Wednesday, January 13, 2010

State of the Christian Film Industry

In honor of the upcoming State of the Union, which will preempt someone's favorite tv show (and I don't know which), I want to discuss the Christian Film Industry.

In 1972, I was still coloring with crayons. But my family bought 2nd Chapter of Acts and Barry McGwire's "To The Bride" double album. The seventies were an interesting time for the new Christian Contemporary Music industry. It was conceived in the Jesus Movement of the late Sixties when all those hippies/musician's got saved. Chuck Girard and Love Song (our second album). Keith Green. And so on.

By 1980, it was getting big. Christian album sales surpassed Jazz as a genre. People took notice. Up to this point, there was a lot of passion to make music, but sometimes lacked know-how. Christian music had a reputation of being second fiddle (pun intended) to it's secular big brother. The music, sometimes, was awfully produced, with lyrics that would make some people cringe. And there were some that stood out.

By the 90's, you had dcTalk, Newsboys and others who took the quality up... Emmy's were won. Secular people again, took notice. By the new millennium, Christian music rivaled the quality of secular music for the most part.

This issue of quality always goes back to money. In 1980, a sale of a Christian album was not going to be anywhere near the mark of a secualr album. So record companies knew they would get a nice return by pouring in money to make it better in the secular market. For the Christian sales, you had to keep it pennies to the dollar in hopes of making a living.

So how does all this relate to the Christian Film industry? Christian movies are where Christian rock music was in 1980. The market isn't there... yet. So people who bankroll these expensive endeavors just cannot afford to open their wallets very big. Sure, there are exceptions. Amy Grant in 1980. Sherwood Pictures in 2010. But for everyone else, it is the time for maximum creativity and resourcefulness. Learning how do do something on a nickel, when the others do it on a dollar, stretches the artist. They either create something really cool and unusual, or they just don't get it done and it looks like a nickel. And, unfortunately, the latter is more common.

Yes, there was once a Christian movie industry. In the 1970's and into the 80's, youth groups would order a 16mm print of a Billy Graham Evangelical Association movie or the like, and show it at a lock in. I still remember seeing an awesome movie in 1985 that way. But with the growth of video cassettes, somehow, the Christian movie industry just couldn't get it done. Sure, there were some who tried.

Two years ago, as I thought about making "The Imposter," I walked through the aisles of LifeWay. The DVD racks were consumed with mostly concert and comedy videos. The few movies were either the Christian Romance stuff (Janette Oak), or Facing the Giants (and the re-release of Flywheel). And there were a couple of classics like Charlton Heston's Ten Commandments and stuff like that.

Today, there is still very little in the way of movies on the shelves at the Christian book stores. But there's more than two years ago. Now you can start to see a few pop up. My prediction is that it will get a lot more crowded. I believe people will start getting Christian movies-- but it will take a little time.

Right now, Christian movie distributors are having to fight this horrible quality reputation. And make no mistake about it, there is a lot of horrible quality Christian Films out there (search the archives of this blog for Pink Slip at the Cheesecake Factory). I hear the modern day film pharisees cry out, "but Dan, you're forgetting God's hand on my film and the power of grace!" Grace, btw, is the chance to do it again and make it right.

So if you were the head of a Christian movie distributor, and you look around, most of the movies that you can pick up to try and sell to retailers and such are pretty bad.

Now some interesting things about the Christian market-- they're very forgiving of production value (quality) if the story's there (like "Flywheel"). However, if you try to make an edgy point, or something that might not be tasty to ingest theologically, you've got some problems. You see, to feed your family and make the house payment, you've got to move numbers of units. So Christian filmmakers will have to make the choice thousands of pastors have to make-- you'll get more sales at a cotton candy stand than a vegetable stand.

Today, the Christian Music industry is clearly a business dominated by a lot of people that I'm not sure are true Disciples of Jesus. Yes, the quality of the music is better. But I'm not so sure that it's Purpose. Will the Christian Movie industry follow Music's lead? Will the films get better quality-wise, only to fall into the morass of candy-coated stories, the entertain and maybe give a few moments of chill bumps, but burn up in the fire of real life?

Will the "art" be created by a bunch of spiritual "Imposters" who tell you what you want to hear so that you'll hit the "order now" button? Hmmmm.

Yes, "The Imposter" hits stores on February 23. I know that God cares for me and will provide for me and my family. yes I do hope this is one way and that people buy it. But I will not change the message to make it more palatable for the sake of sales.

And yes, sometimes I ask God to give me a gentle message maybe this time to share in film. Regardless, my success will not be defined by moving thousands and thousands of DVD units. My success will be defined by my faithfulness to what He asks me to do.

If I ever boast about numbers-- that I have "x number of readers on this blog" or that we've sold 100,000 units of "The Imposter," then it's a sign that I'm walking in the flesh (or Ego). Doesn't mean that I don't look at the numbers-- it might be God's way of providing. But the difference is the word "boast." Which means I find my value in these numbers. I find my success in these numbers. That is flesh. That is Ego. It's why I believe God punished David severely for taking a census.

The Christian Movie industry is new and exciting, filled with possibilities and challenges. It will be interesting to see what the next few years bring. Look for more movie choices... some of them really awful, a few really good. Look for the industry/business types creating copycats of anything that made money (Fireproof taught Sony the value of cross media-- creating a book, CD and so forth).

And if God has given you a story to tell, then go tell it.


  1. Absolutely 100% right on the money! We watch A LOT of Christian films and we find ourselves holding them to a different standard... a student film level standard. Because so many of the people making films have either never made them before or are making them at such small budgets that they are stuck with what I call "low budget scars."

    We have a couple of scars on our projects as well, so I speak from a "been there, doing that" perspective.

    I often think of the same analogy... Christian film will be where Christian music is now... stronger, slicker and palatable. But, will the message get watered down? Good question. I hope not. I think there is room for a very wide range of Christian themed films telling a wide variety of style of movies.

    At least I hope so.

  2. My thoughts exactly. I do think that Christian Film is getting stronger but there will always be the issue of budget - with reduced conflict watered down to prevent Christian principles from being threatened Producers are probably hesitant to shelf out the funds. I had some thoughts on the matter if you don't mind me posting a link:

  3. Phillip, that's an interesting article.

    It's a tough nut right now. I think Christian films will always be a niche market so budgets will always be limited, like the horror niche.

    As for how far is too far for a Christian film? I think we shouldn't think in that way... what I mean is I think we need to make the most powerful story we can make. For example, if we were to make the story of St. Paul today, would his story be more powerful if he didn't actively kill Jews, but merely talked bad about them?

    Paul's conversion is so great BECAUSE he killed Jews or facilitated their deaths. So, I think we need to tell the best stories we can, the best Christian stories we can, but the characters need to be real and, when required, evil.

    Don't know how all of that will sell in a very sensitive niche market, but that's my $.02 :)

  4. I haven't checked out your article Phillip but will pretty quickly... To go along with what Pete said, what if you had a story where a military commander was sent to Viet Nam or Iraq or whatever, and he had to not only kill the bad guys, but he ordered his men to kill the women and children. And he was considered correct in doing so. Hmmmm... Sounds like Joshua...

    DOn't think that Dog would hunt today in the world of the new religion "Tolerance."

  5. what you mean Pete that Paul killed Jews? I know he killed Christians...