Is This Why So Many “Christian” Movies Fail?
Researchers at Stanford University have recently confirmed three interesting (but not startling) principles:
1. You may be miserable, but you are not alone. 2. Most people keep their negative feelings hidden. 3. People tend to be happier when they’re with others.
They found that people think their peers are happier than they really are, and this distortion of reality makes people lonely and dissatisfied with life. The study began when one of the researchers noticed that many of his friends became agitated after reading other people’s status updates on Facebook. They felt disappointed when their lives weren’t matching up to how well they thought their friends were doing.
The study indicated that it’s an illusion to think that other people’s lives are happier or better than your own. But now – for the really interesting part: This plays out when people seek entertainment, and does a lot to explain the reason people love a great tragedy. Human beings seek out tragic stories because it allows them to identify and empathize with other people they feel are just like them. In other words, stories that allow people to share in sorrow, actually tend to make people happier. So could this be why people of faith generally make lousy movies and TV programs? Christians especially feel like we should be celebrating the positive, so we tend to make movies about heroes, of sunny topics, or positive ideals.
Problem is – nobody wants to see them.
Perhaps the take away from this Stanford study is that we need to write more tragic stories. Maybe positive stories are actually the opposite of where people of faith need to focus. After all, the Bible doesn’t. It’s full of tragic stories of disappointment and loss. In fact, it could be said that a significant number of “heroes” in the Bible didn’t end well at all. Perhaps if we got off our high horse about telling “positive” stories, and got down in the rough and tumble world where most people live, we would actually connect, and tell stories people want to see.
What do you think?
That’s why “To End All Wars” works, tragedy with hope, nothing sugar coated. A faith film we can learn from.
Michael Gonzales, Ph.D.
I agree Michael. One of the most memorable movies of all time for me. Watched it with my teenage son three times.
Hebrews 11 features two groups of faithful. The men and women whose stories ended in victory. And the others, those who were martyred.
We should tell stories that reflect all aspects of Christian life.
That’s a good comment. I’ve always wondered about that.
How right you are. I’m leaving this week to teach a series of workshops for developing Christian filmmakers in Nairobi Kenya, and this was already part of my notes – tell stories that are believable about real life.
I’d like to hear more about your project. It’s similar to what’s been on my heart.
Disney said (paraphrased), “With a every laugh it must be accompanied by a tear.”
I still can’t watch Bambi…
Sadly, the Christian ‘never never land’ that is evangelical culture can’t come to terms with real life – so tragedy, ambiguity and depth are missing from scripts marketed through faith based venues.
I think you’re on to something monumental here. The same thing goes for fiction-writing and stories in general. We can’t be afraid to deal with the gritty not-so-polished side of life if we want to tell stories that are common to the human existence. I think there’s another question that runs deep into this issue as well–what are we trying to accomplish through faith-based films? Is it to create an escape, evangelize, make money, or make art that glorifies God? Each objective changes the process (and the way we shape or polish the story). My thoughts are that if we truly seek to make art that glorifies God–it will do a better job of evangelism as well. But art is typically risky.
Thanks for making me think 🙂
I think there are a plethora of issues and not just the script of the movie. Look at “The Blind Side”. I think the Gospel has lost its effectiveness in the main stream media because it has been attacked by popular culture for the past 30 years. Christians are portrayed as out of touch. Christians have not controlled the media distribution. Look at how the gay movement has made their cause mainstream in the past 30 years. “Don’t ask-Don’t Tell” is a huge example. They were patient and presented their characters as mainstream on TV shows and in movies. They are also unified. Endless scandals by leaders in Christian media and leadership have not helped either. Doctrinal differences and competition for limited distribution outlets have caused the church not to be unified. Are you mainly focusing on factual movies vs. fiction?
I’m focusing mostly on dramatic movies, but my comments could include documentaries as well…
Demille, is a classic case. Paramount doesn’t want to “touch” this due to C.B bibical believes, yet greenlight other nonsense.
I have conversations with my friends about Christianity vs. Creativity all the time. This is a great post I intend to share with these friends in my world. We are Christians producing art that is NOT safe and telling stories that don’t always end well. Thanks for the inspiration to keep doing what we are doing.
Max Andrew Dubinsky
Great thoughts — VERY interesting. I think the same could be said of most churches. Most church environments paint a very falsely positive picture of each person, and it inhibits real growth and intimacy in the body. Life-changing things happen when people are willing to be real and open about their lives, struggles and trials. We forget that we’re all human!
