|Faith heads to Hollywood|
|Written by DeWayne Hamby|
|Wednesday, 14 May 2014 08:04 AM America/New_York|
Christian films dominate box office as retailers assess DVD sales potential
The year 2014 will be remembered as a year when faith hit mainstream movie screens in a big way, thanks to the success of Christian-produced releases such as Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, Mom’s Night Out and Hollywood offerings such as Noah and Exodus.
Several of the films, including LightWorkers Media’s Son of God and Pure Flix Entertainment’s God’s Not Dead, surprised Hollywood insiders in spring, rising above expectations and making three to five times their reported production costs.
In September, The Song will join their ranks as an independent romantic drama based on Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. The film will be the first theatrical release from Louisville-based City on a Hill Productions, which until now has focused on small group video resources such as the first-quarter release Acts of God, which probed the ultimate question of pain and suffering and featured pastor and speaker Bob Russell. The Song is a musical drama based on the life of Solomon. Regardless of the story or format, company leaders say every release starts with a message.
“Kyle Idleman (Gods at War, Not a Fan) is a part of our team, and when we were talking about the next project, he really wanted to delve into Ecclesiastes,” said
Marc Harper, who runs the company’s theatrical and church engagement division. “It’s an important message for our days, finding fulfillment and not denying any pleasure. As the script and the movie idea unfolded, Richard Ramsey, the writer, he considers [the question], ‘What if Solomon was a famous musician following in footsteps of his father?’ ”
With a theme of multigenerational musicians, the casting for the film presented another question for the producers.
“We thought, ‘Do we get actors who we can portray as musicians or do we get musicians who can act?’ ” Harper said. They settled on the latter, casting Alan Powell, lead singer of the band Anthem Lights, as the lead actor.
Powell stars as Jedediah “Jed” King, a young musician struggling to get out of the shadow of his famous father, David King (Aaron Benward). When Jed accepts a humble gig at a local winery, he meets Rose (Ali Faulkner), and the two immediately fall in love. Idleman also makes a special appearance in the film, which, in turn, will tie into a small group study being released by City on a Hill in August.
“This was the first time City on a Hill developed a resource as a feature film first,” Harper said. “We made a feature film called Acts of God and did a small group study around that, but we really didn’t feel it was a film we wanted to take to theaters.”
Along with a soundtrack of 10 original Americana songs inspired by the biblical story, The Song uses creative imagery and Scripture narration to chronicle the love story, although Harper said it’s designed for a “broader audience.”
“Some of the films that have come out lately, which are great, they’re more for the church audience,” he said. “The church crowd goes and buys a ticket and is pumped up in their faith. This [new film] will appeal to those who might not go to church or those other movies.”
To promote The Song, the company is leading a theatrical tour to introduce it to viewers, meeting with key pastors around the country.
“The feedback we’re getting a lot is this is a different type of faith-based film as far as artistic excellence and broad appeal to audience,” Harper said.
The early release of the small group study also will help build awareness before it hits theaters. The grass-roots strategy works better for a film with a limited advertising budget.
“It’s a longer strategy. It takes more phone calls. Some of these movies come out with huge budgets, but we have to take a little more time to help the church understand (what we’re doing),” Harper said.
City on a Hill’s strong church connection has been evident since its inception, as Shane Sooter, artistic director and president, began creating films for Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky.
“The first project City on a Hill did was called H2O,” said Tim Byron, general manager. “It was basically ‘Evangelism 101,’ a tool designed for folks to invite your neighbors in, family members, folks you would love to talk about your faith, invite them into your home and talk about the video. Those videos were like independent films asking questions such as who Jesus is, why that’s important and why you should care.”
The first few City on a Hill products, including H20 and follow-up The Easter Experience, were distributed by Standard Publishing and Thomas Nelson. After those releases, the company wanted more control in the process, culminating in its decision to begin self-distributing titles around five years ago. The first such project was Idleman’s Not a Fan.
