Friday, September 30, 2011

Courageous Hits Theaters

Courageous, the long awaited and much anticipated follow-up to Alex and Stephen Kendrick’s film, Fireproof, will hit theaters on September 30, 2011. Of course, a ton of questions have already risen on a number of blogs and websites. Will the film be successful? Can it break out and impact a larger and broader audience? There is no shortage of opinions about the work of Alex and Stephen Kendrick. Some people love their movies while some people hate them.

Since I teach on film and media, I am often asked by my students what do I think of Facing the Giants and Fireproof. To be honest, I have mixed feelings. I think there are three questions you have to consider when you evaluate their movies. The first one is what is a Christian movie? Or maybe a better way to state it would be - Is there such a thing as a Christian movie?

Over on Matthew Kilburn’s blog, he’s posted the ten commandments of a Christian movie: Thou shall not exceed a PG rating from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). Thou shall not have any bad language. Thou shall not show any skin, including a bathing suit. Thou shall not display any bedroom scenes. Thou shall not leave the story open-ended or to be thought-provoking. Thou shall display a prominent salvation moment. Thou shall use Christian actors. Thou shall display a traditional church setting. Thou shall use a Christian music sound track. Thou shall be a usable church resource.

Although Matthew was trying to be comical and have a little fun, there is a tremendous amount of truth in his ten commandments. He has hit on the very issue that plagues films like Fireproof and Facing The Giants. And I’m sure Courageous will follow the same pattern. Movies should be about entertaining audiences first and foremost, not about presenting a lesson. Movies like Fireproof are Christian because they follow a certain formula such as the ten commandments of Christian filmmaking. You can argue that objects and things such as movies, bumper stickers and books cannot be Christian because only people can be Christ-like or reflect the image of Christ. But for the sake of argument, we are going to call films that contain Christian content “Christian movies”.

The second question to consider about Fireproof or Facing the Giants is whether or not they are good examples of filmmaking? Can they match up with the best Hollywood has to offer? Would they be competitive at the Sundance or Toronto film festivals? To be honest, they would not. They are certainly serviceable and watchable, but they are lacking in quality in terms of acting, writing, and production values.

In terms of evaluating the work of Alex and Stephen Kendrick, it certainly excels within the realm of Christian filmmaking. In fact, their work is probably at the top of what the Christian movie industry can offer. I wouldn’t be surprised if Courageous will end up being the best Christian movie ever produced.

The final question: Is the Kendrick’s work making a difference or an impact on culture? This is a difficult question to answer. I think the Kendricks will tell you that their movies are aimed at Christians and not at a broader secular audience. In other words, they are preaching to the choir. There’s nothing wrong with that because the choir needs to hear the message as well. Their last movie, Fireproof, made $33 million at the box office. So there’s no question that they have found an audience. I’m sure they’re making an impact but not in the sense as some Christian filmmakers who promote the concept that Christian movies can impact and change culture.

I admire what the Kendrick’s have accomplished. It’s an amazing story how a church in Albany, Georgia, Sherwood Baptist, developed their own production studio, Sherwood Pictures, and went into the movie business. That doesn’t happen every day. What the Kendrick’s have created is nothing short of a miracle. They have inspired a new generation of filmmakers.

The Kendrick’s have become the darlings of Christian filmmaking. It seems like everybody is beating a path to Albany, Georgia, to discover their secrets. I have heard the Alex and Stephen speak on several occasions. They are extremely smart and know exactly what they are doing. They understand their audience and what their audience wants. Don’t believe the narrative that these are two good ‘ol boys from the South who stumbled into the movie business.

Stephen Kendrick is quite comfortable in the deal making process. He understands the business end and what sells. The Kendricks’ choose their material wisely, picking subjects that matter to the Church such as marriage and fatherhood. The Kendricks believe in the power of media. I remember hearing Alex Kendrick talks about a study he read that said movies are more effective than Sunday morning sermons. This is the primary reason he went into filmmaking.

Look for Courageous at your local theater. For more information check out their website.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Forgotten Lesson

As they say, those who forget history are bound to repeat it. Over the years, if we’ve learned one thing, it is that social reengineering through the political process does not work. Case in point—the issue of prohibition, the latest subject of Ken Burns’ newest documentary.

Ken Burns may be the most recognizable, historical documentarian of our time. He has dived into such topics as the Civil War, World War II, Baseball, History of Jazz, the Story of Lewis and Clark and the National Parks. His newest documentary will air on October 2-4, 2011 at 8:00 p.m. on PBS. What Ken Burns does best is tell a good story. But more than that, he takes complex issues and dry history and makes them accessible and understandable to the average viewer. He knows how to personalize a story that touches the human heart.

The history and the effects of prohibition is ia the kind of material that Ken Burns excels in. In our current political environment, it’s hard to believe that it was possible to pass a Constitutional Amendment in 1920 that banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. It was social reengineering gone amuck. Propelled by the temperance movement and Protestant Christianity, alcohol was seen as a form of sin that needed to be eradicated from America. Although it might have been based in good intentions, the consequences can still be felt to this day.

