2016 Movies and TV Reflect Americans’ Changing Relationship with Faith, by Alissa Wilkinson

From Sausage Party to Silence, it was a banner year for religion onscreen.

by Alissa Wilkinson in Vox @alissamariealissa@vox.com

Religion, doubt, and the conflict of cultures is a major theme in Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE

I started 2016 as chief film critic at Christianity Today and ended it on staff here at Vox. Religion and pop culture has been my beat for a long while. So it’s not surprising I spot it around every corner.

But even by my heightened radar’s standards, 2016 feels like a banner year for onscreen treatments of religion. I don’t mean what we’ve come to consider “Christian movies,” though there were a few of those, most notably the moderately commercially successful God’s Not Dead 2 and the crashing box office failure Ben-Hur (executive produced, by the way, by Mark Burnett of The Apprentice). “Christian films” are made for a sizable but still niche market and bent to the tastes of that segment: biblical or inspirational tales, or (in the case of the God’s Not Dead franchise) legends of the culture wars. They’re meant to preach to — or shore up — the choir.

“Christian movies” had their most recent heyday in 2014 and 2015 and seem to be tapering off, at least in terms of box office returns. But 2016 belonged to a different kind of onscreen religion, aimed at mainstream audiences. In 2016, films and TV shows that portrayed religion — organized or not — were less interested in preaching or caricaturing and more in exploring how faith and (especially) doubt fit into the frameworks of people’s lives today.

Religion showed up onscreen in everything from dark, gritty dramas to dirty animated fables

2016 started with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar, a comedy about competing ideologies (Hollywood capitalism, Marxism, and Christian faith) that is explicitly modeled on a passion play.

George Clooney in Hail Caesar
In the Coen brothers’ HAIL CAESAR, George Clooney played a Roman centurion in the film-within-a-film.

And now the year is ending with Martin Scorsese’s Silence, perhaps the most stirring, perceptive film about belief and doubt in decades.

The months between yielded movies about pluralism and agnosticism (Sausage Party), the mysterious, doubtable supernatural (Midnight Special), and entering and escaping cults (Holy Hell). In The Birth of a Nation, the Bible acts as impetus for violent action in pursuit of justice; in Hacksaw Ridge, it motivates nonviolence and heroism.

Jane the Virgin
Jane the Virgin has frequently built characters’ faith into its stories.

In A Quiet Passion (which played at festivals in 2016 and will open in theaters next year), Terence Davies uses Emily Dickinson’s life to plumb the space that might best be described as believing unbelief. The Witch artfully poses a conflict between stringent Puritan faith and witchcraft in colonial New England. Knight of Cups positioned its narrator on the road to faith (modeled explicitly on both tarot and Pilgrim’s Progress). The documentary The Illinois Parables reads the complicated matter of religion and historical conflict into the landscape of Illinois. In Queen of Katwe, a Christian missionary brings opportunity to illiterate children in the slums he came from.

Beyoncé’s magnum opus Lemonade explicitly drew on religious imagery in its proclamation of freedom for its creator and women like her. The Innocents, like Silence, grapples with faith cracked by doubt in the face of unthinkable violence to the bodies of the devout — in this case, the brutal rape of nuns.

That Christianity is the organized belief system of interest in most of these projects isn’t surprising. They’re mostly American productions, and Christianity is still the dominant religion practiced in America — though I suspect that onscreen organized religion will expand in the next few years to include a higher number of serious treatments of Judaism, Islam, and other religions.

Still, attentive moviegoers could have caught Under the Shadow, a stellar Iranian political horror film, which borrows on concepts from Islamic folklore to explore the fallout from the Iran-Iraq War. And Tikkun, an Israeli horror film, navigated the complexities of bodies and souls in contemporary Orthodox Judaism.

Meanwhile, on TV, Rectify (about guilt, forgiveness, and redemption in small-town America) and The Americans (about religion as a competitor to nationalist ideologies) topped critics’ lists, while The Path and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looked at the complicated reasons people enter, leave, remain in, and recover from oppressive systems of belief.

