an agenda or to earn a profit is something that people of all religious persuasions have done for years, including Christians.

So it’s not that.

SNL wasn’t mocking Christianity. 

Yes, there’s a line where the baker says, “Christians are the most oppressed group in this country.” But it’s not an unearned jab. A cursory examination of the comment section of any story about Christian persecution in America demonstrates that there really are Christians in America who feel that we are oppressed. Otherwise, there’s not another mention of the Christian faith anywhere in the trailer.

If SNL intended to mock the historical Christian faith, they could have done a lot more to “Christianize” the character. The baker’s not even wearing a cross necklace, for heaven’s sake!

So, if they weren’t mocking God or Christianity, who or what were they mocking with this parody video?

SNL was mocking the God’s Not Dead movies.

I think this is pretty obvious. The God’s Not Dead movies are infamous for the way they negatively portray people who are not Christians. With their villainous Atheist professors, their non-believing heartless businessmen boyfriends, their violent Muslim and Chinese fathers, their Satanic ACLU lawyers, their spineless separation of church and state school boards, they’ve done a pretty good job calling everyone else awful, and Christians the only good in the world.

Basically, they’ve been asking to be parodied for quite a while now. I’m just surprised it took so long before it happened on the big stage.

So we Christians can calm down on all the calls of blasphemy, sacrilege, and anti-Christianity. Parodying and mocking the films of Pure Flix is not the same as parodying and mocking God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or the Church.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 5.58.01 AM[And if I might add, Pure Flix is acting in a dangerous and irresponsible manner by permitting and even encouraging the conversation to imply that they are the same thing. Pure Flix should be the ones stepping out and saying what I’m saying, but I don’t see that happening. It’s almost like they are happy for the controversy. It’s almost like they are fully aware that it emboldens their fans, and they know that SNL just gave them a big gift…]

But I’m getting off topic.

Let me just to say it one more time… THE FILMS OF PURE FLIX ARE NOT THE CHURCH. They are bits of entertainment in pop culture, just like superhero movies and sports flicks, and they are wide open to parody and ridicule as much as anyone or anything else.

That’s just a part of the game.

But having said all of that, Pure Flix was not the only target of SNL’s ire, and maybe not even the primary target. Or, maybe they were, but SNL just so happened to hit a more important target in the process of parodying God’s Not Dead.

SNL was mocking FAITH-BASED FEAR.

You know what I’m talking about, right?

I’m talking about the fear that Christians are losing something because of the color of a coffee cup at Christmas.

I’m talking about the fear that Obama is a secret Muslim who wants to forcibly convert you to Islam.

I’m talking about the fear that same-sex marriage will turn Christians gay.

I’m talking about the fear that baking a cake for a gay wedding will somehow cause more harm than refusing to do so and going to court over the issue.

I’m talking about the fear that dark forces are plotting how to take our children and indoctrinate them into rampant social liberalism.

I’m talking about the fear that our neighbors are dangerous because they wear the head covering of a certain religion, or because they have different colored skin then we have, or because they come from a part of the world that makes us nervous.

I’m talking about the fear that public schools might teach our children about other religions.

I’m talking about the fear that took a low level state bureaucrat in Kentucky and made her into a folk hero for not doing her job.

I’m talking about the fear that encourages Christianity-themed movies that demonize just about everyone who isn’t a Christian for the sake of helping us feel better about ourselves as Christians.

I’m talking about the fear that we will soon be rounding up teachers and putting them on trial for mentioning the name of Jesus in a public school history class.

I’m talking about the fear that our faith isn’t as influential as it once was, that our voice isn’t as loud as it once was, and that our opinion doesn’t matter like it used to.

And this is the most offensive thing about the parody trailer, that it shows us who we really are, and what we’re truly afraid of. It shows us that we are not being salt and light as much as we are being pains in the butt. It shows us that we are being ruled by our fear in the eyes of the culture.

See, fear is a very powerful thing, but it’s not real. It’s based on what we think could happen, whether those fears are founded or not. And it’s not supposed to be a part of who we are as the Church, and it’s not supposed to be a part of who we are as individuals who claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

And yet in America we are letting fear set the agenda for just about everything we do on the public stage.

Christians, that’s just not right.

So, instead of getting upset and up in arms over the SNL parody video, we need to take it for what it is – a parody lampooning Pure Flix films, and a parody lampooning our un-Christlike fears, and a mirror reflecting who we can often seem to be as Christians to the rest of the world.