The issues that Ken Burns explores in his documentary, Prohibition, are just as relevant today. What is the proper role of government? What are individual rights and responsibilities? Nothing has really changed over the years. We are still debating these issues.

Prohibition was the ultimate example of government intervention in the lives of its citizens. When the law went into affect banning alcohol, it turned law abiding citizens into criminals. It also glamorized drinking as fun and exciting. It turned criminals into celebrities and mocked authority.

The question is have we learned from our past mistakes? As we all know, we are in the political season again. And many of the same issues are now front and center. Is it possible to legislate morality? Do I have the right to force my views of how I live my life on the general public? I’m sure that Ken Burns’ latest work, Prohibition, is going to be utterly fascinating. Perhaps this will spark a discussion and dialogue about the future and the direction that America must take in the political, cultural, and social arenas in order to guarantee our individual rights and freedoms.

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Is the World Evil ?

Is it possible that God is speaking to us through media and entertainment? Can you have an encounter with God at the movies? To answer those questions depends on your view of theology. I believe in keeping things simple. Theology doesn’t have to be a big mystery. Your theology is really about who God is. What is God’s nature? What is God saying? What is God about? What does God want me to do? Does God have a plan or vision for my life? Your theology is based on your answers to these questions. And based on your answers, this is how you are going to view the media. How are you going to interpret films? Will you see God at work or not at work in the media? Also your philosophical approach to life will have an impact on your theology, as well as your generational and cultural viewpoint.

Much of the church has embraced a conservative approach to theology. It is one that is very popular throughout the Body of Christ. It recognizes sin is everywhere. The Bible is reduced to a singular story. We live in a world full of sin in need of salvation. Many Christians see the world as bad or evil; therefore, all entertainment and media must also be evil. If we adopt this viewpoint, we are missing a golden opportunity to engage our culture through media and entertainment. 

I John 2:15-16 says, “Do not love the world or the things of the world. If someone loves the world, then love for the Father is not in him because all things of the world—the desires of the old nature, the desires of the eyes and the pretensions of life—are not from the Father but from the world.” THE JEWISH BIBLE

Most people read this scripture and conclude that the world is evil. But is it? Are you telling me when you love a beautiful sunrise that’s evil? Is that not the reflection of the glory of God in His creation? It’s impossible for me to believe that God would not want us to love His creation. This is where I think we get it wrong, It’s not about the love of the physical world or what it offers, but it’s about our attitude. It concerns a proper order of what God has created for us. When we love the things of the world more than we love God, we are putting them above Him. The scripture is really about the old nature. When we embrace God, we will have a proper order of how we view everything in life. This allows us to enjoy His creation and see His glory reflected.

Unfortunately, some Christians have concluded that the world is evil; therefore, Hollywood is evil. So we have fought back with our protests and our boycotts. But nothing is simple in this relationship between the Church and entertainment and media. We have a love/hate relationship. While we are condemning Hollywood, we are embracing some of the things they offer. We want their positive value and family-friendly programming. But I think we fail to see the overall picture of how and where God is at work in entertainment and media.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Work Locally but Think Globally

When I started writing my new book The Red Pill, I was convinced that raising up media missionaries to Hollywood was the answer to changing the media culture. But God showed me this is only part of the answer. You are the other part because you can be a media missionary to your friends, family and local church. We all are part of the answer in solving the media culture crisis. Without media missionaries at the local church level, nothing will change. Yes, it may be possible to send a few media missionaries to Hollywood, or a few more people may pray for Christians and non-Christians working in the industry. But that will result in no significant change without your participation at the local level. The local media missionary is just as important as the media missionary working in Hollywood.

You probably think there’s nothing you can do or offer. But think again. You don’t need a film degree or any experience in helping to make a difference. There are things you can do today that require little or no resources that can make a big difference in the lives of young people in your church or community. It’s just a matter of getting started and taking a few small steps toward a greater goal. If we want to change the entertainment and media industry and our culture, our best strategy is to work locally but think globally. 

What can you do ?

Read my book The Red Pill. This is not about selling books but about real answers. Each day read the five core principles and commit to 5 to 30 minutes of prayer. Ask God for wisdom and discernment concerning the five core principles. Ask God to reveal his plan for Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Pray that God will give you a vision for media. Keep a log of all the ideas God gives you.

Commit to praying for Hollywood and the entertainment industry every day. Remember you can keep it simple by praying any where at any time. Just a few minutes is a start.

Start a prayer group that prays for Hollywood and the entertainment industry. This can be done in your home without getting your home church involved. Just invite a few friends over. Also can be a great resource for current prayer requests

Start a film night. You can do it at home or in your church. We have a list of film recommendations on our website. Most people love movies. It’s a great way to start a discussion. We will provide the study guides. Just screen the film, ask a few questions and see what happens. It is a great way to have a dialogue with friends and family who don’t go to church. It can be a lot of fun and a great social outreach with spiritual benefits.

