Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Christians have been trying to “co-opt” the arts for decades for evangelistic purposes. Back in the 1930s, Christian magazines and conferences were launched, and shortly afterwards, Christian radio programs and stations. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Billy Graham and Oral Roberts started having crusades that were televised, so we started into television, birthing the PTL, CBN and TBN television networks in the ‘70s.

Christian music grew in the first part of the 20th century, and then exploded in the second 50 years, through the Christian Bookstore network.

The movie space, however, was a different story.

While Billy Graham’s Worldwide Pictures made movies back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was very difficult for Christians to understand the Hollywood machine. Matt Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network began to have some success with multiple films in the ‘90s, but overall Christians had not yet figured out how to use movies for ministry.

In the early 2000s, however, things began to change for two primary reasons:

1. Movie production became affordable. As Chris Anderson said in his book, “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” the “tools of production were democratized.” No longer did it take expensive cameras to make movies. In 2006, Stephen and Alex Kendrick of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, made their breakout hit, “Facing The Giants,” on a $100,000 budget — unthinkable by most Hollywood standards. The movie went on to gross more than $10 million.

2. Movie distribution became accessible. Mel Gibson “cracked the code” of how to distribute a movie independently, when most of Hollywood refused to release his movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” By figuring out how to “rent bookers,” Gibson taught many in the faith market how to proceed with a movie independent of a major studio (and the value of the “last in, first out” P&A fund).

I used to run the Christian music operations for the Warner Music Group and the problem I see now is a problem I experienced 20 years ago.

The pressure to make money drove us more and more “into the core” of the marketplace — trying to get more and more juice out of the same orange.

After reading a book called “Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World,” I was motivated to start a joint venture with Warner Bros., where the idea wasn’t to produce Christian music for Christians — it was Christians who wanted to produce music for the world. That was a very different business plan — and actually more evangelical than just serving up Christian music to Christians.

I see the same possible thing happening in the faith film world right now. Producers are trying harder and harder to make something “the market” will want, when “the market” wants everything that everyone else wants — great stories told in entertaining ways. I wish I heard more real-life stories of people overcoming incredible odds, or a story that makes me laugh or cry, than trying to dial up more JPM (Jesus Per Minute).

I’m all for the “on the nose, sermon in a movie” kind of film; I believe they have a place, just like worship music has a place.

But I also believe Christians are called to be “salt and light,” and that we should be trying to produce the best art and stories we can possibly produce that are on par with the best movies being made anywhere.

I think central to this happening is to “demystify Hollywood” to Christians who are interested in making more competitive movies. Towards that end, we started the Nashville Faith In Film Breakfast Club several years ago and now we have chapters in Atlanta and Los Angeles as well. There are over 3,000 people who belong to our Facebook pages, and about 300 of them gather each month to hear industry speakers and to network with like-minded individuals.

I think if we can continue to grow groups like these, and if we can continue to learn from the experts in the industry who have the experience and awards, the faith film marketplace has an exceptionally bright opportunity to make competitive movies and add to the cinematic tapestry of the world.

Barry Landis is president and CEO of Ribbow Media Group, a full-service, digital marketing firm in Franklin, Tennessee. His career has included executive positions in film marketing, book publishing and the recording industry, as well as founding roles in the Nashville Faith In Film Breakfast Club and The Briner Institute, an entertainment industry think tank.

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