Why does the church need to be involved in producing movies? I hear that question often… especially when we talk about how much it is going to cost to produce “The Prodigal Project.” (read more about that…)
“Doesn’t Hollywood already do a good job of it? And aren’t there other churches producing Christian films?”
The most obvious answer is that we have a story to tell – the story of God loving us so much that he came to live among us, showing us how to truly live. It is the story about God searching for the lost… and throwing a party when we’re found! If it isn’t the church’s job to tell that story, then whose job is it?
Unfortunately, most of the Christian films produced by churches speak primarily to a Christian audience. They tell powerful stories filled with the Gospel, but they’re done in such a way that “secular” folks will never see them.
He reminded his readers of the famous quote by Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher, “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I don’t care who writes its laws.”
We’ve got to realize that the ideas that most effectively shape a culture are not necessarily those that are argued, but those that are embodied. They capture the heart and mind because they capture the imagination.
So let’s embody God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and opportunity for second chances. And let’s tell compelling stories which reveal that truth. Let’s pour our energy and resources into capturing imaginations… Like Jesus did when he talked about wedding banquets… and travelers mugged on the side of the road… and farmers sowing seed… and fathers welcoming home lost sons.
I finally got around to watching that Christian movie that’s been sitting next to my chair for the last three months. I knew I needed to watch it. Everybody at church who’s seen it says it is great.
“Have you seen it?” they’d ask
“Well, not yet,” I’d confess.
I felt guilty. But I was dreading the two hours I’d have to spend with it. I knew what was coming. The protagonist will cry when he reaches the bottom of his arc. Somebody will preach at me. And somebody will accept Jesus or make a commitment to live a better Christian life. That’s the “Christian Film Formula.”
To be honest, I’d rather spend time with one of my favorites: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
But I “needed” to see that movie, so I loaded it up and settled in for the tears, the sermon and the altar call. The movie did not disappoint.
It was well-made. Great lighting, camera work, editing, and music. I laughed. I cried. I was inspired.
I’m a Christian. As a member of the choir, I was effectively preached-to. And the makers of the film claim “thousands coming to Christ as a result” of their movie.
There’s a market for these films. Sony and Fox have each set up distribution divisions for Christian and Family Movies. There are more than half-dozen web sites that specialize in the distribution of Christian and Family DVDs.
But I wonder how deep the market penetration is among folks who are not part of the religious establishment.
It seems to me there’s a niche waiting to be filled: really good movies that entertain and inspire, and will appeal to people outside the Christian cocoon… movies that tell great stories with a voice that’s neither preachy nor condescending.
Let’s face it: our culture is less churchy than it was for our parents and grandparents. Much of society yawns at our well-intentioned efforts to “reach” them with the Gospel. But we really do have some good news to share. So how do we do it?
Obviously, the best way to preach the Gospel is to live an authentic Christ-like life. Do the things that Jesus did. What’s the old saying? “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.”
Sometimes, words are helpful, too. But what words? And how to speak them?
My younger son and I were walking around Greenville, South Carolina’s downtown area on a recent Friday evening. We came upon a young man, standing on a box, preaching judgment and condemnation from a Bible he waved in our faces. Is that the way to communicate the love, joy and hope offered by God through Jesus? I don’t know. And I surely don’t want to judge the young man, who must have been doing what he believed to be God’s will. After all, there’s plenty of precedent for that approach in the Bible.
But really… must we take ourselves so seriously? Can’t we lighten up a bit? We have some great stories to tell. Let’s have some fun telling them. We can even poke a little fun at ourselves… Lord knows there’s plenty to laugh at.
Remember how Jesus started his Sermon on the Mount? It wasn’t, “Repent or you’re going to hell!” It was, “Blessed are you…”
Our little writing and production group is passionate about breaking out of the “Christian Film” mold to produce something that entertains and inspires those beyond the typical audience for such movies.
It won’t come across as the typical, sanitized, well-scrubbed Sunday school tale. In fact, it might be perceived as a little irreverent. We’re not trying to, but we’ll probably offend some of our religious friends. But who knows? Maybe a few Christians will be entertained and inspired, too.
I think that’s what happened when Jesus first told the story of the Prodigal Son.
This week in our writing session, we decided on a direction for the second draft of our screenplay for The Prodigal Project.
Thanks to our Pastor, Dr. Jim Somerville, who met with us and offered some well-timed words of encouragement. He also made a suggestion which forms the structure for our next draft. It was actually his brother, Gray who came up with the idea. But we’ll get into credits later.
We spent a lot of time laughing during our meeting. We recalled some of the wild ideas we’ve had, both the far-out and the way-too-safe concepts that we’ve considered, and the long path we’ve traveled so far.
I think God opened our eyes to a new perspective: our message and our goals are serious and life changing, but we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously… and God Himself is in charge of the life-change department.
The meeting came after a difficult three weeks of sifting through the responses and input we’ve been getting in response to the first draft. We asked for it, sought it and, in two cases, paid for it. We appreciate every word of it. Most of it has been helpful.
I’m learning something about advice, though: Listen to all the advice that comes your way. But be careful, prayerful and wise about which advice you follow.
Seems pretty simple and obvious, I know.
But I, for one, tend to tune out when someone offers advice that I don’t want to hear. Maybe I’d do well to keep listening and try to pick up at least one point I can use. If I shut down too soon, I may miss something really important and helpful.
A couple of cases in point:
One reader (a west coast script coverage professional) advised against beginning the screenplay with a voice-over. But when I viewed one of the movies he’d written, guess what? It began with a very long voice-over. And it wasn’t especially well-done. I lost interest pretty quickly and turned it off half-way through.
Well, at that point I was ready to dismiss all the rest of what he’d given us. But then I watched another film – and this one was both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. It began with an even longer voice-over. This time, it held my attention.
It was a difference between good and poor filmmaking – not necessarily poor writing.
OK, I understood. So I went back through all the other points our screenplay coverage guy gave us and found several very helpful tidbits. Our second draft will be better for it.
One consistent theme that runs through all the comments we hear from “industry insiders” is about how important it is to stick with the tried and true Hollywood formula for movie making. There are certain kinds of things that have to happen at a certain time, in a certain way for a movie to be successful.
Most of this information is helpful. If we don’t produce a movie that people will want to see, we will have failed miserably.
And Hollywood has been at it for more than a century, so we will listen to the folks “in the business” who know what works and what doesn’t.
But then I pull up a wildly successful movie on Netflix and watch as it systematically breaks all the rules.
As one of my writing partners, Matthew Brown has pointed out, “Who would think that a two-hour and twenty-minute movie, most of which takes place on an island with one actor talking to a soccer ball would be any good.” But, of course, “Cast Away” was hugely successful at the box office and won a raft of awards.
The lesson: Learn the rules. Learn why they are the rules. Learn the theory behind the rules. Then and only then, with fear and respect for our industry forebears, venture out and push the edge of the envelope.
I don’t think it is an overstatement to say we’re going to push the edge of the envelope with this project. Can’t say too much about it yet because it would spoil the surprise.
Pray for us as we write the second draft… and as we listen to advice, learn the rules, and decide which rules to break.