Friday, January 29, 2010

Do We Need Christian Cinema?

Last weekend To Save a Life opened nationwide on over 400 screens. It made approximately $1.6 million at the box office, which averaged out to over $3,200 per screen.

It had the 6th highest average per screen for any film. Not bad for a low-budget Christian film with a nonexistent marketing budget. To Save a Life is the latest offering from the new emerging Christian cinema, which is now playing at your local multiplex.

The Christian cinema has been a work-in-progress over the last few years. Film historians may debate the lasting impact of Mel Gibson’s, Passion of the Christ, but one thing Hollywood discovered is that Christians will go to the movies if you give them the right product. It wasn’t surprising that several major studios formed Christian divisions looking for the next “Passion of the Christ”. Hollywood was soon offering us a full slate of Christian movies such as The List, The Last Sin Eater, The Ultimate Gift, One Night with the King, Facing the Giants and the list goes on and on.

I don’t want to sound critical, but I think it is our responsibility to ask questions. What are we getting for our efforts? Are we reaching a mainstream audience? I think that’s the goal for most of the filmmakers who are producing Christian films. Are we achieving any noticeable results?

Before we can ask those questions, we have to take a look at the formula that many Christian filmmakers have developed. They have found a plausible and, perhaps, a predictable business plan to make Christian films—one that I think offers financial success but limits the potential spiritual impact to a broader audience.

First, start with a large mega church which has an abundance of people and resources. Some of these mega churches have already started to create independent production companies. The key is produce low-budget films. In order to do that, you need volunteers. You typically hire a handful of key professionals, such as a director of photography and then train your volunteers to fill in the other roles. Where do you find the money? Often church members will either donate or invest in the film. Why? Because the church is behind the project. So why wouldn’t they want to be part of it. Everybody loves a little Hollywood.

Your next goal is to find a hot topic that plays well in the Christian community. What are you looking for? Marriage, teen pregnancy, abortion, teen issues or suicide are all good topics. The next objective is to build some natural tie-ins. You are looking for a parachurch or Christian organization that has an interest in your topic or theme of your film. They will be your natural allies and can also help you in your marketing and promotions campaign. Why would they get involved? It increases their exposure and can help in their fundraising efforts, especially if your film is a success. Your goal is to create a win-win situation for everybody.

Next stop on this journey is to create a product line that supports your film and theme. Study guides, books, and T-shirts are just a few. The various organizations you partner with will probably play a significant role in the development of these products.

Next up, find a distributor. It may be easier than you think. You have a finished product. In other words, you have a film to offer them. You have taken the risk. They will be more than glad to evaluate your film for its marketability. Most film distributors and studios realize there is a select audience for your movie. Chances are you don’t realize this. They are aiming at a specific niche audience and are betting on a limited release with you taking all the risk could have a big payoff for them. They are planning on “you and your partners” to do the marketing.

Now the real fun starts. A grassroots marketing plan heavy on social media, e-mails, and internet presence begins. Several months before the movie opens, you develop a cutting-edge website that will create the buzz your film needs. Your goal is to get as many local churches on board as possible to help you get the word out. You and your partners will be sending weekly e-mails to update potential movie goers on the progress and development of your film. It’s all about the buzz, and you’re doing the majority of the work. Everything depends on a solid grassroots marketing effort. And remember, chances are your distributor isn’t really putting much money into the effort.

And, finally, the BIG opening weekend. In the movie business, the opening weekend is everything. If you don’t get impressive numbers, you may not see a second weekend. Your distributor will handpick markets that are favorable to your film. That means for most Christian films, don’t expect to play on the West coast or the Northeast. Look for a heavy concentration in the South and small-town America. Also, don’t expect to open at Christmas or during the summer blockbuster season. Your film will more than likely open in January or September when exhibitors and distributors are willing to take a risk to fill empty theaters.

In order to get solid numbers on that opening weekend, your goal is to get local churches and donors to “buy out” movie theaters. They, in turn, usually give the tickets away to their members and their families or employees, etc.

Do you get the picture? Do you think we’re preaching to the choir? That’s a real possibility.

Is there a better plan? Tune in on Monday.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lars and the Real Girl

For those of you who came to last night’s class on spirituality and film, I hope you enjoyed Lars and the Real Girl. Over the next few weeks, we plan to screen several films that are off the beaten path. Independent cinema offers a voice not heard in mainstream Hollywood. It can be the best place to find spiritual films. Perhaps independent filmmakers have more creative freedom and expression than their mainstream counterparts in Hollywood.

It does require some effort and time to discover these “little” films that often get overlooked. But it’s worth the journey. All that is necessary is a little discernment and a taste for the unusualness and quirkiness of life, which we all possess.

I’ve seen Lars and the Real Girl several times, and with each viewing I discover something new, which is usually a sign of a great film. This is a beautifully made film. Filmmaking can be a difficult process, but when everything comes together, you have magic. In the case of Lars and the Real Girl, we have a director with a clear vision, a writer who has written a powerful screenplay, and the right actors who have been appropriately casted for difficult parts. Plus, the cinematography is first class.

I find it interesting when writers choose quirky little Midwestern towns in the dead of winter for their backdrop. The filmmakers are successful in making the town an intricate character in the story. But the most enduring elements of the film are sense of community, acceptance, love and kindness. Lars and the Real Girl is a spiritual film because of its reflection of what a true Christian community should be. I’m not sure that’s what the filmmakers had in mind, but that’s what they’ve created.

The film is a reflection of I John 3:18, which says, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” The town folks of Lars and the Real Girl are challenged to put their faith and love in action. In other words, it’s a practical application of what they believe. What we have here is another example of a “Christian” film that’s not a Christian film. If you are interested in making movies from a faith-based perspective, I highly recommend that you take a look at this film from several different angles to break down each element and discover why it works.

