Tapping the Christian Movie Marketplace

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What do Christians want from Christian movies?

It’s a question that Hollywood just doesn’t quite know how to answer just yet. When The Passion of the Christ made gazillions of dollars (well, at least $370.8 million domestically), folks in the entertainment industry fell all over themselves trying to duplicate that success. Scads of explicitly Christian filmmakers jumped into the game too, hoping to give the faithful something to go to see on the weekends. But the results on both sides of the coin have been–economically at least–mixed.

So why do films like God’s Not Dead soar and movies like Noah sink, relatively speaking? Our own Adam Holz, who has reviewed more Christian movies than anyone I know, offered some of his own thoughts for The Washington Times on Tuesday. Click here to see what they are.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

MichaelHovey More than 1 year ago
I love Christian movies like Noah, God's Not Dead, Soul Surfer, End of the Spear, Do You Believe, and To Save a Life, but can't stand boring annoying Christian ones like Facing the Giants, 90 Minutes in Heaven, Letters from God, and War Room. I guess for me I don't mind being preached to as long as there's an interesting story to tell.
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
I feel like the main issue the Christian movie sub-genre has is a big lack of variety in what kind of stories it will tell.  Seems like most christian movies are either adaptions of bible stories or stories about personal drama and tragedy, usually involving someone dying of cancer or a tragic accident.  Many of these are "based on a true story" like the recent movie "Greater".  You compare the Christian movie genre to the entire range of secular movies and there is just no comparison.  Of course some people might argue that there are certain genre of film that just should't be made at all (maybe scary movies, or juvenile minded comedies) but I feel like any genre can potentially be good if done right, and no type of movie should be written off.

A lot of people complain that christian movies are too "preachy" and they may have a point, but I often wonder, if we really did take the "preaching" out of christian movies, would they just end up being slightly cleaner versions of all the rest of hollywood?  And what exactly would a "non-preachy" christian movie look like?     charityspace said this in their post below in regards to christian movies. "Stop preaching. Just write a good story, with strong moral / ethical underpinnings. Make me think. Challenge me. Don't sermonize at me. Don't give me all the answers. Think outside the box a bit. Entertain me, but leave me better at the end than I was at the start."  I'm sure that many people will disagree with me with this statement, but I would say that Hollywood ALREADY is doing this, and does it fairly well.  I'm not saying that it's perfect, and many movies do carry strong liberal anti-biblical agendas or have terrible content, but there are still movies being made that tell great entertaining stories, and have solid standards under them.  Stuff like Pixar's films, most super hero movies, and various true to life stories.  There are already plenty of films that fit Charity's definition; what would it look like for Christian film makers to also move into that area?  For instance, take something like all the various Marvel movies that have come out in the Avengers series.  None of them are "christian movies", but I wouldn;t say any of them are really "anti-christian" either.  So what would it look like if they were Christian movies?  Besides cleaning up a few content issues, would the characters just pray before going into battle?  If you were going to make a "christian" version of the Avengers, that *wasn't preachy*, would it really end up looking that different than what we already have?

To me it seems like a "christian movie" that isn't "preachy" would really just be "a secular movie with cleaner content".  the preachiness and message orientation of christian movies may turn off some people and set those movies apart from the general secular crowd, but maybe that's not entirely a bad thing?  There is a place for it just as there is a place for everything else.  I would agree that we should have filmmakers who are christian out there writing good, clean, moral, challenging, entertaining, artistic movies that can be appreciated and enjoyed by all audiences, regardless of if they are christian or not; but those movies will generally be secular movies.  There will still be a place for "Christian" movies that are specifically about God and the Bible and about the issues faced by Christians in the world, and all of that.

So I don't think we should be expecting the christian movie genre to change all that much or make itself look more like Hollywood.  It has it's own role to fill.  Instead we should be desiring to see more christian writers and producers and actors and directors going out in Hollywood and making great movies for all audiences.  
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I think you can have a strong message without being preachy. The one makes you think, maybe even changes your life (this was how I felt when I first saw the Liam Neeson version of "Les Miserables" -- it just blew me away, emotionally and spiritually) and the other beats you over the head with a Bible.