Start a dialogue with your church about the five core principles Does your church have a vision for media? You have influence and can be “boots on the ground”. Does your church see Hollywood as a mission field? Is anybody praying for Hollywood? Has your church ever raised up media missionaries? Is your church providing financial support to any media ministry or media missionaries? These are questions that you can put on the table. The discussion starts with you.

Seek out Christians in your church who work in the media in your hometown. They could work for the local TV station or production companies. See if they would be interested in coming to your film night to speak to your group. Perhaps, they may be interested in joining your prayer group. Take initiative and get them involved.

Take it upon yourself to find young people who have a passion for Christ as well as for film and media making in your church. Talk to your youth pastor about how they are helping and supporting these young people. Are they encouraging or guiding them in the pursuit of their passion? If you have a media ministry at your church, are they involved? You would be surprised that most churches that have an extensive media program do not have high school students involved. Encourage them to mentor the youth.

Start a mentor program in your church. Connect Christian media professionals with students who have a passion for film, media and Christ. This may take work and involve some red tape, but will be well worth the effort. If we are going to change anything, we have to take ownership. You can be the first.

Personally provide financial support to a media missionary or a media ministry.

Work with your church to develop a media literacy program. It’s not as hard as you think. We can provide training, resources and materials.

Offer a summer film camp for high school students. You will need to work with some media professionals in your hometown. By now you should have a contact base. will help with training, resources and materials.

By now, your church may be ready to financially support media missionaries or media ministries. But get the people on the missions board involved in the media program and encourage them to take the course on media literacy. Make them aware of the need. If you have a potential media missionary in your church, the missions board needs to know this. Make sure they get all the information and resources first before you ask for finances.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pan Am Takes Flight

Pan American Worldwide Airlines commonly known as Pan Am may have gone out of business in 1991, but thanks to ABC television it now has a new life. You can find it on Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m. EST. ABC is investing a great deal in the very ambitious project by giving this new program a sweet time slot.

I usually don’t write about new TV shows, but this time I couldn’t resist. Let’s face it. We have an abundance of crime dramas, cop shows, lawyer shows, and DA and forensic shows. I have to commend ABC for at least trying something new, innovative and fresh. Recreating the golden era of air travel will be a challenging feat. After watching the debut episode, only one word comes to mind—impressive. It is as if I wasn’t watching television but a movie from the 1960s.

I think Pan Am catches the essence by creating a somewhat “dreamy state” of what life must have been as a stewardess working on international flights in the 1960s. Pan Am definitely has a unique tone and style that you normally don’t find in television programs.

The producer and writer, Jack Orman, said, “The goal was to create a sweeping epic and wish fulfilling program.” I’m sure some critics will undoubtedly make a comparison of Pan Am to Mad Men. Both are period pieces reflecting the social issues and changes that were occurring in the 1960s. The major difference in Pan Am is the focus on female empowerment.

Although Pan Am can be described as a romanticized version of the 1960s, there is also a number of serious subplots, such as a flashback to the Bay of Pigs and an espionage angle involving the CIA, the KGB, and MI6. Producer Jack Oman says, “This isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. They did a lot of research on the issue and found “Pan Am had a very cozy relationship with the State Department.”

It’s hard to imagine a time when people actually got dressed up to fly. I mean the whole nine yards—suit and tie and fancy dresses. Flying was all about class and style. And nowhere was that more important than at Pan Am. Their flight attendants especially reflected that view. They were selling an image. Pan Am was an American icon and represented everything good that America had to offer.

Pan Am has tremendous potential to be the type of flagship program that ABC is hoping to create for its Sunday night lineup. The first show got off to a nice start, especially with the opening sequence where they recreated Pan Am’s iconic air terminal in New York City with its maiden flight of their new clipper called Majestic, which flew from New York to London. As I said, this isn’t your ordinary TV show.

Nowadays, we are all tired of flying. Getting on a plane is anything but glamorous and exciting. But perhaps we can close our eyes and imagine what it must have been like at the dawn of the jet age. The good news is we now have a new television program that will help us relive and dream of the glory days of passenger flight.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Brave New World

I think most of us would agree, we live in an ever changing world. Nothing stays the same. Buy a smart phone on Monday and on Friday it’s obsolete. Technology and culture are constantly redefining themselves. The question I want to ask is in this new bold world, which has moved from a word based to an image based society, how do we share the timeless message of Christ’s love and forgiveness?

Most of us understand the power of today’s media and its ability to influence and shape public opinions and perspectives. But how has the Christian church dealt with the issue of media in a ever changing world?

Traditionally, we have seen a number of churches, especially megachurches, embracing media ministries or television ministries. Since the dawn of the cable age in the 1980s, churches have been broadcasting their services on local television stations, cable, or public access. Some bought high-end video equipment and built their own media departments. Over time that concept has evolved by bringing on a creative director to develop content to be used primarily within the church service to reinforce the message or theme that was being communicated by the pastor.

