Several months ago, I talked with a man on the phone who ended our conversation like this: “Bob, my giving for 2012 and 2013 is pretty much set in stone. But beginning in 2014 my wife and I want to take a closer look at funding a Christian film—in the neighborhood of a million, perhaps 2 million dollars. Let me know if you run across a film that really needs to get made.”
It’s not every day that I talk to someone who wants to give away a couple million dollars. Interestingly, this man was not trying to impress me. He just thought I might have access to scripts and story ideas that he wouldn’t.
But this man is hardly alone in his farsightedness. In the past several years, a number of philanthropic-minded believers have realized that one very significant way to share the Gospel and help change the culture is to “tell stories” by way of the big screen. As I’ve scanned the landscape of today’s media, this surge in Christian film has been one of the highlights of all things entertainment related. But just having a vision (and the money to back it up) doesn’t always translate into a great Christian film.
While there are a lot of great Christian movies out there (Courageous, The Chronicles of Narnia films, Not Today, Soul Surfer, Amish Grace, to name just a few), and the quality continues to get better every year, there are still a number of films that miss the mark so terribly that I have to wonder to myself, “Isn’t there anyone in that director’s life who can shoot straight with him/her about the film?” By the time I get a screener DVD in the mail or an invitation to attend a film screening, it’s entirely too late to give my critique on plot, acting, special effects, dialogue, etc. What’s needed is feedback earlier in the process.
Now before I go any further, I need to also point out that this problem occurs on the secular side of films as well, as anyone who’s seen Penelope or The Tooth Fairy can attest. That’s not my issue: That’s something for Hollywood to deal with. My main concern is that well-meaning, generous people of faith have been investing in (Read: wasting their money on!) “stinkers” that either fail to warmly invite nonbelievers to the faith or do so with plots so disingenuous, acting so subpar or storylines so fake as to make me cringe while watching.
This is probably on my heart right now because just last week I screened an upcoming film that made me want to gag. As a Christian, I want to like it. Because the Gospel is presented in the film, I want to glowingly advocate this movie. But I just can’t. I don’t question the director’s motives, and I certainly don’t fault the investors. But it just wasn’t a good movie, and I couldn’t say that it was.
Similarly, a few weeks earlier, I saw another dud due out later this year. The family bankrolling this one is currently digging deeper into its bank account to fund the distribution—sending good money after bad! It breaks my heart because this film will not even come close to breaking even because hardly anyone will show up. And those who do will turn up their noses. Once again, the people behind this film are wonderful, wonderful folks with super-big hearts. But the end product was, sadly, pretty weak.
Near my computer I have a DVD promoting another potential faith-based film. Most likely, the DVD was produced to garner funding. From a friend close to the project, I found out that the film has already incurred several millions in expenses and all anyone has to show for it is an elaborate set that’s been in a state of atrophy the last few years. Even if this film eventually gets made, just rebuilding the set will be costly. Never mind that millions of “faith” dollars have been flushed down the toilet.
Personally, I’d like to stop the bleeding. What I would like to propose is that one of those generous philanthropists fund an independent Christian screenplay evaluation agency. As I see it, scriptwriters and movie directors would (for a fee) submit their movie script to a panel of gifted writers/critics (at least four) to get unbiased feedback about its potential. Does the script have potential? Does it need a rewrite? Does it just need some minor editing? Is it unsalvageable? Is it well written but tells a story that will be forgotten minutes after viewing? As I foresee it, this independent panel would give scripts a thumbs-up or -down, and directors would essentially agree to not make any film whose script didn’t receive unanimous approval. (Even if they didn’t agree, investors could use the board’s recommendations when deciding where to funnel money.) And while it might cost some investment dollars to fund such an agency for four or five years, the money saved by not continuing down the route we currently use for funding and distributing Christian films would far and away pay for it—particularly as far as Kingdom dollars go.
The man I spoke to back in March wants me to keep my eyes open for a great script. I plan to. But honestly, I could count on one hand how many scripts have come my way in the 21 years I’ve been here at Plugged In. But if something like what I’m proposing were to come to be, I think this man could find his script there. Furthermore, I think it would be a win-win situation for the Church. Talented believers would have a means of getting their work into the hands of producers and directors. And well-meaning, generous people of means could begin to fund exclusively worthy projects without worry that their money would be squandered. And the embarrassing films that shouldn’t have been made would no longer see the light of day, er, dark of a movie theater.