Here’s a quick synopsis. Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a lonely, shy and socially inept young man living in the converted garage behind the house of his brother and sister-in-law. Lars develops a relationship with a life-like doll that is anatomically correct, which he orders on-line from an adult website. I know it sounds creepy, but this is a case where the content makes complete sense in terms of the context of the film. So don’t freak out. Lars has detached from reality and is convinced that Bianca (the life-sized doll) is a real person. In fact, she is a wheelchair-bound missionary from Brazil.

Lars’ brother, Gus, and sister-in-law, Karin, convince Lars to take Bianca to see the family doctor, who is also a psychologist. Her diagnosis is that this is a delusion of Lars own creation and urges Gus and Karen to treat Bianca as if she is a real person.

So how do Gus and Karin handle the situation? How will the church they regularly attend react? What about the townsfolk’s? Will they go along? Can anybody help Lars?

For some, this plot may seem preposterous and implausible. But somewhere along the way, the filmmakers find the divine that exists in each of us through God’s grace and love. It’s a clear question of how far we are willing to go in reaching out to people in need even those different from us. Can we get out of our comfort zone? We, as Christians, love the idea of Christianity and often practice our faith as theory. But, at times, we have difficulty in putting it into action. Without action or deed, our faith really doesn’t mean anything.

We find in Lars and the Real Girl the real Christian community we all hope for—unconditional love, acceptance and redemption. How can we make our current Christian community reflect a true Biblical community? How can I reach out in love to people that I don’t understand and find different than me? Am I willing to go the distance no matter the personal cost, including looking ridiculous.

Like Lars, on some level, we have all disconnected perhaps from God and each other. How can we find our way back? What was Lars turning point? Is there something from Lars and the Real Girl that I can apply to my personal life? Let’s start a discussion. I want to hear what you think.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What is a Media Missionary?

If you ask that question to 50 Christian professionals working in the mainstream entertainment industry in Hollywood or elsewhere, you would probably get 50 different answers. The definition of a media missionary is a work-in-progress. It’s an ongoing discussion we want to have with you here at

So let’s get started with a few concepts that make sense. A media missionary is someone that has a calling to the mainstream media or entertainment fields. So what is a calling? In Romans 12:4-5 we read that there are many parts in the body of Christ. And each of us has a different part to play. Finding that individual part is our calling. In I Thessalonians 5:16-18, we learn that God’s will for each believer is to pray, evangelize and disciple. They are the foundational pillars for your calling.

A calling is God’s plan for your life, a clear direction and purpose. But how do we know if we have been called to go to Hollywood or elsewhere to work as a media missionary? To discover that will require time, prayer, reflection and discernment. But God usually equips us with the personality, talents, gifts and passion needed to fulfill our calling along with the most important element, the power of the Holy Spirit.

First, a media missionary needs to have the right motivation, a willingness to serve God as well as others. If you are motivated by fame and fortune, you are probably not a media missionary. Do you have a passion to work in media? Working in the media or film industries requires a lot of dedication and hard work. If you see this as just a job, you’re probably not a media missionary. Do you see the media as an opportunity for good? Do you see Hollywood as a valid mission field with its own unique customs, language, and culture?

Do you love people who are different than you because in the entertainment and media industry you will find plenty of people that are quite frankly very unpleasant. Have you received some training and equipping? The last thing you want to do is get on a bus and just show up in Hollywood. Have you studied world views, media literacy, or been mentored by someone who is a working Christian professional in the industry?

It’s also important to consider what may or may not be a media missionary. For example, is a Christian who works for a Christian media organization or church or a Christian who makes Christian films a media missionary?

A media missionary without question is someone who is lead by the Holy Spirit. I don’t see any way you can succeed in this industry without God’s direction and your willingness to allow the Holy Spirit to control your life.

One of the best definitions that I have come across for a media missionary is someone who makes films or media that speak of Jesus the least but has him most in mind. It’s a difficult concept but one that is very profound. In order to embrace the concept, one has to see Hollywood as a partner. If we think we can have an impact on our culture through media and film, we will have to work with Hollywood. When I speak of Hollywood I am not talking just about the physical place. Hollywood represents the entire scope of the entertainment industry which today is everywhere.

A media missionary is someone who wishes to redeem and reform Hollywood. That doesn’t mean throwing tracs around on the set or using spiritual phrases in your language. Being a media missionary is not about infiltrating or subversion. So how do you redeem an industry that is resistant to the very concept? By asking questions and not giving easy answers. If we want to be effective, we need to tell stories that are honest, broken and above all true. We are not in the business of propaganda.

You have to love your audience more than what you are saying to them which includes respect. First and foremost they want to be entertained. It is possible to say something important and at the same time do it in an entertaining fashion. But that requires skill and discernment. It can be done through redemptive stories, cautionary tales, and socially conscious, positive value, universal theme and Biblical value films.

When a filmmaker or media maker can link some aspect of the culture back to the gospel message, it is a clear sign of a media missionary at work. When we talk about pain and suffering and wonder where God is or when we talk about real people going through difficult situations and struggles, we can see the media missionary at work.

Perhaps the greatest work of a media missionary is just to live out your life in front of your peers. If you are a committed Christian believer and you embrace a lifestyle that represents being Christlike, you will undoubtedly have great influence.

So we have started the discussion. Do you think you are being called to be a media missionary? What role will you play? Will you work in your home town or perhaps one day travel to Hollywood? Are you ready to start the journey?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Media and the Future of Christianity part 3

Every Christian can impact the culture through media by learning how to use it wisely. How do we start? It begins with media literacy, which is about understanding the meaning and purpose behind the messages which are communicated through media and entertainment. It is about understanding the impact it has on society as well as the individual. This concept should be taught throughout the Church to every individual regardless of their age.

Everybody uses media. Not understanding how it works would be like not knowing how to read and write. To say “No” to our children without giving them a reason or understanding of why not is no longer effective. We must teach them to have a discriminating inner vision. That comes from understanding media literacy.

