Birth of Contemporary Christian Cinema?

FacingGiantsThe faith-and-football flick Facing the Giants continues to get quite a bit of press out there, especially since it has now been linked in many media minds with the post-Passion decision over at Fox to create a DVD and indie division called Fox Faith. Last weekend, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News included the flick in an interesting wrap-up of some, yes, post-Passion trends in marketing small movies about religious faith. I was struck by the following section of the story, centering on a chat with Matthew Crouch, son of Trinity Broadcasting Network founders Paul and Jan Crouch. While Mel Gibson's breakthrough was crucial, Crouch the younger also stressed that religious people -- including some on the real Christian right -- have "have decided it's OK to make Hollywood movies."

That wasn't always true. Mr. Crouch recalls that his grandmother once told his dad if he were at a movie when Jesus came back, he'd go to hell. But today, evangelicals believe they need to be in the world, he said.

"We're supposed to define culture," Mr. Crouch said. "Hollywood is a part of that."

The problem, of course, is that creating this kind of culture is really hard work that takes talent, patience, skill and teamwork -- teamwork that almost always is going to include seeking excellence among unbelievers as well as believers. There are, of course, serious (and diverse) networks of Christians already doing fine (and commercially hot) work in Hollywood. They make real Hollywood movies for audiences of normal moviegoers.

The question, it seems to me, is whether we are about to witness the birth of what can only be called the Contemporary Christian Movie industry. Wait, that "CCM" thing has already been claimed. Contemporary Christian Cinema? CCC? Is this kind of niche market strategy (again) a good idea for faith in popular culture?

There is, however, an interesting story behind Facing the Giants and the team of Southern Baptist amateurs who have managed to get their $100,000 evangelistic movie onto 400 screens in smaller markets across the country and to make about $3 million so far. Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey actually ventured down to Albany, Ga., to take a refreshingly low-key look at this story, which drew the rather over-the-top headline "Filmmakers Say God Was Their Co-Producer -- 'Facing the Giants,' Shot On a Shoestring and a Prayer, Does Miraculously at Box Office."

Here's the heart of this report from a red-zip-code backlot:

The "Giants" box office tally doesn't even include some of the nation's largest metropolitan markets, which distributors skipped over in recognition of the cultural divide in this country. For now, the movie is not playing anywhere near Washington (unless you consider Richmond nearby). According to Julie Fairchild, a spokeswoman for Provident Films, "There's a sort of imaginary line where Christian films don't play." Where it is showing, she says, is the "flyover country that Hollywood has been ignoring."

A world removed from the realm of most indie filmmakers, the cast and crew were for the most part completely lacking in experience, and in Hollywood terms, this makes for an appealing back story. The female lead is a homemaker with no acting credits aside from being "part of the crowd" in a church production; the male lead is a balding associate pastor with a passing resemblance to Dan Aykroyd. One of the screenwriters sums up his artistic experience this way: "I wrote a poem in fifth grade."

culture 43 0Now this is where the plot thickens.

If one assumes that the goal of this movie is evangelism, that would also assume that the movie needs to attract people who are not already believers. Yet, as Whoriskey demonstrates, Facing the Giants is almost certainly going to be a financial success to one degree or another because it speaks the language of the people who are already in the pews. It treats their stories with respect, for a change.

The movie preaches and this audience likes preaching.

Yet it may be that preaching is exactly what will make it successful. . . . (For) the appreciative and tearful crowds filing out of a theater here last week, none of that mattered. What they repeated over and over is that the script seemed so faithful to their view of the world.

"It was so real," said Linda Kile, 59, a school bookkeeper. "If you believe in the Bible, it's just so real."

"What I liked is that it didn't seem made up," said Adam Rodriguez, 28, a sales specialist at Sherwin Williams.

"Hollywood movies are fake," said Melissa Goodwin, 42, a sales rep. "Just a lot of cussing. That was a real movie about real life."

Do you see the irony? This is a solid niche market. But it will not help shape the mainstream. Also, it is hard to imagine how Contemporary Christian Cinema will reach many people who do not already believe. This is evangelism for the already evangelized.

On a personal note, my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week focuses on the long road that the Rev. Alex Kendrick has taken from his young Star Wars dreams of making movies to his role as writer, director and actor in Facing the Giants. I've been covering this PG-rated story from the beginning and I still find it poignant that Kendrick wanted to study how to make movies, but had almost zero chance to do so in a Christian context, growing up when he did. There are options now, of course. Here is a tiny clip from the new column:

Kendrick never had a real chance to study screenwriting, editing, directing or acting. When the time came to pick a career, he did what many young media-driven believers end up doing. He entered the ministry.

It's hard to explain to outsiders how this kind of thing happens.

"I kept trying to find people who felt the same way as I did," he said in an interview just before a ratings tussle with the Motion Picture Association of America that sparked a media firestorm. "I could see that movies were shaping our culture and I couldn't understand why so many other people couldn't see that. It was hard to find people who understood what I wanted to do."

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