August 2004 – Six Christian film insiders – two critic/analysts and four producers – believe doors are opening wider for films with strong Christian messages since last spring’s blockbuster The Passion of the Christ. The Mel Gibson hit has topped $608 million at the box office and leads all films so far this year, according to a June New York Times report.
Of the seven biggest Hollywood studios, Ted Baehr said, “Three have told us that they want to be branded as Christian-friendly.” Baehr, publisher of MovieGuide, reviews and analyzes hundreds of films each year. He said there are at least nine Christian movies now in production by major groups.
“For the next two years, we cannot allow strong Biblically-based films to fail,” said Frank Schroeder, “because if they succeed, they’re going to keep getting made.” Schroeder is CEO of Premier Pictures. In film production for 26 years, Schroeder’s current release is a film adaptation of Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Nobel Prize winning novel.
Byron Jones is president of Willowcreek Marketing, a new company which recently released Home Beyond the Sun, and will release Sting: Moment of Truth this fall. Jones is former VP of entertainment for Cloud Ten Pictures, producers of the Left Behind movie series. He believes film is a great way to reach today’s secular market with the gospel.
“Jesus used parables and stories to explain godly principles,” said Jones. “This is missing from our world today. Too many Christians have a hard time sharing their faith because the people they are talking to do not understand our Christian lingo.”
Preview is a movie and TV review service headed by David Haverty. He thinks the Christian moviegoer has fallen under the Hollywood spell. “I call it the C-A-N principle,” said Haverty. “Whatever is Common becomes Acceptable, and once it is Acceptable it seems Normal. ...many youth pastors are not concerned about what their youth are being subjected to by the media.”
According to Baehr’s numbers, by age 17 a child has spent 40,000 hours with movies, TV and videos; 11,000 hours in school, 2,000 quality hours with parents, and 800 hours in church.
One obstacle to more Christian films stands out – inadequate funding. And that affects quality, marketing and distribution. Baehr believes it is the result of the church’s attitude toward the film industry. He says the church takes in $240.9 billion a year, and box office receipts only $9.27 billion. Yet, the church does almost nothing to reach the culture through the effective means of film.
“There’s one thing that Mel Gibson’s film [The Passion] did,” Schroeder said. “Catholics, Presbyterians, other Protestants and Charismatics were all coming to the movie. It is critical that the body of Christ unite in supporting the good [in our culture].”
Rich Christiano, writer/director for the Christiano Film Group and owner of ChristianMovies.com, has been making Christian films for 19 years. Producer/writer Andre Van Heerden has been with Cloud Ten Pictures and its predecessor ministries for ten years. Their insights are included in the following Q&A section.
AFAJ: Is Hollywood producing fewer movies with good moral values? If so, when and why do you think Hollywood began to move away from movies that extol moral values?
Baehr: There was a day in the 1960s when there were more moral films. You had the remake of King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. But you had a lot of bland films that wouldn’t talk about Christ. So, arguably, you’ve got more films talking about Christ now in a positive way than you’ve had in a long time.
Haverty: I believe that Hollywood is producing very few movies with moral values. It began in the 1960s and around the Vietnam war era, the movement where everyone wanted freedom, free love, drugs – the hippie movement.
Jones: I believe Hollywood is producing what they believe will sell and the products are in keeping with their lifestyle. After the Second World War, society has concentrated so much on individual rights that we became rebellious toward the rules of society and now we are reaping the results.
Schroeder: In 1991 we released The Pistol. That year only seven films were G-rated. The Pistol was the only G-rated, non-animated one that was theater-released. So actually, they’ve increased the G-rated and PG fare. [However,] PG today was PG-13 20 years ago. The rating system is a sliding scale.
Back in the ’50s, the norm was doing films with moral values. In the ’60s, the church kind of walked away from Hollywood. The Protestant Film Office and the National League of Decency pretty much went out of existence.
Van Heerden: My initial response is yes. I do believe that there are still some worthwhile movies, family-based movies being produced today by a number of different studios. However, I’d say there are more movies that are not family-friendly, that look to shock or sensationalize.
