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A Christian Primer for Hollywood

(UPDATED from 2005)… The buzz is out: there’s a Christian movie market, and Hollywood is selling.

Christian Movies | Passion of the Christ | Mel GibsonMany are now seeking to cash in on the “Jesus dollars” Mel Gibson found with Passion of the Christ ($370M) in 2004.  That gold rush may be over, but until Hollywood has a clearer understanding of Christianity, it will not reap what they are now eager to sow, movie-wise.

Hollywood abandoned the Christian movie market, then fell into it almost by accident in 2009 again with the ironically titled, The Blind Side, grossing $255M.

Other the successes from Sherwood Baptist and Tyler Perry have given some executives encouragement, but other results are spotty:

  • Kingdom of Heaven, though marketed to Christians, is in no way a Christian film (see my review).
  • Lars & the Real Girl conveyed a clear moral message and portray Christians in a positive light but failed to market to anyone effectively, completely missing the Christian market.
  • Tree of Life was inexplicable to many but carried a Christian message though Christians never knew about it.

So how can Hollywood do it again?

Understanding the 5 Christian Demographics

Despite reports in our current political climate, Christians are people too.  And the church is far from monolithic.  If I had to categorize, my heading labels would be the following:

(No offense, brethren!  Which one are you?)

1. Christians for Christian Cinema.

This demographic wants its own subgenre of film devoted to Biblical stories and religious fiction, such as This Present Darkness.

They don’t care who watches or understands as long as they’re satisfied. Many of this perspective don’t hold much hope for changing Hollywood so they want an alternative.

They ran to the Passion to see their Savior, and were not pulled in by the sword and sandal fakes like Kingdom of Heaven.  Keys of the Kingdom and Inn of the Sixth Happiness are good enough for them.

2. Christians for Cinematic Evangelism

Similar to the “Christians for Christian cinema” except that their movies are specifically geared for evangelizing the general audience. Characters in their films make decisions to accept Christ as their savior.

This demographic dragged their friends to the Passion, not because Christians have a thing for violence, as some thought, but because it showed Jesus dying for them. They embraced the film for actively sowing the seeds of faith.

They embrace movies with the Christian label, usually despite of and possibly because of bad reviews.

3. Christians for Clean Culture

Typically disapproves of Hollywood but will go to the good stuff. Pixar. G-rated or overtly inspirational films. They’re not “radical” though they  will sign petitions and boycott theaters showing offensive films like Natural Born Killers or The Last Temptation of Christ.

They just want wholesome stuff to entertain their families.

They ran to see the Passion but were probably offended by the violence.  They loved Soul Surfer (but wished the filmmakers kept the story closer to the real family).

4. Movie-Going Christians (MAJORITY DEMOGRAPHIC)

Almost indistinguishable from the general population except for when a film overtly offends their sensibilities, such as inordinate violence, gratuitous sex, excessive language, or the direct mockery of God or the church.  They “like what they like” and generally have no strong opinions about most films.

They went to the Passion to see what the hubbub was about, but won’t rush to the next “sword & sandal” epic. They follow the critics’ advice on Rotten Tomatoes.  They still wonder if Courageous is worth their time.

5. Christians for Cultural Conversation

They view film as an expression of the human experience, part of an ongoing debate a culture has with itself about what is valuable, ethical and true. Not content merely to be viewers, they want to take an active role, to ask, “what does the film tell us about us?” and to challenge filmmakers not simply to clean up the act, but to entertain us, inspire us, to dare the culture toward better things.

This small demographic went to the Passion to join the cultural phenomenon – yes, to experience it for themselves – but also to see how it might affect the culture and Hollywood.

Acknowledge the Power of Movies

We KNOW movies are not neutral (so stop playing around). They do not merely reflect culture; they help define culture.

As Michel Medved pointed out in Hollywood vs. America, you can’t claim a half-second shot of the Coke bottle will affect the buying habits of millions, and then say the THOUSANDS of hours of gratuitous sex and violence will have NO effect.

That doesn’t follow.

Many Christians fled the theaters decades ago because they saw a shift in the tone, subject and theme of movies. Movies became darker, more negative of the culture. They became more sexual and more violent than reality. Children became wiser than parents. Patriotism was mocked. Noble heroes were largely replaced by anti-heroes. Religious folk became psychotics, dangerous fanatics or ignorant yokels.

Mr. Medved’s book should be required reading for every writer, director, producer and studio exec.

I’m not part of the Blame Hollywood crowd, but Hollywood should acknowledge what it already banks on: that film and TV shape our perceptions and attitudes about our world in more than almost anything else.

Understand what Christians Want

  1. They don’t want to be sidelined in the cultural conversation. They don’t want to be told by atheists, nihilists, hedonists, communists, radicals, Scientologists and historical revisionists that Christian beliefs are private and has no place in entertainment or the culture.
  2. They don’t want Jesus or their Christian beliefs ridiculed on screen. You don’t mock Islam, the disabled, and JFK, so don’t mock them.
  3. They want movies (as filmmaker Tom Shadyac expressed) that are set in a moral universe. This goes far beyond the token “crucifix in a car window” stuff (see 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith). They want to see that character actions have consequences. Tell the truth about our fallen humanity.
  4. When creating Christian characters, do your homework. Most are joyful, gracious people who have never exorcized demons or picketed anything in their lives.
    EXTRA CREDIT: A priest would never say, “God just wants you to follow your heart,” unless his God is Disney.
  5. They want stories that draw them closer to God. Defining this is part of the storytelling craft. A few brilliant examples that don’t take place in a church: Rudy, Forrest Gump, Amadeus, Finding Neverland, Tree of Life.

Will doing all of the above insure a “Jesus blockbuster” opening? No. Some Christians still won’t bother, the critics will still have their day, and the market is fickle. But it will create definite inroads.

The SCRIPT is still king. It’s very difficult to make an engaging story – one that finds the audience emotionally, and keeps them riveted to their seats – but that is the job, and for the few who make it happen, the fruit is worth the labor.

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