Faith-Based Films: Survive or Fade Out

I was asked what direction I saw faith-based films headed. The answer is difficult to explain without getting into the proper dollars, art, and story structure. All three elements must be present for a film genre to survive, but most “faith-based” films are void of all three.

I’ve attached a financial chart (provided by The Numbers) of what many have labeled as faith-based films to help my explanation.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 7.57.17 PMAfter chatting on the phone with co-producer Andrew Wallace of Heaven is for real and talking with the original writer of the story, Todd Burpo, I learned that the film was produced like a regular independent Hollywood film – Not a faith-based film. It had the standard budget of $12MM, a cast of well-known faces, artistic choices, and a strong story structure. The sum of its elements drove the box office to cross the $100MM mark.

Miracles from Heaven followed suit in maintaining Hollywood standards, artistic choices and a $13MM budget. While the film is still in theaters, it has crossed the $60MM mark. And again, it was not shot as a faith-based film.

God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2 were both shot as faith-based films. Neither film used a good story structure, artistic value was lacking, and the budget was an estimated $1.5MM each. With the sequel lacking all the key elements, there’s no surprise that the film is tanking.

The original, God’s Not Dead, arguably made money while lacking those same elements. However, the film’s success was attributed to its gimmicky marketing push that went viral thanks to the Newsboys – Something the sequel didn’t reproduce. In other words, the marketing campaign overcame the lack of key elements.

Risen took a Movie of the Week (MOW) approach. Reducing the film’s artistic choices to that of an MOW budget, keeping it below the $60MM threshold. Woodlawn, however, had no surprises being shot like a faith-based film and reaping its expected rewards.

Hollywood style films will always out perform faith-based films, unless the filmmaker pulls together their own large fan base like the Kendrick Brothers.

The real question behind the survival of a Hollywood production that includes the three key elements versus a faith-based film that does not, is which process is sustainable and reproducible?

The Kendrick Brothers have a sustainable fan base for their films that will support them for years to come. However, they have not been able to reproduce themselves in any of the film’s they’ve supported (The Lost Medallion and Beyond the Mask). They share and attribute their success to prayer and a team void of sin. Unfortunately, filmmakers who have followed that model have not reaped similar success.

The Hollywood process, which includes some who are without sin and pray, reproduces itself extremely well. The system drives individuals to become masters of their craft using an effective apprentice model. The system focuses on great story structure, artistic value and the appropriate budget to achieve success.

Because the faith-based film process is not reproducible and is unable to launch others like Alex and Stephen Kendrick, it will fade away until someone else brings new life to Christian films down the road. After all, the Christian film genre was created twice before and both times it faded away.

As for the Hollywood approach, it’s been around since the early 1900s with no end in sight because it’s easily reproducible. Those who follow this process understand that story is king, not message. They also understand that to demonstrate an emotional win for a character, the story must first demonstrate his or her original depravity – The greater the contrast, the greater the story.

Copyright 2016 by CJ Powers


Chauvinistic Versus Egalitarian Movies

This year there is a push for more women in leading roles, but it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Hollywood decision makers continue to display chauvinism in their funded projects. Female leading roles in shows like Jessica Jones, where the heroine is a super female, only temporarily covers the producer’s attitude of superiority toward the female gender. There are few roles depicting normal women as equals.

Throughout the country feminism endorsed the super woman that could play in the sandbox with the boys. It promoted women like Carly Fiorina who had no problem, while at Lucent Technologies, proving herself to an acquisition by grabbing her crotch during the meeting and saying she’s “got balls.”

This type of feminism is finally giving way to a more balanced approach known as egalitarianism. The French word translates to equalism. The latest trends of thought suggest that all humans are equal in their innate value or social status.

The film industry is typically on the cutting edge of expressing social freedoms and nurturing the population to be more accepting of developing social norms. In this case, Hollywood is taking a back seat because few people will pay money to watch a “normal” woman on the silver screen.

Faith-based filmmakers who believe in the Bible’s equality have the greatest opportunity to show a normal woman in a realistic light. Unfortunately, most categorize their characters by function, not value. The woman tends to come across more like a doormat in a submissive role, than a powerful person who chooses to give her husband tie breaking decisions.

The egalitarian grassroots lobby has no support from liberal or conservative filmmakers, yet the movement is growing rapidly. With the decentralization of Hollywood over the past few years, its possible we’ll see new equality films released by independents 3-4 years from now. But, not until filmmakers have the guts to make a story about a normal woman that not only meets the Bechdel Test, but is well supported at the box office.

Hollywood can’t totally be blamed for the chauvinistic perspective in films. Some of the battle is innately implanted within gender differences. For instance, hearing a woman’s high pitched blood curdling scream in a horror film is far more effective than a man’s bellowing baritone voice resounding as a masked man stalks with a buzzing chainsaw.

Still writers need to create compelling stories about real life. The kind of life I see daily that’s filled with powerful women who do amazing things in their day-to-day world. How about the woman who keeps the family together, while holding down a job and taking care of her aging mother. Or, the female small business owner who has to balance all facets of her life without dropping any balls.

