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Christian Movies Will Get Better When Audiences Seriously Demand Them

Today’s audiences are fine with cheesy Christian movies. That will change.
E. Stephen Burnett | Feb 12, 2019 | 5 comments |

Last month I asked, Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad? Author and screenwriter Sean Paul Murphy answered. In short, his answer seems to be, “Usually.”

But Murphy raised a lot more questions and answers, for which my original article didn’t have space.1

You should read Murphy’s insider’s view. Read it especially if you’ve been one of those snarky Christians. You know who you are—the kind of person who thinks or speaks as if all those cheesy Christian movie-makers are doing it on purpose. Or the kind of person who thinks or speaks as if things will get better if cheesy Christian movie-makers just start making better movies.

I say ‘amen’ to Murphy’s insider view.

Murphy touches on several truths that I can get behind without qualification. Among the myths he busts (my paraphrasing):

‘Non-Christian movies are so much better than Christian-made movies’?

Nonsense. You only hear more about great non-Christian-made movies because there are so many of them. That yields more chances for the good ones to get really good and/or popular.

Numerically, terrible movies by non-Christians outpace Christian-made movies by factors of hundreds.

‘Christians mean to make subpar movies and don’t care about growing’?

Nonsense again. As Murphy repeats, creators like Alex Kendrick and Dallas Jenkins both humbly concede earlier “cheesy” moments. They are very transparent about their earlier not-so-great work. And they directly state they aim to get better.

‘Christian movies would be better if they had higher budgets’?

This is more of an implication I find in some other Christians’ snarky reviews of evangelical-marketed movies. In other words, maybe we just need to allocate several million dollars to use solely for making Christian movies. But as Murphy says:

One thing that always infuriates me is when filmmakers say their movies aren’t good because they didn’t have a big enough budget. Hey, if you chose to tell a story that you didn’t have the money to adequately tell, it’s not a budget problem. It is an error in judgement by the producer. Period! I didn’t hear the directors of The Blair Witch Project crying about their budget. I didn’t hear Kevin Smith crying about the budget of Clerks. Or Jim Jarmusch about Stranger Than Paradise. Or Whit Stillman about Metropolitan. Or Robert Rodriguez about El Mariachi. One of my favorite sci-fi films is Primer. Shooting budget: $7,000. Those filmmakers made up for their lack of budget with talent and imagination. I don’t think it’s too much to ask Christian filmmakers to do the same.2

Does quality matter in Christian films?

Murphy suggests I ignored this question in my original article. That’s true of this particular article. However, I have explored the quality question in other articles:

Click for the complete series.

That last series is so far my “magnum opus” on this topic. But I wrote it to challenge not just Christian movie critics but their fans, all at once. That’s because, apparently like Murphy, I don’t primarily blame the filmmakers or producers for making cheesy movies.

We must be more charitable than that, while also recognizing pure capitalistic fact.

Producers and directors wouldn’t make the cheesy movies if Christian audiences did not really want them.

Read Murphy’s insider view. I’d venture he shares the frustrations of many Christian creatives who are restricted by plain market forces:

The main reason why there are so many bad Christian films is because the core audience doesn’t demand quality filmmaking. Only a reassuring message. If we want good movies, we have to stop supporting the bad ones, regardless of how well-meaning they are. It’s that simple. Really. The future of Christian films is in your hands, dear viewer!3

Problem: Christians who hate-watch Christian movies aren’t helping much.

Unfortunately, some Christians who are most likely to demand better movies are giving up too early.

Many of these potential viewers are younger Christians. They are more savvy with popular culture. Some write off the whole concept of “Christians making movies with overt Christian themes.” Within this group, some critics seem to assume a notion similar to evangelical cheesy-movie defenders: that the chief purpose of Christian-made movies is to “minister” to people. They only disagree on how the movies ought to do this, or what kind of people the movies ought to reach. They neglect one plain reality: that the Church does need its own “subcultures,” including movies.4

Honestly, some other Christian movie critics take the same stereotypical attitude of an older Christian. This is the kind of person who would forbid his children from seeing secular PG-13 movies “because actors say too many bad words.” Christian movie critics apply this same “sin counting” approach to Christian movies. In effect they claim, “No, you can’t support those, because they have too many cheesy moments.”

Once upon a time, most of the big movies were made by Big Hollywood. Evangelicals would see them sometimes, but usually condemn everything wrong with Big Hollywood.

And the evangelicals would not actually try to make any of the big movies themselves.

Today, some of the (relatively) big movies are made by Christians. Other Christians see them sometimes, but usually condemn everything wrong with the Christian movie-makers.

And most Christian movie critics do not actually try to make the big movies themselves.