I sometimes think the problem is that as Christians, we think our art always has to have a blatant Christian message or it's a waste of our time -- when in reality, the most powerful Christian stories come not from preachiness but the worldview of the author seeping into every line of the book. The Lord of the Rings isn't preachy, but if you step back and look at it, Tolkien's faith directs, influences, and impacts everything that happens throughout. THAT is powerful art.

As an author, I struggle with art vs. propaganda a lot. Finding a balance is crucial. But at the end of the day I have to trust that so long as my intention is to honor God, I don't have to be preachy to write a good story. Who I am, what I believe, the difference God makes in my life, comes through in my writing -- sometimes in subtle and sometimes in powerful ways.
Andrew Gilbertson More than 1 year ago
I've been working on a Christian sci-fi novel series for many years, now- and it is interesting, because my goal initially was very much 'non-preacy'; not a salvation message, not a character arc that ends in redemption... just a sci-fi universe that is underpinned by Christian beliefs about the nature of the universe, man, and what higher power there is in the cosmos (as opposed to, say, Star Trek's- which, much as I love it, is based on assumptions about the nature of man and God that I can't agree with).

But the thing I found is... God's not really a hands-off kind of God. :-)   His signature is everywhere in nature, in man, in life and society- in my own life, I'm keeping a journal of his faithfullness, and rarely going 2 weeks without seeing some provision or blessing or just a little touch that could only come from Him. We live in a society that thinks the existence of God is ambiguous at best- but that's really just from willfully ignoring the copious signs of His work and His presence all around us. In all honesty, when it comes to separating God from the world around us or its events, as CS Lewis said, 'He did not leave us that option; He didn't intend to.'

Thus, Christ has invaded my novels. :-)   He refuses to take a back-seat or be a simple part of the backstory; why should He? He's the sovereign of all creation, the God of the universe- by Him we are made, through Him we are maintained moment by moment- the universe and all of history are His handiwork. If I'm telling a story about great events in the universe... there's simply no way His active presence is going to be absent, any more than it is in great events in the world.

All of which to say... yes, i do think we need to expand Christian genres (hence, sci-fi... which is not unheard of in Christian circles, but is certainly rarer, especially past the young adult adventure subgenre), and we do need to work on not always presenting the same trite or cliched journey and character arc. But there's not much of a remove that God can really be put at in a Christian story; He is too integral to... well, pretty much anything, for a story to play out without His presence, or the character's relationship to Him being a factor of major importance... any more than our daily lives, as believers, should pass any significant amount of time or importance without having Him involved. It's the world's fiction (and folly) that He is a hobby, a side-quest; a pursuit for Sunday mornings. In reality, He is intertwined with every facet of our lives and world... and writings reflecting the truth as we understand it will inevitably reflect that.


"I'm sure that many people will disagree with me with this statement, but I would say that Hollywood ALREADY is doing this, and does it fairly well."
"If you were going to make a "christian" version of the Avengers, that *wasn't preachy*, would it really end up looking that different than what we already have?"

Well-said! I strongly agree. As the blog covered a few months back, Hollywood (and our society) is striving to be more moral than ever... they've just chosen a morality that is different from ours. But they are nonetheless trying in their own way to have strong moral messages and good teachings and thought-provoking, edifying fare.

It's like the 'good person' test; if you're looking for nice, polite people who gave to charity and contribute to society... honestly, you're going to find them outside the church as much as inside. Sometimes moreso. It's not the good behavior that should set a Christian apart; it should be there, but we have no monopoly on that. It's the good news of Christ- the peace in trusting Him, the joy of His salvation- that should set us apart. And, much as it narrows our narrative options* when it comes to film-making, our movies should reflect that.


*That said, to me, that is just a challenge to creativity. Diversify genres (and part of the problem is budget; dramas set in the modern day are far more affordable than period pieces or action films or sci-fi or fantasy), find new ways of telling the same journey. Focus on other aspects of the Christian walk; as Fireproof focused on marriage and Courageous focused on parenting, there are many aspects of living a godly life that are rife with possibility for good storytelling- rather than just the standard 'God getting through to a sinner's hard heart' narrative that's become standard. Not that that isn't justly celebrated- what rejoicing in Heaven there must be every time it happens! But I think there is definitely room within Christian belief, biblical teaching, and narrative genres to branch out a bit more than we do. It just takes a bit more creativity to do it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

You make a fine point, Andrew. Explicit Christian content, which many would indeed would find 'preachy,' has a definite place in filmmaking -- apart from general morality.