As the Internet became more popular, content was repositioned to be used online for other purposes. Today we’ve seen a major shift thanks to Sherwood Baptist in Albany, Georgia, more churches are moving into feature film production. We all know about the success of Facing the Giants and Fireproof. It seems like now everyone wants a little Hollywood. But is this a good model for outreach? Alex Kendrick, the producer of both films, would probably tell you that his films are aimed primary at a Christian audience. In other words, he’s preaching to the choir.

Recently, another church has modified Sherwood Baptist’s strategy. The Vineyard Church in Springfield, Ohio, also decided to venture into the world of film production. But instead of aiming at Christians, they are looking to impact a larger mainstream audience. A Strange Brand of Happy recently wrapped up production and will be released theatrically later in 2012. If this movie is successful by crossing over with its Christian themes, it has the potential to make a significant impact on the culture. It wouldn’t surprise me if more churches will eventually adopt this strategy. There’s a lot riding on A Strange Brand of Happy, as previous crossover films have mostly failed. So all eyes will be on this upcoming release.

However, there is another strategy that most churches are probably unaware of. As I have said countless times on my blog, we live in a visual society. Images now define our reality and drive our behaviors and worldview. As a result, I believe in empowering every member of the church in the new brave world that we face. It’s not enough that a few key media professionals who work in the Church create and distribute all of the content. Today, we all must become visual storytellers. We now have the technology that everyone can become a content provider. Think about it. What if the majority of the church congregation were using social media, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube and Vimeo to communicate Biblical principles to their friends and family? Is that possible? Absolutely. In fact, it’s the future.

It’s already happening. For example, the recent hit show, Lost, used its audience base for content and ideas which in part helped make the show an international success. Lost fans created an extension of the show by using social media, internet and other resources to create a world and a story that went beyond the television show. Without the fans, this would not have been possible. The producers of Lost saw this as an asset, not a distraction.

What if the Church embraced the same strategy and saw the congregation as a creator and distributor of media content that help to reinforce the message of the Church? Where would you start? First you would have to make this a priority by communicating the importance of visual storytelling to every member of the church. You would need someone to direct the program, probably someone already on your media team. Second, you would need to create content as well as video elements, templates, graphics, and web pages the congregation would have access to as a resource. And finally and perhaps more important you would have to provide training. I can see a course on Social Media and Facebook 101. Churches that embrace this new strategy will be well positioned for growth in the future. It’s cutting edge. It’s the direction our culture is headed.

Everybody will become a content provider. The truth is the Church can no longer afford to be behind the times. In this new brave world, that’s no longer an option. We must embrace change, not to change the message, but how we deliver it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Today’s Rant

Where did our time go? I talked to so many people today that seem to have little or no time. Why are we so busy? What’s occupying our time? We have 168 hours in a week. That would seem to be more than enough time to do the things the we need to do with time left over. But, for most of us, every single moment is filled with something. I remember back in the 1970s people were writing about how technology would set us free. We would have all of the leisure time that we needed. We would be able to pursue the important things in life. But has that really happened?

Hey, I love technology. But it seems as if technology has had the opposite effect. So many of us are just trying to figure out how to use it while others use it so much they have no time for anything else. We really don’t have the time to think about the important things in life. When is the last time that you contemplated, defined or gave thought or direction to what your purpose or vision is for your life? Those type of thoughts take time. It requires us to slow down and be attentive to the moment. That’s something that’s not occurring in today’s media culture.

I’m not telling you shouldn’t watch a television program or movie. The media culture is much more complex. Our mass media has now reached a point where it creates and defines culture. And by doing so, it has the capability of distracting and filling our time with the things that often are not important in life.

The media culture also has the ability to make us feel guilty. If we are not filling every moment of our lives with something, then we are not being productive. If the media culture is capable of one thing, it is to convince us that we need and should have everything we want. So in order to have all of these wonderful electronic toys, we need to work every moment of the day. Funny thing is we don’t have time to enjoy them because we are always working. Sometimes I think the life we live today is like running on a treadmill. No matter how fast you turn up the machine, you never get anywhere. You are always in the same place.

Maybe it’s time we get off the treadmill. Slow down and start thinking about our lives and what’s really important. Cut some hours. Learn to live with less and enjoy life. It’s just a thought.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Wilderness Experience

It goes without saying being a Christian is very much a journey. There are plenty of mountaintops as well as valleys you must encounter. One part of the journey that we will all experience sometime during our lifetime is the wilderness experience. Whether we physically go to the wilderness or symbolically, we will all go there. It’s a very biblical concept. Jesus faced his wilderness—his 40 days alone where he had to overcome temptation and sin. Also, during Jesus ministry, he had to withdraw from the people and get away.

Recently, I went to the physical wilderness. I’m talking about totally off the map. No cell phone service or hi-fi spots. Yes, I’m talking about getting back to the basics. There are three things I learned from my wilderness experience that helps me to better understand my relationship with God.

First, the wilderness experience helps us listen to the voice of God. Out in the middle of nowhere, there are no distractions. It’s just you and God—a simple life. I often ask myself this question, “Is it possible in our advanced society with all of its distractions to really hear what God is saying to us? Even with our best intentions, practically every moment of our lives are filled with some activity. There’s something about getting away from it all that allows us to be in a place where we can hear from God.

Second, the wilderness experience allows us to connect to God and to be in his presence. If you think about it, the society the Bible reflects is connected to nature, specifically the land. God can be found in creation. And part of his creation is the world we live in. But in our modern society we become disconnected with nature and the land.

When I’m in wilderness, I marvel at his creativity. I see God in the mountains, in the lakes and in the streams. I feel his presence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we don’t feel his presence in the modern world; but there’s something special about being in his creation (the outside world)—his handiwork.

Third, the wilderness experience teaches us to depend on God. When you’re in the back country, you might have your compass and backpack, but you certainly need God. You’re miles from any help. You never know what’s going to happen or what challenges you might face. There is no 911 to call. There are storms, weather, bears, etc., who knows what you might face. You are keenly aware that you need God and his protection. I think in the modern world we’ve forgotten this. Our provider is our employer. At the supermarket, we have an abundance of food and supplies. We have no idea where our food comes from. It just magically appears. So the question is, “Do we ever enter into a state where we depend on God.”

Final Thoughts

Maybe it’s time for you to get back to the basics. A trip to the wilderness could be a good thing even if it’s just a couple of days. It can get you back to a state where you can listen to God, connect to him, and become dependent on his provision. As I said, at some point, we will all face the wilderness experience. Perhaps going there will give you some practice in learning to cope and deal with whatever your wilderness experience will be.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Missing Ingredient

Recently, I was invited to speak to the Christian Magician’s Association. We talked about the role and the responsibility of Christian entertainers and performers. How do we communicate Christ to our audience in an effective manner? Of course, one of my favorite topics came up—what is a media missionary?

One of the members of the group asked me if I thought Tyler Perry was a media missionary. He had recently watched “I Can Do Bad All by Myself”. He observed how effortlessly Christian themes and concepts had been woven into the story. I have never met or talked to Tyler Perry. It’s my understanding that he has gone on the record to express his faith and belief in God. Based on his work, I think Tyler Perry is on to something. Yes I would consider him a classic example of a media missionary.

In fact, I think he does it without realizing what he’s doing. Perry writes from his own experiences and observations of the community he grew up in. It’s a diverse community which represents both good and bad. In Tyler Perry’s works you will find the full display of the human condition. That also included those who are struggling with issues of faith and sin. He is not afraid to go to places other people fear to go to. What he does is extraordinary and rare to say the least. Perry has found the missing ingredient.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that an alien from a different world visited our world. What observations and views would our alien friend conclude about our society after a week of watching our mass media, network television programming and feature films? After close analysis and observation, he would probably think that we emphasize wealth, power, money, sex, and possessions. Although he would see isolated pockets of faith, belief, and Christianity being reflected, it would not be much of a factor in his overall conclusions and would consider faith and belief as not important. But we know that’s not true. Christianity is still important in the lives of millions of people in our society.

Although weakened over the past few decades, Christianity, belief and faith are still relevant even though this view is not reflected in our mass media. This leads us to ask the question whether it is possible that mass media is changing our view of faith and Christianity. There are many theories on how media impacts us on an individual and corporate level. One theory states that media does not tell us how to think, but instead tells us what to think about. Our society has concluded on a conscious or subconscious level that Christianity is not important or relevant to our lives. Why? Because it is not represented in our media. As our alien friend has observed, we put enormous value on wealth, money, sex, etc. because they are paramount in our mass media. I argue that media does not reflect at a proper level the importance of faith, belief and Christianity.

By simply taking something out, over time it becomes irrelevant. After a period of time the media  becomes a form of conditioning or mind control. We become what we see and hear—we adapt to it. If we have any hope of changing culture or changing the course of our society, issues of faith, belief and Christianity must be reflected in our mass media, which gets us back to Tyler Perry.

As my friend at the meeting of Christian magicians observed, Tyler Perry is a media missionary. However, Tyler is just one filmmaker. Yes, he is making an impact. But we need hundreds if not thousands of Tyler Perrys if we have any hope of making a significant impact for faith, belief, and Christianity.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"The Lamp" lights up the way for charity screenings

By Cheryl Wicker, Christian Movies Examiner

The success of "The Lamp" charity movie premiere on Sept. 15, 2011, to raise funds and awareness for the Make a Wish Foundation in Oklahoma effectively started the ball rolling for the movie's special charity screenings, scheduled to take place in 13 states within a month's time. Directed by award-winning director Tracy J Trost and based on bestselling author Jim Stovall's "The Ultimate Gift," "The Lamp" not only is an inspiring film of faith and love, but is also a way for people and organizations to help their favorite charities.

