Very early in my career as a writer of faith-based films, I read an interview with Christian filmmaker Rich Christiano where he proudly proclaimed, "It's not my job to entertain Christians."
I understood what he meant. He felt Christian films should have a ministry purpose. That they should be vehicles to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Still, I resented his comment. Despite the fact that I believed my films had a ministry purpose, I thought "Why shouldn't Christians have their own entertainment? What's wrong with that?"
Plenty, I have come to believe.
The turning point came to me a few years ago at a Movieguide event on the East Coast hosted by its founder Ted Baehr. For those unfamiliar with the organization, Movieguide's mission is to "redeem the values of the entertainment industry, according to biblical principles, by influencing executives and artists." Basically, they try to prove that it is in the best interests of Hollywood to produce films with wholesome and redemptive themes. Every year they produce a report to Hollywood which illustrates how much more money family-oriented films make on average than the the darker fare the industry celebrates. There is no disputing the numbers.
I became associated with Movieguide when it awarded my spec script "I, John" with the Kairos Prize at its annual Hollywood gala. (2nd runner-up) I was very honored and enriched. When I was later invited to a fundraiser at a private home in Northern Virginia a few years ago, I happily attended. While there, I pulled Ted aside and told him that my latest faith-based film, Revelation Road: The Beginning of the End, was wrapping up production. I thought he would be pleased that I was still making Christian films. His response surprised me. He just rolled his eyes and said, "Sean, you've got to stop making those films."
Whoa! Waz up with dat? Is Ted Baehr suddenly a hater? An enemy of Christian films?
No. Not at all. He simply has his eyes on a bigger prize. He believes that "he who controls the media controls the culture."
That made me think. What is the place of Christian films in our culture, and, more importantly, the Kingdom of God? The answer is complicated. And I suspect my answer will anger some of my fellow filmmakers.
The independent Christian film business is growing by leaps and bounds. In many ways, I think the aforementioned Rich Christiano is the father of the modern movement. Starting in the early-90s, he made a series of low-budget evangelical films and developed a workable release model. PureFlix honcho David A.R. White got his first taste of Christian cinema by appearing in Christiano's Second Glance while he was on break from his steady work on the Burt Reynolds sitcom Evening Shade. Producer Paul LaLonde and director Andre van Heerden further upped the ante by adding thriller aspects and recognizable movie stars, to their low-budget faith-based and end times films. Still, Hollywood didn't really start to take notice until the release of 1999's The Omega Code. The $12,000,000 domestic box office was surprising, but it was nothing compared to the $600,000,000+ generated by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
I happily waded into the faith-based world in 2005 by co-writing Hidden Secrets, the first film produced, but not released, the current industry leader PureFlix Entertainment. At that time, the independent faith-based film market was still small. There was only a couple rows of DVDs at my local Christian bookstores, and most of those videos were concerts by Christian recording artists. A new narrative film was released straight to video every couple months. I didn't necessarily see every film, but I was aware of them all.
We have turned from a novelty to a genuine genre. My question is: Is that a good thing?
Years ago, I would have said yes, but now I am not so sure. I think ultimately it comes down to Matthew 5:15: "No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house." By creating our own genre, for ourselves, by ourselves, I believe we are effectively placing our light under a bushel.
When I began making Christian films, everyone at least gave lip service to the concept that we were trying to reach people for the Lord. You'd see the producers, directors and stars on the Christian cable shows and hear them on radio broadcasts saying how their films were going to reach the lost. They'd all say if only one person came to the Lord after seeing the film it would be worth it. Some of those folks were completely sincere, others, well, not so much. To many, the faith-based film industry was simply a business. The reality is that, before the market gradually shifted from DVD to streaming, a reasonably budgeted faith-based film with some recognizable talent could expect to make a profit regardless of quality. The films were a safe bet with a small but dependable audience. But the environment has changed.
Recently a friend contacted me and asked me if I wanted to pitch a series with him to a faith-based streaming service. I said okay. He asked what we should pitch. My response was: "First we have to establish a genuine evangelical need ." (When I use the word evangelical, I am using it in the more traditional missional definition. I am not using it in its now almost inescapable political sense.)