I believe my objections, on further thought, stem not so much from the directness of a film's Christian message as they do from the message's unsoundness. The same goes for a lot of readers, I'm sure.

You mention overtly Christian fare such as Fireproof and Courageous. Frankly, I don't consider them very good examples of filmmaking, Christian or otherwise -- especially Fireproof. They, like practically every faith-based film I've seen (and I've seen quite a few), suffer from the same basic thematic weaknesses: lack of depth, and a view of God approaching that of a magic wand that can take away all their troubles. 

I agree that Christian living should be in more films. But Christian living is not 'sinner repents, God fixes problems, sinner is happy and prospers.' That is Flywheel, Facing the Giants and Fireproof in a nutshell. And don't even get me going on God's Not Dead...
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
Nicely said, Andrew. And good luck with your book series. :)
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I think, first and foremost, is the question of whether a movie can make back its investment and profit from it. Gigantic movies like "Noah" and "Exodus" cost over a hundred million to make -- to even break even, they'd have to do a HUGE business at the box office. "Noah" was a Jewish fairy tale and added on to the story; that is the right of the filmmaker, since Christians do not "OWN" Noah -- he's a Jewish hero. "Exodus" made God petulant, childish (literally) and removed the miraculous -- naturally, it wouldn't appeal to more traditional Christian audiences, and secular audiences aren't interested anyway.

"Ben Hur" had the deck stacked against it, simply because too many critics and fans view the "original" (earlier remake) with rose-colored glasses; it also too cost far too much to make. (I'll insert here that I generally like Mark and Roma's stuff -- I really, really LOVED their series "A.D" even though I had historical quibbles with it, but they're out of touch with their central market -- their stuff tends to be too violent for more conservative viewers, and a little too "inventive" for those who like their Biblical fiction "just like it's written.")

So, on purely financial terms -- make cheaper but high quality films.

What would I, personally, like to see from Christian movies?

Same thing I'd like to see from Christian fiction.

Stop preaching. Just write a good story, with strong moral / ethical underpinnings. Make me think. Challenge me. Don't sermonize at me. Don't give me all the answers. Think outside the box a bit. Entertain me, but leave me better at the end than I was at the start.

Make a few costume dramas once in awhile. They're my first love. I'd kill for something like Pride & Prejudice or Dr. Thorne by a Christian filmmaker -- a nice, innocent story with an old-world flavor. The BBC has been smutting up their stuff recently, so it's hard for me to find decent period dramas that I can recommend to people or watch with friends. Still, that will cost you more, if you want to do it right.

The most powerful stories are often not "Christian fiction," but they have such strong moral, social, or ethical statements to make, coached in an excellent story, that it doesn't matter. Stuff like "Les Miserables" sticks with you far longer than something superficial.

Go deep, movies. Do that, I'll take the journey with you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I agree with almost everything you wrote, but I especially think you summed up the Burnett/Downey conundrum perfectly. Their balance is off with regards to the violence & storytelling. With that said, even if Burnett/Downey got the formula right, I'm just not inclined to watch Bible movies nor Biblical Historical Fiction. I've seen an ep. or two of A.D., & movies: One Night with the King & The Nativity Story. It's just not my thing. 

I do like stories a bit more in the recent past--Pride & Prejudice, Les Mis (the non-musical one), Bright Star, Amazing Grace, and even something like War Horse (which is just masterfully restrained) or The King's Speech. These stories may not make the most entertaining movies as compared to "The Avengers", but they are deeply affecting at the same time. 

I think there is a place for GND, Fireproof, and Mom's Night Out, but I have yet to watch an explicitly Christian movie that breaks into my Top 10, or possiby even Top 20, favorites. Instead filling the top slots are movies like August Rush (which actually has some theological depth and def. spiritual overtones), Searching for Bobby Fisher, Toy Story 3, Captian America 2: The Winter Soldier (sometimes I need my entertainment), and etc. The romanticized drama about sinners and saints, the understated parable from real life, the colorful ode to childhood, and the cultural phenomenon with a message--to me these movies exemplify a wide range of what I want to experience from the lighter fare at the cinema. They are clean, entertaining, and technically competent, if not masterful. They enable the audience to dig deeper, but they don't sermonize.
By CbinJ
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