AFAJ: What are the toughest obstacles for the producer of Christian-based films today?
Christiano: Distribution outlets. We need to be able to generate more income from distribution. If you can bring in more money from sales, you can spend more on the movies to make them better.
Haverty: Christians are one of the major obstacles for Christian films. Too many Christians have bought into what Hollywood is producing. Most Christian films do not have adequate backing to make their movies. The real lack comes in the marketing.
Jones: Financing. To make the films bigger and better we need budgets that include production and proper marketing. Second is the system of distribution of the movie to the consumer.
Van Heerden: The biggest obstacle is going to be getting those movies in front of people so that people can see them. Another challenge for us is getting the money to make the movie, especially at the level that people expect it to be. We just don’t have the budgets even close to what the Hollywood companies have.
Baehr: One, there are a lot of people in Hollywood who hate Christians. Hollywood is split among many different groups – Jewish groups, homosexual groups, feminist groups, Christian groups. Also an obstacle is the church [as related to the Christian film industry]. The church produces a lot of flimsy films. They don’t take script-writing courses. They don’t learn their craft. And that produces a tremendous problem.
AFAJ: What future do you see for Christian films?
Jones: I see Christian films gaining a larger place in the general entertainment marketplace. I also see a growing trend for studios to try to become involved in this arena of film-making. However, there will be a lot of flops before the studios actually figure out what the Christian film buyers are looking for.
Schroeder: I think the next two years are critical, because I know some things that are in the pipeline right now that producers are looking at. Like with Quo Vadis, if it comes out and is successful, then Hollywood is going to keep on making this kind of film.
Christiano: The Lord will continue to have his voice in Christian films as He always has. I think the quality of productions will continue to increase. My fear is that very few producers want to put a real message in the films for Christ. A Christian film should point to Jesus Christ.
AFAJ: Is there a renewed interest in producing Christian films, and if so, why? What things are encouraging you to produce films with Christian values?
Van Heerden: The Passion has raised the awareness level that there is a very large Christian market out there that does want to see these sorts of films. And the number of media people that have contacted Cloud Ten to talk about this has been remarkable.
Christiano: I believe that we can make non-compromising, quality movies as we continue to build the distribution. There is a consumer group out there that wants solid Christ-centered movies that not only are evangelistic but can edify the Christian as well.
Jones: I see a renewed interest because over the past few years we have demonstrated that there is a multi-million dollar industry here waiting for the proper partnership to be formed that will protect the integrity of the message and deliver the quality of product.
AFAJ: How do you think Hollywood is going to respond to the success of The Passion and Lord of the Rings?
Haverty: The only reason they would respond is if it means money to them.
Christiano: The Passion did so well, it will show the theaters that with the right promotion, a strong Christian-themed movie can do well. Churches and the Christian media need to promote quality Christian projects when they come down the line. And then, Christian movies will have a chance.
Jones: I believe Hollywood is going to think they were a blip on the screen. I also believe that many inexperienced Christian companies will get involved in business relationships with these [Hollywood] studios and find themselves in legal difficulties because Hollywood has a completely different spirit when it comes to investing in Christian films.
Schroeder: The Passion proved that the church in America will support fare at the movie theater. Though The Lord of the Rings was tremendously successful, it was never marketed to the church. I believe more than ever, the church’s impact [on film] is at a critical point. A couple of studios I’ve talked to are committed to doing Christian stories. But if four or five of those films come out theatrically and fail, then they’re going to consider that The Passion was just an enigma.
FAVORITE CHRISTIAN MOVIES (When asking this question, AFA Journal did not define “Christian movie.”)
King of Kings (1927)
The Gospel of John
The Passion of the Christ
End of the Harvest
Late One Night
The Passion of the Christ
Chariots of Fire
The Hiding Place
The Passion of the Christ
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Movie review resources
• Ted Baehr's Movieguide www.movieguide.org