Well, I don’t think it would just be movies that overly ‘focus on the positive.’ My ministry administers a Christian writing contest and the entrants consistently provide stories of people moving ‘from victory to victory.’ Also, how many Christian radio stations label themselves as having ‘positive’ music? That may be- MAY BE- one aspect of the Christian walk, but it certainly isn’t the only one. If Christians are going to successfully interact in culture, they’re going to have to show that their faith applies to the full spectrum of human experience.
You all might be interested in an online conference that my ministry hosts that attempts to highlight precisely these kinds of issues. It’s online, so, well, you can all attend.
Very well articulated. I agree wholeheartedly. People connect with what’s real, and tragedy is real. Its also riddled through the God’s interaction with man for the past 5000 years. We’ve just got to find some Christian writers out there who can capture that in narrative form…
I agree with you about the lack of reality in many faith-based films. They are probably meant to be an encouragement, but often have the effect of making people feel inadequate. More filmmakers today seem to be trying to be more realistic, but they, in turn, have to fight to get the “seal of approval” considered necessary for a film to have a chance to be shown. The Christian film industry is coming along, but there are still wrinkles to be ironed out. We appear to have lowered expectations for quality yet a higher standard of what is considered “proper” for a Christian movie.
Agreed, wholeheartedly. I’ve even heard non-Christians say that the Bible is full of ripe film material because of the intense highs and lows. And yet very few of them have actually been made.
Looking forward to “Day of War,” think this might be a very good movie.
bottom line, you have to first have darkness in order to fully appreciate the light. stories without conflict, darkness, are boring and uninteresting.
Interesting perspective – not sure what to think of that, Phil. Is that how they’ve actually played out over the past two or three years? Fireproof and Facing the Giants did really well, and they were certainly ‘happy’ films… but then Let…ters To God did poorly – and it was perceived as having a more tragic storyline. Of course, there are a lot of mitigating circumstances – IE: really superb marketing vs ?, but it seems that when it comes to Christian fare – quite a few ‘happy’ films have performed well. Then there’s The Passion Of The Christ, which certainly had loss and a tragic storyline – To Save A Life’s story was not feel-good. There certainly is a big difference between what a Provident or Outreach can put out and what a smaller independent film maker can deliver. I’ll be surprised if the up-coming The Grace Card and Soul Surfer don’t do well – and they certinly have very positive, over-comer stoies to tell.
What is a Christian movie anyway?
Perhaps, for once, what if someone makes a Christian drama that actually ENDS IN TRAGEDY?
Might I suggest that the many the “tragic stories of disappointment and loss” in the Bible do have a positive component.
Job (considered the penultimate tragedy) does end well.
David’s adultery and subsequent murder ends with the birth of the richest and wisest man EVER.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, various judges, Daniel, the Hebrew children in the furnace all have tragic elements and then end positively.
And lest I forget – the greatest tragedy (and subsequent triumph) the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Did Paul, Peter’s and the lives of many apostles end in tragedy? Perhaps humanly speaking, but their lives and their views of death transcended their martyrdom.
To agree with you, many Christians (as well as nonbelievers) thought Mel Gibson’s Passion was too bloody and focussed on the tragedy rather than the resurrection. Was that one reason for it’s success?
On the other side, Fireproof was criticized because it portrayed God answering prayer. and yet we hear amazing stories of God’s answer to prayer.
The various Billy Graham films will probably fit into that category as well.
How would one characterize Ralph Winter’s various faith-based films?
My TV pilot for the History Channel called Military Miracles (more info can be found here – http://bit.ly/fr0E9V) chronicles miraculous answers to prayer for the Marines of the 1/5 amidst the carnage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The BIG QUESTION.
In the light of the study and our considered opinions, how should we as filmmakers portray the Hope for Tomorrow that Christianity offers?
Do we focus on the tragic or can we present an element of hope.
Here’s my latest attempt to couple tragedy with hope.
It’s a short film called Out of the Ruins set in Germany just before the end of the war in 1945.
Watch it here http://bit.ly/9PQzrs
I welcome your feedback.
