Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Defining “faith-based films”

By  John W. Kennedy

It’s one of the great Hollywood mysteries.  Right up there with The Maltese Falcon, Rear Window and Memento.

Why, despite continuous evidence to the contrary, does Hollywood continue to act as if making movies featuring protagonists who practice religious faith is somehow antithetical to mainstream box office success?
True, the relative success of certain faith-based films has turned the film industry onto the fact that there is an audience out there for films dealing with faith.

 Most notably, of course, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ which (fueled, at least in part, by controversy) achieved blockbuster status.  But smaller films such as Fireproof and  Facing the Giants (both produced by the Christian-based Sherwood Pictures) also scored successes that were outsized in relation to their distribution and marketing budgets.  According to Wikipedia, Fireproof (starring Kirk Cameron) was the #1 grossing independent film of 2008.  Shouldn’t that warrant a TV series spin-off and a regular gig for Kirk?

But, despite those successes, Hollywood continues to look at the faith audience as a niche to be reached out to while simultaneously keeping it at arms length. Actually, the faith audience is the mainstream — or at least a very big part of it. But because of industry perception, “faith-based films” are rarely afforded big studio budgets and marketing campaigns.

Of course, there are exceptions — but it is the very success of those exceptions that make you wonder why they are, in fact, exceptions.

Many of those exceptions come in the form of fantastic adventures — i.e. New Line’s Lord of the Rings, Walden Media’s Chronicles of Narnia and even Fox’s Star Wars. All three are among the biggest blockbusters ever and all three dealt with themes of faith.  In the cases of Rings and Narnia those themes were strikingly Christian.

Often films in which characters practice faith are period pieces, as if religion itself is a relic of a bygone age. But some more contemporary films have dealt with faith to great box office success.

Just recently, Sandra Bullock scored her biggest career success ever with The Blind Side, the true story of a woman who (with the support of her family)  went out of her way to take in an impoverished kid who ended up becoming a talented football star.  The family was Christian and their beliefs seemed to play a major role in guiding their actions.  It was a faith-based film even if it did go easy on the Bible quotes. (BTW, the AMC network is developing a football-themed TV series from Blind Side writer-director John Lee Hancock called The Wreck. It will be interesting to see how big a role faith plays in that.)    

In 2002, My Big Fat Greek Wedding became an unexpected blockbuster with its sympathetic and funny portrait of a Greek Orthodox family.  No Bible quotes or anything like that, just simple respect for the characters’ beliefs and traditions. If the follow-up TV series had been an hour-long dramedy that maintained the cadence and style of the film (instead of transforming it into just another punchline-laden sitcom) CBS would have had a monster hit on its hands.

In 2008, Clint Eastwood scored a major box office success with Gran Torino  – featuring an idealistic priest that could have been portrayed by Spencer Tracy as one its major supporting characters.
And, of course, Tyler Perry’s movies are routinely box office hits telling stories about characters who believe in God.

On TV, Lost became a phenomenon as it spent six years tackling issues of faith.

Everybody Loves Raymond was one of the most successful comedies of the last decade (and, actually in TV history).  It featured a dysfunctional (yet loving) family that practiced their faith and even sent their kids to Catholic school — details which no doubt made the characters more relatable to large portions of the show’s audience.

Even NYPD Blue, a show that was originally railed against by religious conservatives, seriously dealt with faith and the concept God. It remains a landmark TV series.

So, so my point (and I do have one), is that the term “faith-based entertainment” is often applied too narrowly. A movie or TV show doesn’t have to quote the Bible to be faith-based (although there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly when it naturally flows from the story and characters). And those movies and TV shows that connect to faith (even subtly) actually have a better chance at connecting to a wide audience.  

To me, faith-based entertainment is simply any story told with an underlying respect for the belief in something greater and wiser than human beings (the name “God” works for me). It doensn’t have to directly touch on religion at all for the values of faith to be reflected in the storytelling. And faith-based films don’t have to be about Christians.  Let’s see more movies about Jews, Muslims and people of other faith traditions following their paths as well. The spiritual journey is one everyone can relate to.

While some irreverence is healthy for poking and popping religious pretensions, it’s also important that on balance storytellers tilt the culture toward more reverence, toward eternal truths (found in virtually all religions), toward appreciating the gift of each moment and toward belief in something greater than ourselves. 

Simply put, people of all faiths (including the suits or, more accurately, open shirts of Hollywood) would be wise support films that respect all faiths — and support the common values of love, kindness, hope and forgiveness.

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