AFA Journal editor
May 2011 – Human trafficking. Rescue. Tension. Danger. But the American team had been there before. Traveling with a rescue and relief agency, they were in Southeast Asia to locate and rescue victims of human trafficking.
The hook for a gripping movie plot? No, real life. Team member Brian Wells recalled the experience vividly in an interview with AFA Journal:
“We were in an orphanage compound in the middle of one of the largest slums in this mega-city full of slums. The compound backed up to a large gully, across from which was a valley filled with makeshift shanties, lean-tos and sewage. We noticed a growing mass of kids across the gully, jumping up and down, and yelling something.
“I moved closer to hear what they were saying. They were singing ‘Who let the dogs out?’ a hip-hop song from American radio. I was stunned. It was one of those moments when I realized just how far and how deep American pop culture impacts the whole world.”
At the marketplace
That 2007 incident in Southeast Asia is one of many turning points in Wells’ life. At the time, he didn’t see the wide-screen picture, but that scene would replay over and over in his mind. And it would factor into his present work as director of creative development at Flyover Studios in Cincinnati, and as executive producer of family-friendly films by corporate giant Procter and Gamble.
Add a few more critical scenes to the narrative, and Wells becomes the perfect picture of how God often uses a man’s diverse and seemingly unrelated experiences to shape him into who He desires him to be. Wells grew up in Nigeria, the son of missionaries. His young faith came naturally.
After earning an advertising degree from University of Illinois in 1987, he had his life well-scripted. He embarked on a promising career in marketing at P&G, in 1991 he married and began a family, and the future looked bright. As brand manager for P&G’s popular Clearasil skin care products, Wells became aware of the impact of the media on the masses.
“If we had a good piece of advertising,” he said, “we would ‘heavy up,’ that is, go into more markets and buy more air time for those commercials.”
He thinks it is pretty disingenuous for entertainment writers and producers to contend that movies and television don’t influence how people act. He says it takes a pretty significant intellectual disconnect to count on a 30-second spot motivating kids to go to the store and buy another tube of Clearasil – and at the same time, claim with a straight face that the other 22 minutes or 44 minutes of a program have no impact on the viewer’s life decisions.
“The whole industry is based on the fact that the medium motivates people’s behavior,” he said. “I saw the pervading influence of this increasing cocktail of violence and sex that’s being sold in the name of entertainment, and what is happening to our kids.”
With a newborn son in 1996, Wells was already concerned about what his child might learn from TV and movies. At the same time, some faith issues began stirring his heart. “I was just kind of asking some of those questions,” Wells said, “questions like, ‘Why do I have all these different variables in my happiness equation in place, but I’m not happy?’ ‘Why are these not adding up as I thought they would?’”
Reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity helped him find some answers, shape a stronger faith and bring him to another turning point.
In the ministry
After nine years at P&G, Wells and friends of like mind and spirit founded Crossroads Church in Cincinnati where he served as teaching pastor. It was a place for people who, like Wells, had questions and wanted a church home where they could explore those issues in the context of Scripture.
Then he read another life-changing book, this one by a leader in a high-profile rescue and relief group (unnamed for privacy and safety). That book led him to his passion for giving hope to the victims of human trafficking.
“After reading that book one summer, I felt like I had to do something with that information,” Wells said. “I could not just change the channel to something that’s less convicting or more convenient.”
He traveled occasionally with that group to some of its rescue sites around the world. Stateside, as the director of justice work at Crossroads, he mobilized his church and other faith-based and secular groups, challenging them to help combat human trafficking.
Reflecting now on his 2007 Asia experience, Wells said, “There I am, as far away from everything else in the world as I can possibly get, and these kids have been so exposed to our pop music, that’s what comes to their mind when they see Americans.” This startling phenomenon was no longer a broad brush coloring the whole world. Now it was personal
His son was 11 and his daughter 8, each with a growing circle of friends. Pressured by peers. Wanting to be like friends, listen to the same music, watch the same television shows and movies. Wells was growing more alarmed about the negative influences of entertainment.
“It just didn’t seem there were many choices my whole family could enjoy together,” he said. “Everything out there accomplished the laugh or the thrill or the drama at the expense of the things I wanted to build up in my own kids.”
All too often, the choice was to be entertained well but fight against the negative values in a movie or TV show, or to be bored by something that reinforced the positives he wanted to teach his children. Not a choice a parent wants to make. Another turning point.