Most people “need to relate”–feel its okay to fail- its the picking it up that is awesome. And we all know who picks us up. The bible has ALL those…
agreed.. however, i think the more important part of this is the truth about what facebook does to people (unless you have a really good head on your shoulders). I’ve felt that way a lot because of facebook, like my life wasn’t as happy or fulfilling as, seemingly, my friends’ were
even knowing that it is mere delusion, it still is difficult.. but the deeper problem within that is how we are ‘coveting our neighbors’ so to speak. Not easy to combat in our western culture
You said it yourself, the reason why Christian movies fail is because ‘people of faith generally make lousy movies and TV programs’. The real question is why do Christian’s make lousy movies and tv programs. In my opinion it doesn’t have to do with subject matter at all. It has to do with poor scripts, poor acting, and a poor budget.
I agree…. this is EXACTLY what I see with films labeled “Christian”: Bad camera work, lighting, weak story lines, bad acting, cheesy & unrealistic. Television shows who feature talking heads who live on another planet altogether. Hired crew are who are not seasoned (they could be a family member even) …. there are many reasons DP, none of which are acceptable.
I think mending this starts with writing stories that actual producers want to produce.
Great post, Phil! A few observations and theories…
I love this quote you posted — “Our brains are designed to find meaningful patterns in the noise and chaos of life.”
1. The Stanford study was spot on — Hollywood blockbusters, new and old, have an element of tragedy (sometimes devastating): Gone With the Wind (the Civil War, Scarlett & Rhett’s dysfunctional relationship), It’s a Wonderful Life (suicide, jealousy, and financial woes), Ben Hur (disintegration of friendship, affliction, revenge), Old Yeller (the death of a beloved pet), Pollyanna (a hopeful young girl becomes a paraplegic in the end), The Sound of Music (Austria falls to Hitler, a daughter has a love affair with Hitler youth, a family loses their homeland), Superman the Movie (heck include Batman & The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, any superhero movie, etc. — they all lose loved ones and homes), Titanic (tragic end of love during a disaster), Harry Potter (the theme of death and loss in every film), The Lord of the Rings (casualties of war and betrayal). Even the latest animated films of last year — Toy Story 3 (the passing of childhood) and How to Train Your Dragon (the hero loses a limb during the final battle). Of course, 99.5% of The Passion of the Christ was tragic until the very last scene.
2. Artistry and innovation are done by right-brained thinkers, visual communicators. The early Hollywood Studios were founded and run by whole-brain, innovative thinkers like the Warners, Carl Laemmle, Sam Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick, etc. If I may quote from the book “Scattered Mind,” — “The existence of sensitive people is an advantage for humankind because it is this group that best expresses humanity’s creative urges and needs. Through their instinctual responses the world is best interpreted. Under normal circumstances, they are artists or artisans, seekers, inventors, shamans, poets, prophets.” This sensitivity is responsible the EMOTIONAL heart of these films.
Pastors and ministry leaders are primarily left-brained thinkers. To quote, “As children they tend to prefer group projects rather than working on their own; as adults they are joiners, and they may be quick to embrace group ideology in the form of religious dogma or political movements. These individuals like making and following rules. They have greater tendency to accept and appreciate what they hear and read rather than questioning and thinking independently. They like the familiar and predictible; they often feel uncomfortable with new ideas, challenges, and surprises.” Pastors and ministry leaders are naturally hostile to artists and innovators. They see art in the church as something that must be donated, but rarely monetized or worthy of payment of service. It undermines their spiritually authority, so basically we artists are spiritual orphans, essentially a lower caste.
“These individuals like making and following rules. They have greater tendency to accept and appreciate what they hear and read rather than questioning and thinking independently. They like the familiar and predictible; they often feel uncomfortable with new ideas, challenges, and surprises.”…NOT THIS ONE!!
re item #1 — which old Hollywood mogul was it whose formula for a story was “Chase your heroes up a tree, shake a stick at ’em, let ’em climb down as better people”?
Part 2 of my comment —
3. There is a consensus that in this decade, left-brained directed jobs, especially informational technology, general information, news, web resources are cheaply produced overseas. Essentially, information is free. That means Christian resources are free because anyone has a blog, a website, resource page, news aggregator that the audience can easily access and deems as free. BUT — Right directed content or entertainment — classified as High Concept and High Touch. “The former involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into a novel invention,” according to Dan Pink. “Likewise, High Touch involves the ability to empathize and to understand the subtleties of human interaction.” This is why American films and video games are doing record numbers globally. It’s why people would pay to see entertainment done by visionaries (True Grit by the Coens, Pixar films, Chris Nolan’s Inception, Aronofsky’s Black Swan, etc.). Since 1970, the U.S. has 30 percent more people earning a living as writers and 50 percent more earning a living by composing or performing music.