The Judge's Choice Award winner at the 2011 New Media Film Festival in August, "The Lamp" is about a father's struggles following the death of his son that could very well destroy his marriage, as well as the power of believing. Jason London ("Man in the Moon," "Dazed and Confused") plays Stanley Walters who, along with his wife Lisa (Meredith Salenger of "Lake Placid") are gifted with an old oil lamp that plays a pivotal part in the resolution of their problems. Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett Jr. ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Roots") is the mysterious messenger that challenged the couple to look deeply into their hearts to find an ultimate truth.

"The message of 'The Lamp' is one that each one of us can learn from. We all have something in our life that we are not able to see beyond. We think that if someone would just give me the magic bullet or if I could have three wishes, I could wish the problem away and be rich on top of it. But we have the answer we are looking for all along," says Trost, the man behind the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based independent film production outfit, Trost Moving Pictures. Trost's first two films, "Find Me" and "A Christmas Snow," have earned for the company numerous awards in film festivals in the country. "The Lamp" is Trost's third film, which is also now available on VOD (video on demand) and iTunes.

Continue reading on "The Lamp" lights up the way for charity screenings - National Christian Movies

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cinematic Tips for Low-budget Filmmaking

The goal of every filmmaker is to create a cinematic experience. The big screen presents a challenging environment that must captivate the audience. How do low-budget filmmakers fill the screen with images and sounds to compete with mainstream Hollywood’s unlimited resources? Films become movies when the filmmaker can make them cinematic and appealing to a broad audience.


What makes a movie a movie is sound. Most first time filmmakers will fail because they do not understand the importance of sound. In production, sometimes it is not possible to capture sounds that the audience expects to hear on the big screen. Often filmmakers are visually driven and overlook the importance of sound. Your audience wants to hear footsteps and the sound of a door opening. Find a competent sound engineer who can help you in production to capture clean and usable sound. Have enough money in your budget for recreating sound effects, sound editing and sound mixing. Without them, you do not have a movie. They are essential in creating reality in your film.

A Vision

Have you ever watched a movie and felt that you are watching 3 or 4 different films? What kind of movie was the director trying to make? Was it supposed to be funny or dramatic? Why was the theme in the first act completely missing from the rest of the film? Why are the characters’ personalities changing for absolutely no reason? Films fail because they lack a unified vision. You as the filmmaker must understand what the movie is about and what type of movie you are making. If you don’t know, nobody else will. It’s your job to understand the script backwards and forwards. You have to know the characters as if you have known them for your entire life. What’s the point for each scene? What are the motives for each action of your characters? How does one scene connect with the next? Having a unified vision for your movie requires effort and commitment. Know what your characters want and why they want it. What do they want from whom? And what do they need from whom? The low-budget world offers filmmakers the best opportunity to have a single vision because most often it is the filmmaker’s personal journey and life experiences.


The big screen demands good acting. Your job is not necessarily to find great actors but to find actors who can play the characters in your script. The world of low-budget filmmaking is full of solid actors who have yet to be discovered. It’s great to have a named actor, but it is probably out of your price range. You can find competent actors just about anywhere in the country. Your local film commission is a good place to start. Another tip is to check local theaters as well as talent agencies.


Now that you’ve shot 120 minutes of footing, do you use it all? Not if you want your movie to be viewable. Good filmmakers will trust their editors to make decisions that will tighten the film and give it the proper pace to hold the interest of your audience. You may have to lose scenes that are your favorites because they do not work within the flow of your movie. Good editors know where to cut. A few frames here or there can make the difference between a solid movie and a disaster. This may be a cliché but editors often say that they helped save the movie. Sometimes filmmakers have to be willing to discover the movie in postproduction.


Transitions is the process through the use coverage shots that help to get you from one place to the next. Most filmmakers don’t think about this during production. Most scenes are shot out of sequence over the course of several weeks. It’s easy to get lost in the process. Without thinking about transitions or how the film flows from one scene to the next, you could be looking at a complete disaster. Movies require a change of time and a change of place. As a filmmaker you must make this seem fluid. If the audience doesn’t understand how the scenes tie together, you are in deep trouble.

How to get good at this is to watch a lot of critically-acclaimed movies to see how they handle transitions. There’s no reason in the low-budget filmmaking world that this should be a problem.


Films look cinematic when you move the camera. There’s just something about putting a camera on a dolly with tracks to shoot your scene. It looks big league. I realize the tendency in low-budget filmmaking is to go for handheld shots. Resist the temptation. At least put your camera on a tripod if you don’t have the time or money for dollies and crane shots.


You need your own unique voice. Does your film have a presence? Is there a constant tone or atmosphere that defines your movie? Or are you just serving meatloaf? Nothing wrong with meatloaf as long as you add some salt, pepper, and spices in order to create a unique flavor. Every filmmaker wants to stand out in the crowd. What makes the film, Fargo, unique? Why does it have style? Is it the dialogue? The location? Speech patterns? Cinematography? Whatever it is, you need to find it for your film. Make it your own.


