What is it that makes a great faith-based movie? Scriptural citations? A conversion scene? The spreading of the Gospel? No, none of these.
What makes a great faith-based movie is that it’s a great movie. A story so compelling that it must be seen. A movie where after you’ve seen it, you want to talk about it. A movie that justifies the expense and hassle of going out to the theater and getting overcharged for everything from parking to popcorn.
We, as moviegoers, are willing to endure that. We want to endure that to see a great movie. What we don’t want to endure is a bad movie. A movie that leaves us empty. A movie that leaves us despairing or feeling hopeless. A movie that somehow makes our lives worse. Audiences crave morally uplifting movies. Don’t believe us?
Industry observer Ted Baehr, a film executive turned spokesman for morally uplifting media, issues the annual Movieguide Report to the Entertainment Industry, which illustrates in stark, statistical terms, year in and year out, that “Movies that succeed with audiences are stories well-told, that have a positive worldview, and are spiritually uplifting.” What is the price of ignoring this sage advice?
In 2016, the film industry will likely sell the fewest U.S. tickets per person of the past 90 years and the fewest total tickets in two decades.
Why? Because outside of rebooting the next comic superhero franchise, Hollywood no longer deals in the business of telling and selling great entertainment.
Instead, Hollywood tells and sells political ideals: its own. The same machine that created the American dream now is busy creating the American disaster. Morals and values that were instilled into American culture in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s are now being replaced with despair and nihilism. Instead of portraying America as the home of the brave and land of the free, Hollywood now tells us it’s the land of the greedy and home of the enslaved.
There is just one problem with this: Most Americans love their country and their families and their way of life. And they don’t buy into the Hollywood propaganda machine.
Which begs a question: Since we live in a capitalist society, why doesn’t Hollywood give the faith-oriented audience what they want?
It’s a wide misconception that Hollywood’s god is money. In actuality, political correctness is the industry’s god; money is relegated to demigod status.
How does this play out in the real world? It means that studio executives are tremendously averse to faith-driven fare for two reasons. First, the content itself is anathema, and second, studio executives correctly suspect that makers of faith-driven films (and to a lesser extent, their audiences) tend to skew right along the political spectrum. Either of these reasons is enough to seriously dampen enthusiasm on the part of industry executives. Taken together, they are a kiss of death.
So, in the same way that secular-progressive fare is likely to get a green light, despite a lack of broad market appeal, faith-driven fare is likely to earn a “pass” from the studios, despite ready and willing faith-based audience appeal.
As with most deep-seated forms of prejudice, those most closely involved in the process (in this case, the executives themselves) vehemently deny that it even exists.
But in the midst of Hollywood filmmakers’ efforts to outsludge one another, and in large part as a reaction against it, faith-driven films have emerged as a market force over the past two to three years. The success of a number of these films has proved the existence of an audience eager to see them and means the genre won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
So at the risk of trying to prognosticate in a business where, as Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman famously observed, “Nobody knows anything,” we’ll mention where we see the faith-driven film market going in the next few years. Based on our experiences, here is what we believe is reasonable to expect:
• A move away from on-the-nose faith-based stories. This is just common sense. Audiences, including Christian audiences, crave new experiences. In most faith-based films to date, there is a major character coming to faith. Often, it’s the protagonist, meaning that regardless of the story’s setup, faith is effectively the A-story. But that experience is starting to feel overused, and the audience is already eager for the next big thing.
• A move into genre films. If the film’s core story isn’t about coming to faith, then it’s got to be about something else. That something else will start to look a lot more like other films: thrillers, comedies, sports movies, action films and romantic comedies that portray characters who happen to be believers, rather than stories that are primarily about being believers. In the past, Westerns were traditionally morality plays, albeit with a fair amount of violence. Modern animated films already show a level of value-infused behavior we rarely see in live-action films, and these stories resonate incredibly well with audiences. Expect more live-action films along the lines of “The Blind Side” and fewer films where the lead character is a minister.
• Bigger budgets and better casts. Faith-friendly films have been making money. Some of that money will be funneled back into making films with better production value. Even independent producers will have to pony up to compete with studio-funded films. 2016’s “Miracles From Heaven” starred Jennifer Garner and was made for a budget of almost $15 million — substantially higher than most faith-based fare. Expect future releases to look and sound indistinguishable from mainstream films in terms of production quality and audiences to become less forgiving of the films that fail to deliver on this count.
• If the studios can get past their myopia, they will begin using Christians to make films intended for the faith-driven market, even when the budgets are big. Mel Gibson, a believer, directed “The Passion of the Christ,” which is still the most successful independent film in history. Conversely, studios hired a not-within-Judeo-Christian-parameters-of-belief director for “Noah” and a self-described atheist to direct “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” To anyone without a “west of the 405 liberal” mentality, which seems like a safer bet: hiring someone who understands the demographic they’re making films for or hiring someone who’s almost guaranteed to offend it by either ignoring or flaunting a disregard for those beliefs?
• Emergence of new production entities. The success of these films will have traditional studios eyeing faith-based filmmaking in a more serious way, but their cultural aversion to the product will likely keep their efforts tepid at best. That means there’s room for one or more faith-friendly studios to emerge quickly and succeed, so long as the players understand the audience they’re making pictures for.
It’s time for faith-driven films to stop fishing in the Sea of Galilee and start fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s going to scare some believers, but Jesus Christ was notorious for preaching to sinners. He was unafraid to go out into the world as it was, rather than wait for the arrival of the world as it should be. For those of us who would like to help reclaim a society in desperate straits, maybe we ought to follow his example.
• Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman are writer/producer/directors. Their recent projects include “God’s Not Dead,” “God’s Not Dead 2” and “Do You Believe?”
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