Heathens make better flicks?

Heathens make better flicks? August 23, 2006

Broadcaster Dick Staub thinks the gridiron drama “Facing the Giants” will be a hit in Middle America, in theaters far from the bright lights and nasty movie critics of New York City and Los Angeles.

As a veteran observer of Christians and entertainment, he’s sure that born-again moviegoers will have tears in their eyes as the movie’s salt-of-the-earth heroes conquer their fears, honor their parents, get saved, get healed and witness miracles on and off the football field. And since Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., spent only $100,000 on its second indie project, Staub thinks it will make money for Provident Films, Sony BMG, Samuel Goldwyn Films and everyone else involved in this long-odds project.

However, he doubts that “Facing the Giants” will reach the unconverted, especially those in Hollywood power suites. Professionals who love movies are rarely impressed with the efforts of rookies, he said.

“I’ve been ‘moved to tears’ by art my kids brought home as children, but I did not expect it to be mounted at the local art museum,” said Staub, head of the Center for Faith and Culture and a part-time professor at Seattle Pacific University.

“If this film DOES make tons of money, Hollywood may distribute more of them. Do we really want to send the message to Hollywood that the kind of films Christians want will be characterized by poor acting, low production values that are inoffensive, make us cry and also make tons of money? Is this truly how we want to influence Hollywood for God?”

So far, the headlines about “Facing the Giants” have focused on the Motion Picture Association of America’s decision to rate it PG. The squeaky-clean movie — which opens in 400 theaters on Sept. 29 — tells the story of a downtrodden high-school coach whose life turns around with God’s help. It was created by two “media pastors,” brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, and includes numerous scenes of prayer, Bible study, evangelism and other controversial activities.

The ratings board says the PG was based on “thematic elements,” such as scenes discussing infertility. But members of the production team insist that the MPAA originally said that parents should be warned about “proselytizing” in the movie.

It’s true that many Christians find it hard to make movies — or any other form of popular art — without including blunt scenes of witnessing and evangelism, noted screenwriter Thom Parham, who teaches at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical campus near Los Angeles. Thus, they are often accused of producing manipulative manifestos, rather than the kinds of subtle, mysterious parables seen in scripture.

The irony is that non-Christians have created many mainstream classics featuring Christian characters and themes, movies such as “Chariots of Fire,” “Tender Mercies,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Signs,” noted Parham, in an essay entitled “Why do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?”

Meanwhile, Christian companies have produced “The Omega Code,” “Left Behind: The Movie,” “Carman: The Champion,” “Joshua” and similar niche-market products. “Overall, these films are unwatchable,” he said.

It’s crucial that the successful mainstream films were crafted to compete in 2,000 or more theaters across the nation. Meanwhile, the low-budget “Christian movies” were produced for “Christian market” consumers and either went straight to video or appeared in a few selected theaters in smaller markets.

Far to often, concluded Parham, “Christian filmmakers seem to believe that they do not have to compete in the mainstream market. Thus, storytelling and production values end up taking a backseat to the movie’s message. The films are merely bait to lure viewers to a homily or altar call. … The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts.”

This is why, stressed Staub, that Christians who want to reach mainstream viewers must work harder to develop the technical and artistic skills that will earn the respect of the professionals — religious and secular — who set the pace in Hollywood.

“I honestly do not bear ill will towards the sincere attempt of a local church to produce a film, and today’s technology means good movies can be made on lower budgets,” said Staub. “But if we want to glorify God and enrich the culture, we need to model our commitment to excellence by producing films that meet or exceed the highest known standards. … We owe God our best.”

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