Faith-Based Film Summit Shows Spiritual Content in High Demand

Recently, Hollywood’s elite gathered for Variety’s “Purpose Family Entertainment + Faith-based Summit” at the Four Seasons Los Angeles Hotel at Beverly Hills.

In association with Rogers & Cowan—joined by Disney Publishing Worldwide, Faith Driven Entertainment, Persecuted, Pure Flix, and Walden Media and Movieguide, along with 20 other supporting and/or media sponsors—the goal was for Hollywood and family and faith TV and film executives to dialogue about the possibilities and realities of these genres.

“Every film that came out of Hollywood before 1962 was a faith-based film,” John Ratzenberger told me as the June 12 summit wound down, summing up with a succinctness reminiscent of his character Cliff in Cheers.

Moguls during Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” 1912-1962, delivered what audiences wanted. From 1950-1962, half of the top-grossing films were biblical epics including Best Picture Oscar winner Ben-Hur (1959). MGM, in fact, was saved and became Hollywood’s premier studio on the strength of the earlier version, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). If faith was not overt, it was woven into the film’s fabric as “the good, the true and the beautiful,” as summit participant Tom Allen of Allied Faith & Family crystallized the genre’s essence.

Then, as anyone who was sensate from the 60s/70s through the 90s and into the new millennium knows, Hollywood veered seriously off this tried and true course.

The two genres are, of course, distinct. Family entertainment has been around since Hollywood’s inception starting with Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, the first animated character, developed in 1914—followed by Walt Disney’s unforgettable characters which he began animating in 1921. Then came his regular films, the pinnacle of which was his Oscar-winning Mary Poppins (1964). And, while family films slowed somewhat in the 70s and 80s, this genre was resurgent in the 90s and is now ubiquitous. Pixar Animation Studios, devoting itself solely to family entertainment, led the way. The reason is simple. Pixar’s producers started having kids and wanted them to ingest healthy entertainment, said Ratzenberger, who has had a voice part in every Pixar animated film including The Incredibles (2004), the Toy Story series (1995, 1999, 2010), the Finding Nemo series (2003, 2016) and Ratatouille (2007).

The resurrection of faith-based films began with The Passion of the Christ (2004), grossing north of $600 million. Paul Lauer of Motive Entertainment, a summit participant, served as the architect of its marketing success. (“Our whole model,” he said, “was to go to the leaders in order to reach the consumers.”) This signaled to Hollywood that there is also financial salvation in religion.

Now, 10 years later, film with either a golden thread of spirituality or a more overt spiritual message is once again finding an increasingly sure foothold in Hollywood, as this year’s offerings—including Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is For Real and Persecuted (in theaters July 18)—exemplify loud and clear.

As Brian Edwards, Chief Operating Officer of One Three Media, a Hearst and Mark Burnett Company, said in the first panel, “What’s interesting about the faith half of your plus sign is it’s just not off limits anymore. It’s OK and people who aspire to do it can see there’s a path to business success, there’s a path to personal spiritual success.”

Just ask T.D. Jakes, summit keynoter and a producer of Heaven is for Real, directed by Randall Wallace of Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995) fame. Thus far, the film has grossed $90 million. In contrast, many critically acclaimed films without a whiff of religion have fared less well. For instance, Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine (2013) grossed only $76 million.

Asked how he plans to ‘up his game,’ Jakes told me, “You have to continue to follow those instincts and not allow yourself to be nuanced into how people define you.”

He’s just written a #1 New York Times best seller that expands on this theme, aptly titled, Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive. As head of “Potter House” in Dallas, Texas, Bishop Jakes, dubbed by Time “America’s best preacher,” also heads TDJ Enterprises by which he operates in the artistic space. He is nothing if not driven—passionate about having the full reality of who we are as a people, including our religious sensibilities, reflected in our art, just as Renaissance art did.

“It’s just just,” he said during his keynote conversation.

Noting the “great difference” between his film Sparkle (2011),” tragically Whitney Houston’s last, “and Heaven Is for Real,” he said, “I want to continue to find that pulse-beat of interest and provide provocative content that reaches a broader-based audience that I think is being underserved.” He is also exploring TV opportunities, building on his successful BET show.

But, he cautioned during the summit about films that lack authenticity, perhaps attaching a Christian marketing executive to suggest bona fides. Rather, he insists on the importance of involving persons of faith starting at pre-production. Similarly Charles King, a WME partner, representing Bishop Jakes and Tyler Perry, said “Writers, filmmakers, producers need to have feeling for content to be organic, honest feeling, not just seeing the opportunity.”

Yet Jakes realizes, too, as he told me, it’s a two-way street in fostering a productive relationship.

“There are a lot of stereotypical ideas,” he said, “both on the side of Hollywood and on the side of faith that are not serving either entity very well. Most people of faith think that Hollywood just wants to do evil. And, I say no Hollywood wants to get paid.”

At the same time, he said, Hollywood producers tend to think, “There’s just grandma and five kids out there who are interested in faith-based content. And, that’s just not true,” he said. “75 percent of this country has some interest in God as they perceive him. There’s a great conversation to be had here. And, there are more people conversing on a Friday night in the theater than there are on a Sunday morning in the pews.”

His goal when making films—which he does in partnership, including a First Look deal with Sony—is to “incorporate all that’s true about us, both spiritual and secular and sacred and right and wrong and diffuse,” he said. But, whether film or TV, it also needs to entertain. “Let’s be interesting—the whole human experience,” he said. And, while making it ‘fun, funny, dramatic,’ he said, “it can still also have some intelligence and some takeaway.”

Kevin Sorbo, who plays the professor in God’s Not Dead, described takeaways from his film, which has grossed some $60 million to date.

“The one story that sticks out most,” he told me, “is this 78-year-old man, who’s been an atheist his whole life and the wife’s a Christian. The daughter said, ‘Mom and Dad, I want to take you to this movie.’ And, he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ And, she said, he broke down, weeping, watching the movie.” And, that’s just one story, among many similarly poignant ones.

“You look at the biggest blockbuster movies that open at $90 million,” added Sorbo. “They have a 60 percent drop on average the next week. We went up three weeks in a row and they started adding theaters... That never happens.”

They were in theaters for 11 weeks and the DVD release will be in August and it’s done so well, said Sorbo, its producer, Pure Flix, wants to make a sequel.

And the stories go on and on, proving that, as one executive cheekily said, faith-infused films are not the niche market. Rather mainstream films—they’re the niche market!


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