Agreed. I simply can't get into the typical 'Faith-based' film, but I am absolutely with you on a movie like War Horse or Winter Soldier.
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I admire Burnett/Downey in the sense that they're trying to bring higher-quality epics to Christian film-making, but I think they're so Hollywoodized that they think something has to be brutal to get an audience. That struck me (ha, ha) many times watching "A.D." I saw my mother cringing a lot and at the end of the series, while she thought it was overall wonderful, I could tell what was going to stand out for her most was the violence -- in a negative way. Indeed, when I mentioned their part in producing "Ben Hur," the first thing she said was, "Oh, it'll be REALLY VIOLENT then." I'm not sure that's the reputation they wanted to go for. ;)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

Absolutely. Bring in the artists!

I think you've got a great point about lower budget endeavors. If a Christian filmmaker is willing to go the more indie route (non-professional actors, on-location shooting, etc.), then they can most certainly create excellent movies on very tight budgets (assuming, of course, they possess the requisite talent in the first place; too many nowadays do not.)

Back in the day, the Merchant-Ivory team crafted a series of exceptional period dramas on practically non-existent budgets, though to be fair their reputations were such that actors would work at greatly reduced rates just to work with them, as awards would usually follow.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great article by Adam. Just to expound on some of the points he made...


1) I can't add much to his first point--the obvious one that of course Bible movies that disregard the Bible are going to do poorly. I think Ben-Hur, The Young Messiah, and Risen (though apparently the latter two did well at the Box Office) being in the gray area as Biblical Historical Fiction are going to continue to be controversial--hence not super successful--in Christian circles. I personally find the the concept of TYM extremely problematic. 


2) Propaganda is not necessarily a bad thing. I like both God's Not Dead movies, but not because they are entertaining or thought-provoking. I like them because, as someone who is very politically minded, I know the power of establishing a base, giving the voiceless a voice, appealing to the emotions to get people in motion regarding activism. There is harm in the happy endings of the GND series because it may lull people into a sense that we are winning rather than losing, but these movies are IMPORTANT nonetheless. 

I think the "sermon movies" like the Kendrick brothers produce are a different animal from the GND movies. I think sermon movies are akin to parables and there will always be a place for those in the Christian movie genre as a fondly looked upon subset. It's obvious as to why these are popular just as the failure of the the secular Bible movies is obvious. 


3) The Gritty: If the category is soley defined by Captive or other real life dramas with a spiritual bent, there are two issues. First, real life dramas are real life dramas not a subset of Christian film, aka Christian visual fiction. There are plenty of these movies that do succeed, it's just a matter of whether or not the audience has a connection or wants to connect. The Blind Side (good), Greater (haven't seen), Miracles from Heaven (okay), Soul Surfer (didn't like), Amazing Grace (great), The 33 (haven't seen) and countless others do get kudos from Christian audiences. I think if the movies I mentioned were compared to other real life dramas, I don't think success or failure would be any different than the more secular counterparts. Second, if grit included Christian fiction then failure would be the result of the audience finding grit in their sermons unpalatable. 


I think the category that's missing would explain the problem with new movies in general and Christian film, there is a lack of compelling fiction that, while clean content wise, bakes principles into the stories and characters rather than preaching and relying on tropes and cliches. Obviously, there are plenty of movies I love and can glean things from, but I can't name one movie that has come out recently that I would considering putting on my list of favs or even in my DVD collection, especially with regards to specifically Christian movies. 


By CbinJ






Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Posted by First Comment Guy


Ok good, I'm not the only Christian who didn't like Soul Surfer.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I actually thought I would love it--as it seemed to have all the elements of things I liked: surfing, faith, real life inspiration/ drama, and familiar actors (Quaid, Robb, Sorbo). To top it off, one of my favs (Sean McNamara) helmed the thing, but the movie itself was terrible. The story-telling, aesthetic, & general tone were cold and off-putting; the pacing was bad; the acting was stiff. It's been awhile, but I'm sure the writing wasn't great considering everything I do remember that was bad.
By CbinJ
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
127 Hours totally beats the pants off it.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't think I'd be able to handle that one; it would probably give me an anxiety attack even if I were to skip "the scene". And, to me, James Franco is grating--I know he's a good actor, but it's just one of those things.

