Why Most Christian Movies Stink

I spent a good portion of my day today reading through Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture for my Theology & Pop Culture class at Fuller. Doing so has caused me to laugh out loud quite a few times.

I’m sure you’re simply dying to know why (or not) – here are a couple of tidbits:

I was giving a talk at a Christian college, and young Jeremy had sprung up to his feet as soon as the question period began … “Tell me what I need to do to make the next Passion of the Christ.

I suddenly had a whole new insight into the Gospel passage between Jesus and the rich young man. I think I kept the sigh out of my voice. “Give away everything that you have and are now doing so that you can throw yourself into mastering the cinematic art form. Get your act together spiritually, and then do everything you can to get into a top film school. Study philosophy and theology so that you have something real to say through your movies. Read lots of classic novels, and write hundreds of pages so that you achieve command of the language as a creative tool. Get your moral act together so that you won’t get tripped up too easily in the whirl of the entertainment business. Then, come and follow us by moving to Los Angeles. And in ten or fifteen years, maybe you’ll see your name on the screen appended to a movie of lasting value.”

Needless to say, like the young man in the Gospel, Jeremy’s face fell, and he too went away sad.

The Passion of the Christ did not come out of nowhere. It came thirty years into Mel Gibson’s filmmaking experience mainly at the top levels of the industry. It came almost a decade after he produced his Oscar-winning film, Braveheart. It came fifteen years after his profound conversion and the reorienting of his life to Christ. The film itself took ten years of a brooding, devastating, creative journey. Many people in the church have been asking me if, in the wake of The Passions’s success, will Hollywood produce many more such movies? “Hollywood” can’t! There will be no other Passions without other Mel Gibsons to bring them into being.

Barbara Nicolosi, Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, pgs. 115-116.

The above excerpt made me laugh. Ahh, the naiveté that accompanies shallow zeal devoid of the will to make any real sacrifice could make any Christian minister laugh … or cry.

I choose to laugh.

And that tidbit isn’t nearly as hilarious as this:

Writer/director Robert Benton is not an evangelical Christian. Yet, His film incorporates “Christian themes” with more subtlety, artistry, and depth than the majority of films being made by professed Christians. It is not the only one. In fact, most films that successfully incorporate religious themes are made by nonreligious people.

Here are some of the better films with Christian messages or these from the past few decades:

  • Chariots of Fire (1981)
  • Tender Mercies (1983)
  • Places in the Heart (1984)
  • Hoosiers (1986)
  • The Mission (1986)
  • Grand Canyon (1992)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  • Dead Man Walking (1996)
  • The Apostle (1998)
  • The Prince of Egypt (1998)
  • The Iron Giant (1999)
  • Magnolia (2000)
  • Signs (2002)
  • Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002)
  • About Schmidt (2002)
  • Changing Lanes (2002)
  • In America (2002)
  • Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
  • The Passion of the Christ (2004)

All of these films were critically acclaimed and/or box office hits. But with the exception of Jonah, Bruce Almighty and The Passion, none were made by Christian filmmakers. Christians, however, did make these films:

  • Gospa (1995)
  • Entertaining Angels (1996)
  • The Omega Code (1999)
  • The Joyriders (1999)
  • Left Behind: The Movie (2000)
  • Carman: The Champion (2001)
  • Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (2001)
  • Mercy Streets (2001)
  • To End All Wars (2001)
  • Hometown Legend (2002)
  • Joshua (2002)
  • Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002)
  • Luther (2003)
  • Finding Home (2003)
  • Therese (2004)

Overall, these films are unwatchable. There are only a handful of good scenes among them. None had success with critics or at the box office. (What does it say about Christian filmmakers that one of their best-received movies features computer-generated vegetables who sing and dance?)

If Christians want to make successful films that incorporate their worldview, why not learn from those who are already doing it – non-Christians. So let’s ask: why are the best Christian films being made by secular filmmakers?

The first reason secular filmmakers are making better Christian films is because they are making them for mainstream audiences.

