Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What Would Jesus Direct?

The huge box-office successes of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA have Hollywood mining religious congregations for possible new audiences. The 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, which just concluded in New York, sponsored a panel where film industry insiders talked about the apparent new relationship between Hollywood and religion. Panelists included: actor Cuba Gooding Jr.; film producer Ralph Winter; Walden Media President Michael Flaherty; and Grace Hill Media President Jonathan Bock. Kim Lawton of RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY led the conversation.

Here are some highlights from the discussion.

What Would Jesus Direct?
May 12, 2006 Episode no. 937
Full Article

KIM LAWTON: Certainly there's a lot of buzz going around right now that there's this new partnership between Hollywood and religion.


LAWTON: Hallelujah, and that's exactly what some of the movie studios are thinking and hoping as they are contemplating the almighty dollar that they hope this might bring in. Is there some new path to salvation that we're seeing in the film industry? Has Hollywood seen the light? Or is this just a lot of hype?

MICHAEL FLAHERTY (PRESIDENT, WALDEN MEDIA): I think so. I think there's definitely an interest. One of the mistakes that people make is they think that they can just throw in a church scene here, throw in a bit of Scripture here. They're losing the point that it's all about a great story. And so, if it doesn't exist in the DNA of the story, you can't just dab it on like makeup.

LAWTON: Are we talking about big Bible stories on the big screen, or are we talking about something different? Are we talking about stories that may not be explicitly religious, but in some way have values that may talk about things like redemption or forgiveness in a less explicitly or overtly religious way?

MR. FLAHERTY: I like to think it's the latter. And, you know, it's like the Apostle Paul said at the church of Philippi: Look, whatever's good, whatever's true, whatever's praiseworthy, this is where you need to be putting your focus, this is where you need to be putting your minds. I think that there's a lot of people in the faith community who are looking for those films that are really inspirational and uplifting and might not necessarily be considered, you know, deliberately religious per se.

JONATHAN BOCK (PRESIDENT, GRACE HILL MEDIA): That's the first time the Apostle Paul's been quoted at the Tribeca Film Festival.

LAWTON: And the roof didn't cave in. Ralph, what kinds of changes are you seeing?

RALPH WINTER (PRODUCER, X-MEN): THE PASSION [OF THE CHRIST] kicked the door open for these kinds of projects. But I think they have to be entertaining. No one wants to be preached to in a movie theater.

LAWTON: Cuba, what about for you as an actor? Are you seeing more scripts? Are people approaching you saying hey, you know, there are some areas out there that maybe haven't been explored, that maybe are underserved?

MR. GOODING: I so laugh at Hollywood. It's funny. They go where the money is. Okay, PASSION OF THE CHRIST made a helluva lot of money, no pun intended, and now everybody's scurrying to have the next faith-based project that goes through the roof. The audience has been there for years. Tens of millions of people rally behind their pastors and their priests.

MR. BOCK: It's an audience that they have just discovered. The statistics are overwhelming. For example, on Sunday, 43 percent of America was in church. Forty-three percent. And for studios not to recognize that that's an audience now, it's like a studio saying, "We're not making movies to men. No movies to men." What you are starting to see is studios are starting to dip their toe in the water. For example, over at Fox they're making $2 million movies. I think you can say that all of the studios at this point are deeply committed to making $500,000 to $1 million movies. It truly is inevitable market forces at work. You've got 340,000 churches out there. Worldwide, there's probably around 2 billion Christians when you add up all the different Protestant denominations, and you add up all the Catholics. So that's a big, big audience, and they want it.

LAWTON: Is there one franchise, one brand, one type of movie that people of faith want to see?

MR. GOODING: I brought the script with me.

MR. BOCK: This is going to be, for Hollywood, an evolutionary process where they're just going to have to figure it out. And I actually think it's [not] all that different than what African Americans went through with seeing them come from, you know, there was sort of these blaxploitation films that were made for very small dollars. And then that kind of grew into "maybe we can make a buddy comedy" kind of thing. I think that's what we're going to see here, too -- low-budget Christian films that were -- let's call them "Godsploitation" films.

MR. WINTER: Christian or not, I think THE PASSION got the entire culture talking about Jesus. It didn't matter whether you saw the film, liked the film, hated the film. That's what people talked about at the water cooler on Monday after the weekend. And the same thing is going to happen, I think, with THE DA VINCI CODE. Are Christians going to engage? Try to boycott? I'm in favor of engaging. Let's engage: What is that about? Is that true? What is that based on? Let's get into that conversation. Don't we all want to do this? We all want to be involved and make films that get into meaningful dialogue in the culture. That's why we do it.

MR. BOCK: When's the next time in pop culture that people are going to care what really happened at the Council of Nicaea?

LAWTON: How do you appeal to a mainstream audience when you're also trying to reach out to this religious market?

MR. WINTER: I think you've got to find those mainstream stories. It's about finding those stories that are intrinsic to the human journey, that demonstrate that there's a God and there's another set of values, and how do we respond and live and get through that?

