A couple of weekends ago, I had the privilege of being encouraged for two days straight at The Attic Film Festival (TAFF). To appreciate the weight of this statement, you have to go back a little into my history with faith-based films (and probably your own experience with these films as well).
As an avid movie lover, watcher, and reviewer, I was seriously disappointed when faith-based films began cropping up. Most of you reading this know exactly what I mean.
Movie-going audiences today are savvy. Having watched literally hundreds of movies (if not thousands) since we were children, we have been preconditioned to expect high-quality acting, entertaining story lines, and thought-provoking dialogue. Though most audiences can’t draft an outline of how a theme or character was developed in a film, we still recognize good ones intuitively. And we all know it. We have all learned it through simply absorbing hundreds and hundreds of movies.
So, when faith-based films began making their debut, they faced obstacles such as a small talent pool, very little funding, virtually no scripts to choose from, and an agenda that didn’t fit the standard Hollywood model. In Hollywood, the primary agenda has always been to make enough money on a film to bankroll more films. With faith-based films, the agenda has been to encourage Christians to grow spiritually, to proselytize non-Christians, or to rally the troops behind a particular cause. Since making money was not the highest purpose, Christian filmmakers were unwilling to sacrifice “the message” for the sake of a good story that everyone would bring their friends to watch. That further restricted their options for investors. After all, savvy investors know that the only people who will pay to watch these films are Christians who are willing to trade quality for the sake of a family-friendly film that endorses their beliefs. Add to that the reluctance of big studios to touch ANY religiously charged films, and the faith-based film industry has suffered the same blight as the B-grade indie market. There’s never enough money to hire good actors, buy good scripts, bring on good directors, or market to audiences beyond the niche market they already have in their corner.
But with the success of films like Passion of the Christ, Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and more recently Courageous, my question became, why aren’t the films getting better? What If and Reconciliation were the first films to bring genuine encouragement to my soul in many years. And I’ve also heard of other good films from my colleagues here at HJ, such as Soul Surfer, Blue Like Jazz, and Heaven’s Rain. But even so, faith-based films are still not at the top of my rental queue on Netflix.
Enter Chad Ahrendt (writer/director of Reconciliation) and a simple invitation to The Attic Film Festival in Austin. After having done extensive interviews with Chad in 2011, I was excited to meet up with him and get the opportunity to meet other Christian filmmakers in the faith-based film industry. I can’t say that I went with the right motives, however. Truth be told, I wanted to find out from Chad and others exactly what was keeping these other faith-based films on a sub-par level with other B-rated indie films. Moreover, I wanted to encourage (persuade?) any new filmmakers I met to trust the intuitive minds of their audiences and stop making preachy, predictable films. To my ultimate delight, I was completely unsuccessful.
What I found was that every filmmaker I met was already aware of the ills plaguing the faith-based film market. Furthermore, they were already on the move to improve those failings in their own circles of influence. Whether it was through innovative marketing strategies like those used by the makers of Beware of Christians, tackling controversial topics like Reconciliation, or being willing to poke fun at themselves for a good laugh in Rogue Saints, the faith-based film market was and is steadily on the rise. In a recent staff discussion at HJ that spanned four days and included 60+ comments on Facebook, we all seemed to agree that despite a variety of viewpoints on what makes a film “good” (because that is totally subjective, even in the regular film industry) faith-based films should be evolving into a higher art form. If for nothing else, than to glorify God through good art.
This was not our first discussion on the topic, and we were not the only ones having it. Five years ago, founders Jamee Kennedy, Loretta Mach, and Lorenda Rohrer opened the doors to the very first Attic Film Festival in order to do this very thing. In our conversations at TAFF, they expressed their hopes for the festival: to connect Christian filmmakers and facilitate relationships that continue to further the faith-based film industry. In fact, their website lists this as their mission: “…to support and empower Independent filmmakers to spread Christ’s message through film. It is our sincere prayer that the films screened will honor Christ and His message of forgiveness and love for all and bless those watching them.”
As I talked with other filmmakers, it became clear to me that even the TAFF board wasn’t the first to dream this dream. Stories were told of quality filmmakers being called out of the Hollywood market to work on films that glorify God. I heard and read about film schools that offer legitimate industry training for Christians who want to learn the real “craft” of acting, writing, and directing. Prayer groups are cropping up all over the Los Angeles area, and long-standing prayer organizations like Mastermedia International have been putting together prayer meetings to connect Christian professionals in the film industry. I could probably go on about the different ways that God is putting quality filmmakers in the same rooms together, but I’ll narrow it down to my own experience at TAFF. It was a fantastic experience and a genuine encouragement. One weekend at TAFF was enough to change my paradigm about the faith-based film industry, and it prompted me to be more forgiving of a still very young industry that is rapidly growing and changing. In the coming days and weeks, I will cover several inspiring films that I saw at TAFF and the changes that they represent for the faith-based film industry.
One other note: though I did not get a chance to attend it, TAFF also hosted the Attic World Ministry Fair alongside their film festival. Local and international organizations set up tables and displays to create awareness of their ministries in Austin and around the globe. I truly appreciated this because it meant that TAFF was under-girding their mission to honor Christ and his message of forgiveness and love. There is no better way to share the love of Christ than to serve others, and this collaboration perfectly integrated the purpose of faith-based films with the need to act in real life. For example, the short Journey to Jamaa explored the challenges of AIDS victims and orphans in Africa. After watching such a compelling film, you could walk out the door and immediately find information on groups such as World Vision and Compassion International. It was a brilliant combination of everything that is good and right about following Christ.
So be on the lookout for the upcoming reviews, and keep your eyes open for screenings and DVDs of these films.