All of the films on my first list were produced for the mainstream market. They opened in either wide theatrical release (over two thousand theaters) or, in the case of the smaller films, an “art house” release of around one thousand theaters. The films on my second list were produced for the “Christian market.” A few were released into about three to four hundred theaters. Most went straight to video or to a “vanity” release in two or three theaters.

The idea that Christians will go see films targeted at them has not been borne out by the marketplace. Christians, it turns out, see the same films as everyone else.

And what about the success of the Christian music and publishing industries? They have succeeded because they take advantage of an infrastructure of Christian bookstores, through which music and books targeted at Christian audiences can be sold. But there are no Christian movie theaters, and Providence Entertainment, the lone Christian distribution company, recently imploded. In other words, films targeting Christians have to compete with mainstream films for distribution and, if they make it to the cineplex, for audiences.

But Christian filmmakers seem to believe that they do not have to compete in the mainstream market. Thus, storytelling and production values end up taking a backseat to the movie’s message. The films are merely bait to lure viewers to a homily or altar call, and this only ensures their failure.

Thom Parham, Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, pgs. 54-57.

Ha! I just started reading this book today, and have found these industry professionals think most Christian movies stink for the same reasons I think most Christian bands stink! Either that’s a startling coincidence, or we’re both right.

I vote for the latter.

Have you seen any of the movies on the second list? I attempted to watch Luther one time, and distinctly remember turning it off about forty minutes in never to finish watching. Luckily, it’s the only one I’ve given a go. I’ll make sure to avoid the rest.

Also, this book came out in 2005. I wonder what Thom Parham (the guy who wrote the second excerpt) thinks about the success of Fireproof. Yes, the acting was below normal industry standards and the storyline was simplistic, but doggone it, that movie made money! The accompanying book The Love Dare has also done very well and even made it on a few bestseller lists.

Could it be that the same mindset (that sub-par is okay as long as the message is good) that’s given rise to a financially successful Christian music industry will also lead to a financially successful Christian movie industry? That’s definitely a possibility. Would this be a terrible development? Not necessarily, but it would mean that Christian movies will continue to stink!

Luckily, we’ll still have the non-Christian artists to show us how it’s done! :p

Okay, I’ll shut up now. 🙂

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12 thoughts on “Why Most Christian Movies Stink

  1. rogueminister says:

    I am much more in agreement with you on this one! Especially the ones by the Fireproof folks. Though I must disagree about Luther, that is probably my favorite movie of all times.

  2. Terry says:

    I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Bruce Almighty. I saw Left Behind, but I can’t remember much about it.

  3. WesWoodell says:

    Justin – Luther didn’t grab me the first time. Maybe I’ll give it another shot someday, but that’s a big maybe. :p

    Terry – Lord of the Rings was great, though I enjoyed Evan Almighty a lot more than I enjoyed Bruce Almighty. Bruce Almighty was alright though.

  4. K. Rex Butts says:

    You need to add Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” as a movie not made by a Christian but certainly with a Christian theme. If you want to know what I mean, see my review of the movie: http://kingdomseeking.wordpress.com/2009/07/17/gran-torino-the-gospel/

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  5. WesWoodell says:

    Gran Torino is a great movie. I went and saw it in a sold-out theater in San Francisco packed with nearly every ethnicity and race under the sun, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

    The Christological symbolism was profound.

    I was quoting Thom Parham when I wrote down the list – the book came out in 2005 so Gran Torino hadn’t been released yet. That’s why it’s not included, but certainly would be today.

  6. Julie says:

    It depends on what the author’s definition of a Christian is, I guess, for him to put “That Apostle” in the “not made by a Christian” category. Duvall (who wrote, directed, and produced, and starred in the film after Hollywood refused for 14 years to make it) is a Christian Scientist–he knows his Bible well and considers himself to be spiritual. He is the son of a Methodist father and a Christian Scientist mother.

