“Too little, too late.”
That’s the phrase that kept coming to mind as I started to write a blog post where I, as a Christian, was going to argue against the building of a Christian film industry.
After all, Christians have been trying – on some level – to create a Christian film industry since movies began, and some would argue even earlier. There were the Billy Graham films of the 1950’s, the apocalyptic Thief in the Night movies of the 1970’s, and a smattering of attempts by different Christian filmmakers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but these movies barely registered on the radar of people outside of the church. As far as Hollywood was concerned, Christian movies were provincial affairs, unworthy of notice.
Then in 2004, Mel Gibson shocked everyone to attention with his blood-soaked account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus – The Passion of the Christ, a film that cost 30 million to make and earned over 600 million.
Hollywood finally stood up and took notice.
It was as if Gibson, by successfully tapping into the largely untapped market of the “faith based audience”, had singlehandedly uncovered the fabled lost golden city of El Dorado, and the L.A. conquistadors immediately set about strategizing how to best invade and conquer this shining city on a hill.
The Armani-suited conquistadors didn’t waste time, but began attaching themselves to little-known Christian filmmakers who seemed to appeal to the Christian masses, eventually inking deals with the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof), Pureflix Entertainment (God’s Not Dead), Cloud Ten Pictures (Left Behind), and many others – helping provide the finances and distribution channels that would permit these filmmakers and film companies to continue making and marketing their products for the Christian audience.
And in the past couple of years we’ve seen several well-known individuals from outside the filmmaking industry also try to tap into the Χριστιανός zeitgeist – Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, Willie Robertson, to name a few – all doing their part to try and build up a Christian (or politically conservative) filmmaking industry in their own image, or at least one that lines up with their own personal theological interpretation of the faith or political ideology.
And now, here we have this little blog, a small voice crying in the wilderness, making the argument that creating a Christian film industry is absolutely the last thing that we Christians should be trying to do.
THREE ARGUMENTS WHY A CHRISTIAN FILM INDUSTRY IS A REALLY, REALLY BAD IDEA
1. The audience – we want them to hang about, don’t we?
A Christian film industry would only succeed in driving the unchurched audience even farther away than they already are.
Hollywood stood up and took notice with Gibson’s “little indie film that could” because of the massive Christian support. This huge group of people supported The Passion in a way they hadn’t supported a film before. According to a Barna survey, roughly half of the movie’s audience identified as born again Christian, and the film was widely backed by Christian leaders of all denominational backgrounds because of the heavy lifting done by Mel Gibson to get them on board.
But the interesting thing about The Passion was how it was also seen by people who didn’t consider themselves religious. That same Barna survey mentioned that one out of three Americans claimed to have seen the movie, a pretty stunning feat for any film. Mainstream, indie, secular, Christian, whatever… any filmmaker would dream of numbers like that.
Isn’t that something? The Passion of the Christ had an incredible return on its investment (both financially and spiritually), and while it was marketed to Christians, it was a movie everyone wanted to see, regardless of their faith. In fact, I first saw The Passion in a packed movie theater in Almaty, Kazakhstan back in 2004, surrounded by people who had little to no idea who Jesus was, and they were blown away by the film.
But the faith-based movers and shakers seem to have forgotten the wide appeal of Gibson’s film. Christian films continue to be made squarely for Christian audiences – and if some non-Christians happen to get dragged to the film by their Christian friends, then good on them, but the movies aren’t made for them.
Here’s the rub: if the movies were playing in churches, I wouldn’t have a problem!
But the movies aren’t playing in churches. They’re playing in cinemas. In malls and multiplexes. Where people who don’t go to church like to go on a Friday night.
That’s the problem.
What do these people see on their Friday night out? They see Left Behind (RT score 2) playing beside Fury (RT 78) and Birdman (RT 94).
They see Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (RT 0) playing beside Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (RT 73) and Disney’s Big Hero 6 (RT 89).
If you aren’t seriously bothered by those comparisons, then I really wonder if you’re paying attention.
And with every subpar film effort made to expressly please the Christian masses, the respect of the non-Christian for our art and – yes – for our faith – goes down. Just look here, here, here and here. Those are films made in our name, folks, and you can almost hear the sounds of doors closing as the unchurched audience sees what is done in our name, and checks us off their list of groups to be taken seriously.
The creation of a Christian film industry will not improve this, and conversely, I contend that it will entrench us deeper into our misguided acceptance of poorly written, preachy, unambiguous films with underdeveloped low-dimensional characters, and cartoonish, moustache-twirling non-Christian antagonists.
