Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Friday, February 1, 2019

Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?

Blogger E. Stephen Burnett recently posed the question: Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?

Since I have some experience in the field, I will answer the question. However, before I do, I want to say that the question is inherently unfair.

Bad movies are not the sole domain of the Christian filmmakers. I also have experience in the horror genre as well. Trust me, for every bad Christian film, you will find thirty bad horror films and the filmmakers are equally, if not more, deluded. Go to any horror convention and you will find dozens of filmmakers sitting at their little tables selling five, maybe ten, of their low-budget, self-produced films. More often than not, said producer will also be the star of the film and he will be happy to sign the DVDs for no additional cost. Today only: Three discs for ten dollars!

Do those filmmakers think their films are bad? No, of course not! They might concede that they made some sacrifices due to budget considerations, but that's about it. They are making great films. They're sure of that. How do they know? Because they are surrounded by a group of sycophants who constantly praise them and stroke their egos. As sure as the motion of the earth, anyone who can consistently find the money to make feature films will be swamped by wannabe cast and crew members with a desire to bask in the reflected glory. These would-be auteurs live in an echo chamber where their skills are always touted. Until they can't make movies anymore. Then the circus moves to the next genius.

This is also true of filmmakers who produce more serious indie "mumblecore" movies. I remember watching an award-winning film by a highly-touted independent auteur with a fellow filmmaker. After about twenty minutes my friend jumped out of his seat and refused to watch anymore. Incensed, he complained that the director was making no effort at all to entertain. I had to concede his point.  It was almost as if the director felt any attempt to entertain would fatally compromise his aesthetic.

Bad Christian filmmakers are not alone. They are part of a long, inordinately-proud tradition. Singling them out is a bit unfair. But, since Burnett asked the question, I would like to answer with a very firm yes and no.

In the original blog, Burnett discusses a podcast interview Kevin McCreary, the accountability partner no one asked for, did with the faith-based film giant Alex Kendrick, of the Flywheel, Facing The Giants, Fireproof, Courageous and The War Room fame. During the podcast, Kendrick admits that his films had flaws and expressed his desire to grow as a filmmaker.  Bravo!

Here's Alex Kendrick talking with Kevin about his first film:

I also admire Dallas Jenkins, director of Hometown LegendWhat if..., and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone. When he finished his first film, he sent it to a well-known Hollywood director. After viewing the film, the director asked Dallas if he wanted the truth. Dallas said yes, and, boy, he got it. Since then, Dallas has been schooling himself in all aspects of the craft. And it paid off. Although it was a disappointment at the box office, I thought The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, written by the mighty Andrea Nasfell, was a great leap forward for independent, contemporary Christian films. A nice romantic, faith-based comedy that wasn't too preachy. I can't wait to see his upcoming series about the life of Christ called The Chosen.

Here's the trailer:

There are many other faith-based filmmakers I respect, but there are others that I do not. Please forgive me if I don't name names. The world of faith-based film making is very small. I know everyone, or have friends or colleagues in common with them. And many of these people, who are making bad films, do not realize they are doing so.

Why? Here's a couple of reasons.

Lack of objectivity. Most Christian filmmakers are non-professionals. For them, stringing a coherent series of scenes together is an amazing accomplishment in and of itself regardless of the quality. They look at their films the same way a father watches his eight-year-old daughter playing at her first piano recital. He doesn't hear the muffed notes and awkward pauses. He's not comparing her to Sergei Prokofiev and finding her wanting. No, not at all. For him, every note is heavenly. And just as the piano playing daughter will be applauded, the filmmaker will be equally applauded by his friends and family and the people at his church. Sadly, that's not all the validation he needs. He'll want the rest of us to see the film too.

Faith.  Practically every Christian filmmaker will tell you he was led by the Lord to make his film. Therefore, it can't be bad because it is what the Lord willed.  His hand was in it. So it's good!

Who am I to doubt that? Maybe the Lord did want them to make a film. However, I doubt very much the Lord wanted them to throw together a script, buy a cheap camera, gather up a few friends from church and make a movie. Come on. Be real. If the Lord told you he wanted you to be a doctor, you wouldn't buy a scalpel and start operating on people the next day. You'd realize you have to go to medical school first. The fact that people feel they can make a film without any training or education shows how little respect they have for the craft. No wonder they make bad movies. Saying it's God's will is no justification for bad filmmaking. But people do it all the time.

Ego. Few genres are plagued with as many "One Man Bands" as Christian films. I suppose the most charitable explanation is that these folks feel they were given a specific vision from the Lord that only they can fulfill. (I will give the less charitable explanation in an upcoming blog called One Man Bands.) Unfortunately, when one person writes, produces, directs and stars in a film, cinematic disaster is the most likely outcome. Film is, thankfully, a collaborative business. Making a film is an expensive and time-consuming process. If you really care about the end result, you should want to be surrounded by skilled professionals in key jobs who can enhance your project and prevent you from making terrible mistakes. A wise filmmaker wants older, more experienced people around. Also, performing all of those jobs raises the stakes, ego-wise. If you become so intertwined with every aspect of the production, you will take any criticism way too personally. Therefore, to protect your ego, you have to reject all criticism. Then you never learn.

Self-Righteousness.  I know Christian filmmakers who actually take a perverse pride in bad reviews. They are quick to quote John 15:18: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first." To them, bad reviews are a sign that they are following in the path of Christ! I have made enough faith-based films to know that certain people are going to hate them no matter how well they are done. However, that doesn't mean that anyone who points out plot holes, bad acting or hackneyed writing is exhibiting the spirit of antichrist. Sometimes they're just telling the truth. Wrapping the cloak of Christ around your film doesn't elevate the filmmaking.