Today there are many Christians in the entertainment industry who are subtly creating an influence in current films like Amazing Grace and Bella. Amazing Grace opened in March 2007 in over 1,000 theatres and grossed nearly $22 million. It is based on the life of an anti-slavery pioneer, William Wilberforce, who helped abolish slave trade in England in the early nineteenth century. It is a fine example of how Christians got behind the film to make it a success. Bella is set for theatrical release in the next few weeks. Bella is a story that shows how one day in New York City changed three people’s lives forever. It is a powerful, passionate film that affirms life and the choices we make. It may require some research on our part to find movies that support Christian values, but it is well worth it.

How do we support films like these? Nothing is more important than the opening weekend of a film. If we do not go to see films like Amazing Grace and Bella the first weekend of their showing, the likelihood is that they will not be there the next week. If Hollywood sees more support for these kinds of films, they will produce more. One thing for sure is that Hollywood understands money, and we can vote with our dollars.

Most importantly, we all can pray for Christians who work in the entertainment industry. When the Hollywood Prayer Network posed the question to Christians, “Should we be praying for Hollywood?” The response was that they had not even thought of praying for Hollywood. The Hollywood Prayer Network identifies key leaders that need to be lifted in prayer. They offer resources and insights into what we should be praying for. But the bottom line is we are all called to pray for Christians working in Hollywood, as well as to pray for nonChristians.

You can contact the Hollywood Prayer Network at They have a listing of prayer requests for each day.

We can also call our pastors and inform them when we find movies that are worthy of our support. We can write our local paper or news outlet and encourage them to write an article about an upcoming movie with a positive and uplifting message worth spending our dollars for.

We can reach out to our friends and our communities and tell them about a movie worth watching. Or we can form a small group at church and have a monthly film night where we watch a film and discuss its meaning afterward.

Thanking your local theater manager for playing films that support positive values may encourage him to show more of these films. But make sure you support the theater by going to see them. Theater managers usually receive complaints only. Let’s give them feedback on the positive movies.

These are only a few things we can do that can make a huge difference. If we really want to change the culture, it requires everybody working together. But it will come at a cost. It requires effort, commitment, time and resources. It requires us to become actively involved in what we see and hear. It requires us to take responsibility for the current condition of our culture. If anything is going to change, it starts with us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Media and the Future of Christianity part 2

How can we start a dialogue with a culture that has become foreign and resistant to Christian concepts?

We need a strategy. We can apply the concepts presented in the parable recorded in Matthew 13:3-23. It is the story of a farmer who scatters seed among the fields. Jesus talks about seed falling on many places that fail to take root, but in verse 8, some of the seeds fall on fertile soil that produces a crop that is 60 to 100 times what has been planted.

A harvest does not magically appear. It requires preparation and strategic planning. It must be put in the right soil, one that is broken up and moist so that it will grow. It must also be nurtured and watered before it will produce a harvest.

We are throwing seeds in many places with little or no return. The key to reaching this generation for Christ is determining what fertile soil is. Today’s fertile soil is the media, and it can be used to reseed the culture with a Biblical message. The media can only be part of the solution, along with many other things, including the power of prayer, unity in the Body of Christ, and racial reconciliation, as well as teaching that emphasizes the Bible as the source of all truth and knowledge.

What we do in the next ten years will affect what Christianity and society will look like in America for the remainder of the 21st Century.

The media is a neutral medium. It is a catalyst. Christians can use media as an agent of change. And the first place to start is with the entertainment industry, specifically Hollywood. Nothing will change in the current status of our culture and the Church unless we see Hollywood in a different light.

For the most part, Hollywood has offered a negative view of Christianity. In return, Christians have fought back with boycotts, and we have isolated ourselves from the entertainment industry. But today is the beginning of a new era. We must realize that Hollywood is a new mission field which can be redeemed. This will require an entirely new paradigm shift.

Do we really feel Hollywood is worth saving? Do they qualify as a mission field? In Ray Comfort’s new book, What Hollywood Believes, he states that 45% of all of the major writers, directors, producers and studio executives in Hollywood report that they have never had any religious affiliation compared to only 4% of the total U.S. population. This sounds very much like a mission field that has, for the most part, never been reached. Hollywood is a foreign land with their unique language, culture, dress, customs, and belief system. This subculture is having a great worldwide impact.

If we really believe Hollywood is a mission field, we will have no choice but to act differently. Our priorities will change. It is easy to have passion and conviction for a mission field in some far away country, but will we have the same passion to reach a field that is right in front of us? If Christians had not written off Hollywood a long time ago, we could have maintained a Christian influence within the most powerful medium in society.

To reach Hollywood requires a new mindset which, in turn, requires resources and a redirection of our priorities. Are we prepared to send our young people to the entertainment industry as media missionaries? Will we help them in their pursuit and careers in film and television? Hollywood cannot be a mission field unless you are willing to send missionaries. You cannot be a missionary to Africa unless you go to Africa.

In order to change the media, you must also become intentional in creating support systems for media missionaries that help them to grow in their faith and vocation.

To many, this may be a revolutionary concept. Media missionaries are people who will make films that may very well speak of Jesus the least but that will have him most in mind within the context of their story line. They are the ones who will be able to reseed a culture with a Biblical world view.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Media and the future of Christianity part 1

Christianity seems to be in retreat in every aspect of our culture today. In many ways, we have insulated ourselves from the world, which has lead to the creation of a Christian subculture. Many will argue that we no longer have a place in the public square and that we’ve lost our ability to communicate and dialogue with those who do not believe the same things that we do.

In light of the seeming retreat of Christianity in our culture today, we who care about our Christian faith need to consider what Christianity in America will look like over the next 40 years and how we can change the face of how our faith is perceived by the culture. But first, we must understand what has shaped Christianity in the post-modern era that we find ourselves in today.

George Barna, a well-known researcher, has been studying cultural trends as it relates to Christianity since 1984. His recent study conducted among 16 to 29 year olds shows that a new generation is emerging that is more skeptical of and resistant to Christianity than of people of the same age just a decade ago.

