Monday, March 2, 2009
Everyone else is wrong: the truth about the Christian Film Industry, Hollywood and their relationship
NPR has an small news item about the burgeoning Christian movie industry(welcome to 2006 NPR!), but I find the reaction to it even more interesting than the original piece. The piece itself is just a summary of Fireproof success and the San Antonino Independent Christian Film Festival. Nothing new here. Christianity Today's Movies blog responded by questioning the need for a "Christian Film Industry" and asking the question of The Widow's Might's John Moore: "How can he become a Spielberg without a, um, Spielberg to mentor him?" CT Movies has covered this topic before, and Jeffery Overstreet, occasionaly CT Film Critic, author and contributor to one of my favorite podcasts, weighs in by saying: "When the loudest “Christian voices” in the media consistently embarrass those that actually have something of merit to contribute… when they manipulate statistics and pretend that all America wants are cute, safe, Christian stories with pre-packaged morals at the end… how can we hope to have any meaningful engagement in culture, or appreciate the riches of the stories and movies that others have to share?" Meanwhile M. Leary over at Film-Think makes the interesting statement: "This simply isn't how the Bible works. They are not even cultural distinctions. They are marketing distinctions. By framing the differences between Hollywood media and Church media in these kinds of a-biblical thematic terms, this vision statement isn't drawing the dramatic line between spiritual life and death that it thinks it is. It is simply drawing a line between two different kinds of products: We don't want to see your filth, Hollywood. We are going to make our own films." Valid points all. Now, my opinion. I think that each side is wrong in a lot of ways. First, there is nothing wrong with Hollywood movies. I love Hollywood movies, I can't get enough of them. Give me Michael Bay, Tom Cruise and Sandra Bullock all in the same movie with $300 million effects and I'm happy. Seriously though, I think that there is nothing wrong with the Hollywood system that keeps it from making great films, except for the fact that terrible films can make a lot of money. Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Alfred Hitchcock and any number of other directors, writers and other creative types have demonstrated over and over again that it is possible to serve both masters, to make great art that is also great business. To say that all Hollywood is morally bankrupt is not only ignorant, but it ignores and insults the great many people working in Hollywood who are doing their best to make great movies that are moral. However, the key to understanding Hollywood is to understand that it is a business. The studios have stockholders to answer to, and their main interest is and will always be making money. If garbage makes money then they will keep making garbage. If art makes money, they will make more art. That said, the studio executives are, I believe, keenly attuned to what makes a good movie. If only because they make and see so much garbage, I believe that they recognize and appreciate great cinema art. Having a reputation for making great movies, for winning awards, is also good for business, so sometimes it actually makes business sense to invest in movies that will most likely not make great deals of money, but are perhaps great art. This cannot, however, come at such a price that money is lost. So just remember that hugely profitable movies like Norbit help allow less profitable or even losing movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. One cannot exist without the other. Leaving Hollywood behind for the moment, the independant film market has been the place for up and coming filmmakers to establish themselves ever since Sundance started making stars out of nobodies who made a movie in their garage. Christians supporting independent film is something that should be encouraged and admired. Sure, some movies are simply trying to appeal to Christians as a market, but many more come out of artistic passion. As long as Hollywood is putting out garbage like The Nativity Story as a "Christian" movie, it won't be the place for truly Christian stories that come out of a genuine Christian faith and passion. So this brings us to the crux of it, the "Christian Film Industry." I don't see that there will ever be a Christian equivalent of Hollywood. I doubt that Sherwood Pictures will ever become a movie studio that finances $100 million movies, although I would love to see someone put that kind of cash towards the long-aborted Joseph in Space project. I think that the "Christian Film Industry" will stay pretty much what it is: a marketing outlet for independent films with Christian values. To all who naysay such a thing, go out and ask any independant filmmaker if they would like to have a market that is pre-disposed to seek out their films. Indie films that don't get picked up by major distrbutors languish in film festivals for years before hitting their best result by being picked up on Netflix. A Christian market that supports independant films is a good thing for the audiences and filmmakers. I'll bet that makers of independent character dramas wish there was a much larger base of devoted character drama junkies to support their films. I think the real challenge here, and the reason that many critics dismiss Christian films, is the fact that Christian audiences don't really like being challenged. Some of the best film's we've reviewed, like End of the Spear or Second Chance, were not big hits. I think their lack of success, compared to films like Fireproof, is that they don't present easy answers to their problems. Forgetting any prudish tendancies that the majority of Christian audiences will bring, mature films that present complex problems only appeal to a small precentage of all audiences, thus appealing to only a small precentage of Christian audiences, which ends up being a pretty small number. Those who dismiss Christian films as pandering to the audience would do well to remember that Hollywood builds a lot of its own success by pandering to audiences with sequels, mindless action and over-sexed stars, all of which generate the money necessary to support movies that engage mature issues in artful ways. Why can't the Christian movie industry have its own vapid blockbusters? The lowest common denominator rules the market, and as much as it pains me as a film lover and critic, bad hits are necessary to allow great flops(or whimpers). So when it comes down to it, the most successful Christian films are not necessarily the greatest because the most successful films in general aren't usually the best films. Anyone who naysays Christian films as being only junk is doing the same thing as a person judging Hollywood by the latest fart and poop comedy to hit #1. So what happens when they hit it big? What happens now for the filmmakers of and Fireproof andThe Widow's Might? Well, Sherwood Pictures already showed their commitment to independance after the huge success of Facing the Giants. It would have been easy to go to work for Fox Faith and start making the kind of stuff that Michael Landon Jr. makes, but they decided to finance Fireproof themselves and maintain control. What a novel idea! A filmmaker choosing to be independant instead of submitting to studio control! How crazy! Can you imagine Danny Boyle, Darren Arronofsky or Francis Ford Coppola doing something like this? Fireproof and Come What May have been picked up by Sony Pictures for distribution. You can bet that The Widow's Might will get distributed soon. Distributors aren't stupid. They know that there is a market for Christian films. But they're in it to make money. The more successful Christian movies are made and distributed(regardless of the "quality), the more likely that someone will take a chance on more "difficult" movies from Christian filmmakers about Christian themes. As much as I think that most of the "culture war" rhetoric coming out of the SAICFF is nonsense, I do think that any forum that supports independent film is to be supported. If we want tired remakes of classic films, fart comedies, or big explosions, Hollywood is more than willing to oblige. Sometimes those Hollywood films can be a happy convergence of art and business, and produce timeless results. Hollywood is, however, first and foremost a business and if you want something that is actually art, it has to be made by someone with a passion for more than just money. The irony is that if anyone is going to have the financial freedom to spend money on something that won't likely make very much money in return, they have to get that money from somewhere. In movies, that somewhere is a movie that appeals to huge numbers of people, which, unfortunatly, is not often a very good film. But it pays the bills, and allows the true art to survive.