The “Missionary Lane”

by Dave Alan Johnson, Screenwriter, Producer
(Vanished: Left Behind Next Generation, Sue Thomas: F. B. Eye)


 

Dave Alan Johnson

Dave Alan Johnson

I look at “faith-based” films much the same way I look at the church. They both can and should serve more than one purpose.

Most “faith” films have tended to serve only believers. I’m okay with that, but I’m not okay with our making only films like that. I think we’ve lost sight of something important—the Church wasn’t created just so it could serve its members. It was created so we could come together, yes, to fellowship and worship, but then we are to go out into the world . . . to meet people where they are and not wait for them to walk into a church door on a Sunday morning.

I feel the same about the films and television we create. I believe the next phase in “faith films” is to broaden our idea of what they are and their purpose. For example, there’s no doubt that Fireproof helped marriages—that’s valuable. Some of those couples will even go out and touch people around them with the truth of that film. However, the fact is, Fireproof is not going to have much impact on most secular marriages, because those couples are not going to see it.

So how do we influence the world with our ideas and truths? I believe we move into the next lane over—what I call the “missionary lane.” Healthy churches send out missionaries, both to their own community and across the world. That’s the way we have to think of the “missionary lane” when we make content.

We need to be intentional about how we do it. We need to make films that will resonate with the people we want to reach. We need to remember they don’t speak “Christianese.” They may not see the world the way we do, but that doesn’t mean they won’t respond to the truth.

“This Is Our Shirley Temple!”

IMG_8386Recently my wife and I had a wonderful opportunity to visit China, a country rich in artistic expressions and inspiring theatrical, musical and cinematic presentations of their cultural stories. Our trip began in Beijing at the Chinese Film Museum, a treasure of China’s rich cinematic history.

We came to a long row of statues representing China’s most famous actors and actresses. Encased in glass, each statue wore the original costume of the film star’s most iconic role. At the statue of a young actress, our tour guide proudly proclaimed, “This is our Shirley Temple.” Next to “Shirley” was a male figure which prompted our guide to say . . . “And this is our Humphrey Bogart.” Seeking legitimacy, our guide wanted to connect what China has been doing or is currently doing to its Hollywood counterpart.

As we continued, our guide, a passionate young man with a master’s degree in Chinese Operatic Films (How’s that for a genre?), began to ask about how to “make it” in Hollywood. Like many aspiring American film makers, he believed that the only true film career was one centered in Hollywood. To quote Frank Sinatra’s song, “. . . if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”

Later, I was at a crowded mall in Xian, sporting my L.A. Dodgers baseball cap. A young man rushed up to me and said, “Hello, my name is Richard. I want to go to USC film school, but I need a sponsor. Will you sponsor me?” He assumed that I, being from L.A., must be connected to the film industry.

We all know about the robust Chinese box office and recognize the popularity of American films in China. But I didn’t realize how deeply the Chinese want to emulate Hollywood. A global generation is emerging that sees Hollywood as the gold standard, the epitome of movie excellence.

Our final stop was the largest film production studio in the world—Hengdian World Studios in Dongyang (“Chinawood”). In addition to film production, the studio is filled with tourists enjoying attractions offered throughout the massive grounds. As an American in the midst of a film studio, once again my association with Hollywood was assumed. It was embarrassing—people followed us around, and a few waited in line to take a picture with us.

I will forever be impacted by the extraordinary lens through which the Chinese people view Hollywood. I have a fresh understanding of how deeply American films connect with the Chinese audience, affecting their culture, inspiring their dreams, and shaping their beliefs as they adopt the values emanating from these films—films that are creating a whole new generation of filmmakers who aspire to “make it in Hollywood.”

If I wasn’t sure before, I am convinced now that America’s most influential export is American films . . . and that the influence Mastermedia has in Hollywood can have significant impact throughout the world.

Can Films Appeal to Faith and Non-Faith Audiences?

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Kylie Rogers and Jennifer Garner in “Miracles from Heaven”

“For some filmgoers, hearing a movie described as ‘faith-based’ makes it a must-see. But just as many others find the term a turn-off,” suggests Associated Press entertainment writer Sandy Cohen.

Sandy observes that to reach beyond the Christian audience, “. . . some producers of faith-based films are ramping up the star power and tamping down the evangelical messages.”

Hollywood has a long history of biblical blockbusters—classic films like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Mel Gibson’s 2004 epic drama, The Passion of the Christ, and the current Affirm release, Risen, to name just a few.

But some of the more recent faith-based films seek to engage more than just the Christian audience. The Blindside, starring Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock, Paramount’s Captive, released last fall with David Oyelowo, and the 2016 spring release Miracles from Heaven, starring Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah, are all based on true stories and include a faith perspective, but are not “religious.”

“Audiences flock to well-made films that deal with stories of optimism and renewal, even if there is suffering and there is loss,” says Maria Elena de las Carreras, a professor of international cinema at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “That was true in classic Hollywood cinema and it’s true today.”

Professor de las Carreras recognizes that marketing a film as faith-based means nothing if the content doesn’t speak to religious audiences. “It’s a label, but it’s not magical. It doesn’t guarantee box-office turnout,” she said, citing Paramount’s 2014 big-budget biblical film, Noah.

Alex Ben Block (BlockandTackle.biz) shares Ms. de las Carreras’ view, noting that producers who want to see their faith-based fare appeal to broader audiences can’t obscure religious themes too much “because as soon as you try to make it more viable, you alienate the core audience.”

The challenge for filmmakers seeking to reach the “faith market” is finding the balance between engaging nonbelieving moviegoers without alienating believers.