By CbinJ
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

You raise an excellent topic in your last paragraph. The defining issue, I believe, is a lack of craft, especially in writing. Modern Christian filmmakers have their heart (I think) in the right place, but not their heads. They relate their morals using flat characters, cliched story tropes and hokey dialogue because, frankly, they are not good writers.

Perhaps they wish to follow the Spirit's promptings; perhaps they feel there's nothing to writing, and therefore no need for study. However it is, they can't write, and they won't achieve any kind of artistic success (and with it better recognition and appeal) until they see the light and get an education.
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
Did God's Not Dead really "soar" relative to Noah?  I thought Noah was a success?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Noah" did not break even with its box office wins compared to the budget required to make the movie. That's what made it a flop. "God's Not Dead" made tons more money at the box office than PureFlix spent in making the movie; that is a success.
Christian Stafford More than 1 year ago
I hated the God's not Dead movies. They have some good morals but they were such trashy films.
lukemur125 More than 1 year ago
Why are they trashy?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

By trashy, I think Christian meant poorly crafted -- a not uncommon appraisal.
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I think consulting an actual atheist for a strong atheist argument with which to balance out the Christian POV might have helped; as it is, it's one-sided, with the atheist arguments being very weak.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

Absolutely -- empathy is crucial to good art. I doubt their potrayals of atheists would have been as one-sided if the filmmakers had thought of them more as people than as story props.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The stereotypical unfeeling atheists didn't bother me when I took into account two things specifically (and as I said previously in one of my comments above, the GND movies are not necessarily profound nor pieces of art) 

1) GND purposely uses archetypes not 3D characters because it is a message driven "narrative" drama.

2) If you take atheism to it's extreme the parents (in GND2) wouldn't care about their son who died, the Dean Cain character wouldn't care about his gf, mother, etc. This is extreme materialistic consistency personified. The fact that materialism is so sociopathic is one of the arguments against materialism and evolutionary psychology. 

I know GND will not be everyone's cup of tea, but I think arguments can be made defending some of the "creative" choices. I think New Release Today (or some other CCM blog) had one of the most on point reviews of the movie-- critical, but understanding--because obviously secular critics panned it. 

By CbinJ 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

Materialism is one thing, and certainly a valid area for criticism in modern American society.

But that was not the point of GND; rather, its point was the triumph of faultless saints over cruel sociopathic atheists -- the one without, for the most part, struggle, and the other without, for the most part, humanity.

Archetypes are one thing. But GND looked more like angry axe grinding to me.
Andrew Gilbertson More than 1 year ago
I would think the answer- which Hollywood remains bafflingly blind to- is the simple difference between films that respect the Bible and its message (that treat it as history; but beyond that, recognize that theology and meaning are not something to be reinterpreted by the director, but are already codified inextricably into the story), and those who treat it like a work of myth and fiction (to be reinvented, have its own spin put on, or their own message inserted into).

Or, in similar ways for modern day or fictional tales, to treat the faith of the protagonists and message of the film as consistent with Biblical theology instead of a portrayal of people of faith that is either hypocritical and evil (but firmly Bible-believing; heck, that's their whole justification for their cruelty!) or generically bland ('good people'... who also never mention Christ or live their faith beyond enacting a few traditions or rituals every now and again, or talk occasionally about the generic, 'any one of the major monotheistic faiths,' lowercase-g god.)

In other words, a Biblical film that actually aligns with the Bible, or that seems ashamed of the source material. One is popular with Bible-believers and the isn't. Go figure. 

That's really NOT HARD, at all- but for some reason, Hollywood keeps acting shocked when heretical films that treat the Bible like a work of fiction flop- and why they don't match the popularity of revenue of an earnest retelling of the pivotal moment of all world history and the Christian faith without trying to deconstruct, remake, alter it*, or contradict the central themes of God's sovereignty and love.


(Now I'll go see if that's what Adam said or not! ;-)  )


*Okay, beyond insertion of Catholic traditional elements- but the intent of the filmmakers was still to be faithful to what they viewed as the entire source material, even if Protestants may disagree with the veracity of them. They were add-ons, perhaps- but add-ons within the faith tradition, rather than Hollywood alterations.