Barna’s new study confirms the findings of Thom S. Rainer in his book, The Bridger Generation, published in the late 1990s. Rainer studied four generations that helped to define the culture of the 20th Century. What he found is alarming. Seventy-one million people born between 1984 and 2002, roughly 1/3 of the U.S. population, labeled as Generation Y is projected to overwhelmingly reject a Biblically-based worldview. Rainer also states that only 4% of this age group will embrace a Biblical world view—one that puts Christ in the center of their lives.

Statistics show that morals and values have been on the decline for years. What has fueled the moral decline?
Our culture is facing mass problems—abortion, disunity in the body of Christ, consumerism, the decline of the family, and the teaching of evolution in American schools. One thing is for certain, whatever issue is causing the moral decline in America, it is fueled by the mass media—which includes television, movies, the internet, and news.

By the age of six, the average American child will have spent more time watching television than he or she will spend speaking to his or her parents in an entire lifetime. More than 6 hours a day are spent watching movies, television or videos. Dick Rofle, Head of the Dove Foundation (which identifies movies and videos meeting family standards) states, “When you spend that much time watching something, you have just developed new role models and a new window on life. And I think that’s the destructive value of some TV and movies…. Viewers get the wrong impression and a distorted view of what life is really like.”

Recently, the cable television industry sponsored a study that was conducted by Media Scope. In their findings, Media Scope stated that society reflects the values of film and TV.

George Barna has been quoted, “Young people’s belief system is the product of the mass media.” Barna also conducted a landmark 2004 study which offered surprising results about the connection of faith and lifestyle choices. His findings have led him to conclude that faith seems to have little or no impact on one’s lifestyle choices, including so-called born-again Christians. Could this be a direct impact of media and its influence, not only on the culture, but on Christians as well?

Most experts agree that we have entered into a post-modern and post-Christian society. What started this transition, and how can the Church have a better understanding of cultural relevancy?

To begin with, the Church needs to break out of its Christian subculture. We have Christianized everything. For example, in the late 1970s, Christian recording artists started signing with emerging Christian record companies, which launched a new era of contemporary Christian music. Subsequently, this has lead to the creation of an entirely new industry and subculture. Up to this time, recording artists who were Christians released their material on mainstream labels, such as Capital or RCA. Their music was bought by Christians and nonChristians alike. The lyrics weren’t watered down for a secular audience. The message they were presenting in their music was a Biblical view on life. Early artists who pre-dated the rise of contemporary Christian music had a significantly greater impact because they had access to a broader audience. The creation of the new contemporary Christian industry ended all of that.

Next, we need to understand the concept of cultural relevance and how we become culturally relevant to the people we are trying to reach? We need to recognize who they are, what their needs are, and how to identify with their lifestyle. We have moved from a “one dominant” culture to a “multicultural” society—from Western influence to Eastern influence, from a low-tech society to a high-tech society, from communicating primarily with words/books to communicating through images/film and from a Christian world view to a society with many world views, including Eastern religion, New Age, and secular. The Church is trying to communicate with the world in a language few understand today because the vast majority of the current generation has no point-of-reference in relating to Christian faith. LOOK FOR PART 2 ON MONDAY.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Spitfire Grill

A couple of nights ago, I screened The Spitfire Grill, a film from 1996, for my media class. Why would I pick a 14-year old, relatively unknown movie when there are plenty of new movies available? Because I’m looking for something special, something unique, and something often not found. I found a gem with The Spitfire Grill. Yes, it’s the kind of movie that Christians and media missionaries should be making, a redemptive story with heart and an emotional impact.

It fits my definition of a Christian film without being a “Christian” film, and it does so by speaking about Jesus the least but having Him most in mind. There are so few movies that accomplish this. It’s a true balancing act. There are a couple of other examples that come to mind, such as To End All Wars and Bella.

What do all of these films have in common? They all deal with pain and the human condition, which can be ugly at times. But somehow, they are also a celebration of life. They don’t pull their punches. They all have an emotional impact. They offer believable dialogue with believable characters. They are not afraid to use symbolism or metaphors. They understand that you have the intelligence to figure it out on your own. They don’t feel contrived or manipulated. That means the screenwriter isn’t throwing a bunch of plot points together to fulfill his or her agenda. All of these films offer no easy answers or any fairytale ending. But, above, all, they are honest and truthful.

The Spitfire Grill exceeds at all of these points. It is redemptive filmmaking at its best. The story is about a young girl recently released from prison. Percy Talbott, played by Alison Elliott, is looking for a fresh start. She arrives in a small town in Maine with hopes of starting a new life. She finds work at the Spitfire Grill owned by Hannah, played my veteran actress Helen Bursteyn.

As the story unfolds, we soon discover Percy’s tragic past. We also realize that Gilead, her new home, is a town with no future and no hope. Do we get second chances? And can we forgive ourselves for our past mistakes? These are the questions that the characters in Spitfire Grill must wrestle with.

Spitfire Grill debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996. It won the prestigious Audience Award for best narrative film. The film was acquired by Castle Rock Entertainment for $10 million, which at the time was the highest amount paid for any independent feature film.

I find it amazing that Spitfire Grill was able to have so much success at Sundance. To say the least, the audience that attends the festival is somewhat diverse. Obviously, they did not see this as a Christian film. It was only later that critics pointed out that the funding for the film came from a Christian-based ministry. That criticism killed what could have been a much larger audience for the film.

Sacred Heart League, a Roman Catholic, non-profit communications organization based in Mississippi, put up the funding of $6 million to make Spitfire Grill. They looked at over 200 perspective screenplays looking for work that embraced Judeo-Christian values and good storytelling. They found what they were looking for in Spitfire Grill.
It took real guts to do what they did, putting $6 million in play with no hope of any return. They had no distribution deal until they got to Sundance. But, more importantly, they weren’t looking just to make a “Christian” film. They had the courage to take chances and allow the material to breathe.

