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Watching Netflix and praying

by
24 June 2022

The spread of on-demand viewing has boosted explicitly Christian film-making in the US, Paul Kerensa writes in the second article on the industry

SONY

Fireproof (2008) by the Kendrick Brothers features Christian firefighters

Fireproof (2008) by the Kendrick Brothers features Christian firefighters

“HE TURNS springs into streams,” Psalm 104 says. It’s unlikely that the Psalmist was thinking of streaming services, but today’s changing media mean that Bible stories can be delivered straight to our devices. Today’s tablets don’t hold commandments, but films about them.

The past 100 years of Christian films produced a rich array of storytelling, from The Ten Commandments to Redeeming Love, via Mel Gibson and VeggieTales. But, more recently, the greatest story ever told has been retold on the smallest of screens — the devices in our pockets.

Netflix and Amazon Prime are now packed with Christian content, and lately they have been joined by Christian-only streaming services such as Pure Flix and UP Faith & Family.

Straight-to-video movies are no longer gathering dust in bargain bins: they’re now straight-to-streamers, or SVOD, in industry terminology: “subscription video on demand”. It is this that has helped contemporary Christian films to find an audience.

The “Netflixification” of the industry means that niches are encouraged, whether you like amateur cake contests or tiger documentaries. The algorithms of video-streaming apps continually recommend our next film based on what we’ve previously watched. Did you like The Passion of the Christ (2004)? You might like Facing the Giants (2006).

Millions did; Facing the Giants seized on a growing Christian market, post-Gibson. It was made by the Kendrick brothers: Alex, Stephen, and Shannon, of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.

Alex was the church’s associate pastor of media — and, well, doesn’t your church have an associate pastor of media turning thousands of dollars of donations into a movie budget? No, mine neither.

The Kendricks’ first film, Flywheel (2003), doubled its $20,000 investment, while Giants went far further, costing $100,000, but raking in $10 million. Costs were kept low as the Kendricks mined their church contacts for free or low-cost cast, crew, and locations. But the low-budget shall inherit big box-office returns.

ALAMYPoster for Redeeming Love (2022)

The Kendricks’ movies are as American as apple pie glazed with the stars and stripes. Facing the Giants has a Christian American football team; Fireproof (2008) has Christian firefighters; and Courageous (2011) has Christian police officers. The latter two films netted more than $30 million each; Fireproof was the highest-grossing independent film in 2008. And, lo, the modern Christian film industry was born.

Affirm Films, the studio behind many of the big budget, star-studded films is owned by Sony and claims to have delivered $585 million in box-office receipts around the world. Mainstream success and critical plaudits came with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), which starred Tom Hanks as the children’s TV presenter Mr Rogers and gained him an Oscar nomination.


EMERGENCY services and family values run through their films like a stick of rock — or whatever the American equivalent might be. The content is very much one flavour of modern Christianity: conservative, Evangelical, republican, with leanings towards all-American sports, a job in uniform, and vacationing up at the cabin.

The ethnic and gender mix hardly varies. With the occasional exception (such as Tyler Perry’s Netflix film A Fall from Grace), the US Christian film trade has white men in the director’s seat, on the poster, and on the way to the bank. The money and the movie-makers all seem to be cut from the same cloth, eagerly telling their own stories.

Pure Flix is a prime example. It began as a production house, but is now an on-demand streaming service that’s doubling down on the conservative Evangelical demographic. Bizarrely, a co-founder, David A. R. White, stars in many of their films — like Ted Sarandos cameoing in Netflix shows, or Amazon Prime mostly showing films starring Jeff Bezos.

Mr White’s main franchise is God’s Not Dead, which began in 2014. In it, an atheist philosophy professor is ready to fail a student unless he recants his faith.

The film spawned three sequels, dramatising fictitious lawsuits, in which Christian protagonists fight an anti-theistic world. The most recent, God’s Not Dead: We the people (2021), is a defiant defence of Christian home schooling, although it veers towards anti-vax and a general suspicion of liberalism.