“Kyle had preached the message to Southeast Christian Church, which was a good test audience,” Byron said. “It was well-received, so we began to think, ‘That might be something we take a look at.’ We developed the modern-day story of a fan and not being a follower after he gives his life to Christ, how that impacts him, obviously, and family and friends.”
Byron said the minds behind City on a Hill are “basically storytellers, and we use media and video to do that.” The company’s desire to resource the church created the new genre of video-based small group curriculum, which continues even through The Song.
“We’re not a studio hoping to become a big studio,” Harper said. “Our mission to equip the church and to equip them with great stories and touch people’s hearts and convey biblical truth. I think it’s one of the differences that we engineer the Bible study materials with the movie. It’s all thinking with the church in mind.”
Byron agreed, adding: “The key product in our portfolio is small group study. Movies are great and entertaining and have a great message, but a lot of times, people see a great film and they move on. All of our products are built around a message.”
While some faith-based films eventually will have curriculum to support their release, City on a Hill’s releases are built first with curriculum in mind, because, as Harper believes, a community study will help extend the message.
“It’s people in community, spending six to eight weeks together, using a devotional or journal, talking about the subject with others,” he said. “That’s where God can change hearts.”
While church-going audiences who frequent Christian retail stores may or may not necessarily be the target audience for faith-based content arriving in theaters and home video, the popularity of such titles is creating an opportunity for stores to expand their customer bases.
In July, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s epic Son of God will arrive in stores, attracting many of the same fans of the couple’s The Bible television miniseries that proved to be a Christian retail success. Having grossed nearly $60 million at the box office, the film had strong grass-roots promotion, thanks to a music tour featuring artists Francesca Battistelli, Chris August, Sidewalk Prophets and Meredith Andrews. Playing mainly in churches, the tour created awareness for the film for the Christian retail customer base.
“There’s a shift happening. God is moving,” said Burnett of the explosion of faith-based films.
Burnett will spearhead the NBC miniseries A.D., and he and Downey will produce a forthcoming remake of Ben Hur.
Before The Song hits theaters in September, a small group study based on the film and centering on love and marriage will arrive in stores in August. The study will be divided into six 15-minute segments. A participant’s guide and couple’s devotional tying into the film also will be available.
“We want to engage the trade,” Byron said. “These products weren’t an afterthought to the film. These products are really the key products that we want people to connect with. The film will be engaging. We’re all about these resources and engaging with their customers. These resources will be a great addition, and hopefully, that will drive traffic to their stores. That’s an important message for the retailers.”
With titles such as The Lost Medallion and The Road to Emmaus, Bridgestone Media Group also is making an impact in Christian retail. Formed in the 1990s, the company consistently releases faith-based family movies.
This summer, Bridgestone will release Light of Freedom; New: The Movie; and Sybil Ludington: The Female Paul Revere. Inspired by actual events, Light of Freedom stars Jade Metcaff and Maxwell Charles Dean, and is a historical drama centering on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. New: The Movie features children staging an arts festival and includes singing and dancing while one of the characters struggles with a difficult choice of seeking fame in Los Angeles.
Fall and winter releases from Bridgstone include Name in Vain—The Ten Series, My Mother’s Future Husband, Christmas for a Dollar and God Came Near, a Max Lucado Advent series.
David Austin, Bridgestone executive vice president, said that although the content of faith-based entertainment is getting better and more titles are releasing, the retail category seems to be “flat” right now, even as theatrical releases exceed expectations.
“We really started seeing significant growth in the category seven or eight years ago when it started exploding,” he told Christian Retailing. “Myron [Deitweiler, director of sales and marketing] and I worked for Family Christian Stores. We were on the other side of the table then. It went back to the days when Word was doing a lot of small theatrical releases and the advent of Sherwood films. That’s where we saw triple-digit increases for a number of years. In the past year, retail has flattened out a bit to some degree after five years of year-over-year growth. There’s probably more product coming to stores than ever before. The number of units per title has decreased and you have the same-size pie.”