There are thousands of wonderful stories yet to be shared that demonstrates true equality between men and women. I’m convinced that the first filmmaker to release such a film may be surprised as to how popular his or her film becomes. It will be a refreshing and original story that reflects life as it was intended. The film might even become a role model for those trying to understand how to treat each other with equality within a chauvinistic and feministic world.

© 2016 by CJ Powers

Building an Entourage

EntourageThere are two types of entourages: those made up of yes men that eventually take you out of the game; and, those who work with you to build mutual success. The motion picture star and his entourage is the first that pops into mind, but the Ford, Edison, and Firestone entourage was legendary.

Thomas Edison encouraged his employee Henry Ford, an engineer at Edison’s Illuminating Co., to build his horseless carriage on weekends. Ford was a devoted employee until he was fully funded for his automobile. During his tenure, Ford was the recipient of Edison’s numerous introductions to all kinds of businesspeople, including Harvey Firestone who owned a rubber company. All contributed to the development of the automobile and benefited. Firestone’s most noted benefit was the launching of his tire company. Edison’s provisions included the alternator, wire and lights.

The best entourages in Hollywood provide mutual success to all involved. Every member is trustworthy and paid for his or her workload. Mutual respect positions the team for success, as everyone handles his or her portion of the business with excellence. The best teams are made up of people that work “with” each other and not “for” anyone.

While some entourages are first staffed with friends, most are staffed with experts that soon become friends. There is also a form of like-mindedness involved in the decision making process that moves the team in a unified direction. Dan Aykroyd’s entourage shares his vision with fervor, and all have become motorcycle enthusiasts that dress in black and ride together.

The first person to join an actor’s entourage is typically an agent. The publicist is the second to get on board, followed closely by the personal assistant. Soon a business manager is required, which forces the need for a personal manager. Next is security, if a hint of over zealous or crazy fans get involved. Make-up, wardrobe and a hair stylist also plug into the mix when the timing is right based on the type of work generated. If success continues a producer is added. This is then followed by the necessary connections needed to support a development team.

All above line cast and crewmembers pull entourages together. Some times department heads follow suit with smaller or department based entourages. The number one purpose is for mutually beneficial networking. It is not for narcissists. A person who sets out to create an entourage for their own benefit rarely finds success. However, leaders who pull people together to help those on the team, finds even greater rewards flowing in their direction.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Abandon the Faith-Based Label

The Passion of the ChristThe Hollywood Reporter printed a guest column by Mark Joseph. The title was “’Faith-Based’ Is Not a Film Genre” and the column opened with a quote from the author. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the label is both untrue and unhelpful, and should be abandoned.”

Joseph is a marketing expert that has worked on the development and/or marketing of 40 films including, The Passion of the Christ, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, I Am David. His article opposes his success stories being lumped together with the myriad of bad Christian movies that, based on its significant volume, created the Faith-Based label.

I understand his concern, since in Hollywood the term “Faith-Based films” is synonymous with “bad Christian movies.” When a producer approaches a distributor and presents a Faith-Based movie for consideration, the distributor immediately tells him not to expect any revenue from the limited release. The shoddy contract supports the statement.

However, Joseph’s article fails to mention that marketing must label product in order to properly promote it. This is why most Oscar winning films are genre specific, which is easier to market. It’s not possible to market a film that is “sort of this and kinda like that, with a twist and biblical message.”

The real problem isn’t that the large number of Faith-Based films forced Hollywood to group the movies into a single label that preempts the audience with its consistently bad storytelling and lack of artistic prowess. The real problem is that those making Faith-Based films actually think what they’re making is high quality and they see no reason to improve their craft.

I’ve had several opportunities for funding that required us to add a handful of elements to satisfy the religious investor, which would destroy the storyline and artistic expression of the film. Having a history of making artistic story rich shows for most of the major networks, my integrity didn’t allow me to accept the terms and I  suffered the consequences of not being funded. Several fund worthy friends had similar experiences and we’ve all scratched our heads wondering why bad films are funded and great ones are not. This made me wonder if investors don’t truly understand how great story in film impacts society.

Some producers tried to re-label their Faith-Based films for a general release, but because the investor funded elements were present, the story was destroyed and the film received the unwanted label – Forcing the film’s failure in the marketplace. Not only did the films fail as predicted, but it also positioned the producers as liars.

Today, the only way to avoid the Faith-Based label, which alerts the audience that a film is bad, is to make a universal story picture for the general public. As for the biblical message, it can be lightly salted into the theme, where based on the art form, would have the greatest impact. This will also push the film to the largest number of people in each market, placing the message before millions worldwide.

Now, I understand that there is one other way to change the Faith-Based label to something meaningful that draws a new audience, but it requires those who participate in Christian films to judge and categorize each film’s actual level of quality. Bad films have to be called bad and compared to the good films, which must be called good. And, for those few great films, they too must be called great. Then, and only then, will marketers be able to clearly articulate the differences between Faith-Based films, recreating the meaning of the label.

