T.D. Jakes' International Faith and Family Festival Seeks to Scratch a Societal Itch

Bishop T.D. Jakes launches the inaugural International Faith and Family Film Festival, August 29-31, as part of his ninth annual Megafest event, held for the first time in Dallas this week.

"Americans are looking for wholesome entertainment that reflects the values they practice and teach their children every day; we're filling that void," said Jakes, a successful producer himself, with three films grossing $54.8 million on a combined budget of $13.9 million to his credit. "We want to encourage studios and the rising number of faith and family-based film companies to help this type of entertainment grow."

The festival will screen eight films, concluding Saturday with a Red Carpet premiere of the biopic, "Winnie Mandela." It promises to draw some of today's best filmmakers, with panel discussions aimed at helping industry professionals produce films capable of reaching beyond faith-based audiences to the mainstream.

In the session titled, "Marketing Within the Faith-Based Community," faith-based media experts will explore how to put such films on the radar of the faith community and mainstream audiences. Given recent box office disappointments for summer tent-pole releases, the challenges are significant.

The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that humankind was created with a God-shaped void that can only be truly filled by God Himself. And yet, individuals -- especially young people -- are leaving the Church in record numbers.

A 2012 Pew Research Center study revealed that though 68 percent of Generation Y young adults under 30 want to believe in something larger than themselves, over one-third self-identify as "spiritual," but religiously unaffiliated. If these "Millennials" want to believe in something larger than themselves, but aren't in church, then where are they going?

To the movies...

According to the Barna Group, young adults ages 18 to 28 make up the largest box office demographic, seeing 3.4 films a year to the average adult's 1.7. Evangelicals represent the second-largest movie-going group, averaging 2.7 films per year. But neither group is seeing faith-based movies churches wish they'd attend; rather big budget adventure films dominate their choices, especially those that play out on the grandest scale imaginable: Good vs. Evil.

Art often imitates life, reflecting whatever values, concerns and fears society holds at any given time. Films often provide an escape from one reality into another as viewers identify with the protagonist, imaginatively and emotionally working through the same struggles they themselves encounter. Of the current top-ten highest-grossing films worldwide, eight are fantasy/sci-fi plots centering on conflict between villains who suppress freedom, and heroes who sacrificially defeat them. Such stories comfort us. They fill the void.

Bad art -- films with an agenda to sell a message, or with poor writing, acting and production values regrettably common in many faith films -- negates a story's transformative power.

"The Passion of the Christ," a watershed event in the realm of faith-based filmmaking, set a high bar and unraveled the "mystery" of the Gospel, rather than the "hit 'em over the head with a frying pan" approach. The moniker for its distributor, Newmarket Films, became almost prophetic, as Hollywood realized that the Church, including some 100 million Evangelicals, represents a previously unseen or unrecognized "new market." Indeed two years after "Passion" smashed attendance records, 19 Christian films hit theaters.

Media scholar Dr. Ted Baehr of the Christian Film & Television Commission concludes many in Hollywood have lost touch with Middle America, as they don't know how to market to the average American, who is a churchgoing Christian believing in God, country and family.

"Year in and year out, our statistics show moviegoers prefer family-friendly movies with positive Christian, wholesome, patriotic, conservative and traditional moral values," Baehr said. "They want to see Good triumph over Evil, Justice to prevail, Truth to defeat Falsehood and Purity to conquer Lust."

Producer Bryan Hickox affirmed that making good films also makes good business sense. "While the movie industry produced 12 times more R-rated than G-rated films, the latter generated 11 times greater profit and three times return on investment than R-rated counterparts," he said. "It's a no-brainer."

Jakes' International Faith and Family Film Festival aims to provide a significant value-add to the discussion of how faith-based filmmakers should proceed with producing and marketing films to Christian and mainstream audiences. As these conversations unfold, it is important to recognize that these viewership poles are not so different from one another. In fact, they are barely poles at all, but rather two sides of one coin.

Larry Ross is President of A. Larry Ross Communications, a full-service agency providing crossover media liaison at the intersection of faith and culture. With more than 37 years' experience influencing public opinion, Ross' mission is to "restore faith in media," by providing Christian messages relevance and meaning in mainstream media. He is a participant on the International Faith and Family Film Festival Marketing Panel.

This post has been updated since its original publication.