The Path
Michelle Monaghan and Hugh Dancy in The Path, Hulu’s show about a cult called the Meyerists. Hulu

For a pretty goofy show, Lucifer featured a surprisingly nuanced account of evil and fate, while on Daredevil, Matt Murdock’s Catholicism is a central part of his character. Preacher took as its starting point the conflation of pastorly authority and possession by something evil. On both Jane the Virgin and The Jim Gaffigan Show, Catholic faith is also part of characters’ identities and influences the decisions they make.

While Black-ish usually treats Grandma Ruby’s (Jenifer Lewis) outspoken religion as just one of her wacky character details, it nonetheless has aired several episodes dealing with the role of church and belief in God in its larger exploration of black identity in America. The Night Of portrays American Muslims whose character arcs aren’t just a vehicle for a story about terrorism or war. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) regularly consults his friend, the cool, collar-wearing minister Father Brah (Rene Gube). And Transparent — which has been called “the most Jewish show on television” — features a rabbi among its main cast.

This isn’t even an exhaustive list — that would be impossible to compile — and leaves out a lot of what’s happening in genres like horror and in independent and niche film. But as close watchers of the industry can attest, these certainly constitute an observable uptick in religiously oriented content for mainstream audiences.

Religion is part of characters’ identities in 2016, but not their only defining feature

It’s too early in this groundswell to sort out exactly why or how this happened in 2016. It can’t really be attributed to the US election — most of these movies and shows were finished or in development before the race even took shape. But there are some commonalities worth noting.

One notable trend is a growing interest in taking religious belief to be part of, but not the entirety of, a character’s identity. In other words, religious characters are growing more complex.

Aden Young as Daniel Holden in Rectify
Aden Young in Rectify, one of the most religion-soaked shows on television. Sundance

Religion has at times operated as a negative character-defining trait in onscreen stories: Sometimes the religious character’s faith is played off as just a quirk or an outright flaw, a writing shorthand for being bad, weak, hypocritical, or strange. (Think of Angela in the early seasons of The Office, Shirley Bennett on Community, or Vice President Sally Langston on Scandal.) But Rectify, The Americans, Daredevil, Jane the Virgin, The Night Of, Transparent, and The Jim Gaffigan Show, among others, all have characters who are religious, but who say and do lots of things that aren’t explicitly tied to their faith. They aren’t trotted on to be the token clergy or judgy friend; they’re just people who go to church and believe in God, and also have other interests, views, and friends. Their faith is one among many defining traits, but one that is ever-present (as opposed to, for instance, Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, whose Catholicism seemed to crop up only when it suited the story).

These sorts of characters can be hard to write for a mainstream audience, because fleshing them out often requires personal experience that busts up easy stereotypes. A sort of prototypical religious character, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s Harriet Hayes, was based on creator Aaron Sorkin’s real-life ex-girlfriend, the outspoken Christian Kristin Chenoweth; another Sorkin character, the very Catholic President Jed Bartlet from West Wing, also belongs to this category. We especially see this in TV — most writers’ rooms aren’t noted for their diversity, and sometimes religion has been pretty one-note on screen. And flatly written secondary characters have a way of standing out more starkly in TV’s longform storytelling.

But perhaps recognizing that a myopic view of religious people results in underwritten characters, many shows have developed the sense that, as with gender or race, a character’s religion is part of their identity, one in a series of overlapping layers. A white Southerner’s Christianity looks different from that of a Catholic comedian living in New York City or a black marketing executive in Southern California. Not all Muslims look like they do on Homeland. Religious people look, sound, and act differently from one another. Their political and social views may differ. Even if they belong to an organized religion, the way they express and live that faith is unique.

The Innocents takes place in a Polish convent during World War II.
The Innocents takes place in a Polish convent during World War II.

In her film The Innocents, French director Anne Fontaine elected to dramatize a spectrum of faith in characters that on first blush look very much alike: a group of Polish nuns who, during World War II, are raped by a group of passing Russian soldiers. When the film begins, a French Red Cross doctor (who is an avowed atheist, a fact that does not change throughout the film) is called to the convent, where she discovers that many of the nuns are in advanced stages of pregnancy.