240 U.S. universities have established creative writing MFA programs (up from 20 two decades ago). More Americans today work in arts, entertainment, and design than work as lawyers, accountants and auditors. In fact, there are more than 38 million Americans identified in this “creative class.”
This creative class, 38 million strong, is also the core audience for excellence and will reject mediocrity. You’ll find this ardent group at places like San Diego Comic-Con, SXSW, Sundance, Tribeca, Show West, etc. Whatever they adopt, the mainstream follows. And most of us in this creative class find ourselves orphans in the church.
” Human beings seek out tragic stories because it allows them to identify and emphasize with other people they feel are just like them. ” that would be ’empathize’
and, yeah, I’m sure its why the syrup-y sweet (essentially having no bearing on reality) ‘Christian’ movies have, and will continue to be poor substitutes for the great stories that have the capacity to fire our passions.
It drives me crazy everytime I read fb statuses (especially from Christians) where its all nice and positive and even teaches how one should behave. And when I meet them in real life, they are not what they say. I agree that we need to show the tragic part of life as well as the positive ones. Both. So that people can relate to tragic and learn to relate to our God.
I believe that Christian movie/art producers should not be afraid to venture into the unspoken off. There are real issues that we need to talk about and cannot be swept under the carpet. We have to admit we don’t have all the answers but we have God and that is what makes the difference.
Having said that, I would rather watch a movie that I can relate to than a movie where all is fine and dandy.Come to think of it, fine and dandy movies may end up looking very cultish!
I have to ask, Phil – If sad sells, then why is the old cliche that Hollywood is addicted to the happy ending so often true? I’m not sure that happiness / tragedy is the prime issue with Christian filmmaking – I think it’s believability. (FWIW, I think we might just as short on Christian comedies as tragedies). Many Christian films essentially tell us things that are either hard to believe, hard to prove, or sometimes, just not true. For example, just because you have a conversion experience, doesn’t mean that all of your problems magically go away.
The struggle that many evangelicals face in creating art is a perceived obligation to be preaching all the time. So, many of us don’t know how to tell a story for its own sake or on its own terms, and end up manipulating our stories and characters artificially to ensure that they underline a message, or even just resort to the characters standing around telling each other what the film’s theme is. The problem with this approach is that it creates crappy art most of the time – and I think Michael Moore’s films are as guilty of it as “Expelled” or “Fireproof”. Yeah, maybe he’s a better filmmaker, but he has his audience and Fireproof has its. The reality is both are so preoccupied with getting their point across, as opposed to exploring truth where it may lead, that they make didactic films which only ring true for people who already agree with them.
The wonderful thing about being a Christian artist should be the freedom we have from needing to prove anything. If Romans 1:20 is true, then we are privileged as artists to explore life as it is, with faith that if we are truthful in our process, then God’s truth will win and he will reveal himself. Didactic preaching is a valuable element of the Kingdom of God’s mandate on the earth, but there is more to the Christian life than preaching, and being an artist means filling a different kind of calling and role in the world than a preacher does. I think the priesthood of all believers is a wonderful gift in the protestant community, but the notion that everyone’s day job is supposed to be a preaching ministry might explain why there have historically more Catholics than Protestants creating great films.
Excellent perspective! Thank you Ryan.
I think the problem is that we haven’t seen a Christian film since THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST that looked like it was made by pros at the top of their form. Even AMAZING GRACE had a lower sense of professionalism; it looked like what it was, a well made backburner English period piece maybe one or two notches up in productions values from a Hammer horror film. The best of the rest of Christian media looks like TV MoWs — which is not a slam against MoWs, just an observation that they don’t strike audiences as being at the top of the form. Additionally, there’s a whole genre of semi-pro/amateur films that get distribution; while some of these are quite good for first time movies made by non-pros w/no financial resources, they literally have to play to the choir, no mainstream audience would sit thru them.
It’s not that Christian films can’t be good, either. One of the greatest, most influential, certainly most profound movies ever made was a Christian film: http://tinyurl.com/6xusc5f
Great article Phil.
The “Christian” way of storytelling draws heavy influence from medieval times when simplistic stories of completely evil dragons and completely virtuous champion knights pair off against each other in a battle unto the death. Historical Asian and Middle-Eastern storytelling was more diverse, more gritty and realistic as far as character depth and development. Their characters were not entirely virtuous or absolutely evil (not black and white like many Christian films and books today: which might I remind you secular editors and film producers summarily detest because of its lack of authentic humanity).
