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.

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