The One Soul Rule.  A Christian film cannot be bad if it reaches one soul. That's a trope you hear Christian producers, directors and stars trot out every time they are interviewed. They always say that all the time, money and effort needed to make the film was worth it if it only reaches one soul.

I'm not going to argue with that. Each soul is priceless, and worth all the effort necessary to bring them to salvation. That said, I would make the counter-argument that your movie may have reached ten thousand souls, instead of one, if it was better....

The Biggest Excuse....

Lack of Budget. One thing that always infuriates me is when filmmakers say their movies aren't good because they didn't have a big enough budget. Hey, if you chose to tell a story that you didn't have the money to adequately tell, it's not a budget problem. It is an error in judgement by the producer. Period! I didn't hear the directors of The Blair Witch Project crying about their budget. I didn't hear Kevin Smith crying about the budget of Clerks. Or Jim Jarmusch about Stranger Than Paradise. Or Whit Stillman about Metropolitan. Or Robert Rodriguez about El Mariachi. One of my favorite sci-fi films is Primer. Shooting budget: $7,000. Those filmmakers made up for their lack of budget with talent and imagination. I don't think it's too much to ask Christian filmmakers to do the same.

I could go on and on, but I think the Burnett ignored a more important question: Does Quality matter in Christian films?

Does Quality Matter?

The answer is no.  The core audience doesn't reward films for their artistic quality. In faith-based genre, the message always trumps the filmmaking. The Kendrick brothers have been wildly successful because churches all around the country rent out theaters to support their films. Pastors know they can expect a solid message from them that will resonate immediately in the lives of their congregants. They are not going to the movie for the cinematography, direction, acting, editing or score. Or even the story. They are going for the message.

And Christian filmmakers know that.  Let me tell you a story.

My third produced faith-based film was an anti-abortion drama starring the Grammy-Award-winning gospel singer Rebecca St. James. My writing partner Tim Ratajczak and I were assigned to write the script. PureFlix gave us two weeks to come up with the first draft (which is a time frame not normally associated with quality!) The shoot seemed to go fine. However, the edit took forever. The production company finally gave us the film only a few weeks before the scheduled release. It was terrible. Really terrible. I believe only one of the partners at PureFlix actually managed to force himself to watch the film all the way through. Tim and I were appalled because this film was important to us. It wasn't just a product.

But PureFlix was going to release it as is.

Why?  It was a simple business decision. I can't remember who explained it to me, but here's what they said. "It's a pro-life movie starring Rebecca St. James. The same number of people are going to buy it whether it's good or bad." Therefore, they weren't going to spend any more money fixing it.

Fortunately, I work as a film editor in my day job. I convinced them to let me re-edit it. They agreed, provided I could do it in one week for what I normally charged for one day of work. I agreed, and I re-edited the film. It may not be perfect, but it is no longer embarrassing.

Let me tell you another story from just a couple of days ago.

A colleague called to tell me she just watched a film by one of my fellow Kairos Prize winners. She said it was really good. I was glad to hear that. Then she added that a bad performance from one of the supporting actors didn't hurt it much. Then she brought up another problem. Then another. And another. Finally, I had to say, "Whoa, you've stopped reviewing the film and started apologizing for it."

And that's exactly what most fans of Christian films do. They apologize for the films. They make excuses.

The main reason why there are so many bad Christian films is because the core audience doesn't demand quality filmmaking. Only a reassuring message. If we want good movies, we have to stop supporting the bad ones, regardless of how well-meaning they are. It's that simple. Really.

The future of Christian films is in your hands, dear viewer!

Okay, okay. I've been dishing it out pretty hard. Can I stand the heat? I wrote twelve produced faith based films. Were they any good? I am honestly proud of a few of them. However, I will admit that all of them are flawed one way or another.  Some of them feature great performances, but almost all of them feature weak performances as well. Some are well directed, some, well, not so much. And, yes, sometimes the script could have used another polish or, better yet, less polishing by people who didn't have a feel for the material.

Sufficient to say, none of my films can compete on the same filmmaking level as, say, a blockbuster Marvel superhero movie. But is that comparison fair? You better believe it is. PureFlix opened their Biblical superhero film Samson directly against Marvel's superhero film Black Panther. What were the numbers on the opening weekend? Samson:  $1,943.569.  Black Panther: $202.003,951. Same ticket prices. Same theaters. So yes, the two films were in direct competition. Be honest: Which one did you see that weekend? (My wife and I actually saw Samson.)

I am not making this comparison to denigrate Samson, which was admirably ambitious. More power to them. (None of my films ever got such a wide release!) I am just trying to illustrate that we do not operate in a vacuum. Christian films have to compete in the marketplace with mainstream films. People do not have the time or money to see everything they want to see. They have to make a choice. If the purpose of Christian films is to spread the good news, we need to tell great stories that even non-believers will be excited enough to choose instead of the latest Hollywood release.

The question is: Are we, as a filmmaking community, up to the task?

I hope so. We do not need two hundred million dollar budgets to compete with Hollywood. Just honest, compelling stories well played and executed. And there are some. I was really encouraged by I Can Only Imagine. That film was released during the fifth week of Black Panther's impressive box office reign. Black Panther beat it handily $26,650,690 to $17,108,914 that weekend. However, on a per screen average, I Can Only Imagine beat it $10,503 to $6,951. Not bad. We just need to make sure films like that become the rule rather than the exception.

Otherwise we will just keep preaching to the choir.

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
Zach Lawrence and the End Times Quandary
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

BTW, don't you think it's time to read my memoir of first love and first faith and how the two became almost fatally intertwined? If you liked my movies, you'll love the book.

Here are some sample chapters of The Promise:

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