Having proven themselves adept at selling Christian films to a paying audience, film producers like the Christian-based Pure Flix now find themselves at a crossroads. While the films have done well financially, they’re hardly mainstream. It’s not that Christian films have some special obligation to make hundreds of millions of dollars, but if the mission of Christianity is evangelism, the current crop of films is not sufficiently successful. For the most part, even the highest-grossing Christian films have played to the niche of conservative American Evangelical Christians, with other demographics staying away. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is quality. It’s no secret that Christian films, to this point, have not been very good. They often lack the high production values of most Hollywood films and regularly display deficiencies in scripting, directing, and acting.
Many Christians will readily admit this. In fact, in some cases, the substandard quality of the films keeps them away, too. Though Alyse Pugh admires the heart behind many Christian films, she won’t go out of her way to watch them. “I think they’re not done very well and really cheesy,” she says. Jordan Diepersloot agrees, and though he values the messages of Christian films more than their production values, problems like poor acting can hinder enjoyment. “As far as the big hits—Hollywood movies—you can notice the difference in the quality,” he admits.
Jonathan Bock, the founder of Grace Hill Media, a publicity company that markets Hollywood studio films to Christian audiences, concurs with these concerns, which he says makes it more difficult to market Christian films. “They’re getting better, but they’ve traditionally not been really good. When it’s a compliment to filmmakers to say, ‘It’s really good for a Christian film,’ that’s a pretty low bar.” Bock points out that Christians are like any other moviegoer: “They like stars, and they like things to be beautiful, and explosions to look real, and drama to be good, and production values to be high.”
In Diepersloot’s case, one of the few Christian films he’s been able to recommend wholeheartedly to his Christian congregation and non-Christians alike has been The Passion of the Christ. In Mel Gibson’s über-violent opus, subtle performances by actors like Jim Caviezel and Monica Bellucci, and state-of-the-art special effects technology, brought Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to life more realistically than any film before it. “I’m a big promoter of people understanding how deep, wide, and great the love of God is that he’s willing to go that far to show us that he loves us,” says Diepersloot. For him, The Passion of the Christ illustrates that very well.
One decade-old film hardly inspires confidence, though. Most of the Christian films released into theatres since haven’t featured nearly that level of production quality. It’s a fact even Michael Scott is willing to concede about the films Pure Flix has made over the years. Budget has been one of his biggest barriers. “It’s very hard to jump into a business and make a $100-million movie when you haven’t proven success on a $1-million movie,” he says. But he also sees that turning around. “I think what you’re starting to see is better production values, because from the economic standpoint [we] can start to prove that these films work,” he says. “As the quality gets better, it attracts better actors, better directors, better everything.”
Scott’s theory has held true. The leap in quality, at least in terms of production, from What If…, to God’s Not Dead, to Do You Believe? has been impressive. The Lifetime movie aesthetic has slowly been replaced with more cinematic storytelling, and the acting has gotten considerably better. Do You Believe? stars a large cast comprised of Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin, Lee Majors, Cybill Shepherd, Alexa PenaVega, Ted McGinley and Delroy Lindo. Though not quite A-list stars, they still bring a naturalism and subtlety sorely lacking in most independently produced Christian films.
Do You Believe? cribs heavily from Paul Haggis’ Crash—right down to the voice-over that narrates multiple intersecting stories—and features characters, both faithful and not, struggling with their belief in Christianity. Several of these stories, like one about two suicidal characters who find salvation in each other, or another about a grieving elderly couple learning to get over the loss of their daughter, are very touching. As religious parables, they’re often very effective illustrations of Christian teachings in action, which makes a compelling case for the film as good sermonizing and a tool for evangelism.
Problems arise when these films try to prove how righteous Christians are compared to non-Christians, as in Do You Believe?, in which an irredeemably unpleasant atheist doctor constantly gripes about people crediting his work to God. As Salt Lake City Weekly Arts & Entertainment Editor, Scott Renshaw, said on Twitter, “[It shows a] frustrating lack of confidence that focusing on live-your-faith Christianity would suffice.” It’s indicative of the culture-war mentality that many American Evangelical Christians hold—a mentality alienating to many non-Christians who would supposedly benefit by receiving the words of Christ.
According to Kenneth Morefield, Christian films have largely been insulated in their reception, with any such criticism attributed to bias. “There can be a tendency [among Christian filmmakers] to try to make an identity-politics pitch,” he says. People associated with the Christian film industry will urge Christian critics to give a film good reviews simply because it is Christian, Morefield says. Or they might suggest that to not like a Christian film is to disagree with the values the film advocates. “Ultimately, the poison pill in that articulation or approach is that it says the only people who are really qualified to judge, or are capable of understanding [the film], are the people who have already experienced that,” he says.
