Christian Films Arising!
Cinesource Magazine, August 14, 2018
SOME TWENTY YEARS AGO, WHEN I
was Executive Director of IFP/Miami, I had a meeting in Beverly Hills with a film producer. He was in his sixties and had been making films for 20 or 30 years. He told me that the majority of films he had made were Christian films. I had to believe him: his office walls were filled with posters from his many movies. My mind was blown! I had no idea there was a Christian film market.
Most filmmakers set out to make their first feature without consideration for the marketplace. However, a really smart way to think about how to proceed with a first feature is to look at where there is actually a demand for content. One of the genres where there is demand, and where filmmakers starting out might have success without much money and without big names, is faith-based films.
Today there are numerous claims for what marked the beginning of the Christian film movement; some writers say it started with Mel Gibson’s, “The Passion of Christ” (2004). Some that it started with unexpected hits, with no-name actors such as “God's Not Dead” (2014) and “Fireproof” (2008). I don’t claim to know when it all began, but I do know at least one producer who was making a living decades ago from films in this niche!
It’s normal these days to see box office returns as regular front page news. What people really mean when they look at when the Christian film market began is when did Christian films begin to make enough money that other people (namely Hollywood) started to take notice? “The Passion of Christ” made $370M. (I would argue that that may have had a lot to do with the fact the Bob Berney was the head of Newmarket Films that released “The Passion”, but that’s a story for another time.) “Fireproof”, about a porn-addicted fireman, made $33M from a $500,000 budget.
So what exactly are Christian films? That might seem to be an easy question to answer, but not necessarily. At the most basic level, they are all films that are free from graphic violence, harsh language, sex and nudity. They come in several genres: drama, family, comedy, thrillers all exist within the umbrella of faith-based.
Looking at this from a filmmaking perspective, what I like is that this is a genre that filmmakers can enter in earlier stages in their career when they don’t have much in the way of resources to bring to the table beyond a great script, enthusiasm, good friends and a little money. This is a genre where there are consistently good production values, occasional celebrities, good acting, but the script is really the key to the films.
Also from a filmmaker’s perspective, one of the most significant elements is that the storytelling is truly coming from a religious perspective. The stories, whether they are dramas, comedies, thrillers, romance or family films, all tell stories of people who use their Christian faith to address challenges in life.
As with any other genre of film, it would be important for a filmmaker making a film in that genre to study the other films in that genre before attempting to make one. It would be as foolish to say “I’m a Christian so I can make a Christian film”, as it would be to say, “I’m not a Christian and I can make a Christian film.”
There are now many websites available to find films that are classed as Christian or faith-based films. Pureflix launched in 2005 and by 2013 was claiming to be the industry leader. There is also Cross Flix, Up Faith and Family, Christian Cinema and Dove Channel
The Christian Film Database lists all the distribution companies interested in distributing faith-based films. There is an audio CD by Rich Christiano (interesting name for a filmmaker who has made a lot of Christian films) called “How to Market and Distribute a Christian Film,” about his work making and distributing Christian films from $50,000 to $1M, including the extremely popular, “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry” (2008).
One of the most rewarding aspects of working in a particular niche or genre such as this one, is that it’s very manageable to learn who all the players are very quickly, and find simple ways of meeting everyone! There are several Christian film festivals, but less than 10, and that’s a lot more manageable than working in many other genres.
One of the aspects of faith-based films I have been mostly pleasantly surprised by is the multiculturalism and diversity seen in many of the films. There seems to be an equality between white and black characters in the films that is certainly not the way American stories are presented in other films and television series.
In mainstream movies, diverse casting is not the norm. Mainstream films tend to focus on white characters, with African-Americans playing drug addicts, hookers, criminals, sidekicks and the characters who get killed first. But in Christian films, there is quite a bit of diversity, both in the selection of films on the sites, and in the films that achieve the greatest success.
However, more rare in faith-based films are films that overtly look at race. The recent “Canal Street” (2018) is certainly one of those. This is the film that inspired me to look more closely at Christian filmmaking. I saw it at the American Black Film Festival, in June in Miami Beach, Florida.
I spoke to “Canal Street’s” amazingly enthusiastic director, Rhyan LaMarr, after he had just finished Day 19 of a 21 Day shoot! Amazingly, he was full of energy and joy to talk about his work for God. I had already learned that there are definitely wide varieties within the umbrella of faith-based films and LaMarr even challenges the name faith-based.
“Faith-based films,” he argues, are for people who’ve already found Jesus. My films are faith-driven, and they aim to meet people where they are at.” LaMarr, like many other Christian filmmakers, see their work as a ministry. LaMarr just sees his ministry as being to people who don’t necessarily have faith yet.
LaMarr had already made several films by the time he directed “Canal Street.” From “The Dirty 30” that went straight to DVD, to “Restored Me,” that opened on between 100 and 200 screens, to now a movie opening on 500-1000 screens. (That’s another element of interest to filmmakers, Christian films really work the theatrical distribution angle—something to think about.)
LaMarr had been working on the script for “Canal Street” since 2005, and finally got financing in 2015. “We sat there in the production office in 2005 with no money, and I just created a vision board. We just asked. In Hollywood there’s a pitch packet with the actors the producer wants. But if there’s no money IT NEVER WORKS!”
“In the end, we got actors who were interested and believed in ME. They are not interested in ‘Canal Street’, or such and such particular project: they’re interested in you and your career! “
I was curious how LaMarr had managed to get such a large number of exceptional actors: Lance Reddick and Jamie Hector from “The Wire”, Mykelti Williamson, best known as Bubba in “Forrest Gump” and from several great TV series, Mekhi Phifer, whose screen debut was leading Spike Lee’s “Clockers” (1992), Bryshere Gray, from the TV series “Empire” and “The New Edition Story”, who plays Kholi, the embattled youngster at the center of the action in “Canal Street.” And this is not a complete list.
“The first actors we attached with money. We paid them. It’s called ‘Pay or Play.’ It means that if you don’t make the movie, the actor keeps the money. Everyone else we just asked them. As Mykelti Williamson said: ‘The script is the star.’ Nobody is bigger than your script.”
“We went after the big names,” LaMarr continued. “Woody McClain was the easy one. He was gambling on me and I was gambling on him. Also, with these names, you have to be confident. ‘I am confident that I can shoot you out in four days.’ Mekhi Phifer in five days. Lance Reddick in one day.”
“We shot the entire film in 16.5 days. And we shot it for PEANUTS!!! We shot it for ‘Mission Impossible’’s coffee budget!”
“Canal Street” definitely is different as a Christian film. According to LaMarr, the mainstream church does not speak to racism, or homosexuality, or a lot of other very important topics.
“’God’s Not Dead’, ‘The War Room’ and Tyler Perry have done amazing things for the community,” he told me, “but they represent only one part of the body of the church. For so many people, when they come to Christ, it isn’t a beautiful event: ‘I was on a toilet and I heard a voice.’ ‘Someone died and I saw God.’”
LaMarr asks: “How do you save a part of the community that isn’t being ministered to? Jesus did not minister to perfect people. He ministered to the outcasts, and he did so even though he knew one of them would betray him. The audience for my films are woke Christians, diverse Millennials, because I’m a millennial.”
It’s Day 19, and LaMarr is coming to the end of a 21-day shoot on a film that delves into mental health issues, a psychological thriller.
“We do a lot of projects that inspire. It’s all to bring about thought, to have a conversation. I want people to not escape reality. This is my prayer. We are scrappers and hustlers. I’m working on 7 projects, including TV shows. ‘An American Tragedy: the Sean Bell Story’. We just wrapped a dark comedy: ‘North of the Ten’. We just wrapped a dark comedy that’s getting buzz on social media.”
LaMarr has a LOT of energy!
“We’re supposed to be fishers of men. For the lost. For the unsaved. We filmmakers need to open up the spectrum a little bit. To not create projects that are safe. When did we get so entitled? We can open up and bridge the gap. Bishop Jakes, Tyler Perry, Pureflix have all been trailblazers and have allowed me to make my films... for millennials.”
The dynamic vitality of this film makes absolute sense now that I have spoken to LaMarr in person. It tells the all-too-common story of a young black man accused of a crime.
My favorite part of the film is how there are repeated fast-cut sequences of radio talk show hosts—some very well known—discussing the case. They act like a Greek chorus commenting on the action. Only in this case, they often pass judgment. They are the voices in our heads, condemning, judging. Each time the “chorus” comes back, the already exciting film turns up a notch.
Well drawn characters. Believable story. Issues of gun violence, racism, solving life’s challenges with faith. Some of the characters in the film are very grounded in their faith, some are not and come to find that faith works.
In this story set against a backdrop of a team of hard-working firemen, a porn-addicted husband about to get a divorce, is persuaded to use spiritual practices to find his way back to love.
The story is well told. The firemen’s crew is great! It struck me that it is rare to see a group of good people doing their jobs in films. Especially in Hollywood.
Again well drawn characters. Believable story. Addresses issues of marriage, infidelity, love, solving life’s challenges with faith. The main character, the husband, is not a man of faith, but he comes to faith and his life dramatically improves.
God’s Not Dead 2
I imagine this is the kind of film that LaMarr is striving to not be. The characters are basically caricatures. Two dimensional is being kind. The story tells of a high school teacher who answers a high school student’s question about Jesus, and is punished as a result. The film apparently represents a debate between freedom and oppression.
But in every scene, for example, when there are crowds represented, the crowd of Christians behaves in a quiet and meek way, while the opponents protesting for the separation of Church and State are depicted as screaming and rabid.
The teacher is shown as infinitely kind, meek and not wanting to cause any problems. There were some good lines as she meets her lawyer for the first time: “You don’t look like a lawyer.” To which he replies: “Thank you.” “I don’t think that was meant as a complement,” she says. “I decided to steer it in that direction!” he says jovially.
The lawyer who opposes her—and who is perhaps part of the ACLU—is actually characterized as the devil. He has a speech talking about why he does what he does, and he talks of HATRED: hatred of Christians.
If this wasn’t obnoxious enough, there is an anti-Christian TV news presenter who speaks very personally and tells people to go out and protest against Christians. The whole film struck me as being dishonest and, frankly, creepy. It purported to be about questions about religion, but it barely spoke about that and focused instead on how Christians are being victimized by the devil—that is the ACLU and the government—and that they have to stand up now and fight before they are completely destroyed.
A couple of days ago, I was chatting with a friend who would describe herself, I think, as a fundamentalist Christian. And we were talking about the topic of addiction, she said, "I think of addiction as a spiritual problem. There's a problem with evil. I call that 'The Devil.'"
We were discussing a topic about which she uses language she knows may be different than mine. She went to define the term "devil" in a way that we could share. I nodded agreement.
In "God's not Dead 2", there is no such discussion. The lawyer who fights for separation of church and state is The Devil outright; his reasons for his legal position are stated as being hatred of Christians. For me, this is dishonest.
It has become so tiresome to hear the complaint of victimhood, which has become so commonplace in contemporary culture, and how victimization justifies attacking the enemy by any means necessary. Painful!
Two-dimensional characters. Poorly told story. Addresses issues of religious rights, solving life’s challenges by standing up for religion against the enemy.
Hopefully, these three summaries give you a small sample of the range of films that are included under the umbrella of the genre Christian or faith-based filmmaking. The barriers to entry are relatively low, and as long as the purpose of the film is to spread the message of Christ, the doors are pretty wide open for filmmakers to fit into this very broad genre.