Hooray for Entertainment Weekly in publishing "Hooray for Holywood" in its April 16 edition. The feature is not yet available online -- but even when it is, the content will be available only to EW subscribers or AOL customers.
The five-member panel is top-heavy with Protestants, with only Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, present as a token non-Christian. The panel could have been more lively had it included directors such as Richard Dutcher (God's Army, Brigham City), a Mormon, or Jonathan Kesselman (The Hebrew Hammer).
The other four panelists are Jerry Jenkins, the writer who turned Tim LaHaye's premillennialist teachings into the bestselling Left Behind series; Phil Vischer, founder of Big Idea; Martha Williamson, executive producer of Touched by an Angel; and Ralph Winter, a producer of X-Men and Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes.
Vischer and Jenkins compete with each other to get in the funniest zingers, starting with this on the opening spread:
As Phil Vischer, whose animated "VeggieTales" videos have sold 35 million copies, explains, "I promised my mother I would never depict Jesus as a vegetable."
"What about The Passion Fruit of the Christ?" suggested Jerry B. Jenkins . . .
Jenkins refers to his efforts to help his son, Dallas, make films through Jenkins Entertainment:
When my son and I came to Hollywood to set up a production company, we said: Let's acknowledge that Hollywood, whether we like their message or not, makes the best movies in the world, and also the worst. But we want to compete at a level where people don't say, "Well, for a Christian movie it was good."
Films by Dallas Jenkins have a way to go before they compete at that level. His first film, Hometown Legend, depicted the well-trod soil of high school football. He has since made another film, a comedy called ClichÃƒÂƒ(c).
Vischer has been one of the few evangelicals to combine an open affirmation of faith with a humor that helps move units. (Big Idea rolled out its first feature film, Jonah, in 2002. Soon after its relative commercial success with that film, Big Idea declared bankruptcy, and is now a division of Classic Media of New York.
Vischer speaks candidly about the pressures that evangelical artists face from more utilitarian-minded brethren:
We handcuff ourselves. We get letters asking, When do you actually call people to make a salvation choice? The Campus Crusade [for Christ] has been carrying their JESUS film around the world and they actually figured out a formula where if you invest this much money, it results in this many conversions from showing the film. The people funding these efforts tend to be conservative Midwestern businessmen who want to know the return on their investment. So it's made much of evangelical ministry extremely results-driven.
Winter describes his efforts to help make films based on the novels of Frank Peretti:
I've been fortunate to work on a lot of big movies, and that gives me the ability to leverage my time to make an indie based on [Christian writer] Frank Peretti's book Hangman's Curse, risking $2 million of our own money. Hangman's Curse is not explicitly religious, but I'm trying to demonstrate for 20th Century Fox the path to make [Peretti's more overtly religious 1986 best-seller] This Present Darkness. All of us have producer envy with Mel Gibson because he's got everyone talking about his movie.
Williamson, who attends Church on the Way in Van Nuys, adds poignant notes about what people assume because of her faith:
The word got out at CBS that I was the only person they knew who went to church, so they said, Let's throw her the angel show.
. . . I never did the show because I was Christian. But when it came to me, I was prepared with experience, a reputation, and a faith to bring to it.
. . . Unfortunately, the evangelical Christian has all sorts of political baggage. When I saw I'im a Christian, many people assume they know how I voted. And they figure I spend my free time watching women with pink hair weep on cable channels. It's not true.
To which Vischer adds another punchline: "The hair is blue."
EW writer Thom Geier's questions are informed and non-intrusive, mostly helping to keep the conversation focused. The article acknowledges the greater opportunities created by The Passion of the Christ, but it can only guess at how well Christians, Jews, or filmmakers of other faiths will handle their new opportunities.
So long as they're at the mercy of financiers who believe that art must answer to a conversions-per-film formula, it's difficult to feel much hope.
Elsewhere in the issue is this maddeningly coy exchange with Quentin Tarantino:
EW Pulp Fiction included biblical references and Kill Bill includes references to God. What are your religious beliefs? Do you believe in God?
QT I'm not going to tell you how I believe, but I do believe in God.
Well, that's a relief. Can you imagine the onscreen carnage if he weren't a theist?