Let’s face it. In the world of low-budget filmmaking, the audience will not be dazzled by your usage of special effects, chase screens, explosions, and action sequences. Your film must be about something. You project requires weight. In other words, you need substance.

Explore some issue that has never been presented on the screen. You may care about the issue, but will your audience? Does it make people care? Will it challenge your audience? Have you started a dialogue? Movies with substance are capable of moving their audience and impacting them emotionally. Is your theme important enough to be a movie?

Lighting and Contrast

How you handle the contrast between light and darkness will determine how much your film will express a cinematic presence. There is a good chance you will be shooting in a digital format. All video cameras, no matter how good they are, have problems with contrasting light sources, especially when you are shooting a scene with dark and light images present. Work around it as much as possible so you don’t get yourself into trouble. Try to shoot scenes with balanced lighting to avoid under- or over-saturated images.


I talked about this earlier in the low-budget filmmaking principles. But it is so important in order to achieve the cinematic experience. In fact, it is the holy grail of filmmaking. All screens are two-dimensional. The trick is to fool the audience into thinking there is a third dimension existing in a two-dimensional world. The ability to manipulate depth-of-field creates this illusion for the audience. Without a 3D pop, images feel flat and lifeless. If you are not thinking about depth-of-field while you are shooting your film, you are wasting your time.

Color Correction

No matter what the format, whether video or film, without color correction, there is no cinematic appeal. Real life looks uninteresting and boring. Color correction helps to create a mood and presence that does not exist in the real world. You can over saturate, under saturate or completely change the color scheme to convince your audience that you have created a unique and fascinating world in which your characters move through and exist in.

Christians and the World of Low-budget Filmmaking

So where does the Christian fit into this process? For years, most Christian filmmakers have been making low-budget features. But the problem is they have violated practically every low-budget principle and every element in the guerilla code. That’s why the films often look cheesy and one-dimensional. We need Christians who can embrace low-budget principles and create a new kind of film.

What if we stop making Christian films and decide to make redemptive films. What would they look like? Would they speak to a broader audience? By applying low-budget principles, we can use the same strategy that the independent film industry has been using for years. We now have the keys. All we have to do is present Biblical truth and tell stories that will engage our audience. Isn’t it time that filmmakers who have a passion for Christ make their entryway into Sundance or the Toronto Film Festival. The independent model could provide a better way to reach our audience than the big-budget studio system of Hollywood.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Up close and personal with "Seven Days in Utopia" writer/producer David L. Cook

By Cheryl Wicker

Cheryl Wicker talks to author, speaker and executive producer David L. Cook about how God directed him all along the way on his foray into filmmaking and how he encourages other filmmakers to listen for God’s inspiration in their own filmmaking journey. Cook is the chairman of Utopia Films and executive producer of "Seven Days in Utopia," which opened in theaters on September 2, 2011, and stars Robert Duvall and Lucas Black.

He is also the author of "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia," upon which the movie was based.

Cheryl Wicker: Tell me how you got started writing. How did the whole thing start?

David Cook: We, we have a ranch in Utopia, Texas, and I was doing a retreat for some men down there, as well as trying to figure out what I was going to write about and to speak about with them. When I was out praying in the field, I walked out to the field and went by the seed den. I opened a lid and there was a seed there planted 75 years before and it really struck me that that seed was wasted. I knew that there probably were some men and women that I administer to that had the same issue, of knowing they got called to do something but they just hadn't figured out what it was.So I brought a group of people in and taught around that seed concept, and passed them all one night around a campfire and asked them what that seed meant planted and what it meant. When I did, I felt the Lord said, "I called you to write."

So I wrote this book. it's the only book I've ever written and a few weeks later in a cafe in Utopia, there was a little note that gave the directions to the Utopia driving range, which was a very unusual message in the cafe because it went out to a golf course within 60 miles. I went out to discover that this driving range was next to a cemetery, and it was a really pathetic driving range. But this is where God said, "this is the place to write the book," so I had a context for how to write the story. I went back to the ranch and sat down. My fingers got on the computer and it just exploded... that was a supernatural, interesting experience all around. God came out with a message even though it came out through a sort of insignificant looking little 156-page golf book, performance book. It sort of transcends that and touches people of all flocks, faiths and interests. A director read that book and said he'd like to make a movie out of it. So we worked together, created the screenplay together and taught me about screenplay writing. I worked on it with him and another screenplay writer, and we put it together. It took about two years to just write.

Continue reading on Up close and personal with "Seven Days in Utopia" writer/producer David L. Cook - National Christian Movies

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Are You a Missionary?

One of the major topics here at Media Missionary School is the purpose and role of Christians who work in mainstream entertainment in Hollywood. What type of project should I work on? How do I reach my co-workers? How do I survive in a difficult and sometimes hostile environment? These are the questions that Christians who earn a living in the entertainment business ask each day. But is it any different, for example, as anyone would face in the workplace? If you are a plumber, electrician, banker, or teacher, isn’t it the same situation?

