The Bible of Filmmaking

And on the seventh day, God rested. He kicked back and relaxed. Maybe went to a movie.

At least that is the hope of an increasing number of people in the film industry. The religious movie is back. Sort of. The issue is extremely split and no one really knows what any of it means. Heck, religious views are contentious enough that if you give me a random selection of true believers, I can give you a full-blown riot within ten minutes. As a child, I went with my family to an extremely conservative Lutheran church and we spent lots of time in Catechism class learning why all other Christian denominations were a pack of heretics (it was a Lutheran church with a strong Calvinist streak; the elect were chosen by God before the world was created and those not chosen were essentially helpless to do anything about it). So I learned a lot of useful pointers for dealing with aggravation.

But it doesn’t matter at the mainstream level. The current Hollywood interest is doomed to failure. The reasons are pretty simple. They are mostly hoping to attract an audience that hates their guts, doesn’t trust them, and believes that Mel Gibson is the victim of a Satanic Hollywood conspiracy.

OK, I admit that I have been trolling through the internet’s back alleys. Many self-professed Christian film goers are not brain-dead zealots. But as Paramount recently discovered with the release of Noah, the religious audience is not something that Hollywood is accustomed to handling. Heck, they even had problems with the Pope and normally the Vatican has been more flexible.

However, the greatest influence of the new religious movement is taking place within the indie trade. The “faith-based” spiritual movie is booming. Whether it be a full-blown biblical production such as Son of God or a slip-it-through-the-backdoor presentation like Heaven Is For Real, the Christian cinema is carving an unusual niche for itself in the indie market.

The niche largely ignores the traditional indie audience. The basic demographic portrait of an indie film viewer tends to be young, college-educated (or at least some college), with a more than occasional film-going habit (at least once every couple of months). The audience who would identify themselves as Christian film viewers tend to be older, slightly less college educated (though not by that much), and less prone toward going to theaters (once or twice a year). They are more likely to order a cola than a caffè latte and are likely to mistake the title The Brown Bunny for a nature film. If indie is the alternative to mainstream, then the faith-based spiritual movie is the alternative to the alternative. In some ways, these movies exist in their own parallel universe.

So these movies are actually going completely around the traditional indie market. However, there is a lot of open room in that “around” space. There is very little market comparison that can be made between a movie like God’s Not Dead and something like Nymphomaniac, Vol. One, and it’s not just about the sex. It’s more like the difference between pad see ew in New York and meatloaf in Iowa. It’s not really a question of which is better. They are just totally different.

However, there are some things that indie filmmakers can learn from the faith-based crowd. For example, branding. This is a tough one since the faith-based folks are tapping into a brand that has been on the market for over 2,000 years, aided by the legacy of St. Paul (one of the most underestimated publicists in history). Many indie filmmakers have problems figuring out a brand, period. The first step in creating a brand is knowing your audience and many indie filmmakers have a problem with that first important step. It’s as if they think the audience will just magically appear. Doesn’t work that way. Something about a tree falling in the forest and nobody is around to hear.

Once they figure out the audience, they can also start the process of community building. Many of the people working on faith-based productions are already part of a large system of evangelical and religious social networks. Part of Mel Gibson’s success with The Passion of the Christ was his own ability to link into these networks and be accepted as one of them (since this was at that magic moment when he was sounding just crazy enough to be taken seriously as non-Hollywood but not so crazy as to be considered deranged). Part of Paramount’s failure with Noah was their inability to connect with these networks. Sure, they tried. They tried really hard. But they were always viewed as dubious outsiders attempting to fleece the flock. Then they made the second mistake by trying to coddle them. The obvious insincerity of the process simply confirmed the worse fears of the faithful.

This process of community building has become absolutely essential for the success of indie filmmaking. Part of the success of the faith-based crowd is that they have a brand and they know how to network with their audience and the rest of us need to take some lessons. I am not advocating that indie filmmakers should turn to faith-based productions. Heck, I don’t even go to these movies.

But sometimes you have to give the devil his dues. So pay attention. There is a method to this system.

Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved