The Shack – The Highest Grossing Christian Film To Give Away Free Resources?

shackThis weekend, the controversial faith-based film The Shack crossed the $30,000,000 box office mark. This put the film in fifteenth place in the Box Office Mojo list of highest grossing films marketed to the Christian audience (or as they say, “Movies produced by Christians that promote or embody their religion.“)

Considering that the movie has only been out for two weekends, it will undoubtedly climb higher on the list before all is said and done, and could potentially crack the top ten.

The film’s release renewed heated debate about The Shack, which was a controversial best selling book years before it was adapted for the silver screen. Calls of heresy and blasphemy from respected church leaders have kept many people from supporting this film, a decision that other respected church leaders see as a missed opportunity to share the Christian faith, if a believing movie-goer has the right tools at his or her disposal.

To help solve this problem, and possibly to answer some of the concerns of the detractors, the makers of The Shack put together an impressive, biblically-based discussion guide, as well as other materials, all available on http://theshackresources.com for free.

When I saw that The Shack had cracked the top 15 highest grossing Christian-made films, it made me wonder how the other films on the list handled their ministry resources in a similar way. To help answer this question, I did a simple search for each of the top 15 movies [“The name of the movie movie resources”] and looked for the official resource page provided by the filmmakers or studios. While most of these films have ministry-related products that are sold through Lifeway or Outreach (including The Shack), I was specifically looking at which high grossing films made it a point to give resources for free, for ministry’s sake.

The results of my research were mixed.

15. The ShackResources are free, including hard copies of discussion guides and resource DVDs.

14. FireproofResources are not free.

13. CourageousResources are not free.

12. RisenCombination of free and not free resources, the free resources include a downloadable 14 page conversation starter and a link to a free Bible study plan.

11. The Nativity Story – The film is from 2006, and I was unable to find any working links for resources, free or otherwise.

10. Soul Surfer – No resources available on film website, free or otherwise.

9. Son of GodResources are not free.

8. God’s Not DeadResources are not free.

7. Miracles from HeavenCombination of free and not free resources, the free resource is a downloadable sixteen page discussion guide, no Scripture references.

6. War RoomA whole bunch of resources, more than I’ve seen from any of the other movies, but none of them are free.

5. Heaven Is For RealThe website has a free ten page discussion guide, with Scripture refrences.

4. The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderA free education guide, but no ministry resources.

3. Prince Caspian – A free education guide, but no ministry resources.

2. The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe – A free education guide, but no ministry resources.

1. The Passion of the Christ – The film that started it all, from 2004. I was unable to find an official website for the film, so no resources.

While it saddens me that all of the top grossing Christian films don’t give away ministry resources,  I am heartened by the films that do. Also, I should point out that Affirm Films (the faith-based division of Sony) makes free discussion guides available for the movies they release, many of which are on the list above. You can see those study guides by going to the Affirm Films website.

However, I would encourage Christian filmmakers and producers – especially of films that make impressive profit – to use some of that profit to create tools that people can freely use to share the Gospel, and not just create ministry tools to increase the profit even more.

Thimblerig out.

[update: after the second weekend, The Shack has crossed $42M, making it number 11 on the list just behind The Nativity Story. It’ll push Soul Surfer out of the top ten very soon.]

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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:

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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:

 

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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.

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.

What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking?

 

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This morning I read a review of the film God’s Not Dead over at Gospelspam.com, and was struck by the thesis of the review, which is found in the title, “God’s Not Dead but Christian Screenwriting Is.”

The review had plenty of good to say about the film, but also plenty to say about the problems currently found in Christian filmmaking – specifically the writing.  This issue brings up strong feelings and thoughts in me, as I am a Christian, and I have been a student of screenwriting since 2007.  I’ve written screenplays (both produced and un-produced), and have recently published my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.  I felt led to respond to the article in the comment section at Gospelspam, and then decided to reproduce the bulk of my comments here.

Let me say from the start that my intention with this article is not to attack my fellow Christian artists.  I generally have great respect for anyone who carries an idea from imagination to the screen, and with Christian artists, I also respect the intention behind the process.  And I know that there are probably some very good independently made Christian films that try like crazy to break out to a larger audience, but are unable to do so for many different reasons.  The intent of this article is more to express my frustration of the limitations faced by Christian artists, put there by the church at large.

flanneryFor centuries the church was the main sponsor of amazing art.  Christians were responsible for setting the tone of art for the culture, and we have the amazing work of artists such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and many others as the fruit of that labor.  But for some reason Christians have rarely been able to accomplish dramatic storytelling effectively on any large scale, which is ironic, considering that we are the custodians of the Greatest Story Ever Told.  While there are the occasional mold-breakers (thinking about C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor in the literary world, to name a couple), modern Christians seem to have a hard time jumping feet-first into the story-telling deep end, telling a compelling story that will go beyond the church walls.

This is a multi-layered conversation, and it is thankfully a conversation that is taking place among many creative Christian writers and artists.  In 2007 I was privileged to take a month long intensive screenwriting course in Hollywood with  Act One, an organization that trains Christian writers and producers how to write and produce good films with integrity.  It was one of the most stimulating months of my life, as we wrestled with these issues on a daily basis.  From that time, and since, I’ve thought of three major hurdles that Christian artists face when attempting to write, sing, or film something that will have the potential to impact the world.  For the sake of this article, I will focus on Christian filmmaking.

The first problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to be SAFE.  When is the last time a big “faith-based” film had an R rating because of it’s true depiction of sin?  It’s a huge dilemma, because we – as followers of Christ – don’t want to sin ourselves in making a film, or encourage sin, but this really handcuffs us and our ability to realistically portray life.  If you are a Christian, when was the last time you saw a Christian film that truly challenged your faith?  What was the last Christian film that asked questions without giving answers?  Does the greater Christian culture allow for that?

Facing_the_giantsThe second problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to be PREDICTABLE.  When I was doing drama in summer camps in Kazakhstan, a friend pointed out that the representation of Satan was always more interesting than the representation of Jesus.  He also said that it wasn’t saying much, because Satan was fundamentally not so interesting because no matter the drama presentation, he always acted the same way, and the same was true of Jesus.  I see this carried through in expectations for Christian filmmaking – the protagonist and the antagonist usually act a certain way, and if they don’t, the film won’t be received well.  What does the audience want?  The non-Christian needs to become a Christian, and the Christian needs to find “victory” of some sort.  My major disappointment with the Kendrick brother’s film, “Facing the Giants”, was that it was a wonderful opportunity to show how a Christian deals with failure, but in the end the filmmakers decided to make it a fairy tale where a prayer changes the direction of the wind.  It was predictable, and the film was wildly successful.

The third problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to PREACH TO THE CHOIR.  With the exception of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, how many films made by Christian filmmakers have made any sort of dent in the culture beyond the church walls?  When is the last time a film made by Christians received substantial praise from non-Christian film reviewers?  This past weekend, God’s Not Dead had good box office – earning a respectable $9.2 million, but how much of that cash was from non-Christian wallets?  The film also currently has a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is high for the typical Christian-made film.
Noah 1

Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming film, Noah, is a very interesting case to me, and it is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for some time.  Unfortunately, a  big reason that I’m hopeful for the film is that it was NOT made explicitly by Christians, and while the studio also wants a piece of the “faith-based audience box office pie”, Aronofsky made the film he wanted to make.  I am much more interested in this film than I am in God’s Not Dead or the recent Son of God, because it will be everything a typical Christian film is not:  it will be a dangerous film – forcing the viewer to rethink the traditional way of viewing the story of Noah; it will undoubtedly be unpredictable, because Aronofsky is not handcuffed by an allegiance to modern evangelical sensibilities; and finally, thousands and thousands of people are going to be flocking to see it, and not because of their church allegiance.

How cool would it be if a film made by Christians could make the box office that Noah will make, with audiences from every different walk of life?  Here are my tips on how the body of Christ can come closer to making that happen:

1)  We need to permit our artists (writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers) to take more risks.  And artists, whether you are permitted or not, take more risks.  Did you really get into your artistic field because you liked playing it safe?  Why play it safe with the most important thing you have to say?

2)  We need to encourage our artists to challenge rather than stroke our sensibilities.  A pearl is made when dirt is irritated inside the oyster, after all.  And so artists, don’t wait for permission.  Start challenging your audience.  They will undoubtedly resist you, but we need to be challenged or we’ll stagnate and fade away into irrelevance.

3)  We need to recognize that art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit, and while the two might cross paths from time to time, they are completely different animals.  This goes for everyone.  Does everyone truly understand this?  With all the recent criticisms of Noah because it “is unbiblical”, I have to think that lots of people don’t.  Read here for more of my thoughts on this.

4)  We need to be okay with movies that don’t give all the answers.  If they succeed in asking some good, deep questions, they might actually open the doors to conversations where answers can be explored.  Artists, isn’t part of our job to provoke questions?  Don’t feel you have to end every sentence with a period

5)  And most importantly:  tell good stories.  As Frank Capra famously said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”  If you are an artist, the quality of your work should be at the top of your list of considerations.  Jesus wasn’t known for telling mediocre stories that ticked off all the correct religious boxes.  He was known for telling compelling stories that challenged his listeners while communicating God’s truth.  Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus?

I need to conclude this article by saying once more that I do respect that there are Christians out there trying to bust into the filmmaking business, and I wish them well.  I just hope we can figure out how to tell The Story – truly the Greatest Story Ever Told – in the manner in which it deserves, and in such an excellent way that people outside the Christian subculture will receive it.

Update:  If you have read this far, and you want to read more of my thoughts on this subject – especially as related to what artists of faith need to do – please go here for my follow up article:   What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking Episode 2

You can also respond further about the things brought up in this article here.

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtFinally, if you would like to see me trying to put my words here to practice, then download my new novel, Thimblerig’s Ark!  It’s the story of Noah’s Ark from the animal’s point of view, and here’s what has been said about it:

“A great romp!”

“…couldn’t put it down…”

“A powerful story!”

“…seems like a children’s book, but its themes are more adult.”

For the price of a latte at Starbucks, you can own this novel, and help an independent first-time author at the same time!