I hope you take the time to discover Spitfire Grill. It’s a journey worth taking. It’s available currently on DVD. Because of its age, it’s unlikely you will be able to rent it. But I have found some online sources where it is available for as little as $6. Do yourself a favor and buy it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Real News

Do you want to know what is the most important story in the newspaper today? Hopefully, you still read the newspaper. It won’t be found on the front page. No, it’s not the story of the Republican, Scott Brown, Senatorial victory in Massachusetts over the once-favored Democrat, Martha Coakley. The most important story can be found somewhere in the middle or back section of the newspaper. It’s an inconspicuous three columns titled, Kid’s Spend Nearly Eight hours a Day on Electronic Media.

You might be asking yourself, “Is that really news”? Absolutely. The problem is nobody is paying attention. The story is based on a new study from the folks over at Kaiser Family Foundation. They have been tracking this type of data for years. What they have found is that today’s kids are now spending 53 hours a week in front of some type of electronic media. That includes cell phones, iPods, video games, and computers, which averages out to 7 hours, 38 minutes per day.

Just ten years ago, the average was 6 hours, 19 minutes. I’ll do the math. That’s 79 more minutes of free time each day listening to music, watching TV and movies, and playing video games. The study also found that 20% of kid’s media now come from mobile media devices. And that’s likely to increase in the years ahead. Vicky Rideout, who is the director of the study program, states, “Electronic media is part of the air that kids breathe.” I’d say that’s the understatement of the decade.

The findings are based on research from over 2,000 participants ages 8 – 18. There’s plenty of other findings, but the real question is, “What does it all mean?” Or perhaps maybe we should ask, “Does anybody really care?” We all know that our kids are spending a tremendous amount of their time consuming some form of media every day.

I’ve spent 25 years researching the topic of how media influences our culture and youth. What I have found is that most people are somewhat indifferent. Deep down they understand there’s a problem. Sure, they find some things in the media troubling, but they are just not sure what to do. So, in many cases, they do nothing.

More importantly, how are Christian leaders and parents responding? The response so far has been disappointing. Why? Because for the most part the Church has its head stuck in the sand. We don’t want to admit that the media has this type of power, control and influence. We all are consumed with electronic media. And if we address the issue with our kids, then we must admit that we are in the same boat. And that makes us uncomfortable.

The reality of our situation is that media has become a new church, more powerful than anything we could imagine. It goes well beyond bad language, sex, violence and nudity. Think about it. Media now extends itself from the electronic screen. It has infiltrated our lives and culture. It is part of everything we absorb on some level. It has influenced how we think, where we go, what we do and what’s important.

Let’s say that the average, committed Christian teenager goes to church twice weekly, including being an active participant in the youth ministry. That’s perhaps four hours a week, tops. Let’s say for the sake of argument that he or she may even go on a mission trip or two. Now compare that to the amount and level of media that they are exposed to each week. Think about it. Really think about it. Who do you think is going to win?

We have a false sense of security. It’s everybody except “our” kids. Some studies have found that over 70% of kids in youth ministry will say goodbye to their faith after age 18. Again, who’s winning the battle? Most Christian leaders don’t want to talk about this. That’s the real story.

I’m a media guy. And I know that media, including films and TV, can have a profound, positive impact. That’s why I am encouraging Christians to get serious about this issue. We need to teach our kids to be media savvy, to make good choices, and to understand the message and the influence of today’s media culture. That can be done through a solid, media literacy program. We need to teach our youth to think for themselves and not allow the media to do it for them. I know this all seems overwhelming, but this is a place to start.

Getting back to the article, Vicky Rideout’s final thoughts, I think, are very appropriate. She says, “Anything that takes up this much time, we really do need to think about it and talk about it.” Are you ready to start a dialogue?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Free is Good

I have a great opportunity for you. And the good news is it’s FREE. Are you interested in filmmaking? Or do you want to be a filmmaker?. Or maybe you are just a film enthusiast. We have something for all of you. Starting on January 27, 2010, at 7:00 p.m. at the Vineyard Community Church in Springdale, Ohio, we are offering a class on spirituality, film and culture. The class is a part of Vineyard University. There is no age requirement. Registration is limited to the first 25 participants. You can register online by clicking on

There will be a total of eight sessions running from January 27 through May 5. I will be teaching the class along with Isaac Stambaugh, who is Video Coordinator at Vineyard Community Church At each session, we will screen a current or classic movie, and then we will take a look at its technical, artistic, and spiritual elements.

As you know, films are a huge part of our culture. I believe these sessions will be an eye-opener. It’s amazing to see how much spirituality is expressed in the medium of film. Films have the power to change our perception, to inform us, to educate us and to challenge us while at the same time entertaining us. They can take us to a different world or even a galaxy long, long ago. In some ways, who we are and what we believe is now a direct product of what we see and hear in the movies.

Film has become the primary medium for how we connect to one another. Can God use film to tell His story and connect to us? Let’s find out together. Come and be a part of Spirituality, Film and Culture.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Fighting the Good Fight

Fight the good fight of the faith; lay hold of the eternal life to which you were summoned and [for which] you confessed the good confession [of faith] before many witnesses.  1 Timothy 6:12(Amplified Bible)

Fighting the good fight is what the good people over at the Hollywood Prayer Network do every day. And it is an enormous battle to convince Christians to pray for Hollywood and the entertainment industry. I should know because I am the Director of the local Cincinnati Chapter of the Hollywood Prayer Network.

When I talk to Christians about the importance of praying for Hollywood, most people look at me as if I am an alien from a different planet. They ask, “Why should we pray for heathens who are destroying our culture and leading our kids to damnation.” That’s not exactly what they say, but I can see it in their faces. I know it’s a tough sell. We see the people in Hollywood as the rich and famous living a lifestyle that we could hardly call anything close to normal. Their views and actions would seem to be extremely anti-Christian. But there is another side to the story that we don’t hear.

