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.
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.
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. 🙂