ALAMYTom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)  

Some have accused the God’s Not Dead films of inventing a problem that isn’t there. The world has many problems right now, but the marginalisation of Christianity in American society is not one of the major ones.

Bibles banned from classrooms? Fingers wagging at parents who educate children in the Christian tradition? These issues appear to have been fabricated for the screen: fictionalised fake news for the so-called “culture wars”. The reviews were poor, but the box office was good; so perhaps popularity — or popularism — currently trumps everything.

The Case for Christ (2017) told of a similar modern battle — theist versus atheist — this time with a sceptical journalist trying to disprove the Christian faith, but . . . well I won’t spoilt it. You might watch it.


SOON after this came countless Christian films using medical heartbreak to explore the atheism question. Heaven is For Real (2014), 90 Minutes in Heaven (2015), and Let There Be Light (2017) all have near-death experiences prompting a moment of faith — or, rather, proof of the afterlife. It could be said that this perhaps defeats the point of a “faith” film.

That said, Heaven is For Real is the highest-grossing contemporary Christian film of all time; so they must be doing something right. Millions of people can’t be wrong — or can they? Christian audiences may feel obliged to take what is offered to them.

Some Christian films seem to be wholesome family fare, but go to bleak places. Miracles from Heaven (2016) is one of many to feature a terminally ill child, although there is a message of hope. Perhaps not a comfortable one: prayer is powerful, but God will always cure the incurable. (No spoilers.)

Star names feature in some of the titles, including Jennifer Garner (Miracles from Heaven), Greg Kinnear (Heaven is For Real), and Dennis Quaid (Blue Miracle). It’s unknown whether this is due to shared values, favours owed, or the films’ appeal to the huge US Christian audience.

It feels odd as a British Christian and creative to admit that I feel such an outsider to these films. Part of me feels that it’s my Christian duty to get on board with them. But UK and US cultures differ, as do our church cultures.

Sherwood Baptist ChurchThe “death-crawl” scene from Facing the Giants

Jimmy McGovern’s raw church-based drama Broken (starring Sean Bean), set in a Roman Catholic Merseyside parish, was easy to connect with, but there remains a chasm between me and — for example — the US penchant for medical equine Christian dramas.

Yes, there’s a genre of Christian horse films. Perhaps ranch country is where the audience lives. In the past five years, there has been a boom in this very niche, hoof-themed market. A Champion Heart (2018) and Riding Faith (2020) both feature grieving teenagers reluctantly taking on a ranch to find faith and healing through a bond with a horse.

For a livelier horse tale, Walk. Ride. Rodeo. (2019) is about a rodeo star who suffers a debilitating accident, but rediscovers her faith and voice as the story progresses.


AS FOR music, some Christian films have recently expanded on themes in particular songs, giving origin stories and sales figures an extra push — not that I Can Only Imagine (2018) needed any help: its title song was already the bestselling Christian song of all time. The film-makers are yet more siblings: the Erwin brothers.

What is it about male siblings in the American Church who make countless movies? My brother and I only ever made one film, and that was a two-minute camcorder offering in the mid-1990s, recorded over my mum’s Crufts dog show video. That earned us an early bedtime and no pudding rather than an Oscar.

The American Christian film world does have a few sisters doing likewise, such as Andrea Polnaszek and Alexandra Boylan, but the industry would benefit from more — or maybe from film-makers who aren’t siblings at all.

There are some female-led Christian films — such as the Bethany Hamilton biopic Soul Surfer (2011) — but most are true-life stories in which the lead’s gender is fixed. In fiction, it is mostly male film-makers making up male-led stories — perhaps so that the person bankrolling it can star in his own film.

In Hollywood, the gender balance in the secular industry seems to be improving. As for the Christian film industry — also known as “Holywood” — if most US churches have white men leading from the front, or as associate pastor of media (seriously, have you still not got one yet?), then the powerhouses of Christian cinema will be likely to stay that way, too.


AS A Christian creative myself, and a trustee of Christians in Media, I’m delighted that Christian media seem to be thriving, although they would thrive further with a variety of voices, telling diverse stories and representing all of us, not just the white male conservative Evangelicals in the audience.