We should take it, learn from it, and let it encourage us to be the kind of Jesus follower that God wants us to be.

Not fearful.

And in the spirit of God’s Not Dead flooding their end credits with court cases that have little to do with the cases presented in their films, I leave you with a list of Bible verses that have everything to do with how a Christian should handle fear.

Psalm 23:4

Psalm 27:1

Psalm 118:6

Psalm 115:11

Psalm 103:17

Deuteronomy 31:6

1 Chronicles 28:20

Isaiah 41:10

Isaiah 41:13

Isaiah 54:4

Matthew 10:28

Romans 8:15

1 Corinthians 16:13

Hebrews 13:5-6

1 Peter 3:13-14

1 John 4:18

2 Timothy 1:7

God’s Not Dead 2: How Will it Do?

godsnotdead2-1This weekend marks the release of the sequel to 2014’s surprise faith-based hit, God’s Not Dead. The new film, creatively called God’s Not Dead 2, is expected to do well among the target demographic, but only time will tell if Pure Flix has another megahit on their hands.

Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t have written the story of the first film, because nobody would have greenlit the production.

In that story, the writers would have invented a small Christian production/acquisition/distribution company and called it Pure Flix. That company would produce two or three feature length Christian films a year that would typically go straight to the DVD rack at the local Christian bookstore, and while the company would be solvent, it wouldn’t exactly be the next Disney.

As a part of this usual routine, the small Christian production company would release a low budget movie about a student working to prove to his atheist university professor that God is not dead. But, taking advantage of the new interest in the faith-based film genre, the company would arrange a wider distribution then usual for their films, getting it released in over 700 theaters.

maxresrrdefaultOf course, being a small film with no A-list actors, and being a “faith-based” film, most people wouldn’t have this movie on their radar. But, the writers of our little drama would create a massively successful grassroots marketing campaign that would cause the faith-based movie to explode out of the gate. And then, the little film with a budget of around two million dollars would go on to make over $90 million dollars, combined box office and home video sales.

And Pure Flix would live happily ever after.

Of course, if there’s one thing that is true, it’s that finding box office success is like catching lightning in a bottle. For Pure Flix, this has proven to be the case with the less than spectacular results of their follow up films, Do You Believe? ($14.5 million on a $2.3 million budget, still quite respectable, but undeniably the film was riding on God’s Not Dead‘s coattails) Faith of our Fathers ($1.3 million on an undisclosed, but probably pretty small, budget), Woodlawn ($17 million on a $25 million budget), to name a few. The company has also acquired and released several other smaller films, and has turned profits by keeping production costs low.

But the question remains: was the success of God’s Not Dead just an aberration? A fluke? A luck of the draw?

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 1.54.28 PMThe folks at Pure Flix, in a series of pretty brilliant business moves, made the wise decision to not put all their eggs in the God’s Not Dead basket. For example, they took some of those GND profits and bought out a fledgling faith-based streaming service, turning Pure Flix into the premiere faith and family filming streaming service. Finally, the name “Pure Flix” makes some sense as a faith-based alternative to Netflix. Second, they took some more of those profits and developed their own U.S. theatrical distribution wing that would enable them to put more of the box office revenues back into the company rather than into the coffers of the traditional distributers. Also, they invested even more profits in building up their international wing, Quality Flix, in an attempt to build the reputation and potential revenue for that coveted international audience.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 2.25.44 PMWhat they didn’t do with that money is decide to give away their ministry materials. So yes, for $22.95 you too can purchase a God’s Not Dead 2 DVD study kit. This stands in opposition to smaller faith-based films that gave away their study kits, including Captive and The Young Messiah.

Come on, Pure Flix… you can do better than that.

But I digress.

All in all, whether or not you appreciate the films released under the Pure Flix banner, you have to appreciate that they have developed a good business model.

Which brings us back to what is arguably the most anticipated film on the Pure Flix slate, God’s Not Dead 2. Box-office-wise, there are three possible outcomes of this film’s release:

1. GND2 will flop, and not earn back its budget.

This won’t happen. Although Pure Flix hasn’t released the budget of GND2, I’m guessing it’s probably around $10 million (edit: they released the budget, and it was $5 mill). GND2 would have work pretty hard to not make that back considering the fact that GND was such a hit. It also helps that GND2 will be bowing in over 2,000 screens, which is three times the number of theaters as GND. So, making back the budget is pretty much a given.

252881heh2. GND2 will repeat or surpass the success of the original.

This won’t happen. God’s Not Dead was a bonafide phenomenon, and it’s extremely difficult to replicate something like that. And considering that this film has mostly a new cast and no A-list actors, there isn’t anything new to bring in a new audience.

3. GND2 will turn a respectable profit, but nowhere near GND.

This is the most likely option, and it’s all about the timing.

GND came out in 2014 during “the year of the Christian film,” when the genre was just starting to gain traction. Since that time, we’ve seen plenty of faith-based films bomb at the box office, even with the occasional success story. GND2‘s big challenge is that a swarm of other faith-based films were released in the past six weeks (Risen, The Young Messiah, Miracles from Heaven, TV’s The Passion), and so God’s Not Dead 2 will be going up against some pretty serious faith-based film fatigue.

The faith-based film fatigue will mean that GND2 will probably not see the multiple viewings or experience the FOMO factor that we saw with GND in 2014, and those things are the keys that make a small budget genre film like this become a phenomenon.

That being said, the film will do better than most would in this climate because of franchise name-recognition.

And so, my prediction is that God’s Not Dead 2 will end its run at about $40 million. Not bad on a $5 million dollar budget.

(edit: as of April 11, the box office is just over $14 mill, so it looks like my estimate was quite high. Still, profit, but not a phenomenon like the first one.)

(edit again: now, this is interesting. The day GND2 was released, it was #4 in the box office, and #5 was another faith-based film, Miracles from Heaven. After April 1, GND2 slipped behind Miracles, and has stayed behind it every day since, even though Miracles was released three weeks earlier. So, GND2 wasn’t just not a phenomenon, but it couldn’t even beat another faith-based film that has been out three weeks. Miracles has earned over $50 mill on a $13 mill budget, btw. Source: Box Office Mojo.)

THE FUTURE?

Regardless, GND2 will be financially successful, which means that in a couple of years we can expect to see God’s Not Dead 3, officially making this series the first serious theatrical faith-based film franchise.

In celebration of that fact, I’d like to suggest to Pureflix that they open up the naming of GND3 to the internet. I have to admit that my motives are not entirely pure in this suggestion, as such a competition would likely give us a film named something like God’s Not Dead 3: Boaty McBoatface.

And that would give me unending joy.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 2.10.48 PM

But there are some other interesting ramifications of this new Christian film franchise for Pure Flix… could it lead to the creation of a GNDCU? Just like Marvel has the MCU, could we have a whole series of spinoff films from the God’s Not Dead universe?

I can see it now – God’s Not Dead: The Martin Chronicles. In this film, Martin (the Chinese student) returns to China to prove to his strictly traditional atheist father that God is, in fact, not dead, and is surely alive, and he could take the Newsboys with him to help prove it. (Note to Pure Flix: “Newsboys” in Chinese is “新闻男孩”)

GND:TMC could be made in partnership with a Chinese film company, and could be the movie that really puts Quality Flix to work, opening the door to the company being the first faith-based entertainment company to do serious business in the soon-to-be largest film market in the world! Of course, to be accepted by Chinese censors, they’d have to take “God” out of the title, and probably most of the overt Christian language. But still, it could mean new chapter in the life of Pure Flix Entertainment LLC.

But regardless of what the long term future holds, in the short term, God’s Not Dead 2 will surely be opening in theaters this weekend, and will make plenty of money, even while being panned by most critics (my Rotten Tomatoes prediction? 18%).

But the question remains – will the movie be good? That’s a question for another blog post.

For my (somewhat snarky) review of the first God’s Not Dead 2 trailer, click here.

For my (not-so-snarky) review of God’s Not Dead, click here: Part I and Part II.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 20 • The 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge

Half-a-DonutI stand at the midway point of the challenge, with as much lying behind me as lies ahead.  The “donut of misery”, as they say.  And yet, I’ve settled into a comfortable routine, enjoying certain aspects of the process, and disliking others. 

The Pleasures

I’ve enjoyed finding some wonderful Christian-produced media, much that I probably wouldn’t have discovered without the challenge. 

Reel World Theology Podcast – Entertainment is not mindless

More Than One Lesson Podcast – Movie talk for the discerning Christian (which I actually discovered before the challenge, but I’ve been enjoying listening to the back episodes)

Say Goodnight Kevin – youtube channel (watch the reviews for Fireproof and Left Behind)

bored-again-christianThe Bored-Again Christian Podcast – Christian music for people who are tired of Christian music (update: I just realized that this podcast appears to be dead –  not updated for a couple of years, sadly.  Still, the back episodes are worthy of listening)

Skye Jethani’s daily devotions

Rocket Pack Jack – a fun short film for kids

Christiancinema.com – a great source of films

World Magazine – a news magazine I used to enjoy in print form, but have been glad to rediscover online.