The protagonists of Asian and Middle-Eastern lore were both evil and good, like true humans are. The Bible was far ahead of the curve of a failed Euro-centric style of storytelling, revealing characters that both were capable of good and bad (King David: prophet-king and an avowed womanizer . . . Saul: religious bigot and holy apostle . . . Solomon: wiseman and idol-worshipper, Abraham: father of many and pathological liar . . . need I go on?)
Christian film and media needs to modernize. They need to move away from the Euro-centric paradigm of storytelling. They need to mirror the reality of true humanity. The masses will gravitate towards characters that are like themselves and not virtuous knights riding on white horses.
Why do we have to have “Christian” films? These genres of films preach ONLY to the American choir leaving out the rest of the world. Why would we want to do that? What about stories those reach extends universally? Stories that are steeped in conflict for: love, honor, life, justice. Striving against man, God, beast, elements, and saving those who can’t save themselves. God and/or His word/ truth can always surface in an underlying manner to lead the viewers looking up to God and His Kingdom for answers, help, strength, wisdom, forgiveness and so forth. What’s wrong with thought provoking stories that don’t preach at you (and so obviously too), but inspire, encourage and influence one’s choices they make in life simply based on Biblical virtue by being demonstrated on screen? The films that most inspired & encouraged me in times of trouble and other wise, were not Christian films… they were Lord of the Rings, The Gladiator, Braveheart , Saving Private Ryan…. Etc. These are lasting films with universal stories, just as the Bible has universal appeal in its pages. So again, why do we have to have Christian films?
We have christian films because they are christians who want to tell a story or their story, and they are persons who want to hear that story.
I remember watching a Christian film entitled “Shiokari Pass”. Set in Japan, it tells the story of a young man of no particular religious persuasion who, when challenged by a street preacher to select any teaching of Jesus and live by it for a week, selects “love your neighbour as yourself”. He soon discovers that it is not possible to truly live out that command without “divine” assistance.
It was your typical “Christian” film. You had an idea where it was going, still its message of self sacrifice resonated in my life.
I see nothing wrong with a film having a distinctive Christian point of view or trying to “teach” something Christian. I have watched enough films to know that what makes them “good” is that someone has a philosophy he/she wants us to buy into or at least give some consideration. And I can see nothing at all wrong with that.
It would be nice if Christians who want to tell a story would go to the trouble of extending their gifts to people who don’t know the Lord. A great artist grabs the attention of those who wouldn’t otherwise want to hear that story.
For example, if you’re clever, you can preach the gospel without a single Biblical reference: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Iron Giant, Taxi Driver. Or you can preach more directly but with the courage to dive into the filthy mess that life really is: The Exorcist, The Bad Lieutenant, Se7en.
There is a place for sweet, gentle preaching – kids media. Veggie Tales is incredibly charming, clear, and totally preachy. My kids love it, and uniformly happy endings are very developmentally appropriate for them.
There is a passage in the Bible called The Great Commission. Some people fulfill it by traveling to the missionary fields of far away countries. Some make movies where hopefully they can reach people around the globe.
Great point MJ. Agree 100 percent.
Does the tv series “Touched By An Angel” count as an exception to this rule? I loved that series and rarely missed it each week when it was on.
my 37 year-old husband just died of brain cancer..I am going to write a book and possibly a movie about his faith while he fought. his story has already changes hundreds of lives. http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/11954230
It’s more about redemption than anything else. That’s why Jesus came. A tale of effective and true redemption requires an ongoing and imminent tragedy. And the redemption doesn’t always work out as we’d like on this side of eternity… but it does affect those on this side regardless.
For example, God’s redemptive work in the lifers in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is astounding… but they are still in a physical prison– for life. That’s far more compelling (and real) than a story about getting released from prison because you found Christ, a seeming default position for too many Christian storytellers.
Fantastic observation, Phil!
The pressure Christians put on themselves and others to be “positive and uplifting” is completely dehumanizing – both on screen and off. It is a patent denial of the human experience, a flat-out refusal to engage with the “other.” This is the mark of spiritual infancy. An infant craves protection, simplicity, purity. And what passes for Christian art in America is too juvenile even for my first grader. Indeed, the Body of Christ has a curiously strong appetite for the serene redundancy of the Teletubbies.
The narratives in the Bible are unfinished tragedies. We know the good guys win, but the details are deliberately obscured. Why does God keep us in the dark? Why does the Lord tarry? Maybe because he’s waiting for us to grow up.