MR. GOODING: The ingredient to have here is that passion, whatever it is. If it's something that the faith-based audience feels is a statement that would inspire us as Christians, or as Catholics, or whatever, then they'll rally behind it. That's why, when you have these copycat movies, when people are trying to capitalize on money, people see through that.

MR. BOCK: Movies for many denominations were a sin, and I think what most Christian leaders have seen happen is that pop culture has moved on without them. And you can't stop it. And so, instead of being at the back end of the curve, I think they are interested in getting to the front end of the curve and engaging in that discussion and being at the front end of culture.

MR. FLAHERTY: I think that a lot of people underestimate how talented pastors are. If you make a great film, they'll know how to teach with it. You don't really have to just lay the whole thing out for them and just say, "Look, this scene right here, that's John 3:16 all over it."

MR. WINTER: George Barna has done the study where people, after hearing a sermon, two hours later can't recall the theme of the sermon. But months after seeing the movie, they can recite dialogue. And I think the church is beginning to understand that we are a story-based culture, and now the visual, all that stuff that's coming at us in various forms in advertising and movies, television, is the way we engage, and sermons are the new movies. That's what I think the Christian group has to understand.

MR. BOCK: I think that's mostly on the Protestant side of things, though. The Catholics -- they have always known how to put on a good show.

MR. WINTER: They have, they have. Let's name all the good Protestant directors. The list is short. But the Catholic directors -- it's much longer because they have embraced the art.

Mr. FLAHERTY: Don't forget our contributions to art and music.

Mr. WINTER: That's the next seminar.

LAWTON: How important is it that people involved in these projects have a personal passion for this that comes from something deep in their own soul? Does that make a difference in the project itself?

MR. FLAHERTY: Nothing's more transformational in human existence than faith. So no matter what story you are telling, you want to make sure that is a part of the story that's represented. I think that one of the more powerful films that will come out this year is the Oliver Stone movie WORLD TRADE CENTER. It's about two New York City cops, and they were stuck in a hole -- one for 12 hours, one for 24 hours -- and about the amazing things that happen in terms of when they were praying down there, their families that were praying for them, a gentleman in Connecticut who was in church who said that he felt like he was being called to the World Trade Center and eventually rescued these guys. I think too often we forget how mystical and magical our faith is, and I think we're really starting to recapture that.

Mr. WINTER: Movies get made for a lot of reasons, and this festival celebrates filmmakers who want to make movies and want to make statements and show their art, and it doesn't matter. They don't care how people react. That's great. Studios make movies because they want to make money, because it's corporate America, and because of the spreadsheets, and so it is a "flavor of the week" kind of business and it is "How can we get this movie to the widest possible audience?"

LAWTON: Going back to the title of this panel, which is "What Would Jesus Direct?", what is Jesus's next big project?

Mr. BOCK: I think the question can't just be what would Jesus direct. I think it's got to be what would Jesus direct and what would Paramount distribute, because, look, film is a collaborative process. It requires a lot of money. It requires literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. You guys have all watched the credits. There's this playoff between what filmmakers want to make and what a studio wants to make as well.

MR. WINTER: The kind of stuff that Jesus might direct would be a little darker, thought-provoking, stimulating, and cause a lot of that discussion to happen afterwards. The question of the panel -- what would Jesus direct? I was thinking about some of the parables that Jesus tells -- the parable of the prodigal son. The older brother in that story was directly aimed at religious professionals, and Jesus knew he was going to piss them off by telling that story. The story is a little dark. I mean, it opens with the younger son going to the father and saying, "I want you dead." And he goes off and spends money and lives wantonly and ends up in a pigsty to eat; it's the only food he has. At the end, the older brother and the dad have some serious family therapy to go through. Maybe Jesus would direct a movie like that, whereas sometimes Christians -- we want to go after movies that have happy endings. No darkness, no subtext.


LAWTON: No bad words.

MR. WINTER: So I wonder if Jesus wouldn't be directing an R-rated art film that might play at this festival.

MR. BOCK: I think he would direct things that would be very populist. He pissed off the religious elite and was speaking directly to the people. I think it would have all the elements that all great films do. I think it would be funny. I think it would be poignant. I think it would be commercially successful. You know, the reason that the Bible is still around today is in part due to the fact that they are universal stories that have stood the test of time. And I think that's the kind of stories that he would tell even now.

MR. GOODING: They'd rather find the truths …

Mr. FLAHERTY: … than be spoon-fed.

LAWTON: Or sledge-hammered over the head.

MR. GOODING: The sequel to RADIO is what Jesus would direct. RADIO GOES TO CHURCH. I'd like that one.

LAWTON: And you're available for that?

MR. GOODING: I'm available, Jesus. We can cast Satan as a redneck.

LAWTON: Uh oh … watch out. We'll cut it off right there.

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

Interesting stuff .. one thing for sure, whatever Jesus would direct would have the built-in audience for a mega-blockbuster .. I don't expect Hollywood to realize that any time soon