So—are critics incidentally turning into little but a complaining counter-culture? Are they vulnerable to the charge of, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”?5

Solution: instead, teach other Christian movie viewers to demand more.

Well, from what I read here, I like Sean Paul Murphy’s way of doing it.

I like some of directors Alex Kendrick’s and Dallas Jenkins’s way of doing it. And I suspect that I’ll like their way even better in the future.

Until that time, I’ll keep giving these directors second (third, fourth, fifth …) chances.

I’ll keep supporting “Christian movies” as a concept.

And I’ll try to avoid being so silly as to suggest anything like this: that Christian movie-makers ought to make their own jobs even harder, by making movies that the majority of their evangelical audiences simply don’t want. At least, don’t want yet.

Instead, my solution: get out there, and winsomely show my Christian friends why they should modify their Christian-movie wish list.

Then the market will slowly shift. Then emboldened creatives will step up their game. Producers will support them. Audiences will reward them. That will encourage other creatives, directors, producers—and the cycle will just keep going.

It’s already happened with the superhero genres.

But the changes don’t start with the story creators. These changes must start with the fans.

  1. I would describe my view on Christian movies as pessimistically optimistic. This is reflected in my other recent article, Christian Movies Started Terrible, But Can Improve Like Any Other Genre.
  2. Sean Paul Murphy, “Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?” (same title as my article), SeanPaulMurphyVille.Blogspot.com, Feb. 1, 2019.
  3. Ibid.
  4. I summarize this point in Seven More Challenges For Christian Movie Critics and Fans (Speculative Faith, Sept. 10, 2015). It’s actually somewhat naive to presume that independent creative Christians can simply skip over our thriving Christian/church subcultures and “make a difference” in secular creative fields. This goes double if the creative seems to believe the chief purpose of story-making is “evangelism,” rather than “glorify God in all that you do.”
  5. Seven Final Challenges For Christian Movie Critics and Fans, Speculative Faith, Sept. 17, 2015.
E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Tony Breeden
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How do I put this plainly?

The last time I read such utter bullroar was on a UFO conspiracy site that proposed that aliens cause autism.

You’re basically giving Christian filmmakers a pass because they have a market willing to accept what they offer. Guess what? There is a segment if the UFO market that is willing to accept books and films comprised of poorly thatched together conspiracy theories; however, most of the UFO community rightfully ignores (or decries) them as schlock.

More to the point, the problem with the Christian film industry is that it caters to the bad theology behind evangelical film theory instead of making movies that glorify God in the way God intended for that artist. They cater to the doctrines of men rather than the commandments of God, even though they pretend these these are one and the same. Evangelical film theory is similar to the CBA standards because they are based on the same bad theology, being a series of Pharisaical rules meant to sanitize media beyond the need for discernment so that a MPAA ratings system as largely unnecessary. It’s ALL supposed to be rated G in their minds.

Decrying a poorly written/acted film is not the same thing as sin counting, which I abhor. It’s simply subjecting Christian film to the same standard as all other film. The fact is that a huge chunk of Christian film is just an overtly religious version of a Hallmark Christmas movie. While there is a market for such movies, no one bats an eye when a critic calls them poorly written and overly sappy.

We should deal with these films the same way we should deal with televangelists: by cutting off our support for something labeled Christian that should be better but probably never will be.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Responsibility should be placed on both, actually. Sure, Christian audiences should learn to expect more, but one way that can happen is if more Christian filmmakers make breathtaking work that shows their audience the full potential of Christian films. Also, if filmmakers aren’t honing their craft and always striving for the best, how are they going to have the skill to produce something good once their audience finally does start demanding better work?

This subject reminds me of a Christmas play my church put on. It was supposed to be family friendly, which I don’t blame them for. And writing a play and translating it into a performance that isn’t cheesy can be difficult, but watching it simply…bothered me. It should have been written better, at least. Kid friendly stuff can and should be well made still.

I understand that the person that wrote the play could have been under time restraints, or restraints from the church(make it perfectly clean, make the message clear, etc.). But, I don’t know. I feel like quite a few people actually thought it was good or didn’t feel like it needed to be better. But then I know that there’s still a decent amount of people like me that are discontent with it and either choose not to go to that church’s plays as a result, or completely disengage with those plays when they watch them(by letting their mind wander until the play is over). So there actually are lots of people wanting something better, but everyone else is either content with what’s there or doesn’t know how to fix it.

Clearly, a lot of people are turned off whether or not anyone realizes it. People that produce Christian media really need to step up because of that. Either way, filmmakers are probably fans themselves. As fans, their demand for better films should manifest as a demand placed on themselves to constantly improve. The expectations of movie goers do matter a lot, but that doesn’t mean that filmmakers should be lax while they wait for market shifts