“This life is slow suicide, unless you read.”Herman Wouk

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Fox to Chase Christians

Still image from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeAs I wrote in The Weekly Standard a few weeks ago, the best way for Christians to affect Hollywood is not to protest but to go to more movies, make clear their love for the medium, and praise Hollywood for what it does right.

(Regular readers of this site and the author's other writings will know that I live by those words.)

Now Fox Entertainment is showing exactly how quickly and surely such a strategy can work. The LA Times reports:

In the biggest commitment of its sort by a Hollywood studio, News Corp.'s Fox Filmed Entertainment is expected to unveil plans today to capture the gargantuan Christian audience that made "The Passion of the Christ" a global phenomenon.

The home entertainment division of Rupert Murdoch's movie studio plans to produce as many as a dozen films a year under a banner called FoxFaith. At least six of those films will be released in theaters under an agreement with two of the nation's largest chains, AMC Theatres and Carmike Cinemas.

The first theatrical release, called "Love's Abiding Joy," is scheduled to hit the big screen Oct. 6. The movie, which cost about $2 million to make, is based on the fourth installment of Christian novelist Janette Oke's popular series, "Love Comes Softly."
The production costs for this film do not sound exactly stunning, but the picture is obviously an experiment and a way of gauging exactly what the market is for such films on a regular basis, as opposed to big-budget "event" films such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings series. That makes good business sense for Fox and is good for the Christian audience in that success will not be defined as huge box office grosses but by a much more modest standard:

FoxFaith films, to be based on Christian bestsellers, will have small budgets of less than $5 million each, compared with the $60-million average. The movies each will be backed by $5-million marketing campaigns. Although that is skimpy compared with the $36 million Hollywood spends to market the average movie, the budget is significant for targeting a niche audience, especially one as fervent as many evangelical Christians.
There appears to be a huge market out there for Christian programming, the LA Times, story notes:
For instance, "The Passion" grossed $612 million worldwide, thanks in part to its appeal to Christians. Another spiritual odyssey, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," took in $745 million globally. Most recently, Christians came out for this summer's controversial "The Da Vinci Code," which has brought in $754 million worldwide.
The risk inherent in sending out a stream of low-budget films is that Fox will conclude that Christians will watch any kind of crud as long as it includes a scene in which a major character "accepts Christ into their life," which is what Christian fiction today all too commonly consists of. Fortunately, the studio seems to be after something quite different from that:
"A segment of the market is starving for this type of content," said Simon Swart, general manager of Fox's U.S. home entertainment unit.

"We want to push the production value, not videotape sermons or proselytize."

Aesthetic quality and an understanding of the subject matter will be essential to the plan's success:
"If this is something Fox is doing only to exploit the audience — or if it's something they don't believe in or are doing cynically — then there could be problems," said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a box-office reporting service. "There isn't a huge turnout for these films unless they speak to what Christianity is all about. People want a guide to life and Hollywood has ignored that by saying nothing or dwelling on vices."
It makes great business sense for Fox to pursue a new and strongly defined audience as movie box office intake has been decreasing in recent years:
Over the last four years, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has quietly built a network to mobilize evangelical Christian moviegoers in an era of diminishing box-office returns. The network includes 90,000 congregations and a database of more than 14 million mainly evangelical households.
Other studios are watching and considering whether to follow suit:
New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story," scheduled to be released in December, tells the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter to give birth to Jesus. Legendary Pictures, which has a multi-film deal with Warner Bros., is planning to make a movie version of John Milton's epic 17th century poem about the fall of man, "Paradise Lost."
The latter sounds very interesting indeed, with its clear potential for grand drama and powerful visual imagery.

One hopes that Christians have learned—or relearned—that a customer has much more influence than a scold.

From Karnick on Culture.


Kathy Hutchins said...

I think the main mistake Hollywood is prone to make in courting Christians is to think that a "Christian" film is one in which the characters explicitly embrace Christ, and if that is done, the literary value of the project is irrelevant. For example: Babette's Feast is a cult favorite among Catholics my age, even though there is nothing explicitly Catholic, or even Christian, about the plot. But we are smart enough to pick up on the very Catholic imagery of Babette's sacrifice of her lottery winnings to give the village a sumptuous repast as an image and metaphor for the Eucharist. If Fox is intelligent enough to develop projects that will tap into the rich imagination of Christians, they will succeed. If they give us warmed over Mitford Chronicles, they'll fall on their butts.

Here's another idea for Fox: acquire the rights to The Chess Garden, a novel that manages to condense an exploration of the balance between Athens and Jerusalem into a series of letters home to Dayton Ohio. Although it might be too dense for a movie, it would make a delicious miniseries.

TOR Hershman said...

Best way for Christiés to groove is to listen to moi's
"Jesus Christ (is the) AntiChrist."

Stay on Groovin' Safari,

Michael Simpson said...

Hmmm, I wonder, Kathy, if your "mistake" would really be a mistake. I'm sure you're right artistically speaking, but financially? My fellow evangelicals, after all, have been largely responsible for turning the Left Behind series into bestsellers. I think to the contrary that a Mitford Chronicles film would be a smash hit.

Christians have seemed eager to have their faith affirmed by the gods of pop culture - I just hope we don't make them our idols, no?

TOR Hershman said...

The best way for Jewïsh folks to groove, listen to moi's
"The Awful Facts."

Just say
Amenhotep IV.

