October 21, 2017

Riffs 11:20:06: Why Bad (Christian) Movies Succeed (and better movies never will)

logo.gifBarbara Nicolosi’s review of Facing the Giants reminded me that I’ve been avoiding talking about this surprisingly successful church-produced film. All around the net, from Christians and non-Christians, the reviews have consistently presented this risky film venture as predictable in approach, but also with universal surprise at its success. Even reviewers like Michael Medved, who liked the film in a genre-captive kind of way, told the same story. Barbara’s Nicolosi’s rantish review puts the essentials into a paragraph.

The film tells the story of a poverty-stricken, generally disdained, losing football coach who drives a broken down truck and goes home at night to a devastatedly infertile wife. Incited by no particular plot point, the coach reads the Bible one day and then kneels down in a field (Why the hell is it always a field? Is that like in Zecharaiah somewhere?) and gives his life to Jesus. In short order after he utters the Evangelical commitment formula aloud, he wins back the esteem of his fellow townspeople, he turns around his terrible team so that they win the championship, somebody gives him a brand new shiny red truck, AND his infertile wife becomes pregnant!

The goal of Facing the Giants, I’m sure, is to share the Gospel with unbelievers. Like many other Christian evangelistic movies- I grew up on the Billy Graham films- it partakes of all the pros and cons of using films for direct evangelism. Or to put it another way, if your evangelism is basically sales and entertainment, movies are probably a good way to do it. If you want to relate to people, explain the nuances of faith, avoid emotional manipulation and listen to questions, then it’s probably a terrible way to do evangelism. Oh well.

What Facing the Giants did very well, however, is demonstrate that a paying, movie-going, evangelical Christian audience exists for movies with poor acting, bad scripts and amateurish technology….IF the movie pushes the buttons that the niche-market evangelicalism of our day is begging to have pushed by Hollywood. (If you haven’t heard Matt Crouch go on and on and on over the importance of Christians using Hollywood to reach the masses, you need to go hang out at TBN until you get it…and then watch Megiddo to see what he means.)

Facing the Giants angers an advocate of serious films of faith like Barbara Nicolosi, but those of us who live in the Bible belt can easily see why eight weeks out it is still on almost 300 screens, will probably pass $9 million in the theaters and make huge DVD sales. Facing the Giants is the kind of story the average evangelical Christian in the largest evangelical areas wants to see; it’s the kind of story that fills Christian bookstore shelves and pastors’ sermons. It’s a story that says “God is real; we’re right; it works”. It’s reassuring.

It’s also a story told by a gutsy and creative local church (with an ex-wrestler for a pastor) and evangelicals are hungry to see churches doing something that “makes a difference” in the culture, at least as they see it. Putting out a successful movie is significant to many evangelicals, and I have no doubt that there is a lot of first time and repeat business strictly to support a church getting out there and trying to make a difference in the media wasteland. (Profits from the movie are building a youth center for the church and community. Amen.)

I happen to agree with Nicolosi’s desire to see real quality films and serious art coming from Christians, but let me be blunt: the more the films she imagines reflects what she would like to see, the more likely such a film will be almost completely ignored by average evangelicals. Can you say “Christian art theater?” Good, because that’s where such films are going, if not straight to video.

For example, TBN heir Matt Crouch’s Esther epic, One Night With The King, is well below Facing the Giants on the statistical list, even though it has made a bit more money ($13 million.) It’s on fewer screens and aside from TBN’s own spin, got almost no attention. By the way, One Night With The King cost $20 million to get out, while the church produced, unknown-acted Giants cost just over $100,000. That will get the attention of Hollywood real fast. One Night is in real danger of not making up its production costs, even with DVD sales, while Giants is a major profit-maker for everyone involved.

Sorry Barbara, but you can expect more where that came from. Evangelicals are an easy market to target….IF someone wants to produce their brand of sentimental, low-art schlock. And with the success of Giants, there shouldn’t be much problem with that. Stand by for Facing the Giants II.

Back to Barbara’s summary of the movie just for a minute. It reminds me of the kinds of films with a Christian story that evangelicals won’t be making.

How about a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr? Or Clarence Jordan? Or missionary martyrs? End of the Spear wound up making a little over $11 million in the U.S., but evangelicals were highly ambiguous about the film in its casting and its overall approach to the story.

