Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Is God making a difference in Tinsel Town?

Article by Phil Cooke, an informed Christian and active film producer who lives and works in the heart of Hollywood.



People love the entertainment industry. Today, more than ever, celebrities have become the "secular saints" of our culture, entertainment has become America's #1 global export, and each year, tens of thousands of young people travel to Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune on the movie screen or on television.

However, for many Christians, "Hollywood" invokes images of illicit sex, unchecked violence and moral depravity. In fact, in the past, the only involvement some Christians ever had with the secular entertainment industry was to boycott, picket, or denounce the products Hollywood was producing. I understand this more than most because I'm a preacher's kid with a Ph.D. in theology who has grown up in the church. However, I'm also a working producer and director in Hollywood, so I have a ringside seat from both perspectives.

The movie industry is a remarkable business and has had a profound impact on the world since its birth at the turn of the century. In 1934, in the movie "It Happened One Night," popular star Clark Gable performed without an undershirt to better display his physique and, thereafter, undershirt sales dropped dramatically. In 1942, when "Bambi" premiered, deer hunting in America dropped from a $5.7 million business to barely $1 million.

In recent years, the influence of entertainment has been even greater. This past summer, 20th Century Fox Studios made an unprecedented deal with Dr. Pepper to advertise the blockbuster movie "X2" on one billion soft drink cans.

That influence doesn't stop in the United States. International news services reported that after Afghanistan was invaded by Coalition forces in the search for Osama Bin Laden, the first public buildings in that country to re-open weren't hospitals, schools or government agencies, but movie theaters, showing American movies.

The power of movies is significant and pervasive in this society but, as a Christian community, we have done remarkably little to impact Hollywood with the Gospel. As a result, the church has spent far more time criticizing the movie industry than developing a positive relationship.

Boycotts and public condemnation have been the typical Christian responses, but those approaches have had little impact. In fact, during the last national major Christian boycott of the Walt Disney Studios, Disney's sales actually increased.

That negative approach has led the church to the creation of an entire subculture of Christian movies, most of which feature poor production values, bad acting, and sacrifice compelling storytelling for an explicit gospel presentation. While many Christians have supported films like "The Omega Code," and "Left Behind," most would agree that these films fell far short of their potential and will never be considered examples of excellent filmmaking.

"We don't boycott or humiliate a tribe in Africa because they don't understand Christian values, so why do we do it to Hollywood?"

But if boycotts, shame, or even creating a Christian movie industry don't make better movies, what will?

For a number of years, there have been hundreds of Christians working quietly (and not so quietly) in the mainstream entertainment industry, trying to make a difference in the quality, moral values, and direction of movies and television. Sometimes their work is obvious, such as Martha Williamson, executive producer of the Touched by an Angel television series.

In spite of her bold and unashamed faith in God, some ministry leaders and broadcasters have criticized Martha for not being more explicit in her episodes - especially not mentioning the name of Jesus. However, week after week, Martha walked a tightrope to balance the network's demands with her Christian faith in order to reach the widest possible audience. And after all, a prime time television program that tells millions of people every week that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives is not such a terrible thing.

One of the most influential and respected Christians in the movie business today is Ralph Winter. He has produced such films such as "The X-Men," Tim Burton's recent re-make of "The Planet of the Apes," "X2," and some of the most successful Star Trek movies. He has an exclusive deal to produce major blockbuster "event" movies for 20th Century Fox Studios, and most of his films are budgeted in the staggering $100 million range.

At the same time, Ralph has been active in fostering, encouraging, and helping Christians create smaller films that reflect Biblical values. Ralph has even been a featured speaker at the National Religious Broadcaster's annual convention TV and Film Boot Camp. The difference between Ralph and many other Christians who have attempted movies is that Ralph absolutely will not compromise production values or storytelling.

"People come to a movie to be entertained first," he said in a recent interview. "We have to master the art of filmmaking and create a powerful story before we think about how we're going to put some kind of Christian message in the film. Most Christians fail in the film business today because even though their intentions are admirable, they haven't learned the art and skill of making a great movie. We have to earn the respect of the viewer if we're going to succeed."

Ralph's extraordinary credentials in the industry have earned him the right to be heard. His box office results have garnered billions of dollars, and many Christians in Hollywood consider him a mentor and friend.

Scott Derrickson is a writer and director who is rapidly becoming one of the most sought-after screenwriters in the industry. He just finished a screenplay for Jerry Bruckheimer, who is generally considered the single most powerful producer in Hollywood. Like many other Christians in the entertainment industry, Scott wants to be known both as a writer and a Christian, but not as a "Christian writer".

