Box Office Proselytizing

In the latest issue of MovieMaker magazine there is an article by Heidi Honeycutt entitled v8-MM-Cover-Winter-2016-300x400“Box Office Prophets.” Basically, the article examines the rise in popularity of films made by and marketed to Evangelical Christians. Honeycutt mentions the commercial viability of films after The Omega Code made a surprising box office splash. Films like Courageous and Fireproof and Kevin Sorbo’s staunch defense of God’s Not Dead. Honeycutt also mentions the importance of pastoral promotion for these movies, the idea that the Christian community was looking for safe material for families to watch (giving birth to David A. R. White’s Pure Flix, a Netflix for Christians), and the easy label that anything with “prayer” in the title (like Maggie Kiley’s 2015 indie pic Dial A Prayer) gets as “Christian.”

Two things come to mind right away in response to this:

  • Honeycutt rightly mentions that many of these Christian films are disparaged as being rather poorly made. She’s right.
  • Since when has Hollywood really cared if a film is poorly made, so long as it makes money?

Both of these things explain the presence of this article in a secular filmmaking magazine; one that I have subscribed to for years, partly because the Independent got canned (then poorly resurrected but nevermind). Hollywood now cares about films for Christian audiences only because they are making money. Only then. The Christian communities producing these films are interested in something a bit more complex. They want to preach the Gospel. But they’re mostly preaching to the choir. And what they’re preaching to the choir, well, it’s not that deep, to be honest. Therefore, in response I have three relatively short notes, addressed to different parties concerned with the subject of the article. First, to MovieMaker, second, to the Christian producers, and third to audiences of all movies, but especially those hungry for something “safe” for their families.

To MovieMaker:

First off, thanks for noticing Christianity. I walked through my early career in professional theater and in film school feeling like I must have a third arm growing out of my side. I was a weirdo. This suits me. But I wasn’t a geeky weirdo in a screen-print t-shirt hiding in a dark room, unshaven, with gross hair and eating habits that would make a goat gag. That kind of weird lands you at Sundance (and I know, two of my grad school classmates took a film there this year). My kind of weird got me a polite nod and a quizzical look from professors, and distance from some colleagues. I will forever wonder how much of my work was turned down because I was 1) female (which is such a real thing. I just didn’t believe that was true when I was with all these awesome tough broads in film school but the boys club is a real thing. And it’s bizarre to be honest.) 2) from the Midwest (rightly pointed out in H’s article as being identified by Hollywood as nowhereseville. Oh Hollywood, go back and review those Ginger and Fred films. Good things come from the Midwest. Ask Garrison Keillor and Fannie Flagg.) 3) Christian (read: cute and sweet and simple and naive. To which I always wanted to respond to people, “Pick up a copy of some work by C.S. Lewis other than the Chronicles of Narnia* and get. A. Clue. This religion demands everything you’ve got if you’re trying to do it right.) 4) a bad artist.

I will never know how much my art needed improvement, and still does, because I have no idea what grounds it was dismissed on.

Please note, MM, that Christianity is getting better at this. Read some of the stuff going on in the movie section of Christianity Today. Note that Christian film scholars are talking about lots of great stuff. Like Philomena (I’m still not over that movie). Like the amoral world of The Revenant. Like what “The Force” has—if anything—to do with faith. I predict you will be doing articles on more Christian films in the future, and they may or may not be the ones preached from big-church pulpits. More likely (I hope) they will be small indie films with lots of heart and good writing. They will find audiences because audiences are so eager for redemptive, well-made material. I am so eager for them I’m drooling on my Netflix account.

To Christian Producers:

First, thank you for understanding that movies are important. They are part of how we see the world. They impact us in profound ways and therefore they are useful tools, culture-shapers and mind-blowers.

Thank you for recognizing that people love to watch movies and they are hungry for something they can really enjoy that is relevant to their life.

Second, I wish it was as simple as you want it to be. You can sell anything in a movie. You really can. Movies can make us believe almost anything. We’ll cheer for anyone if the script builds enough sympathy (think Silence of the Lambs, anything by Quentin Tarantino, anything with Adam Sandler in it).

Who are you really making these movies for? Is it for people who already believe in HidingPlace_dvd_lgChrist? If so, we need more meat and less conversion message. Christianity is a deep tradition with countless. Count.Less. real life stories that are incredibly powerful. Case in point: the well made film The Hiding Place. Or, if you are instead trying to appeal to a broad demography, can you please stop painting a narrow view of our religion?

I actually think that many of these films touted on Pure Flix and made by the likes of Sherwood Pictures are actually marketed to a culture, not a religion. These are not Christian films, these are often Southern Evangelical Fundamentalist** films, predominantly those sold at mega-churches. You’re leaving a lot of our religion out here, and it shows. Christians outside this demographic are hungry, too, and if they’re like me, they leave Mom’s Night Out encouraged by some things (Patricia Heaton’s delightful performance) but not others (all moms, all women must be that. Not true. It’s a valid critique and stop saying it’s not.)

The movies we really need won’t turn a huge profit. Most things we truly need to hear don’t. You’ve found a paying audience. But you’re taking advantage of them, and perhaps doing more harm than good. Proceed with caution.

To Audiences Looking for “Safe” Material:

There is no such thing.

There is not.

Everything comes from a worldview. Everything requires a conversation.

I grew up on Hollywood musicals and anything with Cary Grant in it. I was in my late teens before I really got what was happening in Gone With the Wind. My mom remembers watching Gunsmoke growing up and she knew there was a conversation going on in Miss Kitty’s room but, whoa, wait a minute, that means that….yep. Flew right over her head that Marshall Dillon was spending time with a hooker on TV. You think Disney is safe? It’s teaching your kids commercialism. You think sports movies are safe? They set up a whole big bunch of expectations, and often are pretty insensitive when it comes to race relations. The “safe” movies you are letting your family watch still need you to give them a context. The show you watch because it’s “not so bad, at least they don’t….” still ought to be thought through by you. What does it really value? Do you agree? Should you?

I’ve actually written a lot on this subject (insert shameless book plug here. And it is, I believe in the material so much I have no qualms in promoting Remote Virtue and will continue to do so as long as it’s in print, or longer) and there is a way to discern what is healthy or not healthy to watch. Part of it is checking out content, yes, and it always will be. But, if you really want to find good material for your family to watch, it will require you to do something much more difficult. It will require you to think.

We, as audiences, don’t want to. But we have to if we’re ever going to really engage media as Christians and understand how to be healthy in our interaction. In fact, our entire engagement with popular culture needs to be done with intention (for more info, check out work by Dr. Paul Patton).

Movies change the way we see the world. Christianity does too. That’s a combo with amazing potential. I am so eager to see what happens when more artists and more Christians hungry for well-told stories step into the arena. When they do, I hope MovieMaker is there to tell the tale, because I’ll be reading, and watching.

 

*The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of young adult books with a story so rich in its theological and mythological tradition that to dismiss it as just fancy is to miss Lewis’s point in writing it. Lewis’s other novels, both fiction and non, are go-to’s for many Christians.

**Any kind of label on a religious group is an overgeneralization and in some way unfair, so I wish there was a better way to categorize. A lot of good writers are talking about the differences in belief and practice in the American Christian church. PBS’s Frontline is even doing a series on it.

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About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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