How about a movie about a Christian who loses his friends, loses his job, loses the big games? The implication in Giants that Christians are winners who get special miracles to solve their problems is misleading and unBiblical. I doubt it anyone cares, however. More integrity to the Christian message may have been shown in T.D. Jakes’ Woman, Thou Art Loosed, a movie that dealt far more honestly with the struggles of believers who suffer. Of course, that film was “black,” associated with a controversial televangelist and had limited distribution, earning just short of $3 million.

How about a Christian family who stays infertile? And never gets the red truck? How about a child dying? Or a spouse being unfaithful? Such stories abound. Interestingly, Joni Tada says in her autobiography, The God Who Loves Me, that her original “life story” film was made while she was going through a phase of bitter doubt and rejection. Reading that story was a powerful experience for me, but it wouldn’t make a movie that most evangelicals would go see.

How about a church that gets smaller for doing the right thing? Or a church that takes an unpopular stand in a small, rural community? How about a movie about the failure of the church to act like Jesus?

Or a movie about doubting, losing faith, finding faith…but things don’t get better?

Or a movie that tells the story of Christians struggling with sin, battling addiction, failing as a parent or losing a marriage? We all know the stories of people who don’t get a miracle, but the miracle is that their faith and loyalty to Jesus continue. Isn’t that a story? But evangelicals wouldn’t pay to see anything less than a slam dunk.

Is there an audience for a film where the lead character experiences a lot more pain, turmoil and failure AFTER praying the prayer? Where’s the Bonhoeffer story? Where are the stories of non-evangelical Christians?

Interestingly, Hollywood has made some of these movies, such as Tender Mercies and To End All Wars. But evangelical Christians showed almost no interest in presentations of faith with depth. Stories of faith and real life won’t be successful among the audiences that went to see Facing the Giants. Never mind that a story where the coach wins, the baby arrives and the truck really is red misrepresent and pervert the entire nature of the Gospel as a call to take up a cross and become the scum of the earth. Evangelicals aren’t ready to tell themselves or anyone else the truth on the big screen. They see the media’s power in simple terms: it should tell them they are right, and make all the questions, problems and failures go away in a fantasy of certainty.

In other words, this isn’t entertainment, it’s exactly what Barbara said: an exercise in using the big screen to tell us we’re right. Films like Left Behind get more respect among many evangelicals than serious, really truthful stories, because in the end, the message is “our side wins.”

Serious Christian artists won’t tap into a large and eagerly serious evangelical audience wanting good movies. No such audience exists and I doubt that it ever will in the next 5-10 years. But if you want to tell evangelicals that there really is no problem that can’t be solved with a quick prayer, human effort and a convenient miracle or two, you can quite likely do very well at the box office.

Comments

  1. Thanks, Michael. I really would love to see a great film about MLK, or Thomas. And I look forward to the day when Christian art films are a reality. Good thoughts.

    Here is my question. How do we distinguish North American evangelical ‘we are right’ thinking with legitimate hope for the justice and name of God to be proclaimed? I find myself often unsure of where one ends and the other begins. Part of living in light of the Cross is groaning for the redemption of the world and the exultation in God from the nations. When a movie like Facing the Giants airs, it sends resonant signals to my soul about the power of the gospel to change hearts and change lives- something I know is part of the truth of the power of the Cross. The truth of a theology of the Cross leads unavoidably to a longing for the Transforming Power of the Spirit to be more widely experienced. John Piper admits that he regularly reads biographies of famous Christian giants, to encourage his fainting spirit to keep on. Perhaps many Christians are feeling the same encouragement from this fictional story about the power of God.

    The reality of the already is that we do long for the not yet. As cheesy as it sounds, the believers whom I have spoken to, have gained some ecouragement in their walk of faith through this film.

    More particularly, I find myself instinctively recoiling against the triumphalism of these kinds of films, where the Christians succeed, the villains get whupped and the hero gets the girl. Yet, I immerse myself in, celebrate and quote widely from the Tolkien/Peter jackson LOTR films – where, to be honest, the villains get whupped, the heroes get the ‘red truck’ and the girl (Samwise does, at least), and (almost) everything wrong gets righted again. So, though the films are more artful, and the world shown is fantasy instead of real, the same basic plot themes unfold. Yet in me and my friends there is a Grand Canyon of difference in how we perceive LOTR as opposed to Facing the Giants.