It’s tempting to see a convent full of nuns as a homogeneous group: all Polish women, living together, having taken the same vows, following the same rituals together every day, professing the same belief, experiencing the same violence. But The Innocents recognizes that women have individual responses to severe trauma, and their responses are complex and different from one another. It’s a remarkable exploration of shades of belief and doubt rooted in the different ways that different people internalize and express faith.

Some religious storylines incorporate the supernatural, to great effect

Another striking trend in onscreen religion showed up in two places in 2016: Jeff Nichols’s film Midnight Special and the Hulu TV series The Path, something echoed in the HBO drama The Leftovers (which aired the final episodes of its second season in December 2015 and will premiere its third season in 2017)…

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See also:

I’m a Christian and I Hate Christian Movies, by Alissa Wilkinson

The Americans
The Jenningses in The Americans. FX

 

I’m a Christian and I Hate Christian Movies, by Alissa Wilkinson

Part of ongoing series: The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking

Some of the most popular faith-based movies today aren’t just sub-par entertainment — they’re anti-Christian.

by Alissa Wilkinson

We need more depictions of complicated, interesting Christian characters and media that explores difficult, complicated matters of belief. GND2 is anything but.
We need more depictions of complicated, interesting Christian characters and media that explores difficult, complicated matters of belief. GND2 is neither.

It’s a frustrating time to love movies and God. As a lifelong evangelical and a Christian film critic, I’m constantly alerted to the next faith-based movie. You know, your near-death experience drama, your Kirk Cameron vehicles, your God’s Not Dead franchise (see “part two” in theaters this week!) — “Christian films. Which, for someone who turns to movies for a dose of culture, often look like a pile of cheap cash-ins that make me break out in hives.

Hollywood’s definition of the “faith audience” boils down to churchgoers, often Evangelical Protestants, well enough off to afford a night at the movies, interested in inspirational Biblical adaptations and movies about heaven, family, and genial, good neighbors, and highly critical of any sexuality or bad language. If you’re not devout, you probably miss these movies entirely. But they’re a big business: in the last three years, low-budget Christian-themed films have earned over $445 million at the US box office.

A lot of these are basically well-intentioned kitsch, innocuous in the manner of a lousy conventional rom-com or inept indie drama. But they can be worse than that. I can excuse (or ignore) a poorly made movie. But some of the most popular faith-based movies today aren’t just sub-par entertainment — they’re anti-Christian.

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Alissa Wilkinson is critic at large for Christianity Today, an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City, and usually a pretty sunny cinematic omnivore. Follow her weeks-late TV tweets and exhausted festival updates at @alissamarie.

See Also

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

Why Evangelical Films Fail, by Peter J. Leithart

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking by Living Better Stories

David Oyelowo on Why Christians Can’t Abandon Hollywood, by Tyler Huckabee in Relevant

The blockbuster Selma actor with unflinching faith has a fresh vision for Christianity in film

“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing [not to be nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Selma.] Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that.” -David Oyelowo

by Tyler Huckabee in Relevant

selma_ver3A lot of what you need to know about David Oyelowo can be gleaned from a brief, viral, almost instantly GIF-able clip from the 2015 Academy Awards.

On the heels of John Legend and Common’s rousing, staggering performance of Selma’s “Glory,” the cameras panned the Oscar crowd, who had leapt to their feet as one in spontaneous, rapturous applause.

The adulation was richly deserved,but one man stuck out in particular: Oyelowo, who starred in Selma as Martin Luther King Jr. He was seated near the front, suited in a smartly tailored, Cabernet-red tuxedo (which would land him at the top of Esquire’s list of best-dressed men of the Oscars the following morning), applauding while tears ran freely down his cheeks.

Even in our age of 24/7 celebrity coverage, in which a Google image search can turn up photos of Gwyneth Paltrow expressing every candid emotion known to man, the moment seemed purely human and vulnerable. The Oscars almost didn’t deserve it.

The reason the moment was so indicative of Oyelowo (pronunciation: O-yellow-wo), is that,in person, it is exactly how he comes across. He is put together, but authentic—impeccably collected and utterly personable.

Oyelowo is becoming well-known for his ability to play other people, but it’s almost as astonishing just how easily he inhabits his own skin.

