Are Christian Films the New Roman Road? Woodlawn’s Jon Erwin Thinks So.


The Plugged In team has literally screened thousands of movies—and sometimes a moviemaker brings a film right to our very own campus. But when filmmaker Jon Erwin (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out) came to Focus on the Family back in July to screen his new film, Woodlawn, he made the decision to not show it—even though that had been his original intention. Instead, he discussed his passion for Christian films, and his desire that they might become blockbusters—Christ-honoring visions that would reach huge numbers of people. I wasn’t there for his talk at Plugged In headquarters, so I caught up with Jon by phone soon afterward. Here’s some of that conversation:

Bob Waliszewski: I was told by my team that you have a big vision for how Christian films could impact the world. Give me the mini-version of that vision.          

Jon Erwin: [When] we got involved in Christian film with October Baby we were… surprised by the global power of film. … It was when we started getting stories from China, Bali, South Africa, Central America and South America that we started realizing this is a very powerful medium. … The opportunity is sitting right in front of us. It simply comes down to this: If we could learn to compete not with each other, not with other Christian films, but if we could learn to compete with American blockbusters, we could get the Gospel out to the world. Not many people know this, but entertainment is America’s second largest export behind agriculture. About 10 movie theaters are opening every day in China. It’s the most aggressive expansion in the history of the entertainment business. It’s just the most phenomenal opportunity for the Gospel, but we would just have to dream a lot bigger. … There’s the big goal: For a Christian film made by a Christian to be a blockbuster. Do we have enough resources? The answer is absolutely.

Waliszewski: What is going to take for us to see the first $100 million dollar Christian film?

Erwin: First of all, we would have to change the way we see ourselves. …[A] famous filmmaker said, “If we knew how to make good films that’s all we would make.” I say, “If we don’t aim for it we’ll never hit it.” If we don’t think we’re capable of it we won’t be capable of it. As long as we think we’re niche and culturally defeated and oppressed and the culture war is over … as long we’re believing these doom and gloom lies about who we are, then we’re going to act out of those core beliefs. I think it’s time that we get a little aggressive and remember that we were built for offense.

The second thing would be unity. In Christianity there is quite an argument in Christian film and we bludgeon each other with this argument of two basic camps, two basic tribes. One tribe wants a bold message. … Then you have people like me [who] want three things. I want to see my worldview represented. I don’t want to be offended, but ultimately I want to be entertained. … So what [my brother and co-director] Andy and I are asking is [do people have to choose between] a film that’s all about the message [or] a big movie that’s entertaining? What we’re asking with Woodlawn is what if that’s not true? There’s another movie called Avatar—number one movie of all time—that will bludgeon you over the head with its worldview. There are times in that movie where I’m like, Jim [Cameron], I’ll go plant a tree, but just please stop. It has a very overt ideology, but it’s also wildly entertaining. … So our thought about Woodlawn is maybe we could do both.

Waliszewski: Tell me about your Trojan horse strategy.

Erwin: There are countries that are locking up Christians in the open streets, but they couldn’t stop the presentation of the Gospel at the movie theater … [not if we] tie the movie to other blockbusters like Star Wars and Jurassic World. This is a way where the Gospel could go out on autopilot. … The world would do all the work. In my opinion it’s the Roman road of the 21st Century. If you think about it as Christians, we hold the message as sacred, but not the mechanism of delivery. And whenever there’s a new mechanism, we go take it—like radio, like blogging, like television, like Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible or the printing press all the way back to the Roman road. … I believe this mass infrastructure of movie theaters and ability to consume entertainment is the new Roman road and it took 100 years to build. And it’s right there for our taking. And I think we can do it if we do it together and we act now.

So we say the biggest win we could have as a franchise is an increase in church attendance across America. We’re seeing that happen on the back of Woodlawn in terms of people in screenings of the film accepting Christ and getting connected to their local church. And that’s the relationship that I want to instigate and facilitate for the rest of my life, doing what I know how to do which is make movies. I believe there’s so many people that will not come to church, but would come to a movie if the movie was popular enough. …. I believe the local church is the hope of the world and I want to unify the local church and reach generations for Christ. I want to do it by making big movies.

 Editor’s Note: To watch Jon sharing more on this subject, check out this:


Who wrote this?

Bob Waliszewski is the director of the Plugged In department. His syndicated "Plugged In Movie Review" feature is heard by approximately 9 million people each week on more than 1,500 radio stations and other outlets and has been nominated for a National Religious Broadcaster's award. Waliszewski is the author of the book Plugged-In Parenting: How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids With Love, Not War. You can follow him on Twitter @PluggedInBob.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Vince Milburn More than 1 year ago
What I gather is that he is saying if he just had more money, he could distract people from his bad writing by overwhelming them with special effects like "Avatar" did.  This is the problem with Christian movies, the thing that most needs fixed, the heavyhanded preachiness in the scripts, is the last thing they will change.  This is why most Christian production companies can't get significantly better.  They don't want to make a good movie and, truthfully, their audience doesn't want a good movie either.  They want to be pandered to.  The complete dismissal and ignorance of this audience toward all the great Christian movies from the foreign-language and art house scene shows this.  Even "Selma" got much less love from this audience than expected.   It's an artistic dead-end with a niche audience.

Secondly, if you wish to use narrative film making as a rhetorical tool to convince others of something, such as the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and you want to use "Avatar" as a model, the question to ask is not "How much money did 'Avatar' make?," but "How many people actually changed their minds on the issues 'Avatar' presents?"  I imagine that Avatar fired up liberals while conservatives and most moderates just ignored the politics and enjoyed the spectacle.  Purely as an evangelization tool, a movie like "Avatar" would be a bad investment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
That was an awesome video . I want to become a filmmaker myself and that video shows how much you can impact America and the world .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well, as long as we can't seem to have artistically sucessfull Christian films, I guess we could settle for entertaining ones.

At least it's a step forward.
Cj .J .R. More than 1 year ago
It's a profound way to change a secular culture >>>>><<<<<
Mama2eight More than 1 year ago
Very well said!  I would put myself in the lagger catagory.  I can't afford the movies, but that doesn't mean I can't support the movies!

I'm going to share this with friends and family.

Thank you for sharing!
SJamison More than 1 year ago
It's worth noting that football coaches in the real world should consider the state/church divide more closely than the coach in the film--if one of the players is Jewish or Muslim or atheist or a Christian of another denomination than the coach,  there's a lawsuit waiting to happen.  And yes, the school district will get the bill.