The Hollywood Prayer Network is doing their best to inform us that there are many Christians working in the industry who need our prayers. People in Hollywood are just like us. They are in need of redemption and are looking for hope. Most in Hollywood do live normal lives, are trying to raise a family and are struggling with finances just like everyone else.

Real change for our culture will only come when Christians start to pray for Hollywood. Why? Because media is the most influential industry in our world. I’m convinced we will start praying for Hollywood when we embrace two key principles. First, media, which includes film, television, internet, or any other visual image, is the new church for our society. My next statement may be controversial, but I believe it’s true. I’m convinced the media is more powerful and has more influence than the Church. Our beliefs, values, morals, and worldview are now a direct product of a media culture that we find ourselves emerged in. There can be no change until we admit this and recognize the reality of our current situation. Media is not a side show. It is the issue that we as Christians “must” have an answer to.

Second, We have to recognize Hollywood as a valid mission field. We can no longer see them as the enemy. They are a valid mission field because as a people group they are unreached. They have their own unique language, customs, and culture. Who’s going to reach them unless we do? We’ll start to pray for Hollywood when we fully understand and embrace these two concepts. Until we do that, we are just playing games. We have to mean it when we pray. That’s the mission of the Hollywood Prayer Network.

The Hollywood Prayer Network offers a ton of resources on their website at One of my favorites is a DVD they offer called The Hollywood Tribe. It’s a great resource and helps to explain in detail why Hollywood is a mission field. They also offer a monthly newsletter about what and who to pray for. If you’re not happy with the direction of our culture, and you want to reach people for Christ, may I suggest that prayer is a good place to start. And no better place to start would be praying for Christians working in the entertainment industry as well as praying for nonbelievers to come to Christ. If we are looking for real change we all can believe in, then help support the work of the Hollywood Prayer Network.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Excellence is Everything. Or is It?

Don’t get me wrong, excellence and quality are essential no matter what career path you choose. Everything we do in life should be done in excellence. But I think at times we as Christians are guilty of overstating the value of excellence as if it could guarantee you success. That’s especially true when applied to film and television production.

Over the years, I have been to several Christian media conferences. It’s a sure thing that our responsibility or duty as a Christian working in the entertainment industry will be discussed. If not from a panelist or special speaker, it will be a question often posed from a member of the audience. Inevitably the answer will be that our responsibility is the pursuit of excellence, quality of our work, and the integrity of how we carry it out.
I don’t dismiss this as being part of the answer, but to be fair, it’s a complex equation. There is more to it than just a simple question of excellence. There are many people walking around Hollywood who are excellent in what they do and have pursued a life of quality. But they are also unemployed.

Does anybody really want to have a discussion about Hollywood and excellence? Have you seen the kind of movies being produced in this industry today? Are you telling me that it’s just about excellence and quality? Our responsibility as a Christian working in this industry goes well beyond the pursuit of quality.

 Because Christian films have been so poorly produced, and Christian media in general have been mediocre at best, we now preach a doctrine of excellence and quality while overlooking the spiritual aspect.

The first question we should ask ourselves is have we been called to be a media missionary to the industry? For many Christians working in the industry, I think that answer would be No. It’s a job and a career first and foremost for most people. For others, it is a calling. They may have recognized it or may be struggling with trying to understand its implications.
For those Christians working in the business as a career, our responsibility would be the same as any Christian working in any industry or business. We are accountable to live out our lives in front of our peers by being Christlike with integrity to our values, morals and Biblical worldview. In other words, we can’t be one thing on Sunday morning and be someone completely different on Monday working on a film or television project.

We also have a higher responsibility. I think it’s fair to say that media, film and television is the most influential industry on the planet. Therefore we are in a place to be a game changer, so should we make movies that are contradictory to our Christian principles? For many who see this as a career, this question will undoubtedly be a struggle with no easy answers.

I believe that there are many Christians in Hollywood who have been called to be media missionaries to the industry. Their art will reflect Biblical values while at the same time be capable of engaging a mainstream audience. Some have recognized this calling, others have not.

How do we get to the place where we are operating in the calling of what I refer to as “the office of media missionary”? First we have to recognize the calling. That means you are motivated by something more than what you want. You have a purpose and a destiny to fulfill. It’s more than a job or a career.
Second, you have to accept the responsibility of the calling. That means you will be held accountable for your actions. Everything becomes an act of worship to the Lord. Your responsbibility is to serve Him through your art. Third, you have to be willing to be lead by the Holly Spirit. There is no way you can be effective as a media missionary without His supernatural influence and enabling. Your role as a media missionary is like walking a high wire. There really isn’t much wiggle room.

Which projects do I get involved with? Which ones do I avoid? How do I talk about Jesus without really talking about Him? Without the Holy Spirit and your willingness to submit, you are going to be lost and ineffective. Remember, the goal is not infiltration or propaganda but to tell honest, broken and, above all, truthful stories. The Holy Spirit can help you to better understand how to take Jesus’ model of storytelling and apply it to your art. That’s the key to true success.

Fourth, become a student. No matter how long you have worked in the industry. God has something that he wants to teach you. To really walk in the office of a media missionary, you will need wisdom, knowledge and experience. And that takes time.
Finally, let me be clear. You definitely need to pursue excellence and quality. Be the best you can be. That means getting the education, training and preparation needed to work in this business. But excellence is not your last stop or the end game. To be successful both artistically and spiritually in the entertainment industry, requires a deeper understanding of God’s will and purpose for your life and demands a closer personal walk with Him.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Outsider’s View

An outsider’s view is what I’m calling my blog. In some ways I find it appropriate. I have never worked in Hollywood, and I have never produced or directed a full-length motion picture. But for some reason, which I don’t fully understand, God has called me to be a media missionary to the entertainment industry. This calling is not to make films but to help you to realize “your” calling and to provide you with resources, education and information. Hopefully, this will lead you into the entertainment industry and, perhaps, one day to Hollywood as a media missionary.

