The Church and Hollywood . . . In the Beginning

by Dan Rupple

Within the Christian community we acknowledge and sometimes even grumble about the disconnect between the Church and Hollywood. We talk about building a bridge to secular media, and for 30 years this has been the primary mission of Mastermedia.

But the truth is, we are actually re-building a bridge—back to Hollywood.

In film’s seminal years, when the motion picture industry was a mere celluloid infant, the Church was considered the movie world’s determining audience. And initially, a good percentage of Christians saw film as a remarkable opportunity to express Christian stories and values to a wider, national audience.

The film industry got its start in the late 1800’s on the East Coast, establishing the first motion picture studio in West Orange, New Jersey. But by 1910, with director D. W. Griffith leading the way, film production began under the sunny skies of Southern California in the little village of Hollywood . . . an industry and culture was launched!

During these turn-of-the-century days of film, the Christian worldview and the biblical story was deeply ingrained in Western culture. In fact, in the first century of filmmaking, in addition to the countless biblical epics, over 100 films were made solely focused on the life of Christ . . . that’s more than one per year.

It was sometimes said that Jewish moguls hired Catholic directors to make movies for the Protestant audience. This wasn’t entirely true. For instance, Cecil B. DeMille was an Episcopal lay minister. But the point was made that people of faith were well represented in the highest echelons of the studio system.

With the advent of the “talky” in 1927 and on into the 30’s, film transitioned from the silent era into this new audio phenomenon. In large part, the Christian audience followed along, remaining the focused audience of the studios.

But as the 30’s brought an increase in provocative subject matter on-screen, and sex and drug scandals off-screen, church leaders grew concerned about the dangers of worldly cinematic amusements.

In light of this moral descent of film, the Church shifted its focus from embracing and producing movies to censoring, critiquing, and policing them. The film industry established the Hays Commission, led by its namesake Will Hays, a Presbyterian elder; and the Catholic hierarchy began the Legion of Decency.

As World War II ended, the mid-40’s brought a change in the cultural wind. As American soldiers returned home from Europe and the Pacific and foreign films entered the U.S. marketplace, new ideologies began to take root. Seeds of secularism were planted, often blooming on the screens of local theaters.

How did Christians respond? Some panicked. Some pulled out. Some stopped going to the movies under the conviction, “What business does a Christian have being in a dark theater?” And perhaps the most detrimental fruit of our response, a generation of talented young Christian creatives were discouraged by many, even condemned by some, from entering the media business. As the church relinquished the responsibility of creating or supporting positive, life-affirming films, the secular film culture filled the void!

The Good News? Christian filmmakers, church-based and other media ministries like Mastermedia, and the Christian audience are returning . . . and in an impactful way. Faith-filled films are being produced in record numbers, some of which are embraced by mainstream audiences and generating strong box office receipts.

Through it all, Mastermedia’s hope and prayer is to play our role in re-building that bridge back to one of the most important, influential, cultural-defining mission fields and people groups on the planet!

Resource: Thank you to Dr. Terry Lindvall. “Silent Cinema and Religion,” by Dr. Terry Lindvall, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, edited by John Lyden, published by Routledge, 2011.