Parting the Red Carpet

Oyelowo’s presence at the Oscars was notable for another reason. For most of the awards season, his blistering Selma performance was widely expected to net him the Oscar for Best Actor, so it was a bit of a scandal when he wasn’t even nominated (Neil Patrick Harris even mocked the Academy for the snub during his hosting gig).

“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing,” Oyelowo says, with refreshing candor. “Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that…”

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Why Evangelical Films Fail, by Peter J. Leithart

Evangelicalism is a word religion. I’m a big fan of words, but even talking pictures aren’t fundamentally about words. Evangelical films over-explain, over-talk. They don’t trust the images to do the work.

by Peter J. Leithart • First Things 

Opening nationwide October 16th
Opening nationwide October 16th

I went to a screening of Woodlawn last Saturday. Directed by Birmingham brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, the film tells the true story of revival among the players on the football team at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham during a racially tense period of the 1970s.

The film focuses on Tony Nathan, the tailback who takes the position from a white teammate and becomes a star. The real-life Tony Nathan went on to play at Alabama and for the Miami Dolphins.

It’s a moving story, with some high-pitched emotional scenes. The acting is good, especially Jon Voight as Bear Bryant, Nic Bishop as Woodlawn’s coach, Tandy Gerelds, and Caleb Castille who plays Nathan in his first film. Technically, Evangelical films have come a long way.

The large crowd at the screening cheered when Woodlawn scored a winning touchdown, shouted when Tony Nathan dodged a tackle, laughed at the punch lines. It was a very into-it crowd.

Yet I came away from the film dissatisfied, as I do from many films by Evangelicals. I think there are a number of reasons for that dissatisfaction, but at base the problem is theological (ain’t it always)…

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Also

Watch the ‘Woodlawn‘ trailer

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories, by Gary David Stratton

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Brennan Smith

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category, by Gary David Stratton

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin

Why Liberal Arts Education is Best Preparation for Filmmakers, by XMen and The Giver Producer Ralph Winter

Ralph Winter is a Hollywood film producer who has helped to produce blockbuster movies such as the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Star Trek series as well as “The Giver” and the first remake of “Planet of the Apes.”

by  

(Unless you’re an IAM member, you will need to watch this on Vimeo.)

Producer Ralph Winter advises against film school from International Arts Movement on Vimeo.

ralph_winter

 

3 Reasons Why a Christian Film Industry is a Really, Really Bad Idea, by Nate Flemming

Part of ongoing series: The Future of Faith in Film and Television

A small voice crying in the wilderness, making the argument that creating a Christian film industry is absolutely the last thing that we Christians should be trying to do.

by Nate Fleming |  Thimblerig’s Ark

holywood“Too little, too late.”

That’s the phrase that kept coming to mind as I started to write a blog post where I, as a Christian, was going to argue against the building of a Christian film industry.

After all, Christians have been trying – on some level – to create a Christian film industry since movies began, and some would argue even earlier.  There were the Billy Graham films of the 1950’s, the apocalyptic Thief in the Night movies of the 1970’s, and a smattering of attempts by different Christian filmmakers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but these movies barely registered on the radar of people outside of the church.  As far as Hollywood was concerned, Christian movies were provincial affairs, unworthy of notice.

Then in 2004, Mel Gibson shocked everyone to attention with his blood-soaked account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus – The Passion of the Christ, a film that cost 30 million to make and earned over 600 million.

Hollywood finally stood up and took notice.

It was as if Gibson, by successfully tapping into the largely untapped market of the “faith based audience”, had singlehandedly uncovered the fabled lost golden city of El Dorado, and the L.A. conquistadors immediately set about strategizing how to best invade and conquer this shining city on a hill.

The Armani-suited conquistadors didn’t waste time, but began attaching themselves to little-known Christian filmmakers who seemed to appeal to the Christian masses, eventually inking deals with the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof), Pureflix Entertainment (God’s Not Dead), Cloud Ten Pictures (Left Behind), and many others – helping provide the finances and distribution channels that would permit these filmmakers and film companies to continue making and marketing their products for the Christian audience.

