By Jeff Brumley
Organizers hope a first-ever gathering of Hollywood and Christian leaders in Los Angeles tomorrow will spark ideas for movies and television shows that will positively influence society.
But a Baptist pastor and film critic says there’s an additional factor motivating Christian film makers to seek input from the church world: money.
“Just as there’s a whole niche publishing industry that does nothing but Christian books, this is a way to create that niche in the movie-making industry,” says Michael Parnell, pastor at Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., and a commentator and film reviewer for APBnews/Herald.
There are two basic categories of spiritual- and Christian-themed films: those made by and for Christian audiences, and those made by Hollywood that contain religious subjects, overtly or covertly.
The Christian filmmaking industry is seizing on both to push its genre — and that’s not a bad thing, Parnell says.
In fact, the search for profits can be a good thing for both the gospel and the movie-going public — if the makers of Christian-themed films are willing to take risks in both content and audiences reached.
“You have to go beyond yourself and your own little ghetto of the Christian world” to make films that appeal to a wider audience, he says.
‘A stellar year’
In Los Angeles, the organizers of this weekend’s 168 Film Festival, which celebrates Christian movies, described the past 12 months as “a stellar year for faith films at the box office …” They cited releases such as God’s Not Dead, Son of God, Heaven Is For Real and Noah as examples of religious films that appealed to the movie-going public.
In hopes of maintaining that momentum, the festival will hold its first “Pastors & Producers Forum.” It will push participants “to discuss strategies for positively affecting popular culture via film and TV,” festival organizers said in a news release.
Being more intentional about bringing pastors into the brainstorming and decision-making process would enhance the ability of Christian media producers to reach their intended markets, 168 Film founder John David Ware said in the release.
“If we can bring them on board early in the process and understand their media needs, then we should be better able to serve them with faith-based entertainment.”
‘A reflection of life’
Another Baptist film critic thinks a forum pairing industry executives with ministers makes sense.
Pastors “can serve as representatives for the types of films, and subject matter, which could appeal to the greater flock,” says Noel Manning, the host of two Gardner-Webb University radio shows on film and a charter member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
At the same time, church leaders may learn what goes into making films, says Manning, associate vice president for communications and marketing at the Boiling Springs, N.C., university.
“It takes quite a bit of time and dollars to develop projects and see them all the way through to the end of distribution,” he says. “There is never a guarantee of financial success, and, bottom line, the film industry is a business.”
It’s all worth doing because film reflects life in all its aspects, good and bad. Even nonreligious films give people a chance to see and experience “all the craziness” of life, Manning says.
Viewers are then challenged to ask how Christians respond to those struggles and how can they become difference makers and role models in those situations, he adds.
“Film … can provide a reflection of life, sometimes much closer to life than we realize. That … is one of the greatest contributions film can make to anyone, Christian or otherwise.”
‘Sinners in need of grace’
But many of the religious films that challenge audiences in those ways are often criticized by Christians, Parnell notes.
Some of the films touted by the 168 Film Project, organizers of the weekend’s film festival, were not warmly received by some conservative Christian audiences. Those included Noah and Heaven is for Real.
Noah, starring Russell Crowe in the leading role, was assailed for not adhering to the literal biblical narrative.
“You had people screaming bloody murder about Heaven is For Real,” Parnell says. “Some ministers said ‘this movie is not Christian because it is not biblically based.’”
Even this summer’s Calvary, a feature film by John Michael McDonagh, has received criticism from some Christians because of its strong language and, even more so, for the broken lives of its characters.
But its pervasive message of redemption should be what Christians focus on in the film, Parnell says. It also means Christian audiences must mature.
“The last time I checked, we’re still sinners in need of grace.”