As soon as those words left my mouth, I realized how absurd my comment was. We didn't have to worry about any evangelical need because only Christians would ever see the series. No unbeliever was going to plunk down his credit card and subscribe to the service. There was absolutely no missionary purpose at all. Period. We would be strictly in the business of entertaining Christians. And what is true of an internet web series is also true of independent theatrical faith-based films. You might be able to generate sixty million dollars in box office by getting hundreds of churches to buy up theater seats, but you're still hiding your light under a bushel unless the lost are seeing your film.
If you ever hear a Christian producer or entertainer tell you the purpose of his film or web series is to reach people for the Lord, then puts it behind a Christian paywall, rest assured he is not being truthful.
So what are the options for independent Christian filmmakers? I see three choices.
You can make faith-based films aimed at bringing the non-believers to the Lord. This is a tough to do successfully. Why? Because if you want to successfully reach non-believers, you have to do as Jesus did and step into their world and meet people where they are now. Unfortunately, if you do that in your films, you risk losing the base Christian audience. The rule of thumb I was taught was that we shouldn't show anything in a film that a pastor wouldn't feel comfortable showing in his sanctuary. That's exactly why our films seem phony and unbelievable to non-believers. If I said it once, I've said it a thousand times: If the world we present doesn't seem real, then our solution won't seem real either.
Case in point. I was approached by some filmmakers to write a script. It was a true story about a woman who left the world of drug addiction after coming to the Lord. The woman herself gave her testimony on numerous Christian talk shows. Very compelling stuff. The filmmakers said they really wanted to make a film that would reach drug addicts. I said if that was their goal they had to really show the temptations and dangers of that world. You have to understand someone, and what brought them to that place, in order to reach them. The filmmakers agreed. Then I said, if they did that, the film would never get past the Christian gatekeepers who rate films solely on the number of bad words and bad things depicted regardless of the message. Without the support of the gatekeepers, the film would never reach the church audience. Even if the film got to the church audience, they would reject it because of the content. Without the church audience, they could never hope to recoup their investment. The film has yet to be made.
Here's a film of mine that fits well into the first category. It was also viewed by a number of non-believers because of its high rating on Netflix, and a description that didn't completely pigeon-hole it as a faith-based film. It just looked like a cool, supernatural mystery.
Sadly, I doubt the film is having the same impact since it is no longer streaming on Netflix or playing on television. Now, if an unbeliever wants to see it, he has to buy the DVD or subscribe to a Christian streaming service. Both are unlikely.
Make films for the Christian audience. At a Christian film festival, I had a long talk with the head of a Christian streaming service. When he started his company, he envisioned a Christian HBO, where people could watch films suited to their tastes and values. I have no problem with that. However, if that is your goal, there is no need to continue making the "sinner comes to Christ" story. Granted, it's a great story with many variations, but it's not the end of the story. Trying to live the Christian life itself is fraught with drama.
If you're honest with yourself and your audience is entirely Christian, then you should create stories that deal with living the Christian life. Instead of pointing the mirror toward the world, I believe we should point the mirror at the church. There's a certain smugness in far too many of our films that reminds me of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, who proudly points out that he is not like those sinners, We have plenty of work to do in our own backyard, too. Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. Where are our films about race relations within the church? Where are the films addressing judgement in the church when grace is needed? Where are the films bridging denominational hatred and suspicion? A few people have tried, but the films weren't successful. It seems that Christian film goers only want films that make them feel good about themselves, not films that challenge them. (Then again, it might not be the film goers. I think they are more tolerant and interested than the gatekeepers.)
My first produced faith-based film, Hidden Secrets, falls easily into this category. Although we present an atheist character being subjected to evangelization, both directly and indirectly, the main focus remains the relationship between the believers. Rhonda, the graceless Christian, is more of a villain than the atheist. I know her character has sparked many soul-searching conversations.
That film was about the closest I ever came to addressing troublesome issues within the church. In fact, I received an edict soon afterwards not to give the Christian characters in our films any flaws! (I was told that the Kendrick Brothers films made more money than ours because their Christian characters didn't have any flaws.) I confess that I, and the other writers, tried to include some jokes about the excesses of televangelism in the made-for-cable film Brother White, but they were all removed. Most of my faith-based films were, despite claims to the contrary, simple entertainments. For example, don't expect any altar calls or coherent theology from the Revelation Road trilogy, but, hey, why can't Christians have their own Road Warrior film?