    So my question to myself is: am I just opposing a movie like Facing the Giants on aesthetic lines, because I am a snob and because, honestly, it may embarrass me among my cultured, educated skeptic community whom I am trying to see embrace the gospel? Part of me fears that this is so, that the real problem with Facing the Giants is that it embarrasses me. Because frankly, when these kinds of films are made, and they have no religious theme (Hoosiers, for example), I tend to enjoy them.

  2. lumieregrl says:

    Have you seen the movie Luther? It’s a great example of how good a Christian movie can be.

  3. I did enjoy the first half of the movie. Two complaints:

    1) Fiennes wasn’t Luther. Too small. Didn’t get it, especially in preaching.

    2) Second half of the movie has deeply incomplete in every way.

    Evangelicals seemed to barely note the movie. Made $6 million in the US, $20 million in Germany.

  4. I know you’ve mentioned it in previous posts, but Chariots of Fire represents the best model for a “Christian” film of substance. But it also represents a lost opportunity. When Chariots won the Oscar for Best Picture 25 years ago evangelicals had their moment and it slipped through their fingers. The culture of evangelicalism of the mid 70’s to early 80’s could have nurtured and supported the types of films you’re longing for. But even Franky Schaeffer ended up becoming Greek Orthodox to get away from the cultural void that has followed since then. But I’m glad you put in a plug for Bonhoeffer – his story is one that would certainly make for great cinema – if anyone could ever write a decent screenplay.

  5. steve yates says:

    i major in theatre, and watching this movie made me wince. it was hard, especially when your bcm director takes you to go see the movie because he’s seen it already and is passionately in love with it. my thoughts:

    1. kudos to a church with little experience for making a movie this good (that’s not saying the movie was good, i just expected so much worse on a 100k budget from a single church)

    2. maybe the message of the movie wasn’t all that bad if christians were the ones intended to watch it, and other movies came out regularly (as you pointed out) with ‘less than perfect’ approaches to christianity.

    3. however, if this was meant to show the gospel to people, it sucked. bad acting, predictable scenes, way too much like every other football movie to come out jumping on the remember the titans bandwagon

    here’s my question: are we trying to be too christian?

    perhaps we would be better off producing movies that brought up questions, even if they were not happy-go-lucky, everyone-gets-saved-and-looks-like-jesus movies. in the theare world, i’m very passionate about good religious theatre, yet there is so little, i decided to produce terrance mcnalley’s corpus christi (play about jesus and 12 as gay men in 1950’s texas). theologically wrong? definitely. blasphemous? i hope not – at least in the context it was performed. however, i was able to talk honestly with actors who wouldn’t think of true christianity otherwise, to the point of giving them requested pointers on reading the NT. i remember bob briner talking about this sort of thing – we need christians who are passionate about excellence in their art field as a way to glorify God – not so they can make church-themed paintings, but so that they can make successful works that earn them the right to express their opinions in their fields. this used to be common (handel, michaelangelo, even bob dylan and johnny cash).

    side note: could the loss of artists/performers be a result of the christian tendency to move to a ‘macho jesus’ view of masculinity? i know in college and church there is a growing trend for any guy who is passionate about art/dance/theatre to be feminized by the culture around him.

    ps – i enjoyed luthor, but only started studying him after seeing the movie. i was saddened by the inconsistencies with history.

  6. If evangelicals are soaked in a culture of shallow simplistic feel-good religion, from the pulpit to books to music, why should we expect any difference in their tastes in movies? Your physical palate won’t gravitate to the subtle textures of a master chef when you’ve been raised on cotton candy; neither will your spiritual. It is up to the shepherds of the flocks to bring the sheep meat and help them learn to appreciate and digest it, and only then will you see them appreciate meaty movies of Christian substance.

  7. There is an interesting catch here. The church (and others making “Christian” movies) do so with the open intent of sharing the Gospel or evangelizing. Maybe that is not inherently bad. I applaud honest, creative efforts to share the Gospel. But you have to wonder about having this motivation for a making a movie since the ONLY thing that makes it successful financially is that Christians go see it. Does anyone think the majority of people who are going to watch this film or who will buy the DVD are unchurched? A few curious people no doubt. But, by and large, these types of movies must be marketed to evangelical Christians and, therefore, end up missing their stated prime objective.

    Brian Coffey

  8. Mike – thanks for a thoughtful review about this movie and more over a well written commentary on Christian movies in general. Not being a big movie buff movies like Giant won’t even be a blip on my radar screen. I would however appreciate it if you and/or your readers could put together a list of movies that you feel do show the Christian life with all of it’s trials and tribulations. I know Chariots of Fire is always on the top of such a list but how about some others?

