Variety Summit Sees Hollywood as a ‘Mission Field’ for Christians (Part 2)

Variety Summit Sees Hollywood as a ‘Mission Field’ for Christians (Part 2) June 30, 2015

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Last Thursday, July 25, Variety co-sponsored (with PR firm Rogers & Cowan) a day-long meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, called Purpose: The Family Entertainment & Faith-Based Summit.

Click here to see part one of my interview with one of the organizers, Variety managing editor Kirstin Wilder, a Christian from Nebraska and longtime magazine staffer.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I freelance for the venerable trade publication, founded in 1905, which covers the business of show in Hollywood and elsewhere. But, I didn’t cover this Summit for it.)

There’s Christian entertainment, but entertainment in general needs to appeal to Christians …

Kirsten-WilderPanels at the Summit discussed the parallel world of Christian-produced-and-distributed entertainment, and how Christians are also involved in programming for the mainstream market (which, considering that 70-plus percent of Americans identify as Christians of some sort, is not a niche market, but actually the market).

As evidenced by producers/spouses Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s “The Bible” on History Channel and “A.D.: The Bible Continues” on NBC, Bible-themed programming can garner ratings on broadcast and cable TV. But Burnett and Downey are hardly alone, and the Bible itself isn’t the only subject matter available.

Also discussed was the “Preachers” franchise on Oxygen Network, which began with “Preachers of L.A.” The reality series profiles megachurch pastors in the Los Angeles area and, when the concept was first proposed, apparently set off a cablenet bidding war. It’s now spreading out, adding spin-off shows in Atlanta and Detroit.

Game Show Network has also had “American Bible Challenge” and “It Takes a Church,” a faith-based dating show. This past season also the Catholic-themeed reality show “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns” on Lifetime, but unfortunately the Summit was nearly entirely devoid of a Catholic presence, aside from Catholic Roma Downey, who gave a keynote address with husband Burnett. Not sure why that was, but I hope next year’s Summit resolves that.

Downey and Burnett also showed a brief clip of the chariot-race sequence in their feature-film reworking of “Ben-Hur,” and it looked pretty good. Burnett also announced a new reality show seeking America’s next great weatherman and a possible show called “Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” so he’s continuing to produce outside the faith space.

I tweeted a lot under the #purposesummit hashtag, but this was the most RTed one:

Click here, here, here and here and here to see what Variety‘s other writers had to say about the Summit. Here are some excerpts:

According to [producer DeVon] Franklin, former Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal begged for another “Heaven Is For Real“ because the film did well financially.

“We got to think of ourselves as the greatest storytellers on the planet,” he said. “The Bible is the most popular book in the world and guess what? It’s filled with stories. The foundation of our faith comes from stories, the greatest stories ever told.”

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“If you’re making something called ‘The Bible,’ for American television, the biggest audience on Earth, you’d better get it right,” says Burnett who, along with Downey, are keynote speakers at this year’s Purpose Summit. “There is a large audience for faith-based material, and they can spot in a second if you aren’t being authentic.”

“It’s being truthful to the text and keeping out negative commentary that seems disrespectful to people of faith,” Downey adds.

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“For better or for worse, in my industry what you do means that people pay attention to what you say, and I think a lot of people use that platform to talk a lot of nonsense,” [“Selma” star David] Oyelowo says. “So I’m not interested in Bible-thumping or beating anyone over the head with the Gospel. But what I am interested in is talking about love, talking about goodness, talking about light in spite of a dark world, and letting that be reflected in my work. And if someone asks me, I will tell them who I am and what I believe, but the work is where I do my real talking.”

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Panelists remarked on a pattern: Hollywood seems surprised when faith-based films succeed. [Peter] Goldwyn said that the industry should remember that faith has been part of film for a long time. “They have great messages and they’re great stories,” he said.

[Fox Searchlight executive and ordained minister Jill] Gwen added that she has found what she calls a stealth spirituality in Hollywood. “There are ministers speckled everywhere,” she said. “We just don’t know it.”

In our interview, Wilder said she’d like to expand the Summit to other faiths and include more general family-friendly fare.

You can’t expect to be represented if you don’t represent …

We also discussed what Christians can do to recapture their fair share of the industry, and what the industry can do to recapture increasingly alienated faithful-Christian viewers.

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