And in the past couple of years we’ve seen several well-known individuals from outside the filmmaking industry also try to tap into the Χριστιανός zeitgeist – Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, Willie Robertson, to name a few – all doing their part to try and build up a Christian (or politically conservative) filmmaking industry in their own image, or at least one that lines up with their own personal theological interpretation of the faith or political ideology.

And now, here we have this little blog, a small voice crying in the wilderness, making the argument that creating a Christian film industry is absolutely the last thing that we Christians should be trying to do.

Here are my three arguments why a Christian Film Industry is a really, really, bad idea… 

Continue reading

See Also: 

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Oh Crap! The Theater’s Full! by Actress McKenna Elise

The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking: What is a Christian movie? by Screenwriter Mike Rinaldi

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Screenwriter Brennan Mark Smith

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin

 

Vikings vs. The Bible: Why History Channel Won’t/Can’t Market Faith? by Craig Detweiler, PhD

Part 3 in series The Future of Faith in Film and Television.  We asked observers in and around the entertainment industry to share their perspective on where faith is (or should be) headed in film and TV. Here’s what they said:

Why did the History Channel heavily promote “The Vikings” while almost ignoring the equally epic ten-hour mini series that preceded it, “The Bible”? Could it be the church’s fault?

by Craig Detweiler, PhD • Pepperdine University

The History Channel epic new mini-series hit the advertising world with a splash.  I saw a huge, four-page fold out ad for it in Wired (right behind the cool Star Wars cover).  Billboards along Sunset Boulevard declare “The Storm is Coming” with the airdate, “3.3.13”.   The Los Angeles Times Calendar had a front-page story and photo. A reviewer at io9 raved that “it’s like Game of Thrones without the nudity.” All this buzz is being directed at a show about Vikings. Not the football-playing, Minnesotans, but rather the old Odin-loving, Norse kind of Vikings.

I am always ready to tune into ancient sword-wielding action, but I can’t understand why the History Channel would promote The Vikings while ignoring the equally epic ten-hour mini series that preceded it, The BibleWhich series is based on the bestselling book of all time?   Which program has built in recognition of beloved characters? Which show is timed right in the sweet spot of religious observation, running on Sunday nights from Lent up through Passover and Easter?   Which show serves as a lead in to the other? And yet, the marketing team at History Channel builds buzz for The Vikings?

When the smoke settled, what was the final score over the five weeks the two shows went went head to head?  The Vikings averaged 5 million viewers with extensive advertising;  The Bible averaged 11.4 million viewers with significantly less advertising. Together, they pushed the History Channel to the #1 network in all of television for March, according to TV by the Numbers. History Channel execs are jubilant about their ratings coup after the fact, but the real question is, why weren’t they willing to stick there necks out in advance?  

Industry-strength Leadership

The Bible was produced by one of the most successful producers in the history of television, Mark Burnett. Nobody has a better track record of anticipating public taste than the man behind SurvivorThe ApprenticeShark Tank, and The Voice. He is a remarkable salesman and showman, figuring out what we want and when we want it. The Bible is also produced by one of our most beloved television stars, Roma Downey. As Monica on Touched by An Angel, Downey topped the television ratings for CBS despite being shuffled around different nights and airtime. Mark and Roma embody the American dream, having emigrated from Britain and Ireland and rising to the top of the entertainment business. They are a dynamic, photogenic, and compelling couple. So why did History Channel execs all but ignore such a potentially major television event? Their own television event?

History Channel’s efforts to bury The Bible suggest several possible scenarios. Perhaps they view The Bible as soft, appealing to female viewers while The Vikings is positioned as rough and manly.   Maybe the marketing team couldn’t figure out how to make The Bible edgy and cool? It doesn’t have all the family feuds and dramatic betrayals of their previous hit, Hatfields & McCoys, right? And it’s not like it features tall, dark, and handsome men with dreadlocks playing macho characters like this:

Surely, the History Channel realizes that audiences have always loved sword and sandals epics. From The Ten Commandments to Gladiator and Braveheart, the religious community and the broad, movie going public (which are close to the same thing) have regularly embraced epic depictions of heroism and sacrifice. Blood and brawn didn’t keep ticket-goers away from The Passion of the Christ. Why would executives ignore such an obviously strong and compelling lead in to an expensive new series that follows it? Aren’t they interested in attracting the broadest audience possible for both shows?