Scott explains, "Jesus didn't tell explicitly 'Christian' stories. Many of his parables were about everyday life, and they impacted people in a powerful way. I want the movies I work on to do the same thing. When you tell a great story, people drop their defenses and give you the opportunity to share profound truth. But if they feel like you're preaching to them, they'll quickly resist and the opportunity is lost."

Besides these examples, there are many other Christians making a difference every day in Hollywood:

Amick Byram, a noted vocalist and musical theater producer, who was the singing voice of Moses in Disney's animated feature film "The Prince of Egypt;" Todd Komarnicki, producer of the Christmas film "Elf starring Will Ferrell [ see interview ]; "Extreme Days" screenwriter Craig Detweiler; Janet and Lee Batchler, writers of "Batman Forever;" highly regarded screenwriting teacher Barbara Nicolosi; and Jonathan Bock, whose public relations company Grace Hill Media is helping major movie studios realize the vast box office potential of the Christian audience.

Even in TV commercials, Christians are making an impact. Over a 25-year career, Mark Thomas has won virtually every major award in advertising and has just recently opened a new production company called Thomas/Winter/Cooke. In just a short time, TWC has produced national commercials for companies such as Home Depot and Verizon. Commercials exert a powerful influence on our culture and trigger major trends in fashion, style, and behavior. As an example of their impact, last year's Super Bowl spots cost $2.2 million per 30-second spot, just for the airtime.

However, the question remains: "Are these and other Christians making a difference in Hollywood, and if so, how can fellow Christians support their efforts?"

While the major stories of boycotts, controversy, and condemnation sometimes make the headlines, few stories of hope ever do. Yet everyday in Hollywood, Christians experience situations that are a great encouragement to the Body of Christ.

A director on a network series said,

"I don't make a big deal to my fellow workers about being a Christian, but it's amazing how people who are experiencing a divorce, or are having family or drug problems, always seem to seek me out."

One film crew member took the bold step of asking if she could pray with everyone before a big day at the studio. To her surprise, the series star stepped up and said, "I've always hoped someone would say that," and the entire crew held hands and prayed.

Because of his Christian values, a writer refused a producer's request to include a violent rape scene in a script. He resigned from the show thinking his career was over, but when he got back to his office, his desk was covered in phone messages from other producers "wanting to hire someone who had the guts to stand up for what they believed in." If God chose to speak through a donkey, and if stones are capable of crying out in praise, then God certainly can work through the movie and television industry - but we need your help.

Here is what Christians can do to make a difference in Hollywood.

Stumped by how to share your faith in Christ with others?, a ministry of ChristianAnswers.Net, seeks to train Christians in how to most effectively reach out to others. Learn about the worldview of your audience, ways to share the gospel, read stories submitted by site users, and more. GO
Also visit the The Way of the Master School of Biblical Evangelism.

Consider Hollywood a mission field. We don't boycott or humiliate a tribe in Africa because they don't understand Christian values, so why do we do it to Hollywood? Let's begin approaching Hollywood as a mission field - people who are made in the image of God, but who need to know about His loving plan for their lives. Instead of criticizing the industry, individuals like Larry Poland, Jonathan Bock and organizations like The Dove Foundation are pioneering this effort, by providing hard research to show Hollywood that family oriented films with moral and spiritual themes simply make more money at the box office than R-rated films.

Support films with Christian values. It is absolutely critical that Hollywood studios realize there is an audience for films with a Christian worldview. Promote positive movies to your friends, and urge them to see these movies on their opening weekend, since that's when studios make the decision about how long films stay in local theaters. [see special article]

Pray for Christians in the industry. Every day, Christians are working in an often hostile environment in a heroic effort to write, act, direct, and produce stories that celebrate faith in God. However, we can't do it alone. We need the help of every Christian to provide the kind of prayer support that will open doors, soften hearts, and sometimes make a way where there is no way. Encourage your friends to hold up the industry in prayer. Dr. Larry Poland, founder of Mastermedia International, has created a prayer calendar which features names and information about the leaders of the secular entertainment industry, so we can focus our prayers on particular individuals. [see Christian Spotlight's home page]

Teach the Church how to understand and use the media. Encourage Christian young people to pursue careers in the media, and businessmen and women to fund positive media projects, and churches to use the media in their outreaches. Educate friends on how to evaluate movies, music and television, and celebrate good entertainment as much as we condemn bad entertainment. After all, movies, television, and now the Internet are the communication tools of this culture, and if the church doesn't take them seriously, we'll lose a generation.

It doesn't take much looking to see that, more and more, secular entertainment professionals are exploring themes of spirituality, redemption, and faith. The question is, are we as Christians ready to point the way to the answers?


Brian M Logan

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