Deitweiler sees another loss factor in the pressure to offer pricing competitive with big box stores.
“You’re still getting the volume, but the pricing point is accounting for some loss,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit of the transition of the customer expecting great deals.”
“Certainly the consumer has been trained, with films and music,” Austin added. “The going price for entertainment product means that they expect to find films for under $10. The successful movement movers are using value bins. You can buy at $5 and a pretty good one for $5.”
Bridgestone’s philosophy states that the company “is dedicated to inspiring, educating, enlightening and entertaining families and children through the production and distribution of high-quality, faith-based entertainment products.”
For Austin, helping the company fulfill that mission is an “exciting” career choice that was always in his heart.
“While I was at Family and doing marketing, I was drawn more to music and film,” he said. “That was what ticked my box, so to speak. When the opportunity came to do it full time, that was exciting for me.”
Building on that passion, he also believes the Bridgestone mission of impacting culture in a positive way is a crucial component of his work.
“This (media) is where our generations are going, where our generations are responding,” Austin said. “The negative influencers are trying to reach them through media. We need to be good at producing first-class productions, entertainment and wholesome, not some cheap or dumbed-down version of it, but world-class entertainment that someone could feel great about and feel uplifted about. A mom can show her family [a film] on Friday night and not be embarrassed.”
What does the popularity of streaming and on-demand mean for the future of movies in Christian retail? Some movies, such as The Lost Medallion and some Pure Flix films, are hitting Netflix and are available on demand. At some point, Austin believes, digital sales will outpace hard-good sales.
“Some people think it will happen in next couple of years, and some people think the next five years down the road,” he said.
Deitweiler sees the popularity of faith-based content on the big screen as a plus to curious moviegoers who may venture into Christian stores to find similar offerings.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “Customers may be out looking for the Christian resources in the places they normally shop. Then they start discussing it with other people, and it increases their chances of finding out about Christian retail where there’s a variety of entertainment options for their families. The opportunity does increase if they get exposed to that.”
Harper likens the “epic,” current slate of faith-based entertainment to the late 1950s and such classics as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur.
“I think the content has gotten a lot better,” he said. “The way faith has been portrayed in a movie has grown leaps and bounds. The money people are willing to spend on it is increasing. They have been inspired by movies like the Passion and Fireproof.”
Byron is pleased to see so many faith-based films releasing.
“It’s exciting to see other Christians getting into the game and creating real, quality media—story films that have a message in them that connects people with God’s Word,” he said. “God’s Word won’t return void. So that’s the space we’re in, we hope more folks will engage in this form of media.”
One might ask, however, if there is room for movies such as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.
“I think that some people say it should just be Christians producing films,” Harper said. “Others say it needs to come from Hollywood. I think Hollywood will learn its lessons from movies like Noah. They’ll realize there’s a big audience where faith is important to people. I think storytelling will get better on both sides. Hollywood does a better job with characters and dialogue that’s authentic.”
Austin said he believes Hollywood’s faith-based ventures make the cineplex a better place.
“I would much prefer there be 20 Noahs than 20 more ‘slasher’ movies,” he said. “With Noah, if nothing else, it causes a viewer to dive into God’s Word and find out what it really says. It creates good discussion around God’s Word. While Noah had its shortcomings for believers, there was more good than bad.”
City on a Hill also is investing in future generations of filmmakers, hoping to ensure the quality of faith-based entertainment continues on trend. The company is developing and testing an iPad-based high school curriculum called CityU, which guides students through everything from script development to production and post-production.
“We hope to have a finished product in the next couple of years to release to high schools across the country,” Byron said. “It’s all about creating more filmmakers for Christ. Let’s just take over that space. We’re educating the next generation. That is something that God has really put in our heart.”
Along with that effort, the company hopes to help introduce film clubs in schools, following the model of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Curriculum will be a key part of the groups, which Byron hopes will appeal to public school students as well as those in private education.