    I’ve seen him talk about this on TV, and he has said this on TV and print interviews:

    “Because my parents were so religious, I attended church regularly. I’ve always been a believer.”

  7. Daniel says:

    I think that To End All Wars is a pretty well made film. The acting and intensity are definitely on a higher level than movies like Facing the Giants.

    Anyway, I totally agree that Christians should be infiltrating the system in order to produce high-quality, captivating movies. If the focus would shift to making the best movie they can make, Christian film makers will get their message across. But if they focus too heavily on presenting the same mediocre, watered-down, easily digestible message of the “gospel” to the neglect of actual quality, their message will not get heard.

    Just some thoughts.

    P.S. Saved was actually a very relevant movie that I think more Christians should see and learn from…

  8. ozziepete says:

    What annoys me most about “Christian” movies is the apparent necessity that at least one person “ask Jesus into their heart” at some point in the movie. As if a movie displaying Christian morals or processing ethical decisions from a Godly perspective are not really “Christian”!!

    There are so many movies about good and evil that contain Christian themes (Spiderman 3 comes to mind). Imagine a superhero movie where the only difference was that the couple waited ’til after marriage to have sex because of their faith. WOW, that would be a radically Christian movie and you wouldn’t have to change the script, production, or acting standards.

    Or is beating up bad guys “un-christian” so it would never work?!?!

    PS. How about the Alexander Campbell movie? (I forget it’s name… found it at a Blockbuster in Memphis once!!)

  9. Greg says:

    Hi, Wes! I have a few observations, regarding Christian Movies.

    1) How come Facing the Giants wasn’t mentioned? It was made by a very small and inexperienced crew, started out in just a few theaters, and yet became one of the most popular movies in the nation, as it picked up some steam. I would highly recommend the FIRST movie that that church made, called Flywheel. It’s a bit rough, but excellent.

    2) There are WAY more secular movies coming out than Christian. But if you look at the RATES of success, I’d guess Christian movies do about as well and secular. What, maybe one out of 20?

    3) Let us not underestimate the power of God. A secular filmmaker has only himself to rely on, but a true Christian has the Creator of the Universe on his side! If God wants him to make an awesome blockbuster that will lead people to Him, He can make it happen! 🙂

  10. Jan says:

    We need to support those who make Christian films. I find a lot of these comments you make to be judgmental and ok, well downright snotty. Maybe if Christians had the financial backing that the other movie producers had, they would have better quality films.

    I find Fireproof to be a good film and I see nothing wrong with the acting in it at all. Have you ever seen “The Last Sin Eater”? It’s a very well done movie that stays true to the book by Francine Rivers. I love “Facing the Giants” and “Flywheel” is actually not my favorite, although I enjoyed it.

    You all who are posting need to remember that all Christians do not share your views about movies. Everyone has different views.

  11. WesWoodell says:

    Ha! Sorry if it comes across as snotty, Jan! Maybe it is. But as someone who spent much of his college career as a radio/TV/film major, I probably look at media a bit more critically than the average bird.

    I see film as a great avenue for outreach and evangelism, and my heart is in reaching people, but if Christian films aren’t cutting the mustard technically then they’re never going to reach their full potential for kingdom effectiveness (because the general viewing public won’t take them seriously). The point I was trying to make with this post and others like it is mainstream standards ought to apply to large scale Christians productions.

    If a person is happy to “settle for less because it’s a Christian film,” then that person is already a Christian (just like you). The wider audience will not be reached because – make no mistake – they’re NOT willing to settle for less simply because a film was made by a Christian production team.

    While it may be noble to support a movie that has a good message, I believe it’s moreso to support a movie that has a good message that may actually reach large amounts of people for Christ. Striving for excellence in an artistic craft is not a bad thing.

    Anyway, thanks for the input – God bless. 🙂

  12. daniel says:

    It`s sad, but some “Christian” movies like TIME CHANGER, and UNIDENTIFIED are just pamphlets with no entertainment…

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