Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Why So Many Faith-Based Movies Don't Work

This is a post I've long needed to write and long delayed writing because there's just no way to do it without offending somebody or even alienating people. But there are issues related to writing Biblical, family-oriented and spiritually uplifting films that need to be said. So, here we go.

First, let me make it clear that I am a NOT attacking Christianity or Christians. Christianity is not the topic here. Christian films, faith-friendly films, family-oriented films and spiritually uplifting films are the topic. And, just so we're clear on this, I will remind anyone who doesn't remember that I am, myself, a Christian - a fallible and imperfect person doing my best to live out what I believe.

Okay, so why oh why oh why are so many faith-related films so stinking bad?

  • Nobody else gets it - Let's start with this. Most faith films are made for other church-going people. Biggest mistake. Christians make them. Christians watch them. Christians like them. They use situations, themes, and even church-y jargon that are unfamiliar to an audience that doesn't attend church. That makes the non-church-going audience outsiders looking in. If people cannot relate to a film or empathize with its characters, the film disaffects them. 
  • Too much message and not enough art. Films are artistic expressions. But a lot of faith films are all message and very little art. Victor Hugo's book which has been adapted a gazillion times for stage and film, Les Miserables, is a story of redemption and atonement and a lot of other positive messages. Lots of good stuff going on in there. But, it's also artistic. It's visual. It's poetic. And no, it's not overtly a faith film but can anyone doubt the Christian charity that changed John Valjean from a bitter, resentful and selfish man into an unselfish lover of humanity? This story is a fine example of a message revealed through artistic expression, not in an on-the-nose sermon or in-your-face kind of way.
  • Funding low expectations. Everyone is looking for money and let's face it, faith films are not usually strong contenders. One reason is that they have an automatic handicap as they must overcome a history of and expectation of low quality. Even funding platforms like Kickstarter can do more harm than good if the pitch does not demonstrate a skill and knowledge that will make investors want to participate. Done poorly, it could perpetuate the expectation that great aunt-so-in-so will get a lead role since she once played Lady Macbeth 40 years ago. .
  • People want to be entertained, not preached to. We've seen some great message films in recent years that attracted large audiences. Facing the Giants met the expectations of its target audience and crossed over into mainstream audiences. The opposite is true with the The Blind Side which was made as a mainstream film that attracted Christian audiences. Both were football stories. Both were successful. But, the real common denominator here is that the films were entertaining and got their point across without being sanctimonious. 
  • Weak writing. Faith films are guilty of some of the worst writing I've ever seen. Not all, but many of them are littered with cliches, poor dialogue, lack of structure, and characters with no dimension. Regardless of the genre of the film, that's disaster. Okay, maybe porn is the exception. But you get the point. Being a preacher does not make you a screenwriter unless you're a preacher who actually IS a screenwriter. The very romantic film, The Vow, was based on the experiences and memoirs of a Christian couple who, in their book, very clearly demonstrate their Christian faith and values but the screenplay was written by people who knew how to take something designed to be read and transform it into something designed to be viewed. Again, it goes back to the art thing. Storytelling is an art. Screenwriting is a craft.
  • Theme - Many faith films try to say everything there possibly is to say about something in the ninety minutes they hold the audience captive. They've got multiple themes competing for the alpha dog role. No workie. Like any other film, faith films need a theme, a direction, a focus. Is there any doubt whatsoever what the theme of Crash was? It was a very strong message film and that message won it an Oscar for Best Picture in 2005.
  • Unrealistic View of the World - Sometimes, I think faith filmmakers believe they are sacrificing beliefs or selling out or watering down their message if the film includes anything less than G rated material with some Bible verses and a few prayers thrown in. By the end of the movie, everybody repents and lives happily ever after. In the real world, there is ugliness. There is violence. There is conflict. There is sin. The Bible doesn't pretend it's not there. Why should we? I was not a fan of the film Joyful Noise. I believe it nailed the entertainment value but compromised its message so much that it subsequently lost its identity in order to get butts in seats. What was it trying to say exactly? The theme was butchered by the comedy. Doesn't have to be that way. But I give this film credit for entertaining the audience. And, I also give them credit for showing some real life. I, too, on more than one occasion, have wanted to throw hot dinner rolls at my choir director but I was not thrilled with how bitter and petty and selfish the real life ultimately made people of faith look.
All filmmakers must find ways to entertain, earn back the cost of making the film, and still express themselves thematically and artistically. Regardless of the film genre, the goals are the same. What I'm saying here is that a faith film is still a film. It still needs all the elements of strong filmmaking to make it a strong film.  The spiritually uplifting value of the film doesn't change the fact that it's still a film and that's what people want to see.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you. So many times Christians lose site of where they came from. I am not saying that everyone who is a Christian was once a heroin addict, womanizer, and alcoholic but, let's face it, a lot of people in the world have come from backgrounds like that. It's more uncommon for someone to have a testimony of "I was always raised in church and never backslid". Real life is not full of roses and green grass. Most people who watch a movie like that, unless like you said are a Christian, will be completely detached from any portion of the story you are trying to convey. I think there should be more "real life" faith based films out there.

Please don't misunderstand my entire post, I REALLY enjoyed Courageous, Faith Like Potatoes, Fireproof, Flywheel (inspite the bad acting), and many other faith based films, but like you said, they are catered to Christians only. Jesus didn't come to save the saved, he came to save the lost. I think film makers can get a great message across through the art of film.

Bren Revis said...

This is a great article. Thank you.