I realize that Hollywood and the entertainment industry is unique in one sense because it is the world’s most influential mission field. The artists who made and produced Gone With the Wind in 1939 are no longer living. But their work continues and will influence generations to come. That’s what makes Hollywood so unique. But what it shares in common with every occupation is in one form or another its a mission field to those who work in it. We are to approach everything we do in life as a mission field. We are called to reach the world wherever we are planted by living a missional lifestyle. It’s no different in Hollywood as it is on Main Street. But most Christians have forgotten this concept. They see the mission field as something that happens in a far away country but not in their back yard. So how do you and I and those in Hollywood embrace a mission’s approach to the way we live our lives?

I see it as a five-step process.

1. You must earn the right to talk about Jesus. Why is it that we think we can save people by just preaching at them and telling them what is wrong with their lives? That doesn’t work in our culture. Step one requires us to realize it’s not our responsibility to save people. What we are required to do is to allow the Holy Spirit to control us. By doing this, God can work through us. It’s God who does the saving. How do you earn the right? You earn the right to speak into other people’s lives by loving and accepting people where they are and praying for them.

2. Be the person who you say you are. Whether you tell people you are a Christian or not, when you live and base your life on Christian principles you will be different. The people around you will see there is something unique about the way you handle yourself and your actions. In other words, you will demonstrate a spirit that is radically different than the world’s. It will be expressed in your talk, your actions, and your reactions. But, on the other hand, if your life is not consistent with what Jesus taught, how do you think people are perceiving you? Is that the kind of faith and beliefs people want to embrace. Probably not. You must be the person you say you are to establish credibility.

3. Put your faith in action. Faith without action means nothing. It’s a nice story but that’s all it is. As Christians, we are required to be the hands and feet of Christ. If you want to live missionally, that means you will have to go out of your way and inconvenience yourself to help people. That means effort and time. Sure people will take advantage of you, but Jesus said to turn the other cheek, love and forgive.

4. Develop relationships. You can’t make someone be your friend. All you can do is be available and open. But if you have followed the first three steps, chances are you have put yourself into a position of trust. It’s amazing how many stories I have heard about Christians who work in Hollywood who talk about how people seek them out and confide in them for help and advice. These people are living missionally. They have answers. And, trust me, people are hurting. And, if they see someone whose lives and relationships are working, they want to know why. Frankly, none of this is that complicated. What’s complicated is living it day by day.

5. Build friendships. If you have reached this point, friendships start to happen. All you need to do is cultivate and encourage the friendship to grow. Consider doing something together. If you are married, perhaps have your co-worker and his or her spouse over for dinner. God to a ball game, go on a hiking trip. The key is to spend some time together and just allow the friendship to grow. Now you are in a place where you have earned the right to talk about Jesus. Chances are people willing to hear what you have to say. After all, you have proven to be authentic and real about your faith. You are not some slogan on a $20 fake bill with a cheesy Gospel pitch for salvation.

Final thoughts.

If you want to change society, our culture or the world, all you have to so is to embrace a missions lifestyle approach to the way we view life. I guarantee you the change won’t be subtle. It will be radical. It’s what Jesus called us to do in the Great Commission. He gave us the keys to how we can change our world. The question remains—are we willing to apply them. The five steps to living a missional life is a great place to start if we are serious about embracing Jesus’ teachings.

Why are we not living missionally? I think there are three types of Christians that are having a difficult time applying the concepts of a missional lifestyle. The first type is what I call drive-by Christians. It seems that today Americans want their Christianity to be comfortable, safe and convenient. In other words, they don’t want to get out of the car. If they do, it means getting involved in the lives of other people, and that could get messy.

The second type are the non-culturally relevant Christians. I know that in some circles the term “culturally relevant” is almost a dirty word, but over the past few years we have created a subculture that is cut off from the mainstream culture. As a result, a lot of young people today do not know how to conduct themselves or how to have a conversation with nonbelievers. They have nothing in common nor do they understand the culture or the language of today’s media culture. If missionaries who plan on going to the foreign field will take two years to study the culture and the language of their people group, how can we expect to reach our culture if we don’t understand it ourselves. And if we live in a Christian subculture, how are we going to relate to people in the mainstream culture?

The third type is the on-the-fence Christians. They live life with one foot in the Body of Christ and the other one in the world. To live missionally means we have to be different and stand apart. That’s the only way we can show the contrast. Unfortunately, this third group of Christians are a little too close to the culture. If our lifestyles are no different than nonbelievers, why would nonbelievers want to be a Christian?

Christians who do embrace a missional lifestyle are a rare group. When you embrace the five steps, you allow yourself to be lead by the Holy Spirit. It is then that God can use you to draw people to Him. It becomes a matter of balance and properly ordering your life to fit into God’s plan. This five-step process will work anywhere, including Hollywood, the school you attend, your workplace or your family and friends because they are all a mission field.