Excellent read…very true!
I actually think that a bigger problem with “Christian Movies” is that people go to the cinema for entirely different reasons than to be preached at. Bible bashing does not get any better because it happens in a theatre.
Most people go to the movies to be entertained rather than educated. Some even go there to be amused, that is taking a break from thinking. People are seeking relief, the ability to not focus on their own problems for a little while. People want to feel something, while still having the chance to walk away from it afterwards.
We need to make stories that people will want to hear, and present them in a way people want to see. Quality and relevance is key. We need to present something that is real to the people watching. Real people in believable situations getting through or finding strength even when they aren’t. Suspension of disbelief is important.
I think we as “Christians” have a problem with this because we live in a perpetual state of not quite believing what we are trying to present. This is the problem with “revivals;” after a while the people that go to them are “Christians” who can’t believe God is doing something. I have no solution for this other than getting to know God intimately for ourselves. Becoming full believers, rather than people who gather themselves under the generic term “Christians.”
Truth is that in many cases God doesn’t just let us off the hook because we wouldn’t learn anything from it. God loves us enough to equip us for life, rather than spoiling us so we become lazy and useless. I don’t think God has much pleasure of spiritually obese people, or people just wanting the latest “Christgasm.” So we need to stop making films that portray this as the life of believers.
Nailed it, Espen. By the way – anyone wanna buy a script? It’s dark, tragic, and not preachy. Bonus – profanity and explicit content!
Get it while it’s hot, people.
I partially agree, since top box office movies are filled with conflict,q but have a happy Hollywood ending.
As a screenwriter, I struggle with this. DP – its not that there aren’t any good scripts out there…I would say not many Christian production company’s will take the deeply emotional scripts on. Here is some coverage on one of mine (everything was ranked in the Good and Excellent category yet they wouldn’t touch it.) “I think one of the most wonderful aspects o this story – was the harsh realities that were expressed. While possibly the specific situations are dramatized, the truth that evil and pain are present in this world remain constant. As humans, we experience pain, emotional and otherwise. this pain leaves us changed, but in the pain and through a truthful journey of understanding the pain, we can become more of what the LORD has for us. these trials can make us more gentle, kind and compassionate – as in Henry’s case, or more abusive and condescending as Max. As the adage states, “…these things can make us bitter or better!’…I am grateful to the author of this work for presenting such a stirring and powerful narrative, however at this time, I am not recommend this work…” It’s not that Christian entities don’t recognize the need, they don’t want to take the chance. They believe the public wants the altar call film. It is very frustrating as a writer; however, I remain convicted to write the way the Lord would have me. Honestly, my work has had more recognition from the non-Christian entities. This particular work made the top 15% in the Nichol – for it having strong Christian attributes, I was amazed. Please pray for us, those that want to change the trends, we are out there. Eight scripts into it, I remain convicted. So if you know anyone I could pitch to…? Besides the heavy dramas I have a new Family Epic Fantasy that could bury Harry Potter. 🙂
I’m convinced there are a number of reasons Christian movies seem to fail, but before I address that, let me say that God does not measure failure the same way we do. We see dimly in this life and things we consider failures may turn out to be very successful in the eyes of God.
#1 – low budgets have prevented Christian producers from competing on level ground with the secular world. The lack of finances is most saliently reflected in the cinematography and the quality of the acting.
#2 – Christian movie companies often work on this paradigm – one person writes, directs, stars in and produces the movie. This is not the recipe for success, especially if that individual is not open to constructive criticism.
#3 – Christians are hamstrung by their own people from realistically portraying the world. Bad guys have to use sanitized vernacular. This brings an aura of unreality to even movies which do portray a bit of reality. I saw a review of a movie where a Christian fan said he was going to throw out all of his Michael W. Smith music because Smith was in a movie that had a couple of cuss words.
#4 – The world has progressed from apathetic to Christianity to downright antagonism.
#5 – God is not involved in the majority of the productions – just people operating in soul power, trying to make a buck and a reputation in the name of Jesus.
In the last days, God’s Spirit will be moving upon some of his people to produce movies that will give mankind one last chance to embrace their savior. Prophecies have been made from several quarters that God is moving in this arena and that He will raise up an army of media people who are not concerned with their own agenda and egos, but will work as a unit to bring to life the ideas of the Creator of the Universe.
