Hollywood

Yet another turning point in the search for Hollywood’s Christian market?

Yet another turning point in the search for Hollywood’s Christian market?

Highly secularized showbiz moguls suddenly realized that religion could pay off when Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ” posted $370 million in box office. That remains history’s highest domestic take for an R-rated movie and tops for any Christian-themed film, beating out the three  C.S. Lewis “Narnia” stories.

Woodenly scripted cheapos like 2001’s “Left Behind” that did poorly ($4.2 million total box office) no doubt dampened studio interest. Even after Gibson, Hollywood seems generally uncertain how to capitalize on this market, and treatments of faith are too often either phony or snarky. Hollywood insiders have struggled to find the magic faith-based niche formula.

But something important may be developing. Note that #5 in the Christian genre’s all-time box office is “War Room,” about the ineffable power of prayer to change lives for the better. It  grossed $67.8 million last year. Then there’s the current film “Risen,” timed for the lead-up to Easter. It earned a healthy $11.8 million with its opening last weekend and ranked #3 in the market (all data in this item are from www.boxofficemojo.com).

Both films come from Sony Pictures’ Affirm Films subsidiary, which has received surprisingly scant mainstream media coverage and has obvious potential for a good story.

Sony launched Affirm in 2007 with the mandate of “producing, acquiring, and marketing" films that uplift and inspire. Senior Vice President Rich Peluso, formerly with EMI Christian Music, says Affirm works “the space between faith and entertainment.”

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What would Rene Russo do? Los Angeles Times punts when dealing with Hollywood and faith

What would Rene Russo do? Los Angeles Times punts when dealing with Hollywood and faith

On one level, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is about a very shallow, quickie feature that The Los Angeles Times published the other day about a fledgling ministry that is trying to help -- using a very expensive set of weekend seminars -- Christians break into the movie business.

Apparently, the editors who handled this story did not know that the Times had, in the past, actually done solid news features that talked about some of the complex issues linked to religious faith in Hollywood. They even quoted some of the academic and artistic leaders who have been doing this kind of work, as I kept stressing, for decades. It's like some editors in the Los Angeles Times newsroom are not that familiar with, well, Los Angeles.

Maybe there is a reason for that. Thus, on another level, this podcast focused on a problem -- a loss of institutional memory -- that is plaguing the news business right now as so many veteran journalists are being pushed out of newsrooms. Why is that? Well there is a major crisis in journalism, in case you haven't noticed, linked to falling ad revenues and the harsh reality that no one has discovered a solid Internet news business model that will support diverse newsrooms that retain experienced reporters and editors.

Then again, maybe there is a third level to this discussion. You see, there are quite a few people of faith in Hollywood and -- you may need to sit down -- they don't all agree with one another about lots of tough issues. Some of their programs even compete with one another, if you want to know the truth. They take different approaches. Really!

Can you imagine that? Not all Christians agree with one another when it comes time to wrestle with tough, complex issues linked to art, ministry, money, storytelling and many other realities in Hollywood. Should all movies be "evangelistic"? Should they all be "safe" and "clean"? Can Christians work in movies that are not "Christian"? Come to think of it, what does the adjective "Christian" mean when parked in front of the word "movie"?

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Los Angeles Times: Christians finding totally cool new ways to learn Hollywood stuff!

Los Angeles Times: Christians finding totally cool new ways to learn Hollywood stuff!

Let's say you wanted to write a newspaper piece about a big, complex topic, maybe something like Christians trying to find doorways into work in Hollywood. There are two responsible ways to do this kind of news story.

You could take a comprehensive approach and attempt to update the status of the full story, backing up several decades and demonstrating that this is not a new story. You would contact the key players, old and new, and go for a real update on the big picture.

Second, you could do a modest piece that looks at a new institution that is getting into this field, a new school or a new professional program that claims to have a fresh approach. Then you briefly -- three to four paragraphs or so -- mention that there are a host of other people who have been doing this work for (that word again) decades. Perhaps you ask the veterans to critique the current state of this work and evaluate this newcomer in their home turf.

But here is what you do not do, especially if you are writing the The Los Angeles Times, for heaven's sake, which is supposed to "get" Hollywood. You do not write a shallow, barely researched piece about a newcomer on the block and then proceed to ignore all of the professionals who have been working in this field (one more time) for decades.

Alas, this third option is precisely what the Times offered the other day, under this snippy headline: "Selling Stardom: A Christian path to Hollywood."

The story focuses on a program called "Actors, Models & Talent for Christ," which grew out of a talent-search company in Atlanta. Readers are told that it jumped into this new line of work when "owner Carey Lewis became a religious Christian." Here is what passes for the thesis and summary material in this story:

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Spot the religion ghosts in story about homeless man's attack on actress Pauley Perrette?

Spot the religion ghosts in story about homeless man's attack on actress Pauley Perrette?

So, news consumers, which of the following two news story lines do you find the most poignant?

(1) A Hollywood star is mugged by a mysterious homeless man who threatens to kill her.

(2) A Hollywood star who does regular volunteer work with a homeless ministry -- perhaps linked to her church -- is mugged by a homeless man who threatens to kill her.

