"Faith-Based" Is Not a Film Genre (Guest Column)

The Passion of the Christ Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

The Passion of the Christ Still - H 2015

"I've come to the conclusion that the label is both untrue and unhelpful, and should be abandoned."

Mark Joseph is a producer and marketing expert. He has worked on the development and/or marketing of 40 films including 'The Passion of the Christ,' 'The Chronicles of Narnia,' 'Ray,' 'I Am David' and others.

"Nobody will pay to watch this in a theater, but you might make some money on DVD. Put the movie in theaters for free and consider it long-lead marketing for the DVD."

Those were the unforgettable words uttered by a Hollywood veteran, in my presence, at an early screening of The Passion of the Christ in Mel Gibson’s office.

This executive, who once ran two of the biggest production companies in town, was dead wrong, to the tune of nearly $1 billion, but it wasn’t the last time I heard crazy things from people who are knowledgeable about the film business but have no clue when it comes to flyover country.

Since Passion, many have attempted to jump on the bandwagon by getting behind so-called “faith-based films,” most of which have bombed or severely underperformed and, as someone with experience working with some of these films, I’ve come to the conclusion that the label is both untrue and unhelpful, and should be abandoned.

First, the alleged popularity of faith-based films is more accurately understood as the reaction of frustrated Americans who support these movies as a way to push back against faith-ignorant entertainment — the prevalence over the last half-century of media that unnaturally leaves religion out.

If half of all Americans go to church, why are so few TV and film characters seen in church or allowed to have normal religious practices portrayed as their other activities are?

This has been going on for a very long time. I Love Lucy featured an Irish woman married to a Cuban man, so it would be reasonable to assume that they were Catholic, yet they were never depicted attending mass or talking to a priest. Even the wholesome The Brady Bunch was rarely depicted in a religious setting.

More recently, there was the case of Todd Beamer, one of the heroes of the 9/11 tragedy who, shortly before charging the cockpit in a daring attempt to kill his hijackers, was overheard by a telephone operator saying: “Help me God, help me Jesus ... let’s roll.” Yet, curiously, in the 2006 Universal Pictures release United 93, and in the TV movie Flight 93, there is no mention of Jesus. 

In film, many C.S. Lewis fans were thrilled to hear that their hero, one of the most articulate Christian spokesmen of the last 100 years, was getting his own movie starring Anthony Hopkins only to be disappointed when Shadowlands barely referenced that faith.

Even successful films might have benefited from less faith-ignorance. In Walk the Line there was no mention of Johnny Cash miraculously surviving a suicide attempt because he heard the voice of God, as he describes in his autobiography, and his conversion was never explained. There were four great loves in Cash’s life: June, music, drugs and God. The filmmakers depicted the first three well, but how much money was left on the table by giving short shrift to the fourth?

A more egregious example is Unbroken, the incredible true story of World War II torture survivor Louis Zamperini, who returned home a bitter man until he found God at a Billy Graham crusade. While a primary focus of Laura Hellenbrand’s book, on film this central plot point was reduced to a few lines thrown on the screen as an afterthought, leaving even some nonreligious film critics scratching their heads at what they described as a movie full of suffering but devoid of redemption.

But while examples like these are legion, none points to the need for a faith-based genre, and in fact, for a variety of reasons, the genre has done more harm than good.

  • The term does nothing but scare away the marginally religious and more secular Americans and signals that a film is going to be preachy, overbearing and not for them. I once worked on a film that featured top talent, but when the movie signed with the religious arm of a major studio all hell broke loose — the talent refused to cooperate with the marketing campaign and interviews scheduled with Jay Leno and Bill O'Reilly were promptly canceled; and two large orders for the DVD, one by a Jewish group and another by a public school, were both canceled.
  • Filmmakers who set out to make a faith-based movie tend to look inward, neglecting to tell stories in a way that appeals to less religious Americans who might otherwise be interested.
  • With a genre targeting the faithful, many studios will happily continue to strip faith elements from all other movies, surmising, “If they want religion in their entertainment, they can buy a ticket to a faith-based film."

Since a recent ABC poll found that 87 percent of Americans believe in God and 83 percent self-identify as Christians, perhaps it's time to flip the equation on who is and who isn't the niche market. Perhaps it's time to consider a "secular-based" genre to service moviegoers who want to watch movies sans the faith that anchors them.

Despite the obvious religious components, neither The Passion of the Christ nor The Chronicles of Narnia — two very successful movies — were marketed as “faith-based" films, but rather as mainstream films in a manner that was inviting to both the religious and the irreligious. When we do our job properly and get over our seeming obsession with stripping religion out of stories in which it naturally belongs, there will be no need for a separate genre and Passion-like numbers at the box office will be the rule and not the exception.