Stay on Groovin'
(Hïndus - moi's "Krispy Krishna")

S. T. Karnick said...

Babette's Feast is a terrific film and indeed a great model for what a Christian film can be. As I wrote in my Weekly Standard piece,

"Christian art need not be explicitly religious in content--which should be an obvious point but has been largely underappreciated in contemporary believers' encounters with the arts:

"A television show doesn't need to have an angel in the cast to be about mercy. A film doesn't have to quote Scripture to put the Gospel in people's hearts. If the world will know us by our fruits, then by our cop shows and romantic comedies and thrillers they can know us too. I want to write so that the Good News is so entwined in the muscle of what I am writing that it can't be stripped away, can't be disregarded."

(Note: The second paragraph in the quote is a quotation from the book under review.)

Matt is right to point out that Christians shouldn't look to pop culture, or any culture, for endorsement of their beliefs. As Kathy's mention of Babette's Feast makes clear, the key is for Christians both as art producers and as audiences simply to be Christian in the choices that they make. The rest will follow.

Kathy Hutchins said...


It certainly would not be the first time I had confused my own wishful thinking for a successful mass media strategy. Most ordinary Catholics would probably say films of Michael O'Brien's "Children of the Last Days" novels would make successful films and they might very well be right; myself, I can't stand them -- they're utter rubbish. (I also can't stand O'Brien because he's a prominent "Harry Potter is the work of the devil" scold.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

A very interesting discussion, y'all.

I've had Babette's Feast in front of me as a cable selection many times, and even seen that it gets 3 or 4 stars.

The capsule just made it seem boring.

I dunno if messages like Kathy's will put it out there, but it's worth a shot. From what I understand of cinema history, both The Wizard of OZ and It's a Wonderful Life stiffed at the boxoffice but have become part of our cultural canon by word of mouth and a bit of falling into the public domain.

Please let me put in a plug here for Larry & Meg Kasdan's Grand Canyon, which I put on frequently not like a movie, but like a favorite record, over and over again. I never get tired of it.

It's about Los Angeles and how we survive and thrive here.

That there is a God who loves us and and all His children, and sends us miracles every day of our lives if we just have the sense to see them, is enough to get me through any day. I think about it often. It's a great entertainment, too, with Kevin Kline sharing the lead with Danny Glover, a breathtakingly sexy Alfre Woodard, and astounding early performances by Mary-Louise Parker and Jeremy Sisto.

Ace and enhancing score by James Newton Howard.

It's a lot like Crash except it's a truer and more poetic account of who we are. I liked Crash, but it's an imitation of Grand Canyon (which came first), if you've seen 'em both.

Didn't mean to hijack the thread. But it's one of the wife & my favorites of all time. Woulda won Oscars like Crash, but it was too far ahead of its time.

Just got caught up in the enthusiasm for movies that make you feel even more glad to be alive.
Thx, ST.

S. T. Karnick said...

I, too, thought Grand Canyon a very good and underrated film, and I agree that a religious message underlies the story. I thought the same of Magnolia, a very fine film that takes a similar approach but with a bit more mystery and symbolism.

Matt Huisman said...

I'm not so sure about all the love here for Grand Canyon. Are you sure they snuck God into that movie?

I remember it more as a karma flick along the lines of the Gratitude Sans God post from Mr. Simpson a while back. You know, you might as well be grateful to the universe (you insignificant speck of dust), because you're just going to go nuts otherwise.

But maybe I missed something.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't ask much from the popular culture these days, Matt. What I got from the film is what Mary McDonnell's character says, that there are miracles right in front of us every day if we only have the eyes to see them. This belief in Providence, say along the lines of the Founders' deism, is largely gone from the (post?)modern vibe, which sees life as a series of chaotic coincidences.

That Grand Canyon's people also see a need to respond to the miracles, to grow them, as it were, is even a touch more affirmative.

I'll take it.

Matt Huisman said...

No doubt your memory is better than mine on this one, and I'm definitely with you on the minimalist standard for Hollywood - they'd hack it up if they went for too much anyway.

Perhaps my hang up is with the Grand Canyon reference itself. It takes the beauty of the rest of the movie - the hunger for meaning, the appreciation of the good - and (for me, anyway) throws it all away with dust-in-the-wind drivel. No?

Help me out. I want to be persuaded that I'm wrong here, because this movie does have its following. It's been a while and I was probably a little less gracious back then.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Perhaps my hang up is with the Grand Canyon reference itself. It takes the beauty of the rest of the movie - the hunger for meaning, the appreciation of the good - and (for me, anyway) throws it all away with dust-in-the-wind drivel. No?

Help me out.

Pleased to, Matt. :-)

What is very important is that Danny Glover urges his new (lifelong?) friend that Kline take his own 15-yr old son to the Grand Canyon, so they can both share the experience before it's too late.

While all the adults in the movie are making new connections, Glover's character says not to forget about your own.

Kline's son has just fallen in love for the first time, and as we all know, the distance between parents and child will now accelerate. (As it should and must.) This was Kline & son's last chance to cement their connection, and Kline makes sure it happens, without a moment to spare.

Sweet. Wise and beautiful.

Lawrence Kasdan, an accomplished Hollywoodist (Raiders/Lost Ark, The Bodyguard, The Big Chill, wrote the screenplay with his wife Meg, and received an Oscar nomination for it anyway.

(Its epigone Crash, which I liked OK, swept the Oscars 14 years later...)

And if memory serves, Glover's character likewise brings his ghetto nephew, to whom Glover is the only thing resembling a father, and who have made perhaps the most intense connection of all the characters in the film.

After the madness and murder the nephew has witnessed during the movie, his closeup as he peers out at the miracle that is the Grand Canyon is perhaps the most poignant in the final scene. After all the ugliness we've seen him see, he is at last disarmed, and his heart opens.

As his grimace transmutes into a smile of joy, we are left with hope. That's enough for me.

(Yeah, I cried. Everytime I've watched it.)