Now, the USA Today story about this incident involving Pauley Perrette does hint at the religious ghosts in this event. It also included a photo of the essay the actress posted in social media about the incident. That text contains several faith references. We will come back to that in a moment.

Anyway, here is how the story begins:

NCIS actress Pauley Perrette, who plays the show's Goth crime lab tech Abby Scuito, had a real-life scare Thursday in Los Angeles. A "psychotic homeless man" jumped her on the street outside her home and punched her in the face several times.
"I almost died tonight," she wrote on Twitter. "Tonight was awful, life changing and I'm only grateful to be alive."
Perrette recounted the incident in detail in an essay, which she photographed and attached to her post. In it, she said the man kept telling her his name (William) and that he was going to kill her. "I was alone, terrified and trapped," she said, grateful he hadn't dragged her to a empty garage nearby. "I knew if he got me in there, I was dead."

And here is how it ends:

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Why are 'Christian movies' so bad? Talking about Jolie, Zamperini, 'Unbroken' and wisdom from Robert Duvall

Why are 'Christian movies' so bad? Talking about Jolie, Zamperini, 'Unbroken' and wisdom from Robert Duvall

It's a question I have puzzled over throughout my career as a journalist and as a mass-media professor: Why are "Christian movies" so bad?

Yes, there need to be quotes around the term "Christian movies." We are not talking about movies that are made by talented Christians who work in mainstream film. We're not talking about Frank "It's a Wonderful Life" Capra in the past or Scott "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" Derrickson in the present.

No, we're talking about, well, you know -- "Christian movies." The kinds of movies that resemble fundraising letters aimed at people in niche pews. Yes, Hollywood makes some preachy movies, too. That's a topic for another day, another podcast.

But why are those "Christian movies" so bad? Another Christian in the Hollywood mainstream, David "Home Improvement" McFadzean once offered up this brutal quote: The typical "Christian movie" is very similar to a porno movie. "It has terrible acting. It has a tiny budget. And you know exactly how it's going to end."

Ouch.

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Turn, turn, turn: What is Buddhism’s appeal for contemporary Americans?

Turn, turn, turn: What is Buddhism’s appeal for contemporary Americans?

DANIEL ASKS:

What aspects attract the many religious Americans that convert to Buddhism?

THE RELIGION GUY RESPONDS:

Before discussing what “attracts” let’s consider how “many” Americans have adopted this venerable faith. The over-all U.S. context is a deep divide between native-born converts (presumably Daniel’s interest) and Asian immigrants, also American Buddhists but not new “converts.” Richard Hughes Seager of Hamilton College calls this split “the most prominent feature of American Buddhism” during recent decades.

Due to the 1965 liberalization of U.S. immigration law, Asian-Americans dominate U.S. Buddhism.

As with Islam, it’s hard to pin down the numbers. The religion has no U.S. umbrella organization to represent its myriad branches and issue headcounts. The American Religious Identity Survey in 2001 sampled 50,000 Americans and projected there were 1.1 million adult Buddhists, and later added children for an estimated 1.5 million. The “World Christian Encyclopedia” (second edition, 2001) listed 2.45 million U.S. Buddhists including children but didn’t count “new religions” like Japan’s Soka Gakkai that others consider Buddhist. Experts have said Asian-American immigrants are something like three-fourths of U.S. Buddhists, and by outdated guesses there may be as few as 100,000 non-immigrant converts or as many as 800,000.

What aspects attract?

Meditation is certainly the key.

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Box-office religion: What explains Hollywood’s 'holy movie' picks?

Box-office religion: What explains Hollywood’s 'holy movie' picks?

KIRSTEN ASKS:

I wonder why I cannot think of any movies with stories from the Torah, Quran, or other holy texts. Are there any in the works?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

There’s considerable mystery about Hollywood and “holy movies.” Why are they often amateurish or offer ham-handed derision toward beliefs and believers? Why do few high-quality movies respect religion despite the large potential audience? Showbiz wised up a bit when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) scored $370 million in U.S. box office and became history’s most profitable film with an R rating (due to violence).

Kirsten posted this question early in 2004, which turns out to offer eight notable features with religious aspects. On her specific point, studios know the U.S. audience has far more Christians than Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus, and that factor affects releases globally. Note that any movie drawn from the Jewish Torah equally appeals to Christians, since their Bible begins with the same five “Old Testament” books.

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Low-budget Bible Belt films meet the bright lights of Hollywood

Low-budget Bible Belt films meet the bright lights of Hollywood

Hollywood has discovered the Bible Belt — again.

Here at GetReligion, our leader — Terry Mattingly — suggested in 2011:

Someone needs to copyright that phrase, "Tinseltown is rediscovering religion." You can make some money off it in three to five years.

Back in March, USA Today reported on Hollywood finding "religion and profits at theaters." Over at Religion News Service, Editor Kevin Eckstrom linked to a similar Los Angeles Times story in April and quipped:

Pretty sure we’ve seen about 5,429 versions of this story already

Right. We get it. Hollywood is trying to lure Christian audiences to the cineplex. Again. Meanwhile, in other news …

Which leads us to the subject of this post: an Associated Press feature this week with this headline:

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Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of 'Ann B.'

One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news. During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

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