On August 30th, Fathom Events is showing our feature documentary “The Insanity of God” nationwide in theaters across America for one night only. How we got to this point might be a lesson in how the film business has changed and an encouragement to beginning independent filmmakers. It started as a much smaller idea for the International Mission Board. Over the years our team at Cooke Media Group had done a number of global video projects with IMB, and Producer Craig Martin (working with them at the time) brought the book to my attention.
Based on the bestseller by Nik Ripken, “The Insanity of God” tells the story of Nik and his wife – lifelong missionaries – who tragically lost a son in Somalia. Nik’s struggle to come to terms with that heartbreak launched him on a journey to the most horrific locations in the world to find out if God is actually making a difference in impossible places.
Since the book had been about that odyssey, our job as filmmakers was to re-trace his steps and in some cases, recreate what he had seen and experienced. Initially, all the interviews had to be shot in silhouette because of security issues. You can imagine our creative meetings discussing shooting an entire documentary where you can’t see anyone’s face!
Our next step was to bring in Todd Smith from the band Selah who wrote the music for the film – especially the major theme. Todd was excited from the beginning, and it always gave the crew a boost when he’d send rough cuts of music he had in mind.
The most extensive location was re-creating a bleak, Soviet era-prison, which we did at West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia. Built in 1876, it has been virtually abandoned since 1995 when the prison closed, and only used for tours and training.
But as the film came together it didn’t take long for us to realize that we had a much bigger story than a short film or web video. That’s when we began looking for distribution as a feature length documentary. After a number of conversations, we landed with Trey Reynolds and his team at Lifeway Films. There were strong connections between Lifeway, IMB, and the Baptist denomination, so Lifeway became the perfect choice. We explored options like a limited theatrical release, direct to DVD, and church screenings, and then Trey Reynolds reached out to Fathom Events to schedule one night they felt they could drive a significant theatrical audience to the showing of the movie.
So while there were many lessons to learn from the experience, here’s some keys for other beginning filmmakers:
1. Find solid partners. Trust me, I’ve been through film projects where financiers, producer, distributors or others bailed during the process, and it can get ugly. Find people and companies you trust and are comfortable with. Producing a film is tough enough, so find trustworthy partners and stick with them. This was true in our situation, and it’s made a dramatic difference in the outcome.
2. Key members of the team are especially valuable. One of our first meetings was with literary agent Sealy Yates who represented Nik Ripken, and signing the book was our first major step. As I mentioned before, when Craig Martin brought Todd Smith to the table, his talent and excitement was a huge boost to the effort. Director Brad Knull’s unique vision for the style of the film made it look much more significant than our budget deserved. Cooke Media Group’ Executive Producer Dan Wathen kept the trains running on time. On and on down the schedule, certain key team members made important differences and gave us numerous “shots in the arm.”
3. Start the distribution search early. As I mentioned, we talked to numerous distributors, and came very close to a deal with one or two. But in the end, Lifeway Films seemed the right fit for this particularly project, and their introduction to Fathom Events was even better. Fathom is an expensive option, but if you can drive an audience to a single, nationwide showing, it can create a real buzz for a film. Having the support of SBC churches helps a great deal.
4. Never give up. This project took a lot longer than expected because of the difficult locations, security concerns in countries, transitions within the backing organization, and changing schedules. In the middle of the project, Craig Martin, a key driver of the project left IMB to join another of our partners, Change Media. But through it all we held fast. You’ll encounter numerous hurdles in any project, but you can get to the finish line if you don’t take your eyes off the ball.
5. Produce projects worth focusing a year or two of your life on. I have plenty of friends in Hollywood who work on shows they’re frankly embarrassed by. Others spend years producing shallow movies that are forgotten in a few weeks. This was a small film with a small budget, but we took the challenge because it told an important story.
That story – about Christian persecution – is that we could stop it tomorrow if we simply stopped preaching the gospel. All we have to do is to become silent, and the harassment, criticism, and persecution ceases.
It’s all up to us. Christians are imprisoned, beaten, and executed every day in the Middle East and in other countries around the world because they’re not willing to stop. Even at the threat of their lives, they refuse to be silent.
The question is, if and when it gets tough here at home, how will we respond?
Hopefully, our film will help you decide…
(Check here for a theater near you.)