BIZ: Apocalypse Not; A New Breed of Christian Filmmakers Chooses Heart Over Hellfire
by Philippa Bourke
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Philippa Bourke wrote this article earlier in the summer as a spotlight on Christian film and is featured as "Megiddo: The Omega Code 2" will be released today (Friday)].
IN THE BEGINNING there was "The Omega Code." Then came "Left Behind: The Movie," which put the Book of Revelation into Generation X terms, landed video-first at the top of the US market, sold 2.5 million units and gave apocalyptic precursor "The Omega Code" the earthly believers it so far lacked. With its nose-rings, hipster conversions and subsequent $4.2 million theatrical run, "Left Behind" confirmed what Christians in the film industry had long been praying for: the day that faith on film would not eternally be about Jesus, bad box office and the thunder of a godly admonition.
Then there was commercial drought, start-up strife, lawsuits and theological angst. "Omega Code" creator Gener8xion Inc., a family and bankroll offshoot of Trinity Broadcasting Network, dropped the living room reach (and advance ticket sales TBN provided for "The Omega Code") when it self-promoted and distributed its next feature about a veteran Christian musician. Results for "Carman the Champion" were dismal, coming nowhere near the dizzying $12.5 million crossover box office and forcing the fledgling production company back to the niche-based drawing board. Niagara-based Cloud Ten Pictures ("Left Behind"), meanwhile, is caught in a legal battle with fiction series author Tim La Haye. He charges the movie's creative license with The Rapture pushes the envelope well beyond his best-selling fictions.
But big-budget woes aside, "The Omega Code" and "Left Behind" are the genesis of a new chapter in Christian filmmaking that stretches from the fundamentalist chaos of the screaming apocalyptic thriller to the less-identifiable and rose-colored realm of a new wave of "life-affirming" and "positive-values" films. And if advocates, Christian movie pundits, Hollywood awards and theatrical release data are anything to go by, prospects for films with a message beyond the traditional Church Audience are looking increasingly strong.
"'The Omega Code' did one thing for filmmakers of faith," according to Providence Entertainment's chief executive, Victor Vanden Oever. "It let them know that there is an audience out there that Wall Street, Madison Avenue and Hollywood really never acknowledged. And it is a major consumer group. Every week, 56 million attend a church or synagogue."
Providence, a three-year-old Los Angeles theatrical distributor that targets the American family and "other under-represented groups" typically ignored by Hollywood, started out with "The Omega Code" and has since honed its mission to the distribution of "life-affirming" family films.
A motley collection to date, Providence films are strung together by their mandate: to "accent the best that man can be." Not always labeled by their creators as Christian, it is safe to bet, they will always appeal to Christians. Among them is a childhood adventure tale "Grizzly Falls," by Stewart Raffill in association with Artisan Entertainment; the upcoming "Extreme Days" by Eric Hannah with a hoped-for crossover appeal and EMI Christian label soundtrack; "The Amati Girls," by Anne De Salvo, which was targeted to a general audience; and "Mercy Streets," a tight urban parable by brothers Bobby and Kevin Downes of Signal Hill Pictures.
A life-affirming film like "The Amati Girls," which deals with the family dramas of grown-up Ann Taylor-look sisters and their widowed mother has no fire, biblical plot, or preacher belting from the radio but delivers all the same -- through the veil of kitchen-backdrop hardships and tears -- a hefty wallop of Catholic wisdom, church interiors and selfless solutions, which mainly avow the same "positive" values: redemption, wedlock and a family blessed by prayer (especially when in doubt).
Act One: Love Not Fear
It takes Barbara Nicolosi, founder of Act One Writing for Hollywood, a two-year-old intensive Christian screenwriting program, half a second to think of the perfect example of a bad Christian movie. "Left Behind." Another? "The Omega Code."
"They're terrible. They're agenda driven films. They're bad propaganda."
The former development director and consultant for numerous film and television projects rejects the way the characters in the apocalyptic thrillers suddenly stumble into religion and have their lives changed. "And live happily ever after. Very artificial."
Based in Los Angeles and launched last month in New York at Fordham University, Act One and a faculty that includes children's television writer Nina Shelton, consultant and Hollywood guru Victorya Roberts, and producers Ken and Susan Wales, takes as its mission the molding of a new generation of Christian film artists charged with raising Christian film from the schlock heap once and for all. But it is a mission, they, like the young filmmaking fringe, recognize is going to take years.
"I'd like to see us just make movies about our own experience," says Nicolosi. "Not trying to sell a bill of goods to people in an unconvincing way. I'd like to see people who really have a relationship with God express that."