Sufjan Stevens – an extremely innovative musician with a Jesus underpinning to his music.

And, as a person who really disliked God’s Not Dead, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find some Pure Flix movies that I’ve enjoyed.  Not to sound snarky, but this has been a big surprise to me, but again – a pleasant one.

Finally, I’m also excited about the growing list of things I want to read/listen to/watch when the challenge is complete.  It will be nice to have choice back again.

The Challenges

At the same time, I have not enjoyed some of the Christian-produced things I’ve encountered, although I have found a growing appreciation for the Christians who are creating media, regardless of what I think of the finished product.  Producing media is extremely difficult, and for a person to take an idea to the finish line is admirable in any situation.  

I just wish I could affect change on much of that finished product…

Speaking of choice, one thing I’ve really disliked is not having any real choices of credible news sources.  Typically, when not doing this challenge, I like my sources to be varied, because I think that is how I can come closest to getting the true story.  Limiting my news to only Christian media outlets has severely limited my ability to get an unbiased perspective on world events.

exodus-gods-and-kings-poster-final-405x600Exodus: Gods and Kings • Thimblerig’s Mini-review

Last night my family sat down to watch Exodus: Gods and Kings.  It seemed appropriate to watch a film about The Passover on Good Friday, and I was all prepared to not like it because of the way so many Christians responded negatively to the film.

But I really, really liked it.

People said the film was boring, but I was completely engaged from start to finish.  I often fall asleep watching movies at night (yeah, I’m that guy), but I stayed awake to the very end.

People didn’t like the film’s representation of God as an 11 year old boy.  I was intrigued by the filmmaker’s choice to do this, and it made me pay attention in a way I might not have if God had simply been a disembodied voice.  By the way, did people get upset that Val Kilmer, the voice of Moses in Prince of Egypt, also provided the disembodied voice of God?

People didn’t like the naturalistic portrayal of the plagues.  This criticism makes me want to pull my beard out.  The plagues, while natural in execution, were obviously supernatural in origin.  That was the whole point of the advisor to Ramses who tried to explain them away as natural, but who ultimately wound up swinging in the gallows, because there was no way they were natural!

Of course, if people have a genuine conviction to not watch a film like Exodus: Gods and Kings, then they should not watch the film.  I do, however, think that many of the critiques I read were simply incorrect.

Here are a couple of good reads about the Christian response to Exodus.

Movieguide – I was very impressed by the five suggestions that the Movieguide people made.  Make sure to read the comments below the article, by the way.

Karen Marya – I’ve linked this article before, but it’s so good I want to link it again.  Karen is a part of the Sacred Arts Revolution, by the way.

Chip Hardy (Ph.D., University of Chicago), Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Southeastern – a fantastic perspective from an expert in the subject matter.   Thanks to Wesley at the Sacred Arts Revolution for the heads up on this.

I’d like to conclude my 20 day wrap-up with this little nugget that occurred to me after watching Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Christian filmmaking apologists will often defend the low quality of Christian-made film by saying that God uses the weak things of the world to shame the wise, and that God can even use a poorly made Christian film to impact the world.  And then, in the same breath, they lambast non-Christian-made Bible films as being heretical and unbiblical, saying that Christians should not see such films.

Isn’t it interesting that these Christians defend the Christian-made material so strongly, but often don’t extend this same courtesy to non-Christian-made films like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings?

Can’t God use non-Christian-made films to bring people to Himself, and shouldn’t we (as Christians) look for ways to be a part of that happening?

A little bonus cultural tidbit for your reading pleasure.

qing-ming2We’re celebrating the Qingming Festival in China this weekend.  It’s a lunar-based festival where people traditionally go to the tombs of their ancestors and pay respect to the dead.

Family members clear weeds from around the tomb and add fresh soil to show care for the dead.  They also bring the dead person’s favorite food and wine, and burn money (or paper resembling money) so that the dead will have plenty.

This year, it just so happens that the Qingming Festival falls on the same weekend as Easter, when the women went to the tomb to take care of the dead and found that the tomb was empty.

I think that’s pretty cool.

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.