A few weeks ago, I saw a picture of a friend from college on my Facebook feed that caused me to do a double-take. She was on the red carpet for a screening of the Kendrick Brothers’ latest film War Room. I was curious to know what she thought of the film since it was coming out the following week, so I asked. Her reaction was one of joy, excitement, and a desire for people of faith to see the film—all totally expected.
I have to admit that I’ve been surprised that War Room has done well at the box office despite the abundance of negative reviews in the mainstream media; it even finished first nationally one weekend when there was very little competition from other films! It would seem that a nerve has been tapped and people are going to the theaters to see it in droves (note: I haven’t seen the film yet, but hope to soon).
That led me to wonder a number of things:
Is ‘preaching to the choir’ an effective method for getting out specific Gospel-related messages in film these days?
Have Christian-based films hit a wall?
Do Christians put their minds in neutral during films and choose not to look at them in broader scope and context?
Have directors effectively made Christian-based films irrelevant by catering only to one segment of society and eschewing the rest?
Can more be expected with Christian-based films regarding Hollywood, the actors/actresses, the screenwriters, and the directors?
Can things be better?
Dollars and cents matter. In the world of Hollywood, a film has to perform well enough to both justify its budget and make a profit for the studio. We’ve all heard of massive, box office flops like Waterworld ($175 million to make but only $88 million in sales). The question is whether recent films like War Room, God’s Not Dead, and others fare the same way in the eyes of moviegoers. The answer is no, according to stats taken from boxofficemojo.com:
- Son of God – ($22 million budget; $59.7 million made)
- Courageous – ($2 million budget; $34.5 million made)
- God’s Not Dead – ($2 million budget; $60.7 million made)
- War Room – ($3 million budget; $49.1 million made–so far)
So Christian-based films can make significant profits in the cinema. But where is the money coming from? The answer seems to be exclusively from other Christians. The films noted above are quite evangelical in nature, meaning that they share the Gospel of Jesus in a way the viewer can recognize and potentially respond to. Christians tend to see these movies as real-life sermons they can relate to on a personal level and increase sales by encouraging friends to see the film (and perhaps seeing it again for themselves). It’s not too often that the mainstream crowd finds their way into these viewings unless invited by a Christian. This seems to be a design of the film’s directors.
While I was on the red carpet for the film Do You Believe? back in February, I found it interesting that Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino mentioned that the film was really catering to the Christian crowd. It played exactly like that in the screening, only with A and B-list actors and actresses performing.
To pigeonhole a film for a specific crowd presents two distinct problems. The first issue is that a film geared to Christians limits to a very large degree who will potentially be interested in seeing it. Obviously, Christians will take a look and perhaps convince friends to see it as well. The mainstream crowd won’t find their way into the theater unless they entered the wrong room with their popcorn and soda. If the film doesn’t meet the entertainment/teaching value of the viewer, they won’t tell others and sales will dwindle to the point where the film is removed from the theater for good.
The second ancillary issue is that by focusing on Christians only, a studio effectively caps the amount of money the film can make. After all, the Christian populace is a certain size and can only provide so much revenue to the picture. According to Box Office Mojo, there have been only five (5) Christian-based films since 1980 to break the $65 million barrier for revenue—The Passion of the Christ (obviously), all three Chronicles of Narnia films, and Heaven is For Real. Only twenty-two flicks in that time frame have made more than $10 million.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. When a limited audience exists, so does a theoretical financial cap. And when the film doesn’t reach the expectation of the viewers, those potential earnings lessen significantly. Focusing on one group and their issues—using their terminology and mannerisms—threatens to make films in that genre irrelevant to the general populace and further lessen their effectiveness. Of course, God can use anything to bring a person to Him—even films many have decried as sappy, ham-handed, unrealistic, and full of wooden acting/dialogue. If it brings about just one conversion, many Christians will say that the movie has done its job.
But can’t we do better that that?
The answer for some directors is to create films that have a faith edge to them but are grittier in nature. They’re not as straightforward but require the viewer to do some thinking and reflection. In addition, they have elements that are geared for people in the mainstream to latch onto. It kinda goes with the famous quote from poet Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth/But tell it slant.”
Films like Where the Game Stands Tall, Where Hope Grows, The Song, and (most recently) Captive are harbingers of what could be a gamechanger in Christian-based filmmaking. So far, these films haven’t gained enough traction to pass that elusive $65 million barrier, but they may sooner than later. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Golden Globe-nominated actor and director David Oyelowo stated, “If the film only appeals to Christians, then to me, personally, the film has failed . . . I’m not interested in a film that suffers from myopia because it only appeals to a certain subset of society.”
Of course, the other answer is to be better at the act of filmmaking in general. Christians are commanded to do all things with excellence—including media, an area where they often seem hopelessly behind general society. Simply put, the cinematography has to be well-choreographed, the writing crisp and insightful, the acting passionate and convincing.
As far as the audience goes, I’m reminded of my friend’s comments about War Room—and the hundreds I’ve seen since then, all unabashedly praising the film. If the only negative comments come from the media, then something’s the matter, as there’s usually a mix of positive and negative with all films (including well-received films like E.T., Inside Out, and Schindler’s List). It makes me think that Christians tend to disengage their minds at the cinemas and instead let films wash over them like a sermon on Sunday morning (with the added fact that they have to pay for the privilege of viewing it).
Simply put, we can’t do that! Keeping the mind focused on how a film relates to society in meaningful ways and can be used to challenge and encourage others should be a hallmark of Christian viewing habits. If a film isn’t any good, we need to be ready to admit as much. If things can be better, we have to speak up. And the directors, actors, and screenwriters have to be open to the feedback and make changes accordingly in order to reach the most people in the most effective way. Otherwise, we’ll continue with another generation of Christian-based films that only reach Christians and are just profitable enough to continue the cycle all over again.
Being insular was never the plan of Jesus—He talked to everyone and invited everyone to be a part of the Kingdom—no matter who they were or what their backgrounds brought to the table.
We can do no less.