On the Verge: Christian Movies Poised for Biggest Year Ever
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The coming year is shaping up to be perhaps the greatest year ever for Christian movies. With Samson, Paul – Apostle of Christ, I Can Only Imagine, God’s Not Dead: Light in the Darkness, and Mary Magdalene all set to take their bow over the next 12 months it is only natural to think that 2018 could be a watershed moment for the Christian movie industry.
Rich Peluso has a unique perspective on the evolution of Christian film. As Executive Vice President of Affirm Films, Peluso has seen a lot in his 10 years at the helm of that movie studio. What began as a conversation with Sony Pictures about what he would do if given the reins to start faith-based film division has turned into a decade of churning out such impacting cinematic fare as War Room, Heaven is for Real, Mom’s Night Out, and the recently released The Star.
I recently spoke with Peluso about the evolution of Christian film from its rudimentary beginnings to what lies ahead for this burgeoning industry.
Many years ago, I had a movie executive tell me that the major Hollywood studios have absolutely no problem making Christian movies. Their one requirement has been and continues to be that they must be profitable. And for a long time they weren’t. But in recent years, we have certainly seen evidence that they can be profitable … War Room, God’s Not Dead, and most recently The Star … Can Christian films be sustainable in Hollywood long-term?
I think it’s a great question. I don’t know that I know the answer. Here’s what I do know, and that is that really good stories that are well-made will succeed. Whether those are done independently or with the studio, it’s going to work. There have been some very spectacular financial failures in faith-based film over the last few years, coming out of studios. I don’t think there are very many people in major studios that are blindly looking at faith-based films as a place they’re willing to throw money at and just chase the genre. Whether it’s faith-based film or it’s any other kind of film, there’s still a juncture; there’s still a decision point where there are people at the studio that are seriously considering the quality of the storytelling and its ability to connect with an audience, and that is tied, of course, to financial success. So, I think there was a short period where there were some people from studios who were just throwing money, that just chased this trend, but I think that’s dried up in the last few years when there have been some films that have lost millions and millions of dollars.
Do you see the release of The Passion of the Christ in 2004 as sort of a tipping point for Christian film or an aberration due to it being Mel Gibson’s pet project? The Chronicles of Narnia followed a year later. Prior to that we were seeing titles like The Megiddo Code, the first wave of Left Behind films, and other titles that have long since been forgotten.
Oh, I do. In fact, I speak at a lot of different organizations, film schools and so forth, and I use The Passion of the Christ as kind of the origin point or the middle point that separates the modern era and the period before it. So if you looked at roughly a period of 15 years before The Passion there were just a handful of Christian films even being made. I don’t have the exact numbers but let’s put it this way: during that period there’s been 10 times the number of faith-based releases and 10 times the box office success as the same time period before Passion. So there was a very definite turning point, because The Passion of the Christ proved that there was an audience that was looking for this content, that wanted to see their faith lived out on screen in the theatrical environment, and it energized a lot of people. There are really two groups of people: one, a group of people that have a passion for this storytelling and could finally point to success and get people to pay attention to them, and then another group of people that had not paid attention and weren’t particularly focused in that genre, but they had decided they wanted to chase success.
Continuing that line of thinking, what is the key difference between the Christian films being made today and the ones from the past?
I do think there is one area where I see a lot of difference is that was before Passion, and actually going all the way back to the silent film era, the majority of films that touched on Christian themes were biblical stories. And since The Passion, I think once the audience was proved, it was a significant audience. This allowed for a kind of an experimenting into genres and things that were unusual which we have not seen a lot of, which is dramas, and sports dramas, and comedies, like, contemporary stories where faith played a role versus biblical stories.
One such group who grabbed on to this concept and ran with it was the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, led by Alex and Stephen Kendrick. For me, Alex and Stephen sort of stand at the top of a family tree for Christian filmmaking, one that has spawned Jon and Andy Erwin (Mom’s Night Out, Woodlawn), David Nixon (Letters to God) and the Burns Cousins – Chad and Aaron (Beyond the Mask). Their influence seems to be heavy across many of the Christian movies being released today. Could you comment on the Kendrick Brothers and the Sherwood influence on the Christian film industry?
I would first talk about their influence on me personally, on my life, and my spiritual walk. In the 15 years before I got into film, I was in music and I was really impacted by people like Bill Gaither, who owned our company originally, Stephen Curtis Chapman, and Louis Giglio. So these last 10 years in film, I’ve been greatly impacted by Alex and Stephen Kendrick, and Jim McBride from Sherwood, and in really understanding the power of story to convey the Gospel. The fact is that you can be both subtle and direct. God will use whatever He wants to use, whenever He wants to use it. There’s no set way you have to deliver a powerful message that will impact the heart and mind. Alex and Stephen have had a lot of impact on me personally, but then I think of them in regard to the faith-based film space, they have shown that you can be bold about your faith in Jesus Christ. You can be bold about the Gospel and not be ashamed of it, and be able to impact the Church. They get criticized as preaching to the choir, but the choir is sick as well, right? I’ve also witnessed on a regular basis them impacting the unchurched in a non-believing crowd with their powerful stories as well. We’ve seen the emails and the letters at Affirm Films and Sony Pictures of people that were impacted by Fireproof, War Room, and Courageous. And then I think like any great success, people look to it as a model. So they have inspired a new generation of young Christian filmmakers. It’s interesting that the people you mentioned specifically are all a younger generation. They’re younger than the Kendricks. They were in high school and college when Fireproof and Facing the Giants came out. And so they are inspiring this new generation.
Speaking of these young Christian filmmakers, I was heartened when the Erwin Brothers released Mom’s Night Out in 2014, as it is what I consider to be the first true Christian comedy film. While there are many others that have successfully incorporated humor, none have really been full-fledged comedies. Why is that? Second, do you see a day where there will be more Christian comedies?
I certainly hope so. I would love to see more comedies. One of the challenges is finding content that is funny. Here’s the biggest challenge. Humor is one of the most subjective emotions. Anger and fear, like horror movies and things that scare you or things that inspire you are pretty universal, but humor is so subjective that you can have 50 people in a room, tell 50 jokes and only one person will find one joke funny out of that 50. So, that’s one of the challenges with comedy. In mainstream comedy, what they tend to do is go to the lowest common denominator which is vulgarity and crudeness, and even that’s losing its appeal or its sting, because it’s not as fresh as it was 10 or 15 years ago. To have a kid say a curse word—it’s not funny anymore. So, I would love to do it. But I think it’s a challenge for Christian writers to hone their character development and their comedy development, but we’re looking.
Final question, what is one thing you would like to see happen in the Christian movie industry in the next five years? What is your greatest hope?
I would say for Sony Pictures and Affirm Films, we would love to find a story or character or something that can really be a franchise that we could invest in for the next five to ten years in growing the characters in the story over multiple films. I think from an industry standpoint, I would love to see a faith-based film that is very bold in its proclamation of the Gospel raise 100-million dollars domestically in the box office. I don’t care if it’s us or somebody else, I’d just love to see it.
Take a sneak peak at the upcoming movie, Paul, Apostle of Christ:
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