2. People don’t like message movies. Seriously.
A Christian film industry would excel at creating movies that are heavy on message and light on story and character development.
After all, that is what we’ve been creating, almost exclusively, since the dawn of so-called Christian filmmaking.
But here’s the crazy thing: people don’t like message movies, especially poorly made ones.
Remember how angry Christians got when the rumors hit that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah would be a pro-environmentalist screed? Why? Because Christians disliked the message. Neil Blomkcampf and Matt Damon’s Elysium was roundly blasted by conservatives. Why? Because they disliked the film’s liberal message.
The message of a movie should be like the caboose of a train – carried along by the other elements of the film – story, dialogue, character, cinematography, acting – and not the other way around. The message of a well-made film will hit you hours later when you’re lying in your bed, while the message of a poorly-made message-heavy film will steamroll you over while you’re sitting in the cinema.
Granted, if you like the message that the message movie is presenting, you might fool yourself into thinking that you like the movie, but odds are you really only like the message and you’re tolerating the movie. Again, if we are producing these films only for ourselves, and we’re showing them in churches on Sunday nights or at youth retreats, then we should feel free to knock ourselves out and preach away.
However, we aren’t making our Christian message movies in a vacuum. The world is watching, and they are not getting our message because they don’t like our message-heavy movies.
3. Further self-isolation is a big, short-sighted mistake.
A Christian film industry would drive us to close our ranks even more than we already have.
After all, the hard truth is that people who aren’t Christians already rarely read our books. People who aren’t Christians already have little to no interest in listening to our music. They typically don’t visit our blogs, subscribe to our magazines, attend our universities, shop in our gift shops, tune into our television programming, or take advice from our talk shows. They’re rarely interested in attending our churches, our Bible studies, our home groups, our prayer meetings, or our revivals.
We’ve done quite a good job building a subculture for ourselves, isolating ourselves from the influences of the world, but in the process we’re also isolating our influence from the world!
And now we find ourselves stuck in the gravitational pull of a cultural black hole. Religion has always been a huge factor in public discourse in the United States, but since a height of relevance in the 1950’s, Christian cultural influence has been in a steady decline. In another study, the folks at Barna have shown that this decline will continue so that, unless something changes, by the time my one year old is college-aged, he will be in the definite minority. I should say that he will be in the minority if he is following Christ – and it is my daily prayer that he will be. But my son will need to know how to live and work in a post-Christian world.
And that post-Christian world that is coming will have very little interest in supporting or encouraging a Christian film industry.
THE ALTERNATIVE TO A CHRISTIAN FILM INDUSTRY
Believe it or not, I’m not saying that we should never make films for Christian audiences. We should! They should be fantastic films, just like films made for any subculture can be fantastic! But that should not be the focus of our efforts.
Rather, we should focus on those Christians trying to make it in Hollywood right now – writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, CGI gurus, etc – who are currently studying and working in the Hollywood system, who need to be built up and encouraged by the church while the church still has the resources and relevance to be able to support them! Rather than insisting that they produce middling message-heavy stories for Christian audiences, we should be encouraging them to learn how to tell their stories and live their lives within the system that will be there in the future.
We should be building these believing artists up so that they can have an impact on the lives of the unchurched writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, and CGI gurus with whom they work.
We should be helping them to make movies whose posters would be proudly displayed on any mall cinema or multiplex.
We should be helping them get the training and experience and connections that they can use to make films that would have big premieres on red carpets with paparazzi and gowns and tuxedos and limousines.
We should be providing them with the proper tools and support so that the movies they make can be well-made enough to be nominated for Critic’s awards and People’s Choice Awards and Golden Globes and Oscars.
Instead of putting all our money and resources into creating movies that we can enjoy in our isolation, we should be investing in our filmmakers who are out on the mission field of Hollywood, helping them to make movies that can take the cultural landscape by storm, that can hit the widest of audiences, and trusting God to use those efforts to reach the unchurched audience how HE would reach them.
After all, we are called to live with that unchurched audience, not in closed ranks, regardless of how much influence we have. We aren’t to be conformed by the world (Romans 12:2), we shouldn’t be of the world (John 15:19), but we are to be salt and light in the dark world (Matthew 5:13-16) and bearers of a great light to the people who walk in darkness (Isaiah 9:2).
Maybe, just maybe, in our generation or the next – that great light will be seen flickering with 70MM projection on an Imax screen, to thunderous applause.
Below are a few good places to start if you want to find some Christians to support in Hollywood. Just click on the logo to go to the organization’s website: