Christians as a “Niche Market”? (Or… What I Learned at the Biola Media Conference)

My overview of the volatile conversations and debates at the Biola Conference is now published at Christianity Today Movies.

As Hollywood continues to catch the “faith wave” by making and marketing more movies to Christians, some of the industry’s major players gathered at a conference in Los Angeles last weekend to discuss the pros and cons of the relatively new trend.
While some are excited about the potential of these efforts, some are also frustrated about the “bad art” that has already spun out of these initiatives—including Dean Batali, a writer who served as executive producer on That 70s Show for six years.

“I’m quite angry at God, actually,” Batali told CT Movies. “I’m angry that he has blessed bad art—even certain Christian films that have been seen by a lot of people. It makes me angry as an artist, because they’re bad. Just because people go see it, that doesn’t make it good.”

When asked if it’s inappropriate to complain about the quality of films that present the gospel, Batali answered, “This is my frustration: The gospel written on toilet paper still saves lives. There’s power in the gospel.”

But he wants Christians to strive for excellence, rather than settling for sentimental entertainment: “I want to see movies about people who don’t get pregnant and don’t win the state championship … and who go ahead and praise God anyway”—an apparent reference to Facing the Giants, where everything goes right for the protagonist (wife gets pregnant, team wins it all) once he gets right with God.

We interviewed Batali and others at the 12th annual Biola Media Conference, which features Christian leaders in the entertainment industry, forward-thinking and creative folks who give seminars and put their heads together to ask questions like, “What’s working? What isn’t? What next?”

That’s just the beginning.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has two passions: writing fiction, and celebrating art — music, cinema, photography, literature — through writing and teaching. He is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” — Through a Screen Darkly. And his four-novel fantasy series, The Auralia Thread, which begins with Auralia's Colors, was published by Random House. He speaks at universities and conferences around the world about understanding art through eyes of faith. He is earning his MFA in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University, where he has worked for 11 years as an editor, writer, and communications project manager. His work has been recognized in The New Yorker, TIME, The Seattle Times, IMAGE, Ravi Zacharias International — and Christianity Today, where he served as a film journalist for more than a decade. He recently began a weekly column called "Listening Closer" for Christ and Pop Culture.

  • j a n

    I thought you did a great job summarizing the various positions of the debate. If interested, you inspired me to respond and post my own response:

  • Martin

    It sounds like the conference was all over the map on the major questions it was supposed to address. Did you feel any sense of consensus, or of a way forward?

    I go back and forth on the question of evangelical niche markets. (See Sean Gaffney’s blog on the confusion caused by saying “Christian” when we mean “evangelical.”) Just because I don’t have much use for such markets doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t. When I go the neighborhood rec center, I’m glad there’s a kiddie pool, but I’m also glad the lifeguards don’t try to make me swim in it.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Martin, I agree.

    That’s why, in the article, I concluded with questions like this one:

    And what about success? What will Christian filmmakers do if they succeed the way Facing the Giants did, turning a $100,000 project into a $10 million box office surprise? Is financial success a sign of God’s blessing, a sign of merely appealing to a niche market’s wants, or a reflection of an audience that doesn’t demand artistic excellence?

    And don’t worry… I enjoy your snarky remarks. I didn’t take anything personally. I just pushed back for the fun of it. ;)

  • Martin

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the admittedly snarky comment I made that prompted Jeffrey’s rebuke. I’ve done a little more reading about Batali since then. It certainly wasn’t my intent to hurt his feelings, imply anything about his character, or question his qualifications to comment on art.

    But I haven’t changed my mind about That ’70s Show, and to defend it by saying it’s a better-than-average sitcom that’s funnier than Friends is surely to damn it with faint praise.

    Perhaps a less offensive way to get at my point is to say that I’m puzzled over why Batali says he’s “angry at God” for “blessing” bad art. I don’t think the success of any work of art (whether or not it has a religious theme) is a sign of God’s blessing—we could surely question God’s taste if that were the case. And I don’t think the success of bad art (again, irrespective of religious themes) is any reason to be angry at God. If God had a policy of not allowing bad art to succeed, it’s just possible that That ’70s Show would’ve hit the dustbin halfway through its first season.

    And that would be too bad, for the following reason: Batali has said on other sites that his overall goal is to achieve the sort of status it takes to be a senior writer on a show, at which point he’ll presumably be able to have more say about the show’s content, themes, overall tone, etc. And working for six years on That ’70s Show may just be what gives him the credentials he needs to create a better show. In other words, perhaps making bad art for a while will put him in a position to make better art. I can’t find fault with that. I don’t know of any painter or composer who produced a masterpiece on his first try.

    (I also have some sympathy for Batali as a Christian artist in a non-Christian environment … my wife suffered through three years of grad school at Cal Arts, so I know all too well what that’s like.)

    So I don’t see the point in getting upset with God over the success of bad art. Bad art is an inescapable part of life. In the end, the best response to bad art, methinks, is to make better art—and to realize that even the bad art may play a role in pointing us toward the better.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Mine was filmed, but you’d have to ask the Conference staff about availability.

  • Mo

    Were any of these sessions recorded?

  • Martin

    I think Fox Faith has been one of the worst purveyors of sub-standard Christian movies lately.
    Well, then, it’s a good thing today is my day off from the Irony Police!

  • Jeremy

    Batali has an excellent point. I can’t tell you how disgusted I was listening to a group of youth group kids walking out of Thr3e talking about how great of a movie it was.

    I think Fox Faith has been one of the worst purveyors of sub-standard Christian movies lately.

  • Levi Nunnink

    He’s got some good points, that Batali.

    “I want to see movies about people who don’t get pregnant and don’t win the state championship … and who go ahead and praise God anyway”—an apparent reference to Facing the Giants, where everything goes right for the protagonist (wife gets pregnant, team wins it all) once he gets right with God.”

    Movies like, The Mission come to mind. Or, heck, The Passion.

    He has a very solid point though. Most Christian movies seem so simplistic in their worldview. I.E. Serving God wins Football Games. But just look at Sophie Scroll. Being a Christian is very hard most of the time.

  • Martin

    Knowing he wrote for Buffy makes me feel better about Batali already.

    Yes, ’70s Show is funnier than Friends. Agree with your comments about chemistry and cast talent. The thing is, it’s crass. It’s in incredibly poor taste. I gave up watching it because I usually felt like I needed to take a bath afterwards. Of course, Friends was often just as crass, but always seemed blissfully unaware of its crassness … which, in a way, is worse.

    We both know that when Christians work in mainstream entertainment, their work will reflect the real world with all its impurities, but their best work will also serve higher purposes. In the case of That ’70s Show, I sure as heck don’t see those higher purposes. That may be my fault for not sticking with the show long enough, but oh well. I would love to hear Batali articulate the profound insights I have missed by not watching it, but until I do, I will continue to not watch it. If I wanna see a talented cast with great chemistry delivering snappy dialogue, I settle in with Everybody Loves Raymond … or stay up late for midnight M*A*S*H reruns.

    Of course I won’t quit reading your stuff if I don’t like Auralia’s Colors, silly man. Just as I hope you won’t quit reading my stuff if you don’t like my blog comments.

    But on the other hand I don’t expect Auralia’s Colors to operate on the same level as That ’70s Show. In fact, I expect Auralia’s Colors to exceed the high standard of excellence you’ve set with your first book. How’s that for a challenge?

    I never said Batali wasn’t qualified to comment on art, but that doesn’t mean he’s not responsible in some measure for the art he makes.

  • Bryan

    Batali answered, “This is my frustration: The gospel written on toilet paper still saves lives. There’s power in the gospel.”

    That is a brilliant quote.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    I’ll just paste my response to a similar question that came up elsewhere:

    * * *

    Well, I’m sure Batali knows that That 70s Show was a sitcom… and as sitcoms go, That 70s Show is one of my favorites. It was consistently much funnier, with an unusually talented team of actors and some of the most memorable sitcom chemistry since Newhart. I think it the show was vastly superior to Friends (although I know that isn’t necessarily saying much).

    Batali also had a hand in the writing for early Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, so his work experience is in better-than-average commercial television.

    But that doesn’t mean he’s disqualified from commenting on good art. Heck, Roger Ebert wrote that Valley of the Dolls film, but I still listen to what he says about art films.

    * * *


    If you don’t like Auralia’s Colors, will you quit reading my reviews? Just curious.

  • Martin

    A producer for That ’70s Show complaining about bad art?

    What’s next, Motel 6 executives complaining about cheap mattresses?