I know fine, young, Christian filmmakers and film mavens: HBU’s Josh Sikora . . . Nate Marshall. . . Nate Bell. They are out there: creative, working hard, and learning the craft. And yet when I turn on Christian television programming, look at most Christian “YouTube” or watch (God helping me) most Christian movies, I still see . . . work in progress.
I know it takes time to learn the craft and that those learning need time, but Pixar proved something again this weekend: it doesn’t take forever. A former student (Christian!) is in the credits for Inside Out and it is the film that all Christians should aspire to have on their IMDb page. To say Inside Out is the best movie I have seen this year is not enough. It ought to be a serious movie of the year contender, a true general audience film that was smart enough for kids and entertaining enough for adults. If it gets a bit long in the middle, it is because it is impossible to imagine cutting any given minute.
Pixar was founded just short of thirty years ago and it has never made anything less than an above average film. If Cars II was “meh,” it was only in comparison to Ratatouille or The Incredibles. Let’s face it: Toy Story is better than any Christian film ever made. The best of Veggie Tales comes close in the “shorts” category (and under the illumined Doug TenNapel it is moving up fast), but nothing really matches the wit and wisdom of Pixar.
You don’t have to start at the bottom, but most Christian film companies do and they stay there. Quick: name a Christian documentary that is in the class of the best secular documentaries. Name something not about vegetables that does not shame you in front of your non-Christian friend. It is hard to do. There are “art films” from schools like Regent or Biola. Tarkosvsky sort of counts, but mostly it is Left Behind. The fact that Christian movies are generally better than Christian television, a genre so bad that it spawns better YouTube parodies than any content, says little good about Christian movies. If you are not better than Benny Hinn’s show, you are surely incompetent and probably heretical. If you aspire to Osteen, you are not asking for much from the Holly Spirit that produced the greatest book ever written, inspired Shakespeare, and made Flannery O’Conner great.
Let’s learn from Pixar. Here are five obvious things needed to make better films:
First, stop making Christian films. Make good films as a Christian. If we can tell you are making propaganda, then it is bad propaganda and we should not be making propaganda of any kind. We don’t need a Christian Leni Riefenstahl. Tell a story. Tell the truth as you see it. If you are a Christian, it will come out.
Second, stop trying not to make a Christian movie. There are films made by F-Word Evangelicals, those Christians who believe merely saying the f-word will make them authentic, that are as propagandist as the worst of evangelism film ever made. Playing Uncle Tony to the left is no more attractive than becoming captive to your youth group pastor’s message. If you are a Christian, don’t be afraid to have a character pray if you would pray in that situation. If you quote Bible verses in real life, then you ought to be able to have a character who quotes Bible verses. We know you do not have to put Bible verses in your movie, but you can if you wish! If you never do, because you want to be “authentic” then you aren’t. If you are asking: “Am I authentic?” then you are not.
Third, learn the craft. The Pixar crew learned to make movies before they made movies. If you need someone to run a camera or animate a film, get someone who knows who to run a camera or animate a film. If it was easy, then Christian movies would not be so bad. Trust me: your spouse may be able to decorate your house but that does not make your spouse a good “set design expert.” Learn the craft. Hire competent people.
Fourth, get a writer. This could be the entire message. There are bad films with good writers, but there are no good films with bad writers. There are one hundred ways Christian movies fail (stop showing me shadows I should not see!), but the greatest way they fail is script. Get a good writer. This will not be your mother. I love my mother. Trust me: it will not be your mother unless your mother has worked for years honing her craft or is a genius.
If she is a genius, show the script to a skeptic. If the skeptic likes it, you may have found the next Joss Whedon. Otherwise, wonder if you are kidding yourself.
And can we have story tellers that tell stories Hollywood is not telling? Evangelicals are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. Let’s tell those stories. Hollywood isn’t. Let’s promote filmmakers and writers who do not fit the Hollywood mold!
Finally, stop funding people who make bad movies. If they made a bad movie, you might give them another chance, but at some point, you should realize: these people make bad movies. I know people who buy or go to bad Christian films out of solidarity. This is a bad idea. One does not hire a miserable plumber because they are Christian or one gets bad pipes. One should not encourage people to stay in a field for which they are manifestly unsuited. Just because you like the message, you do not have to like the movie. A badly made movie with a good message is no better than bad message well made. Both contain fatal internal rifts that are highly regrettable.
If you do not understand how to make a movie, documentary, or television program, for the love of Christ’s Church do not make a movie, documentary, or television program. Let’s go learn the craft and then form companies to tell our stories. We don’t have thirty years to wait.