For over 25 years, I have worked in the media and have done just about everything, including producing, writing, directing and editing. I have produced over 300 1-hour television programs and over 300 half-hour programs. That’s a lot of television. I have also worked in the industrial and commercial video business.
One of my television programs, The Zone, started in Cincinnati on one television station. I was successful in negotiating distribution deals that put The Zone on over 200 stations in the United States and Canada, as well as 15 national and international television networks. I have worked with low budgets, little resources, and have had to learn how to raise funds.

My life experiences have been unique and certainly unconventional. Perhaps that makes me a good candidate to offer help to you. I have started media ministries from the ground floor up, made my share of mistakes, and I know God has taught me a thing or two along the way. If God has called you to be a media missionary, no matter how ridiculous that may sound, don’t let anybody talk you out of it.

God’s wisdom and calling, often doesn’t make sense to us. That’s because we are trying to apply our understanding and our human knowledge. One thing that is crystal clear to me is that there is a profound difference between our wisdom, knowledge and understanding compared to God’s.

When we study the Bible, God calls the most unlikely people to ministry. He uses whom he pleases, which often confounds the wisdom of man. We shake our heads and say, “Huh”? That’s the way it works. Our human logic and reason can only take us so far.

A calling is supernatural. And maybe He is calling you. Here’s what I have been called to. In the last few years, I started an educational and film program to help students explore their passion for film and their passion for Christ. I’m convinced that the two can be connected. I’m not interested in just teaching you how to use a camera or write a story. I’m interested in raising up media missionaries who can have a positive impact on our culture. That’s why we are building Flannelgraph Ministries and to help you explore your purpose and calling and to discover your giftings.

Our mission will be to provide classes and workshops here in the Cincinnati area. Through our website we are going to talk about the practical application of filmmaking and the practical spiritual applications. That includes resources on the role and purpose of a media missionary. I think you will find the website uniquely different and will offer a voice not often heard.

We will also emphasis low-budget and guerilla filmmaking. That could be your best and quickest opportunity into the industry. Low-budget doesn’t mean low quality. We can offer you advice and experience on how to make low-budget look high-quality.

From my viewpoint, that of an outsider, I believe I am perfectly positioned to see the ins and outs of this industry. I have no other agenda but to help you succeed. I am not working on a film project, nor do I have a script that I am trying to pitch. Your success is my priority, not just artistically but, more importantly, your spiritual journey as a media missionary, your calling and your unique voice as an artist. I am sure you have a lot of questions. That’s why we’re here at So let’s get started.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Media Overload

Does anybody out there think that we don’t live in a media-saturated culture? The media and video images are everywhere from the internet to YouTube to our mobile media devices. There is nowhere to escape from a 24/7 media culture. Everything is overkill. Can you tell me where media ends and where culture begins? They are indistinguishable from each other.

Have you thought much about media? What about its impact? I don’t know if you are from my generation, but when I graduated high school in 1975, we only had a handful of broadcast television networks. There was no cable television or VCRs to record TV    programs. But in just a few short years, everything changed. Technology has brought us cable and satellite television, and now we can see any movie we want thanks to our DVD and Blu-ray players. It has been amazing to see the changes that have occurred in media in the last 30 years.

But here’s what I think we have not caught up with. How has all of this media and technology impacted our lives, our values, and our belief systems? Can anybody tell me what the truth is today? Is it being defined by the video images we see before us? And, why do we believe what we believe? Can we give a rational and logical explanation? Or, perhaps, it is a product of the mass media culture that we find ourselves immersed in. We seem to be too busy today to give any of this any serious consideration.

We all are consumers of media, including those of us who call ourselves Christians. But few of us would admit that we understand how media works or the influence it creates. Perhaps the answers are too frightening. If we really understood just how
much we are influenced by media, as well as controlled and manipulated by the images we find on our television and computer screens, we might be motivated to ask some questions.

It’s time to start thinking for ourselves, and the way to do that is through Media Literacy. Media literacy is just like reading and writing. It offers us basic skills in being able to decipher and understand how media is constructed. It has four parts. (1) Define what message is being communicated. (2) What is the purpose behind the message? (3) Look at how it is impacting us individually. (4) How does it impact culture and society.

I know that sounds like a lot. But it is really not that complicated. Media literacy is just asking you to start thinking for yourself and to take the time to slow down and start really thinking about what you see and hear in the media. When we watch television and go to the movies, all we want to do is just “veg out”. But, in reality, we become like a sponge and absorb everything we see and hear. That’s not healthy. We are like a chalkboard, and we allow the media to write what it wants to write. If you intend to some day rear a child, would you expose them to everything. Of course not. In no way am I suggesting that you stop going to the movies or watching television or using the internet. Whether we like it or not, media is here to stay.

But, as Christians, we need to be the most media-savvy people on the planet. I want to be able to think for myself. Then I can make informed decisions based on the facts, not on what I see and hear in the media. I know what I believe. Do you?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Going Hollywood

Over the past few years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of Christian films. It seems that Christians are now going Hollywood and have accepted the power of storytelling. This is a good thing. But I think there are a few questions we should be asking ourselves. Are we getting the results we want? What’s the goal? Are today’s Christian films reaching a broader audience, or are they just speaking to a Christian audience? Is the goal evangelism or edification? Could the money that is being raised to produce and distribute Christian films be better spent elsewhere?

Millions of dollars are being raised annually to support an emerging new Christian film industry. It seems like Christian investors and donors are excited about the possibility of film. It all started with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”. It caught everybody off guard, including Hollywood. It was a mega hit both financially and artistically. But let’s take a closer look.

What type of impact did the film really have? There have been countless articles concerning its impact. I think it is fair to state that its spiritual impact has been overstated. I’m not suggesting that it did not move people’s hearts or that a number of people may have come to Christ because of the film. But it did not cause a significant spiritual renewal or revival. No “one” film can do that. One movie is just one movie. Media’s real power lies in its combined affect. Multiple media streams and images over a period of time of exposure produces influence on culture and individuals. That’s why we need not just one film like “Passion of the Christ” but a multitude of films that offer a Biblical perspective.