Identity politics isn’t only a problem when it comes to reaching non-Christians, either. Many Christian films can’t connect with actual Christians because they don’t reflect the true diversity of the wider Christian community. The white, middle-class, conservative aspirations depicted and idealized in so many Christian films fail to account for differences in politics, social class, economics and race. Do You Believe? includes a storyline about a pretty blonde mother and her precocious daughter who are down on their luck, living in their car, and helpfully saved by other Christian characters, while the more destitute black and Latino characters remain relatively ignored. The only major black characters in the film are set within a stereotypical plot involving gang violence, stolen money, silly street names like “Kriminal,” and, to top cliché off with cliché, a white man to help save them.
Reaching a broader audience of Christians is very much on the minds of many Hollywood executives, who understand the value in reaching out more directly to such a large portion of the American public. Bock has recently produced a Christian concert documentary for Warner Bros. called Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, set for release in September, and has worked on publicity for everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Notebook, as well as more specifically Christian films like The Nativity Story. He’s become Hollywood’s go-to guy for that sort of outreach. While companies like Pure Flix focus on the narrower, conservative audience of Evangelical Christians, Bock understands that acknowledging the diversity of the roughly 240-million Americans who call themselves Christian is paramount to his business. “With such a huge segment of the population you’re going to have a broad level of taste in film,” he says. “I think one of the things that people even in Hollywood mistake is that somehow all Christians want exactly the same kind of movie, and that’s just not the case.”
The process for marketing a film to Christians is to first figure out the exact audience within the broader Christian community, and then tailor the approach to their interests. For a more broadly appealing film like The Blind Side, Grace Hill Media will often set up screenings for pastors and other Christians within a particular community. “Give them a chance to see it and ingest it and see the value within their own community for spreading the word of it,” Bock explains. Other films, though, may warrant a different approach. “You’re not going to get Focus on the Family to get super excited about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but for millennials, emergent church guys, college groups, that’s like gold for them.”
Marketing to Christians focuses on grassroots campaigning. “We’re not buying ads in churches. [We’re] screening for pastors, or giving them assets that they can use at their discretion,” says Bock. A common goal is to prompt pastors to use a film as a sermon illustration. “Instead of telling a story out of their life—‘The other day I was at an airport and a woman said to me, Pastor…’ kind of stories that a lot of pastors tend to tell—if there’s a clip from a movie that tells that story better than they ever could, then yeah, I’m all for it.”
Within the black community, particularly in the American South, Tyler Perry’s films have been pitched in a similar manner. His films, including the popular Madea series, portray the struggles of black families in life and faith, often spreading Christian messages, but with a more universal appeal to basic values of forgiveness, respect, and dignity. They play well to broader audiences, but also very well to black Christians who may not identify so easily with films like Do You Believe?, and are excited by the prospect of seeing themselves on screen as something other than a stereotype.
Of course, Evangelical Protestants aren’t the only game in town. Mormons have their own small film industry based out of Utah, for example. And while we haven’t seen a string of films explicitly made for Catholic audiences, many filmmakers have dealt with Catholicism on screen to great acclaim. In an article for The Atlantic, Christian film critic Alissa Wilkinson called John Michael McDonagh’s indie film Calvary, about an Irish priest reckoning with the fallout from the Catholic Church’s child sexual-abuse scandal, “the most ‘Christian’ film released in 2014.”
Wilkinson’s article, entitled “Can Indie Filmmakers Save Religious Cinema?,” argues that the film festival and indie scene has been a hotbed for interesting explorations of faith on screen. She writes about indie films like Last Days in the Desert, Z for Zachariah, and I Am Michael, which play more to an art-house crowd and are in some cases made by non-Christians, but are also far more complex and nuanced than the average film labeled “Christian.” “The ‘other’ religious movies—the ones more broadly about spirituality or religious questions—may wind up having a wider reach than expected,” writes Wilkinson. “They appeal to a certain segment within the religious community as well as to a broader audience.”
Morefield, despite his misgivings over Evangelical Christian films, is hopeful that they will similarly improve, both in terms of production quality, as well as quality through diversity. He sees the Christian film industry as being in its early developmental stages. “A number of those thematic characteristics that are prevalent in a lot of Christian movies—that persecution complex, marginalization, [and] triumphalist fantasy in terms of ending in vindication in some way—are very adolescent in nature,” he explains. And just as people mature out of adolescence and into adulthood, Morefield has faith that this will happen for Christian films, as well.
Growing out of adolescence is no easy task, and the process has been slow in Christian cinema. Films like Do You Believe? contain the seeds of maturity, though, and it’s very possible that in time companies like Pure Flix will make Christian Films with the kind of complexity seen in the indie films Wilkinson has written about. In that respect, the box-office success of Christian films in 2014 was really only the beginning. For his part, Morefield envisions a brighter future for Christian cinema. “Something that’s a little bit more introspective, a little bit more self-reflective; one that doesn’t just hold an idealized mirror up to the Christian audience and the Christian viewer,” he says, “but one that invites the Christian viewer to engage in self-reflection.”
This part two in our series on Christian film. Read the first installment here.