Nicolosi and longtime collaborator Rose Pacatte of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Boston see the success of "The Omega Code" as evangelizing through fear. "They are attractive to those whose faith this kind of film confirms, and to those who are searching for something to grasp on to in a world churning with change and instability," Pacatte reflects.
"Mercy Streets" director Bobby Downes agrees the fear-based preaching of the End Times thrillers is misdirected. "This generation of young Christians wants to take God outside of the box. And say, 'You know what? I can experience God outside of a Sunday morning experience," says ex-missionary Downes. "And it's not heresy, it's not hypocrisy, it's not some Satanic thing; it's just Christians getting real. These cheesy Christian movies are not working. It's wrong to use fear and what's really wrong is to make people sit there in a theater and feel cornered."
What's important, says Nicolosi, is not to set out to deceive audiences. "If I as a believer can, in a beautiful way, show my experience of faith, that will be compelling for you to behold. You will be touched. Then your heart will be opened. And whether you will then embrace faith or not, is up to you."
"I would say that we are evangelizing. But we're doing it the smart way," she adds.
The Heartland of Film
Tom Rice, 24, is a filmmaker first and a Christian second. There's nothing evangelical in him. "The Rising Place," a first feature as seamless as caramel in its rendering of a '40s southern coming of age tale with Frances Fisher of "Titanic" fame has brought comparisons to "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Steel Magnolias." It has also brought Rice the Grand Prize at last year's Heartland Film Festival. Organizer Jeff Sparks called the film the perfect instance of Heartland's mission statement, "To recognize and honor filmmakers whose work explores the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life."
Heartland, according to Sparks and Rice, is not a Christian event. Sparks acknowledges, however, it has been investigated by more than one skeptical star and journalist. "We don't say no. We say yes," says Sparks, who also explains that Heartland, held in Indiana, is a state of mind, not a demographic. This year, the festival began to distribute, as well, starting with "Best Man in Grass Creek" by John Newcombe. A good number of films the festival has awarded over the years have gone on to win Academy Awards, such as Mark John Harris' and Deborah Oppenheimer's "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," winner of Heartland's Best Documentary award.
Rice, Sparks and Harris all believe there is a tendency in Hollywood to recognize hope. Rice, whose own film includes a strong woman out of wedlock and a brutal racial slaying -- but does so without sex and violence -- cites Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman's active lobbying against the R-rating and an emerging tendency in Hollywood to preempt a legislative mandate.
"I think we're seeing films that have less violence, less gratuitous sex," he says. "'Saving Private Ryan,' although it had a pretty gruesome opening, was about the human journey. That's why it was honored at Heartland."
"The Basket," a film by Richard Cowan of North By Northwest
Productions distributed by Privileged Communications' Matt Kohn and Sharon Lester, is a Heartland film that enjoyed widespread theatrical distribution and mainstream reviewer acclaim. The New York Times praised the coming of age tale about a German boy who learns basketball to break through prejudice and find acceptance in Eastern Washington.
The film went to mainstream theater chains AMC, United Artists, and others and to New York and Los Angeles, eventually bringing Northwest By Northwest a merger with a German company which distributes its productions in Europe. "It's not like it's a religious thing," Cowan commented. "It's a commercial thing too, there's a market and a need for films that have positive values."
Christian movie pundit Ted Baehr touts the growing box office power of movies without sex and violence over those that incorporate them. In an annual report that serves as a mind-boggling attempt to quantify the year's mainstream and independent theatrical releases in Christian terms, Baehr asserts the number of movies with Christian content in 2000 grew by 24% from 1999, with the average box office takings on movies with Christian or Redemptive content (rated CCC) up from $2.1 million in 1997 to $35.35 million in 2000.
Peter Malone, head of the Cannes Ecumenical Jury in 2000 and member of the International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual, says the challenge for evaluating faith in film lies in those works with a more subtle, less overtly symbolic content. "A kind of robust sensitivity is necessary," he says. "Otherwise it's just a veneer, and it's fragile and it can be broken in half in a minute."
While Christian filmmakers are working to repackage the message, a new receptivity to the Christian artist is evolving. John Shepherd of Twelve Men Productions in Los Angeles, a veteran of the Christian filmmaking industry and Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures, says there is a subtle shift and a challenge for Christians in Hollywood to reveal their faith.
"We're seeing Columbine and seeing the highest prison population in the history of the country with a million inmates," he says. "People are saying, 'You know what? Rome is Burning. And do I want to just keep fiddling here, making entertainment that's just fluff. I can't just watch while it burns. I've got to speak up.'"
[Philippa Bourke is a journalist who lives in New York.]