Our Own Worst Enemy?

Less charitable critics might surmise that the History Channel is biased against religious audiences. They chose to promote the pagans rather than the Christians. A finger-pointing boycott could result—“Watch The Bible, ignore The Vikings.” It might even boost the ratings for both. And yet, I learned in Sunday School that when we point one finger out, another three point back. Why has History Channel acted against its own best interests?

The depth of distaste for religion, particularly the conservative and Christian kind, remains almost boundless in the entertainment industry. Every time a pastor calls for a boycott of Disney because of  ‘gay day’ or pleads with a congregation to send a message via Chick-fil-A, another chasm is created between the Church and Hollywood. And when pressure builds on Louie Giglio or Tim Tebow to step down from a microphone, some Christians claim religious persecution. It is all so tired and tiresome; the ongoing power games that accompany the culture war in which everyone loses. Why can’t this be an occasion when everyone pursues the same simple goal–attracting the widest, most diverse, and engaged audience possible to the History Channel?

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, Producers of ‘The Bible’ mini-series on The History Channel

Instead, two generous and powerful Hollywood insiders make a ten-hour celebration of the grandest stories ever told that their network runs from because they don’t want to be identified with all the baggage that now accompanies the Bible.  I understand the network’s apprehension. It can be embarrassing to be associated with Christians, especially in the media business.  I live with that tension everyday. And for advertisers, it seems risky and even dangerous to be associated with any religion.

So while we should celebrate the triumph of The Bible‘s ratings and Burnett and Downey’s leadership, it is also an indicator of a deeper problem facing the future of  faith in film and television.  History Channel execs and other Hollywood creative leaders need to see that the religious audience is much bigger, less scarier, and more mature than they ever imagined. Until then, we might get huge ratings from religious audiences (with or without advertising), but we need to remember that our greater challenge is earning the trust of non-religious programmers and audiences.

Next post in series: What is a Christian movie? by Screenwriter Mike Rinaldi

See Also 

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Oh Crap! The Theater’s Full! by Actress McKenna Elise

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Screenwriter Brennan Mark Smith

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin

 

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Part 2 in series The Future of Faith in Film and Television.  We asked observers in and around the entertainment industry to share their perspective on where faith is (or should be) headed in film and TV. Here’s what they said:

No one is surprised that 18-28 year-olds watch twice as many movies as any other age group.  What is surprising is that the average number of movies self-identified ‘evangelicals’ saw in 2012 is larger than followers of any other religion.  If Hollywood is listening then the future of movies could be greatly shaped by tastes of young Christ-followers. 

by David Kinnaman • President, The Barna Group

607-superheroes-presidents-and-a-girl-on-fire-2012-at-the-moviesOn the heels of massive box office performance from The Hunger Games and The Avengers, 2012 ended up setting a record for total box office sales (a staggering $10.8 billion), and also saw an incredible 1.36 billion tickets sold. With this weekend’s Academy Awards broadcast—the pinnacle of the film awards season—the cultural obsession with movies is at its peak. Viewership for the Oscars is still one of the larger of the year, and—in a year when most of the best picture nominees garnered over $100 million—arguments over who is (or isn’t) nominated and who should win are in full force.

But what are Americans’ true attitudes toward movies? Who sees them? Are Americans still going to the movies? Do Christians see more or less movies (or the same) as non-Christians? And, what do believers think of the movies they see?

Who Goes to the Theater?

If you’re a moviegoer, you might assume everyone goes to the movies. If 1.36 billion movie tickets sold in 2012, that means there were more than four movie tickets sold for every American. But, in actuality, a full 35% of the American population says they didn’t see a single movie in theaters in the last 12 months. And of people ages 67 and older, respondents report they’ve only seen, on average, 0.4 movies in the last year—meaning less than half of Elders set foot in the movie theater in 2012.

So who bought all those tickets? As you might expect, it was mostly young adults (i.e., Mosaics, ages 18-28) filling the darkened venues. Of that age group, the average Mosaic saw 3.4 movies in the theater over the last year—double the national average for all adults, which was 1.7 movies per person.

bu-022113-who-went

 

Does Faith Affect Viewing Patterns?