Is there a place for left-leaning Christian film-making? Can we speak as much about ministering to the poor as about life on the ranch? What would British-made equivalents look like? Excitingly, initiatives such as The Pitch are helping our future film-makers to find out, through a fund to help develop biblically inspired film-making.

As for where you’ll find these, some Christian films have built their homesteads on Netflix and Amazon Prime — hardly any on Disney Plus and Sky/Now — and, for an all-Christian streaming service, there are Pure Flix and the more family-friendly UP Faith & Family, among others.

It’s questionable whom such films are for. If the principal audience is church groups, the focus may be more on the morals than on home entertainment. And that could be an issue if the quality of entertainment is lacking, in favour of telling the “right” stories.

A question remains, though (I’ve always preferred my Christian content to give me more questions than answers). Are we destined to preach to the converted? If the future is in targeted viewing on specific streaming platforms, how can we tell Christian stories to a non-Christian audience, meeting them where they are?

While I ponder that problem, I’m off to the ranch in my firefighter’s uniform, sound-tracked by a million-seller hit Christian worship song, to engage in a debate with an atheist horse. Sounds like there’s an audience for that.


Christian films can be found on a variety of streaming platforms, including:

NETFLIX:

90 Minutes in Heaven (2015): Hayden Christensen (formerly Darth Vader in a different franchise) plays a man who glimpses the afterlife for 90 minutes.

God Calling (2018): After the saddest of deaths, a phone rings — and it’s God.

A Champion Heart (2018): A grieving teenager reluctantly works on a ranch, but finds faith and healing through a wounded horse.

Walk. Ride. Rodeo. (2019): The true story of a rodeo rider who, after a fateful accident, finds a future thanks to her faith, her voice, and her horse.

Riding Faith (2020): After her father’s death, Grace struggles to keep the ranch open, while rediscovering both faith and her bond with her horse.

A Fall from Grace (2020): A gritty film from the actor/writer/director Tyler Perry — for mature audiences. Filmed in just five days.

A Week Away (2021): A feelgood musical film set on a Christian summer camp: High School Musical meets La La Land meets God.

Blue Miracle (2021): Dennis Quaid seeks to save the orphanage with a fishing contest.


AMAZON PRIME:

God’s Not Dead (2014): Kevin Sorbo (TV’s Hercules) plays an anti-theist professor who challenges his philosophy students to prove the existence of God. Cast includes Dean Cain (TV’s Superman).

I Can Only Imagine (2018): The true story behind the song by MercyMe.

I Still Believe (2020): The true story behind the song by Jeremy Camp.


And exclusively Christian streaming services:

UP FAITH & FAMILY:

Heartland (2007-): Long-running Canadian comedy-drama series, set on a family ranch, with horses and healing in every episode.

I’m in Love with a Church Girl (2013): Starring music star Ja Rule, a former drug dealer, does as the title says, but must first face his past.

A Horse Called Bear (2015): A grieving teenager inherits a horse they hadn’t known existed.


PURE FLIX:

War Room (2015): The Kendrick brothers’ fifth and most successful film sees a couple fight for their marriage via a prayer closet — a “war room”.

The Case for Christ (2017): An atheist journalist sets about disproving the Christian faith, but will he just prove himself wrong?

God’s Not Dead: We the people (2021): A defence of home-schooling starring the co-founder of Pure Flix, David A. R. White.


DVD or rent online:

Fireproof (2008): The Kendrick brothers’ breakthrough film features firefighters working and worshipping together.

Courageous (2011): The Kendrick brothers moved from fire to police for this exploration of family values.

Soul Surfer (2011): A biopic of competitive surfer Bethany Hamilton and her faith-filled comeback after a shark bite.

Heaven is For Real (2014): The writer of Braveheart directs this film of a near-death experience, starring Greg Kinnear.

Paul Kerensa is a comedian, the author of books, including So a Comedian Walks into a Church, TV shows, including Not Going Out and Miranda, and plays, including The First Broadcast, on tour now.

Read his first article on the Christian film industry here

Paul Kerensa is interviewed on the Church Times Podcast here

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