How do we get these kinds of films? First, I’m not sure I would classify “Passion of the Christ” as a Christian film. It is more of an historical film. I’m not sure most Christians would go where Mel Gibson went with the violence and content of the film. And “Passion of the Christ” was aimed at a broader audience than just the Christian audience.

Most Christian films unfortunately have been Christianized to the point that they do not speak to a mainstream audience. Both Fox and Sony Pictures have created a Christian film division within their studios. They know there is now a niche audience to support this kind of film.

Christian filmmakers will be tempted to fall into the same trap that Christian recording artists did in the early 1980s by creating a Christian film industry that speaks just to Christians. Perhaps there is a better solution. Why not put some of our money into people instead of projects or films? Why not embrace a media missionary concept where filmmakers who are passionate about their art and their passion for Christ can be used to reach a broader audience. If you want to know more about media missionaries, check out my website

Media missionaries are people who are called by God to go into the mission fields of mainstream media, Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Their goal is to redeem and reform the media by creating art that reflects Biblical values.

Here’s a few things to consider. A media missionary could have a 30 – 40 year career, could work on as many as 60 or more projects, and could have influence on hundreds if not thousands of people within the industry. When you support a media missionary you’re not supporting just one project but a lifetime of work. That gets you more films with Biblical content in front of more people over a longer period of time.

Are there other special interest groups using this approach? Absolutely. It goes on all the time. A group with a certain point of view or message is always trying to influence new filmmakers. They have understood four key principles. First, they have a long-term view. They see results in terms of 5, 10 or 20 years. They are not interested in just the short term. Second, they believe in the process. They understand the power of the media. They don’t need a five or ten-year plan. These groups realize it’s a numbers game—help enough people over a long period of time and you will get the results you want. Third, they have a “no strings attached” approach. They support young filmmakers in film school with the hope that some day they will remember them. And, finally, they are low key. No press conferences, no announcements. Everything is done quietly.

As Christians, we need to embrace the same strategy because it works. Sure, I know it’s risky to put money on people versus projects or films. Who’s to say in five years, they may very well reject their faith or make movies that are contrary to Biblical values. But I think it is worth the risk.

I am not suggesting that if God has called you to make a Christian movie not to do it. I’m just offering some other alternatives that I think would be useful for the long haul. Just something to consider.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Way In

If you are reading my Blog, chances are you are interested in filmmaking. You may even be considering going to film school or perhaps you have a film degree. It is also very possible that you are struggling with the idea of how to combine your passion for filmmaking with your compassion for Christ. The problem is you can’t find a way into the film and media industry. And you are not alone.

By now you have probably discovered that this is a tough business. There is really no real pathway or predictable strategy that you can follow. Recently I talked to a working media professional who lives in LA. He told me that only a handful of his classmates from film school are currently working in the entertainment, media and film industries. That sounds like depressing news. But that’s not surprising. Film schools as well as Christian schools that offer film programs really don’t prepare you for the real world. They teach you film theory and lofty cinematic concepts as if you are going to be making $30 million pictures. But that’s not reality.
What you should know is what they don’t teach you—low-budget filmmaking and guerilla filmmaking. That’s what is hot today. And it’s the best opportunity for Christians to get into the business quickly.

Let’s take a look at “Paranormal Activity” shot for only $15,000. It was a HUGE success at the box office. With today’s technology and digital filmmaking, you can get into the game quicker. There is a huge appetite for films. Over 700 movies each year received some type of distribution. And the majority are not big studio pictures. Paramount recently announced that they are planning on releasing 10 micro-budget, $150,000 features. Just like “Paranormal Activity”, a $15,000 feature can turn into a mega hit.

Here’s five points to consider if you are planning on tackling a low-budget feature:

1. Find the right story. This is the real key. You need a screenplay that can follow the right format. For low-budget filmmaking to work, you need to shoot your feature within a 3-week time span. Essentially, your story needs to be a “dressed-up” stage play. Trust me, everybody is using this format from Tyler Perry movies to movies like “Death at a Funeral”.
The key to low-budget filmmaking is the ability to move fast. You have to shoot 5 pages a day with the ability to handle 25 – 35 setups per day-- no more than a 6 to 1 shooting ratio. Locations have to be limited to no more than three, with 80% of your film shot in one location. To keep the budget down, have no more than a handful of characters. If you can find a story that meets that criteria, you are in the game. But remember the story has to be solid and have entertainment value.

2. Low-budget is low-budget. Low budget for you is not $1 million. If you want to make a second film, your first film needs to break even or make money. In order to do that it needs to be “low-budget”. Your rock bottom number has to be less than $150,000.
Recently, someone sent me a script with an $800,000 budget. It was their first film. They have got to be insane. There is no way they are going to raise $800,000. That’s why a lot of film students are not working. They want to start at the top. You have to start at the bottom and prove that you can make a $10,000 feature, then a $50,000 feature first. That’s the way the system works.

3. Become an entrepreneur. You’re going to be waiting a long time if you think somebody is going to call you to make your movie. You’re going to have to go out and raise the money. Plus, you will probably have to direct and produce it as well. Most people who make their first movie are able to get the money from their family and friends. However, that won’t work for the second movie. That’s why you have to make Rule Number 2 work for you. If you can build a financial model, you can find investors for your next film as long as you keep the costs low.

4. Make the movie first, then the deal. No one is going to give you a distribution deal without a finished product. Sorry, a script is not enough. For years I read and believed that you get the distribution deal first. It doesn’t work that way. The distributors want you to take all the risks first.

5. Get help. There are plenty of resources available. On our website for free you can check out our guerilla code, guerilla principles and our guerilla guide. There are also lots of resources on line. Just be careful that they are not rip-offs. Buyer beware.