Since most Christians don’t want to suggest that a film carrying a message from God is bad, this will probably never happen. Instead, the funds will eventually dry up and Faith-Based films will disappear until the next generation can find a way to make the films self-sustaining. I’d wager a guess that within the next ten years a new breed of filmmakers would step into the limelight and change the definition of Faith-Based films forever.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Over Cranking Beauty Shots

Hop On The ChestHave you ever wondered why the female lead always looks stunning during an intimate heartfelt moment in a Hollywood film, but not in an independent film? It has a lot to do with the type of director at the film’s helm – artistic or techie.

There are several clear distinctions between the talents of a director with a techie background and one with an artistic background. The techie guy typically has a history of using technology to glitz up his film with cool imagery, while the artistic guy focuses on story, emotions, and rhythm.

When its time for close-ups, the techie director uses the same lighting and lens set up as he used for the medium shot or the over the shoulder shot. The artistic director hates to see the camera team just tighten the shot and instead suggests a significantly heightened set up to explore the feelings of the moment.

One of my favorite techniques is over cranking the film. Or, for those with a video only background, shooting more frames per second. The technique is ideal for those heartfelt moments when the director needs a beauty shot or a graceful close up of the female lead.

I tend to ask my DP (Director of Photography) for a more muted lighting set up to help enhance the over cranking shot. The softer lighting bends gently around the woman’s face and diffuses any harsh shadows that would otherwise be present. A soft filter might also be added to the camera to makes sure that there are no sharp edges.

If the camera is shooting at 24 fps (frames per second), I have the DP bump it up to 32 fps. This increases the clarity of the shot, while taking off the rough edges. By clarity, I’m not referring to sharpness of image, but rather the avoidance of extra blur inherent in capturing motion.

More importantly, by adjusting the speed by about 30% the image is captured with more detail within the actor or camera’s motion. This translates to an image with a great fluid movement during playback. Directors all have their own set of percentages for capturing a beauty shot, but I’ve found mine to be emotionally effective for all audiences.

In post-production, the 32 fps are then played back at 24 fps to generate a far more graceful shot of the female lead than was present on set. That ideal graceful cinematic shot can only be achieved with special diffused lighting, slightly soft focus lens and adjusted speed of film with readjusted playback.

The techie director tends to avoid the elaborate set up for the beauty shot by just slowing down the image in post. However, he can never get close to capturing that same dreamy and graceful effect that comes from the in camera artistry created on set by the camera team.

This one difference between a techie director and an artistic director is magnified when considering all the other techniques artists master that techies rarely learn.

The cumulative sum of these parts or production elements is what creates the uniquely different look between a Hollywood produced picture versus an independent picture. This focus on detail requires time and a budget for talented people in order to capture the beauty shot that everyone remembers from the film, but can’t explain why.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

“Birdman” Oscar Wins Reveal Hollywood

birdmanBirdman took home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematographer. None of which were a surprise to me due to the current condition of the industry.

Hollywood was taken over by marketing and business years ago, which led to the increased production of sequels and hero films based on existing comic books. This movement generated large box office dollars due to the economy and Americas’ need for hope to survive. Unfortunately, it was at the cost of creativity.

The industry is filled with creatives who are desperate for something new and unique. They want to take artistic chances and explore their craft, but always fall short by being put on films that regurgitate the same stories over and over again.

How many times can they reboot Spiderman? Sony is working out the kinks on the third version with yet another actor at the helm.

Only 15% of the top 20 films last year were original movies. The rest were either sequels, adapted from books or superhero stories. For a group of creatives that thrive on making their own stories, three films out of the top 20 is a far cry from what would satisfy an artist.

I can’t imagine what it would be like for a painter to spend the majority of his day painting ad campaigns and only 15% of his time expressing his feelings on canvas. Nor can I picture a writer penning marketing copy for most of the day and only write a handful of words to fulfill his need to express himself within a novel.

But, some how people in the movie industry have become slaves to the business and marketing teams who have no need to express anything creative.

It’s no wonder that the past three years the top Oscars have gone to stories about the industry and the pains or the forced draught of the artists themselves. Birdman speaks volumes about the desperation for a story that is new, creative and risky. It’s a revelatory film of artists’ desperation in the new Hollywood.

Film is not about money. It’s about story and artistic exploration. Yes, some have turned it into a moneymaking factory, while others have forced it to be about political messages, but in reality it’s just another art form of heartfelt expression.

This awkward set of circumstances is what drove the majority of filmmakers to create independent films rather than studio films. It’s also what is driving filmmakers to macro studios and away from Hollywood. Even the best writers are leaving film studios for independent television projects that will be released in non-standard venues.

Today, if you want a great star to be in your movie, all you have to do is come up with a risky story that’s never been done before. If it has a character that has great depth and unique qualities, you’ll be able to get any true artistic actor to sign on. After all, Hollywood is bored and desperate for something new to explore.