    Thanks again,
    Rong

  9. Michael,

    Watch “Junebug” on DVD. (One of Jeffrey Overstreet’s favorites). Not made by evangelicals, and not made for evangelicals, but a satisfyingly honest yet affectionate portrait of them. (disclaimer- rated R for naked sex.)

  10. Even though LOTR and Facing the Giants both end with the triumph of Good, there are major differences in their approach to the story of Life. Tolkein stated that he did not write the story as allegory–he simply portrays good vs. evil and the tremendous sacrifice required to overcome evil, in the context of a very well told story. He is even realistic in his not-so-fairy tale ending for Frodo. Frodo does not end up with health and happiness, at least not on this side of the Western Sea.

    For those who have eyes to see, the LOTR story, conveys great truths without hitting the reader over the head with heavy handed attempts to ‘sell’ an idea or push an agenda. Even though LOTR was by no means Christian allegory, I get much more of a feel of the Reality of the Christian walk from it than I do from most Christian films. Along Frodo’s journey there are temptations, glimpses of beauty, horrible struggles, restful havens, victories, defeats, injuries that will not be healed in this life, sacrifice, the comfort of friends, and the need for the hand of Providence to achieve the final destruction of the ring.

    Feel good, happy ending movies where coming to Christ leads to earthly, as well as spiritual, triumph are nice fairy tale entertainment. I love ‘It’s a Wonderful Life!’ and other movies that reassure that Good does ultimately win. But none of these should be taken as a real life depiction of our walk here on earth. The real ‘happy endings’ do not come this side of the Western Sea.

  11. A decent study of Bonhoeffer was done in “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace” (2000)
    Good art will always influence people much more than movies that are essentially tools to “sell” the gospel. I wish there were more movies like “End of the Spear.” The schlocky movies will only reinforce nonchristian’s stereotypes that we are simplistic, uncultured sheep.

  12. My two favorite ‘Christian’ films are “The Missionary” and “The Apostle”. Two painfully honest, yet incredibly powerful films. To be honest, most of the films I watch that help reinforce my faith (not intentionally, but as a byproduct) have been dark dramas about the brokeness of the human condition. Happy, clappy, crappy evangelical entertainment can’t hope to compare itself to that. It’s too ‘dangerous’. I thank God that the writers of Scripture were also too dangerous.

  13. Don Costello says:

    I did not see Facing the Giants, but I intend to when it comes out on DVD. A youth leader in our church did see it and thought it was great. I did see One night with the King and really enjoyed it. The only thing I didn’t like was they took a little liberty with the Biblical text. Overall though, I guess it didn’t match Hellywood’s (Opps! Sorry. Stupid keyboard), Hollywood’s standards, there was no sex, no profanity and no blood and guts. Just an intellectually shallow, corny, clean movie about an event in Scripture. I recommended it to many of my friends and wasn’t embarassed a bit.
    Don Costello

  14. We have longed moaned over Hollywood’s horror and negativity. And now all of you are still bellyaching because it wasn’t negative enough. I’m going to watch this film just to irk all of you who have commented here.

    While we’re at it ,let’s bash reruns of the Waltons and Little House On The Prairie for its sickening positivity.

    Cynicism is a revolt against all things that are beautiful. Sadly for you some things that are beautiful are also boring.

  15. RenaissanceChristian says:

    Michael, I found myself both cheering and decrying your commentary on Facing the Giants. As someone involved on the distribution side of this film, I’d like to set the record straight on a few of your assumptions.

    First and foremost, the goal of Giants was not to share the Gospel to unbelievers. That may strike you as strange, given its overt message. According to writer/director/actor Alex Kendrick and his brother Stephen their goal is to inspire believers to live up to their full potential as Christians, if unbelievers should happen to get saved that’s a wonderful bonus.

    That is what separates Giants from almost any other Christian movie that has been produced to date. For example, your classic Billy Graham movie tries to pass itself off as a generic story and then somewhere toward the end of the movie you’re presented the plan of salvation with no less than Billy or Franklin Graham delivering the 4 steps (talk about a bait and switch).

    Barbary Nicolosi really missed the whole plot point of why the coach was driven to reading the Bible and went to his knees during his moment of crisis. The coach’s world was coming apart and the only solace he could find was in the Word of God and that his fate was in the Hands of a loving God. As a Christian, sometimes that’s the only refuge we have when our world is crumbling all around us. That’s why this movie resonates with so many Evangelical Christians — we’ve been there.