On the movie set
Wells was fed up. He and some friends from his P&G days initiated extensive research among television advertisers and analyzed the growing unmet entertainment need among families. That led Wells to work with Jim Bechtold at Flyover Studios, and they committed themselves to producing family friendly movies.
Wells said the networks insist they don’t produce family friendly programming “because no one watches it.” But data compiled by the Flyover men was impressive. After all, with 35 million moms and 75 million kids under age 18, that’s a lot of potential viewers. Still, it wasn’t easy to persuade the entertainment elite that the family market is not a small niche.
Finally, Wells said, “We took our research to advertisers like P&G and Walmart, and they said, ‘You’re right; it seems like the right thing to do, and it seems like smart business.’”
Along the way, Wells crossed paths with Ben Simon, a young executive at Walmart. Simon leads global family entertainment marketing initiatives at Walmart, and he welcomed the message Wells was preaching.
As the men fine tuned their plans and dreams, another important principle emerged. If they were going to produce family friendly television, they would also carefully monitor the commercials. Simon recalls times he would be watching a good family show, then be offended by sleazy commercials or commercials for products inappropriate for family TV time.
“We want not only to create great programming,” Simon told AFA Journal, “but also to control the environment so there’s great family friendly advertising as well – so Mom doesn’t have to dive for the remote or be caught unaware.”
When P&G entered the equation on the production end, the formula was complete to get things under way for a series of made-for-television family movies. As executive director, Wells led the development of Secrets of the Mountain, the first of the P&G/Walmart Family Movie Night films. It aired April 16, 2010. At press time, Truth Be Told, fifth in the series, was set to air April 16, 2011. (See below for additional titles.)
“It’s pretty remarkable to produce four movies that quickly,” Simon said. “We are very pleased with the results. We came in number 1, number 2 or number 3 from a ratings standpoint on all four. Cumulatively we’ve had about 25 million viewers.”
The FMN team has met its first goal – to prove they can produce family friendly movies with superior production, solid family values and gripping stories – yet with no profanity, lascivious sexual content or graphic violence. In fact, the product and consumer response have both surpassed expectations.
Their next goal? To ramp up production until the FMN series becomes a weekly television event. Simon said, “What we hear from moms is, ‘We really want this on a more regular basis.’” In addition, producers are crafting every movie script with the elements that would easily adapt to a family friendly series as well.
“Walmart and P&G are delivering on their promise to produce great, family movies for television,” said AFA president Tim Wildmon. “That’s all we’ve ever really asked of the movie industry. We just want clean, decent, family friendly entertainment. And they’re doing it!”
Summarizing the heart of the team, Wells said, “We found that the majority of American families want entertainment that succeeds not by focusing on the worst elements of human nature, but by calling out what is best in us. We just want to be part of the solution.”
Eight great ways to promote family friendly movies
1. Watch Family Movie Night movies.
2. Tell 10 friends to watch.
3. Thank P&G (www.us.pg.com; 513-983-1100)
4. Thank Walmart (www.walmart.com; 800-WALMART)
5. Thank your Walmart manager.
6. Purchase FMN DVDs.
7. Support advertisers on FMN.
8. Thank the networks that air FMN.
Family Movie Night titles available on DVD at Walmart stores
Secrets of the Mountain –Single mother Dana James and her three children meet danger and adventure exploring land willed to James by her great uncle. They wind up in a race with the villain to find Aztec artifacts that may be buried on the property.
The Jensen Project – The Thompson family – Mom and Dad, both scientists, and tech-savvy teen son Brody – find themselves in a race against time as they try to keep potentially dangerous technology from falling into the wrong hands.
A Walk in My Shoes –A widowed mother of two sons is at wit’s end dealing with the older son, a high school senior. An all-American family provides counter balance and sets up an intriguing switched-identity situation that leads to some surprising resolutions.
Change of Plans –Jason and Sally Danville have no children and are both on the fast track in their careers when Sally’s long-time friend Teresa and her husband die in a plane crash. Teresa had named Sally to care for their four children, three of them adopted from Third World countries.
Truth be Told – Colorado’s leading marriage counselor is Annie Morgan, ironically a never-married woman. When a wealthy businessman wants to discuss her hosting a talk show, he assumes she is married. Annie’s ambition allows her to let the error live on – at least for a while.