How does a person’s faith affect their movie watching habits? Well, in terms of the amount of movies seen at the theater, evangelicals saw 2.7 movies at the movie theater in the last year, a full movie more than the national, adult average. In fact, the average number of movies evangelicals saw is bigger than any of the age groups except for Mosaics. The only faith group that saw more movies than evangelicals were people who didn’t identify with any faith—that segment saw an average of 3 movies per person in theaters over the last year.

Which movies did evangelicals see? The year’s biggest film, The Avengers, was also a big hit among evangelicals. Over the last 12 months, 42% of evangelicals saw the film. That’s the highest rate except for people with no faith—43% of those surveyed who don’t identify with any faith saw The Avengers. Evangelicals also flocked to The Hunger Games (36% of them saw it in the last year) andThe Lorax (24%).

 bu-022113-what-they-saw

 

The biggest difference in movies between people of faith and people with no faith exists in movies like Skyfall and Argo. While 21% of people claiming no faith saw Skyfall, the most recent James Bond blockbuster, only 12% of evangelicals and 16% of non-evangelical born again Christians witnessed 007’s latest romp. And the highest group of people of faith who saw Argo—the story of a group trying to escape Iran during the 1981 U.S. embassy hostage crisis—were Catholics, at just over 4.5%. At the same time, 17% of people with no faith identification saw Argo.

Much has been made about how Hollywood influences the values and spirituality of Americans. And movies do affect how people think about faith and spirituality, but in smaller numbers than religious leaders might expect. For all the concern about the degradation of cultural values and Hollywood’s lack of a moral compass, just 1% of respondents say they saw a movie that changed their beliefs over the last year. Whether this is a perception or a reality is hard to say—but at the very least, people don’t think Hollywood is influencing their values and beliefs. In fact, only 11% of people say they saw a movie in the past year that made them think more seriously about religion, spirituality or faith.

However, 32% of evangelicals say they would seek out movies that dealt with more religious or spiritual themes. And with movies like Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe’s upcoming Noah adaptation and the ratings success of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible TV mini-series, it seems audiences might be getting their wish.

Or will they?

Next:  Vikings vs. The Bible: Why History Channel Won’t/Can’t Market Faith? by Craig Detweiler, PhD

See Also:

The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking: What is a Christian movie? by Screenwriter Mike Rinaldi

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Screenwriter Brennan Mark Smith

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories, by Gary David Stratton

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin

 

 

 

david-kinnaman-picture-smallDavid Kinnaman is the President of Barna Group and author of the best-selling books, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith, and unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity (with Gabe Lyons). Since joining Barna in 1995, David has designed and analyzed nearly 500 research projects for clients including Sony, NBC-Universal, World Vision, and Compassion International.  As a spokesperson for the firm’s research, he is often quoted in major media outlets such as USA Today, Fox News, New York TimesLos Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal).

© Barna Group, 2013. Used by permission. For more info from Barna Group study, click here.

Oh Crap! The Theater’s Full! by McKenna Elise

Part 1 in Series, “The Future of Faith in Film and Television.”  We asked observers in and around the entertainment industry to share their perspective on where faith is (or should be) headed in film and TV. Here’s what they said:

Many of my same industry friends who won’t watch or rent a movie that describes itself  as “Christian” are more than willing to sit down and watch a cheesy Hallmark special of similar quality. Why?

by McKenna Elise • Actor

http://bobcanada92.blogspot.com/2010/06/blue-devil.html
Not again! (Bob Canada: http://bobcanada92.blogspot.com/)

Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning the devil says, “Oh crap. She’s up.”

-Anon

That’s one of the few Facebook status updates that actually caught my attention this month.  However, after more than a decade in the entertainment industry it didn’t hit me with the lightheartedness my friend probably intended. I now know the subtle power of evil the devil often exerts in my own life and among my friends and the films they make with such excellence.

It reminded me that every morning when I wake up, the devil should sigh loudly, shrug his shoulders, and think to himself yet again, “I hoped today would be easy, but looks who’s back at it…”  He should be scared of me. Or more fitting of his character, excited to plot and scheme and worm his way into my work in an attempt to destroy it. Every day I should be equally as excited to derail his plans as he is to detonate mine.