So well put, Donald. God can use even the bluntest of instruments. That said, I don’t think low budgets are an excuse. Some of the greatest indie dramas I’ve ever seen were shot on a shoestring. You’re either authentic or you’re not, and other than the profanity police, most people can sniff out the fakers pretty fast. As for God’s media army – sign me up.
I think we overlook what a ‘Christian’ movie is. I just saw Sucker Punch last night. Great movie. Definitely filled with obvious Christian themes such as sacrificing one’s self for another and the ultimate defeat of evil. Isn’t these christian themes at their finest?
In my opinion most so-called ‘christian’ movies are not well written. They fail to connect with the audience and don’t often follow the rules for great story telling. People want to embark on a journey of transformation with the main characters. They want to see the redemption story play out on the screen or in a book.
Christian writers and filmmakers need to focus more on crafting stories that incorporate elements of the Hero’s Journey as espoused by Joseph Campbell. And get away from only being able to think or talk in christian-ese. If our goal is to evangelize we need to speak more in the language of those we seek to reach. Tyler Perry has done well as a filmmaker by doing this.
I think we need more redemptive stories. Rather than starting with characters that have everything worked out in their lives, we should learn from movies like Iron Man. It is about Tony Stark a drunkard, arrogant, hypocrite with no ‘heart’. So it starts out in a low point where the audience can feel empathy for the character and can also easily relate to one of his many character flaws. When the movie gets interesting is when Tony is captured by armed militants who hold him hostage and it is here that Tony sees his weapons being used for terror rather than for the noble purposes he thought they were being used for. It is here that he also meets a good role model in the form of his technician that the militants have provided him with. He helps Tony see the light and helps cause the redemption of Tony’s character. Where this gets better is when the moral change that Tony experiences is further represented visually in the form of Tony Stark’s new Arc Reactor which he had to implant into his chest in order to stay alive.
This movie was extremely popular and has even gained a cult following. I think this is because the film is incredibly entertaining with action and the somewhat fantastical lifestyle that Tony lives, but aside from all of that Iron Man 2 had all of this but didn’t work and that was because it did not have the same redemption story or moral choice that the first one had.
I think Christian films of recent times such as Narnia and Passion of the Christ have understood this concept and particularly in the case of Narnia as they chose to represent what are fundamentally Christian stories through character’s that are redeemed through their ‘noble choices’. Christian’s therefore need to use the same tools and techniques that the professional’s of Hollywood have been using for decades to push their secularistic agenda’s across. but instead reverse the .
If only Christian’s reversed this order and used these same techniques for God’s glory and not for man’s glory, what a different genre this would be. I intend to do just that.
I agree with Ryan and Buzz on the production value issues. No apologies for not supporting a poorly made “Christian” movie. Tying preference for dark movies or misery-loves-company facebook status theories with why Christian movies fail doesn’t work for me.
I don’t believe it’s film’s job to share the Gospel. It’s ours individually. God did not imbue film with the Holy Spirit, He poured it out on us.
Salt, like curiosity, goes with everything. Make them thirsty, make it personal. Draw them in enough to ask questions; to hear an undiluted gospel message from us, rather than from a spoon-fed, dim reflection. Seems I remember something about rewrites on this one…… 😉
Being somewhat familiar with screen plays throughout the years, I agree to a point of this article. But only to a point. What I want to see is both a greater connection with the true grit of life, and better acting (pay attention to Christian actors when angry for example; not very convincing to me); but more importantly still, better directing/producing. Where are the Chariots of Fire films? Those of high quality production? Yes, there are a few. But only a few!
If I have stepped on toes, forgive me, but, seriously, most Christian movies I see are limited in depth, character development, plot, production, etc. How I pray for more high quailty Christian films.
I’m inclined to disagree. I think we need to start thinking differently. Instead of labeling it a ‘Christian’ film, call it a film made by a Christian. Recently for The 168 Project, I was able to create a Superhero Action Comedy, based on John 19:26-27. Don’t limit yourself by thinking that a film has to have a heavy message beyond, “Those that have Faith, win.”
i definately agree. i think ‘christians’ feel they have to fall into the trap that different orginizations or society has set. i don’t feel that the biggest christian production company (dove) has a realistic view of how god wants christians to live their life, yet so many people adhear to their standards but fall out of line of god’s. there are good christian producers out there, but as you will find, they don’t write to be “christian film writers” they write and produce because they want to give people good film, and because they are christians the films tend to be “good”. check out either/or film, they make ‘regular’ movies but that come from a few christian producers
Phil, setting out to tell a tragedy is ok if you properly show consequences. It’s the glamorization of the unglamorous that makes films su-real (or less than real).
