I started writing about the faith-based film industry more than a dozen years ago. Up to that point, Hollywood wasn't paying much attention to what seemed to be a minor niche market. The production quality of the films was lacking. The subject matter was, as they say, preaching to the choir. There were no award-caliber roles and the scripts weren't strong enough to attract A-list talent, either on or behind the screen. Then Mel Gibson made a little independent film that changed everything.
In the wake of "The Passion of the Christ," Hollywood crunched the numbers and started to look at this market more carefully. In the years that followed, every studio opened a faith-based division. Their forays into this market have been variable. The studios have also received a varying measure of acceptance by the faith-based film industry. As Michael Malek, Producer of Martin Scorsese's "Silence" lamented, "when Hollywood tries to do faith based films on a big level, they forget about the faith part." So, with a mandate to remain authentic to religious values while being respectful to the faith-based audiences, Hollywood has tread cautiously.
Throughout the years, VARIETY has been at the forefront of reporting the progress of this maturing relationship. So it is no surprise that their annual Purpose Summit has become the most prestigious Hollywood gathering of the pray-ers and the players in this market. This year's summit took the discussion to a deeper and more meaningful level, blending an exploration of the current business trends with the underlying philosophical challenges the participants must confront.
One of the day's highlights involved a deliberate effort to point out the fact that references to faith-based films are not limited to the Christian community. It was inspiring to see the inclusion of representatives from the full spectrum of faiths in a discussion about mentoring Hollywood through creative inspiration. Alongside two representatives of the Christian filmmaking industry, panelists included Esther Kustanowitz, a Digital Influencer and Jewish Community Consultant; Suhad Obeidi, Director of Operations and Director of the Hollywood Bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council; and Rabbi Jason Sobel, Founder & CEO of Fusion Global.
Obeidi believes that "pop culture informs people more than anything else," so she works with decision makers to help them create a more realistic representation of Muslims on screen. Sobel places his focus on the faith elements of a story because he acknowledges that "the biggest obstacles to creativity are fear and doubt." Sobel firmly believes that "faith erases fear." This emphasis on fear may be one of the most critical elements that the faith-based market has to overcome. Obeidi welcomes the challenge in her acknowledgement that "the impetus to tell more humanizing stories has to come from us." But she wants to go farther than merely consulting the studios and networks. Her goal is to raise the funds that will enable her organization to generate films that are completely authentic in their representation of the Muslim experience in today's world.
Kustanowitz used humor to make her points on the topic, frequently bringing the audience to bursts of laughter. Each time she contributed to the conversation, different people around me (including myself) signed up to follower her on Twitter [@EstherK]. On a more serious note, she stressed the importance of accurate cultural references. "There is so much in the middle of our story that gets left out." She appreciates the fact that the faith-based media is "moving toward a more nuanced representation of Jewish life." At the same time, she points out that mainstream shows like "Ray Donovan" will create a despicable Jewish character like Avi, follow him as he kills people, buries them in the desert and sets up bad guys to turn on each other, "but then he goes home to have dinner with his mother on Shabbat because he's a good Jewish boy."
Another interesting development in the faith-based industry is the emergence of The Dove Channel, an OTT (Over The Top) channel available through Roku, Android and iOS. Dick Rolfe, CEO and co-founder of The Dove Foundation partnered with independent content distributor, Cinedigm, in September 2015. Bill Sondheim, President of Cinedigm, realized that "technology is creating a lot of insecurity around the world." He equates it to the point in history where farmers had to adapt to the Industrial Revolution. Rolfe governs his foundation around an acceptance of the fact that social media has eliminated the filters to the point where people will say anything to anyone. "Since we live in an unfiltered society, parents are desperate to put back the filters." However, he is quick to note that The Dove Foundation is "an advocate for the family - we don't believe in pickets and boycotts."
The Dove Foundation has a mailing list that exceeds 1.3 million people. One mandate of the foundation is to keep their audience informed on trending projects that Dove has endorsed. At its essence, Rolfe acknowledges that being effective in this market is "all about evaluating risk." Sondheim acknowledges the elements of risk, noting that "art is an extremely subjective thing." Film, in general, is a very risky venture because there are no real formulas that can reasonably assure a measure of success. Yet, Sondheim believes that "if we, as a community, can make more good films then Hollywood is going to support that kind of film. They will follow the money." Still, he puts the burden on us when he suggests: "It's our job to vote with our box office dollars."
Perhaps the most valuable presentation of the day was the Annual Report to the Entertainment Industry, made by Dr. Ted Baehr, Movieguide's Publisher & Editor in Chief. Movieguide services the faith-based community through a detailed system of reviewing both the social/political content and the artistic quality of all movies and television series. Their analysis puts a strong focus on charting instances of sex, violence and profanity in films. Baehr then compares the measurement of offensive elements to a film's success at the box office. His findings are consistent year over year. Movieguide's research shows that films with a very strong moral content and a Christian worldview averaged $241.3 million at the box office last year, while films with strong negative content and an atheist worldview averaged $54.6 million at the box office. Clearly, there is a quantifiable advantage to be found in appealing to this audience.
According to Baehr, the audience numbers in this market are astronomical. He notes that 132 million Americans attend church almost weekly, in comparison to the 26 million Americans who average weekly movie attendance. Furthermore, it is worth noting that it's not hard to figure out how to find and engage with the church going Christians.
Last, but not least, there is a trend on the horizon worth taking into account as you plan your upcoming slates. The "swords and sandals" movies seem to have hit a saturation point and continually attract a decreasing audience. Instead, films and television series that feature stories about the lives, loves and tribulations of modern Christian life are predicted to benefit from an increasing box office potential.
Variety has made their Purpose Summit an annual event, a clear indication of the importance and the growth potential of this market segment