    Then there are all those almost embarrassingly obvious Evangelical scenes in the movie.
    – The old man that prays for the kids in the school.
    – The revival that breaks out.
    – The coach’s inspiring speech to the players with overt references to scriptures and Jesus Christ.

    Who would dare be so blatant, so early in the story? Well as it turns out, someone who produced a film that reflected his own very personal faith in God. Now that’s what I call honest. A story that encourages believers to trust God no matter how bad things look.

    Now as to the criticism that everything works out in the end, that’s probably not the way I would have produced it either. But, you could say that about almost any popular sports movie that Hollywood has produced.

    The reality is almost everyone likes stories with happy endings. Is that so bad? Don’t we get a belly full of tragedy, misfortune and injustice by just living in this sin-drenched world? Isn’t that why our hearts soar when the good guy wins in the end?

    I wonder how many would take issue with God’s plan for the resurrection of His Son. I mean, shouldn’t God have ended the story with His sacrificial death on the cross. Wouldn’t have that been what we would call “honest?” But, the reality is, without the resurrection, our faith is in vain. So maybe that’s why we like happy endings. It calls to that part of us yearning for justice and hope in this bleak world.

    So, Alex produced the kind of movie he wanted to see. He didn’t care if it would cross over, or had too happy an ending. This was his film and as it turns out, there are a whole lot of people who loved what he was able to do for a little over $100,000.

  16. RenaissanceChristian:

    Thanks for your interaction. Your points are excellent.

    I also assume that criticism of the film by Christians is acceptable? When a film makes it into the major market it represents all of us who are evangelicals, and not all evangelicals are on the same page in terms of art, esp film.

    I applaud the church’s verve and vision. The theology of the film represents a branch of evangelicalism I know well, and that I respect. But respect doesn’t mean agreement.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

  17. Thanks for the post. This was great. I really enjoyed reading it. Have you seen Luther and Mercy Streets? I thought both of these were good movies as well. I was wondering if you would consider checking out my site Christian & Family Films at http://www.dhq.nu/christianfilms/. I am attempting to build an extensive database, including “My Favorites” which will hopefully (eventually) include a large number of the best of the best.
    Also, I think the reason To End All Wars and Woman, Thou Art Loosed failed to gain mainstream evangelical attention may have been in part for their content. To End All Wars and Woman, Thou Art Loosed both had raw portrayals of sin, violence, etc.

  18. RenaissanceChristian says:

    Yes, I have seen Luther and Mercy Streets — both good films.

    To End All Wars is a classic example of a relatively expensive production that didn’t understand its market. Why all the swear words? Especially copious use of the F bomb. It’s decisions like these that baffle me. It’s not to say a Christian movie shouldn’t have swear words — but in the context of a WWII movie it was totally unwarrented in my opinion. The bottom line, this movie isn’t close to recouping on it’s original investment and in the economy of this industry that really hurts.

    I think the Evangelical mainstream will embrace certain types of raw portrayals of sin and violence. I mean it doesn’t get more violent than The Passion of the Christ. However, when you’re already dealing with a niche audience it is close to impossible to expect them to embrace movies with a lot of swearing and sex and have it be commercially viable. Hey, but violence is noooo problem.

    I’ve come to realize the best way to produce a truly honest portrayal of sin, doubt, faith, etc., is to target the mainstream. Crash is a great example of something both honest and yet inspiring.

  19. It’s very easy to criticize Christian films — much harder to make them. There is not a lot of money in them, regardless of what people say. $15 million for Facing the Giants is probably gross. I saw one report in the first week of the movie that said it cost $5 million to just advertise. The gross generally means the theaters get half — already you’re down to 7.5 million, minus advertising is 2.5 million. I will guarantee the distributors found a lot of ways to spread that around, considering the movie had a half dozen companies involved involved in distribution. I’ll bet the folks who made the actual film saw very little of the money brought in.

    For some other good options, support the little guys. Movies like the upcoming Bringing up Bobby (www.bringingupbobby.com), Between the Walls (betweenthewallsthemovie.com), Mercy Streets, Standing Firm, and the list goes on. Help us filmmakers to spread the word and you will see the quality improve, guaranteed. If we all keep sitting on our hands, we’ll never get anything worth watching.