Love love love this! Both of my sons are songwriters and musicians and we had a loooong talk about this very topic. I wrote a song called “Don’t Pray for Me” which disturbed them because it wasn’t happy. I don’t think it will ever get published but I had to write the lyrics expressing what the country is already saying that we’ve had enough prayer, we need action. Of course I raised these 2 artists in church and sent them to a private Christian academy. My oldest literally freaked out during his first year at one of the best art schools in the country. He was not prepared for the level of intensity these artists have in expressing their worldview. It was culture shock for him in a good way. Now he is writing songs that are going to be heard by lots of people outside of the church. I think expressing tragedy, tension, pain and showing the humanity of a complicated hero is a more engaging story. Christian movies tend to simplify the good versus evil storyline with flat one-dimensional characters. I wish a Christian would write a film about the Egyptians and how they felt when their culture and way of life was decimated by God. I think that would be an interesting story but controversial because we don’t want to think about the people who may have been hurt or killed in the unfolding narrative of the Bible. Most Christian movies have happy endings, boring characters and a predictable moralistic storyline. Hopefully someone will emerge and break the mold in Christian filmmaking.
agree – as a writer I find about the only thing that attracts me to a story are true (and based on true) events of frail humans overcoming overwhelming odds – in other words, the hero’s journey. And comedies because I need to escape and laugh out loud. As a songwriter, I find that most of my lyrics are sad and about brokenness and loss heart ache. Love songs kinda, well, bore me. Honestly, I never want to hear another teenage “All I need is you” love sick clap trap ever… it’s the shallowest form of songwriter ever invented. (off my soap box now – thanks for reading – all negative comments and critiques will be disregarded)
I think no matter how you slice it this is a very important point to make. Although I think we can still have redemptive endings I think we need to show our characters truly suffering and experiencing loss.
I scanned the other comments and did not see this point made, so apologies if someone else already said what seems obvious to me – most movies are failures, Christian or otherwise. Very few movies ever make any money for the investors. Most producers are paid a fee out of the budget and the recoupment waterfall generally squeezes off any money before it hits the investors. So, what does “successful” mean regarding Christian films? Studios put out blockbusters to make up for all the money they lose from almost every other movie they produce. Do we have an expectation that Christian movies should have the same rate of “success” as secular movies? If so, I think they are doing pretty well.
No question that most movies fail, however I’m not just talking about box office success. Most Christian efforts don’t do well at the box office or critically for a number of reasons. I was fascinated with that study, and have to agree that most Christian movies try for a happy ending and life just isn’t always happy. I think the point is that we should try to be honest about life in our films, even if that means the movie ends tragically. Think of the number of Bible characters who didn’t end well, and that might be a good storytelling model for us to pursue.
On the one hand it makes sense. Research that a team of students at Wharton did on why people watch reality TV found that a big attraction was schadenfreude, which resonates with these findings in a more specific context.
On the other hand, while Kurt Vonnegut highlighted the “guy in a hole” arc as a successful story, it just seems that the twist in Christian stories is too predictable (prayer changed things, person got saved and everthing got better). Having the tragic stories may also enhance the ones with happy endings, making them less predictable.
Great point James! Thanks for posting.
My film “Beyond the Farthest Star” attempted to bring real life heartache and Christian HOPE into focus. You can see it on both Amazon and PureFlix.
Someone pointed this out earlier, but the Bible as a whole story ends really well despite all of the tragedy that happens in between all of those smaller stories. Even most of the “smaller” stories ultimately end well. I’m not really aware of many successful movies that don’t end well. Superhero movies all end up with the good guys winning. Sports films are usually based on a winning team or successful athlete. War movies are usually about the winning team as well.
I think it’s odd that we expect Christian films to have a higher success rate than films produced by billion-dollar studios. The general market film biz produces a ton of crap. They call them B-movies and they used to litter Blockbuster. Now they litter Netflix and other digital services.
I’m hopeful that we are seeing a positive change on the Christian side of things. Movies like I Can Only Imagine and Breakthrough were box office hits AND really well done (both had tragedy that led to a positive ending). I’m personally working on multiple documentaries and screen plays that fit that same mold–redemptive stories that give people hope. That’s what we’re supposed to be about as Christians. That’s the gospel.
P.S. I’m speaking at the ORU media summit next week. Hope to see you there!