Once again, I have no problem with Christian entertainment and there is certainly a place for it. I just think we have to be honest in our intentions. Don't call it evangelism when ninety-nine-percent of the people who see your film are already Christians.
The third option is to ignore the Christian film genre entirely and simply enter the mainstream media instead. Many believers are dismayed at the sudden changes in our culture. While the media tends to reflect rather than influence the culture, a lot of these recent changes have been accelerated because of conscious decisions within the media to promote new viewpoints. The traditional Judaeo-Christian viewpoint was, unsurprisingly, ignored. Why? In part, because there are so few believers sitting at the tables where these decisions are made. Our worldview is not proportionally represented at the highest levels within the industry.
Some of that is strictly our own fault. Many religious leaders have so demonized the film and television industry that they have consciously or unconsciously dissuaded their followers from entering the business. The only time most studio or network heads hear from a Christian is when someone is threatening a boycott over the outrage of moment. Even when mainstream Hollywood attempts to tell a Biblical or faith-friendly story, they are viciously attacked for what they got wrong rather than applauded for what they got right. (See my earlier blog: Enter The Haters.)
Now, if you have the talent and ambition to move into the mainstream, will all of your movies or shows end with an altar call? No, probably none of them will. The mainstream media is not a place for weighty theological discussions, however there is definitely room in the market for graceful redemptive stories that reflect our values. One of the problems with faith-based films is that the audience wants the films to present the entire gospel in such a matter that it compels the viewer to accept Christ during the credits. I think that is symptomatic of a problem of the American church in general. We have become lazy. We leave the work of evangelism to the professionals: priests, ministers, television evangelists and now also faith-based filmmakers. That is an abrogation of personal responsibility. We're all supposed to be working in the field. To me, the role of the filmmaker is simply to start the discussion for you. The films themselves don't have to be explicitly Christian. Many completely secular films are great conversation starters. They include A Clockwork Orange to Wings of Desire to The Book of Eli to This Is The End to the HBO series The Leftovers. All of those films have elements many Christians will find objectionable, but they ask the world questions we can answer.
Here's the trailer to my first film, an edgy, mainstream whodunit:
Many Christian filmmakers have approached me and asked whether I thought they were selling out if they made secular films. I tell them no. From the dawn of my writing career, I have told both spiritual and mainstream stories. However, my moral worldview always remains consistent whether I am writing a faith-based film or a true crime docudrama for the FBI. I am who I am. I believe they can remain true to themselves, too.
Here's a trailer to one of my Emmy-award-winning films for the FBI:
I do not judge any of my fellow filmmakers. If you feel lead to make strictly evangelical films, go for it. If you want to make Christian entertainment, have at it. If you want to make mainstream films, you have my blessing. I just recommend that you take a step back and consider what you are trying to accomplish. Ask yourself: What is my goal? Who am I trying to reach?
I believe what is true of Christian filmmakers is also true of African-American and other minority filmmakers. After the #OscarSoWhite controversy at the Academy Awards two years ago, many commentators recommended that minority filmmakers should make their own films for themselves. As you may suspect, I disagree. If your desire is to share your culture and beliefs with the rest of the world in order to bring about understanding, you need to do it in the mainstream film business. Otherwise, like so many Christian filmmakers, you'll only end up preaching to the choir.
Not that there's anything wrong with that....
Other Faith Based Writing Blogs:
Building The Faith Based Ghetto
Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?
God Told Me To Write It
Enter The Haters
Ministry of Motion Pictures Podcast Interview Part 1
Ministry of Motion Pictures Podcast Interview Part 2
Ministry of Motion Pictures Podcast Interview Part 3
Zach Lawrence and the End Times Quandary
The Making of Hidden Secrets
The Making of Holyman Undercover
The Making of Sarah's Choice
The Making of The Encounter
Check out my memoir, The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God, published by TouchPoint Press. It is my true story of first love and first faith and how the two became almost fatally intertwined.
Here are some sample chapters of The Promise:
Chapter 1 - A Photograph