“Christian” movies. What an interesting yet pretentious title for a genre of movies. We have somehow managed to affiliate “the divine” with our body of work and called it “Christian.” We then market that family-friendly product to faith congregations around the world, which often leads to a high probability of financial success.
I am a filmmaker, and I’m also a Christian. Anytime I meet someone within Christian circles who finds this out they always say something like, “Wow, so good. We need better Christian movies!” and I always tend to respond with a chuckle and a half-hearted smile. It’s as if even Christians agree that “Christian” movies need some work. But the one thing that is often misunderstood is that I am strongly against the production of “Christian” movies, and that’s okay.
Movies, or “films,” are works of art. Filmmaking is a unique kind of art that involves many different art forms. Just like all works of art, the finished product holds a value—artistic value and monetary value. Filmmaking is an industry, and movies are the products.
Christianity, within the context of filmmaking, is often used merely as an identifier.
When this branding of religious affiliation is then used to sell a product we’ve arrived at some dangerous territory. I remember attending a Sunday morning Easter Service while I was a film student, and was greeted by a trailer for the new “Bible” TV series. Why? Why did the pastor take time out of the service to promote a TV show?
Almost all of the major movie studios in the U.S. have a “faith based” division. Some Christians hear this and say “Hooray! What a wonderful accomplishment.” Yet in reality the goal of the studios is not witnessing—it’s simply sales. Let’s be very clear though, the studios are not taking advantage of the Christian filmmakers by focusing on sales; Christian filmmakers are often approaching the studios with their ideas, or completed films, in the hopes of sales.
Studios with “faith divisions” actually keep incredibly large databases of Christian congregations in order to market to them. For example, 20th Century Fox (a classic and successful studio) keeps a database of around 90,000 faith congregations. They use this information to target congregations for marketing purposes. Again, and again, it works—Christians freely market to other Christians, and tickets are sold.
Christian Movies are often categorized as “low budget” or “independent” movies. Yet despite the low budget nature of these films, they actually have a high probability of financial success. The marketing is cheap because of word-of-mouth, and the crew members and actors are often paid far below the going rates. Production costs are kept low in order to create higher margins of success. And that’s it. That’s all Christian movies are: a sub-genre of movies that uniquely survives on low budget filmmaking paired with low cost marketing. The films then have a high probability of turning enormous profits for the few at the top of the movie making food chain.
At some point along the road as a filmmaker, I came to a defining realization that will forever impact my work: our job as Christians, filmmakers, and artists, is simply to do incredibly good work. That’s all.
By doing quality work, we’re sharing a piece of ourselves while fulfilling our Christian calling.
Simply tell a good story, one that involves relatable moments and characters. Be willing to draw from your own life during the creation process. We cannot create good work without the inclusion of our own experiences. The creation always reflects the creator.
I’m not calling for the removal of Christian elements within stories; in fact you should embrace who you are. I’m advocating for filmmaking that’s inclusive of diverse audiences beyond Christian circles. I’m calling for the end of cheaply made movies that slap a “Christian” label on them in order to gain sales. There are plenty of stories of Christians in films such as the Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, “Chariots of Fire,” which is based on a true story of a real person guided by faith.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman, tells the story of Uncle Tom, a black slave, who amidst the cruelties of slavery remains faithful to his Christian way of life. Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist, pulled from her own life experiences as she was writing her story, stating: “Having experienced losing someone so close to me, I can sympathize with all the poor, powerless slaves at the unjust auctions.”
As a result of her work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the 2nd best selling book of the 19th century (2nd to the Bible), and sparked the movement to end slavery. Not long afterwards, Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe during the Civil War and greeted her saying, “Now here’s the little lady who started this great war.”
Stories take people on journeys that they’d otherwise never experience, and along the way they’re met with characters and situations that are relatable to their own lives. As we watch characters face their toughest obstacles we begin to grasp our own potential. After a body of work is created, it’s released into the world and begins to have a life of its own. We cannot determine how it’s interpreted, and we cannot guarantee its success. We simply create, and let it go.
If we set ourselves up to do our best work, when it’s finally completed and shared with the world we can take a step back and call our work “good.”
Please, let’s stop making “Christian” movies. Instead, as Christians, let’s make quality movies that speak to the whole of life.