Giving the Devil his Due
For at least the first fifty years of movie-making Hollywood's audience was made up largely of people of faith.
For at least the first fifty years of movie-making Hollywood’s audience was made up largely of people of faith.

That’s true of my work as an actor, but shouldn’t that be the point of films made by Christians as well?  Show business is tricky… I cannot think of a profession with a better platform for spreading the good news of life in Christ. But unfortunately for everyone in our culture, it’s also often the last place the church has looked.

For at least the first fifty years of movie-making Hollywood’s audience was made up largely of people of faith. Church’s often served as the movie house for their town and many denominations actually funded and even made movies. Films were largely artful representations of life, or the way people wanted life to be. They had morals, integrity, heart and… wait for it… solid story lines!

I’m not saying all old movies are idyllic, nor am I saying that all modern movies are terrible and tasteless. What I am saying is that through the years as Christians have removed themselves from the filmmaking community, movies have developed a little less heart and lot more…well, skin.

Have Some Sympathy (Bob Canada)While there are certainly many great artists and actors in the industry, the overall impact of a Hollywood devoid of believers serving as “salt and light” has been a growing litany of films of which the devil would be quite proud. In fact, many church-goers seem to believe that the Hollywood is little more than the devil’s playground. They are terrified of the devil’s influence upon the next generation, and believe that nothing good could ever come out of Hollywood.

Turning the Tables

I happen to believe the opposite. I think it is our job as writers, actors, and creators of faith is to find a way to make movies that are so good they scare the heebie-jeebies out of the devil. Movies that parlay a message of hope, love, forgiveness, family, charity, etc… In one simple thought, it’s our job to create movies that share the message. And here in lies the rub; to create a quality movie with positive reinforcement that keeps peoples attention and doesn’t alienate those who may not be familiar with the Gospel.

I’m not talking about more “Christian” movies. They certainly have their plane, but what on earth qualifies something as a ‘Christian’ movie? Having a conversion scene? Setting it in a church? Multiple prayer scenes? Saying Jesus at least 13 times in the first 12 minutes?

Why can’t we make movies that provide a touching but realistic message of love to an audience without preaching at them?
Why can’t we make movies that provide a touching but realistic message of love to an audience without preaching at them?

No one knows, and frankly, none of my friends really care. If it has even the label of ‘Christian’ they’re not going near it. And I don’t believe the problem is merely production or acting quality. I think it goes much deeper.

Many of my same industry friends who won’t watch or rent a movie that describes itself “Christian” are more than willing to sit down and watch a cheesy Hallmark special with a very similar quality. Why? I think it’s because they don’t want to be preached at!  They want the family friendly stories without their own preconceived and often negative notions of the church rising to the surface.

The movie ‘The Blindside’ is a perfect example of this. It didn’t pitch itself as a Christian movie but undoubtedly shared very Christian themes of compassion, dedication and ultimately of love.  And people flocked to it in droves. It made the studio’s ecstatic with its success and audiences thankful for it’s sentiment. It touched their hearts without shoving the gospel down their throats to get there.

Shrewd as a Serpent, Innocent as a Dove
I think it is our job as writers, actors, and creators of faith is to find a way to make movies that are so good they scare the heebie-jeebies out of the devil.
I think it is our job as writers, actors, and creators of faith is to find a way to make movies that are so good they scare the heebie-jeebies out of the devil.

So here’s my point, the devil is sneaky; he masks his evil works as fun, adventurous and worst of all, harmless. He doesn’t make ‘message’ movies. He seeks to weave his message into every movie.   Why can’t we do the same?

Why can’t we make movies that provide a touching but realistic message of love to an audience without preaching at them? I’m not saying we should hide our intent, but maybe we shouldn’t stamp our work with a huge cross either. We need to create Christian movies in a smart, interesting, professional and non-threatening way so that people watch it and think, “Wow… that was great. I want to see more movies like that.”

In short, movies that make the devil  get up in the morning and say, “Oh crap! The theater’s full!”

 

McKenna Elise is an actress with fifteen years experience in film and television. She writes for THW under a pseudonym.

Next: The Future of Film and Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman