I’m going to show you a video in a moment, but before you watch it, let’s remember a few things:
- The movie God’s Not Dead was a phenomenon in the sense that it made over $60 million at the box office despite a budget of only $2 million. That’s impressive.
- The movie was produced by Pure Flix Entertainment, now a powerhouse in the Christian film industry.
- The movie has become famous in many circles for being the quintessential Christian movie: It features an angry atheist professor who “hates” God, a devout Christian student willing to challenge him, a Muslim student who converts to Christianity and is then disowned by her father, and a soundtrack from a Christian rock band. If there’s a Christian Movie Checklist, every item is included here.
With that in mind, Sarah Hartland, the digital content creator at Pure Flix, made a video offering advice to Christian filmmakers who want to know her company’s secret: How do you get millennials to watch your movies?!
She should know, right?
And that’s where things take a weird turn… because the advice she offers is clearly not advice her company has ever taken.
… Millennials are now the largest living generation, so attracting our demographic can make or break an industry success. And the Christian film industry won’t be immune just because they talk about Jesus — sorry. So what do millennials want to see on the big screen? Here’s a hint: it’s not more sex or harsh language, but we are more likely to tolerate those for the sake of a good story.
You can leave out the garbage if the story is strong, but you can’t fool a young audience into thinking a story is good just because it is clean. And notice I said “story,” not special effects or blockbuster budgets. What does that mean? Well, I’m no film critic, but when you work in the entertainment industry on any level, people aren’t shy with their opinions.
Here’s what I keep hearing.
Number one: avoid tropes. Expositional voiceover, repeated use of Jesus’ name, family prayer, at least one character having a “come to Jesus” epiphany moment, nonbelievers as antagonists… look, all genres have tropes, okay? I’m not saying we’re the only ones. But you have to admit, this formula sounds a little familiar. It works for some audiences, don’t get me wrong, but for millennials, try to avoid them.
Number two: show some diversity. I’m not just talking about racial diversity — though that’s important. A 2015 study by Deloitte Consulting explored the ways different generations view diversity and what they expect as a result. The study found that difference of opinion is super important to people in their 20s and 30s. 86% said that different views allow teams to excel. So show characters from different walks of life with diverse opinions and journeys. Not only is this goal a great way to move stories forward with convincing and real conflict resolution, it’s an expectation young audiences bring with them into the theater.
And number three: be subtle. Have you ever noticed that how Jesus told stories and how Christians tell stories are, well, drastically different? A study of New Testament parables reveals that all of them are left to… the listener to interpret. Even the disciples often ask Jesus to explain what he was saying. Why is this powerful on film? Well, giving audiences something to think about instead of an answer is what makes a story stick. And if we really believe that the Holy Spirit will give the right people ears to hear, we can afford to make the moral of the story a little less direct. C.S. Lewis said the world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature. We need to bring our faith to all industries, including Hollywood. But for this genre to survive a new generation, we need fresh stories and new methods.
What do you think? What are your favorite Christian movies and how did they accomplish these three things? Let me know in the comments. I look forward to hear what you have to say.
I had to watch that video a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t satire.
Avoid tropes? The God’s Not Dead films are critically panned because they’re nothing but conservative Christian fever dreams. The atheist professor who hates God and forces his godlessness on students doesn’t exist. The student who gets offended by an innocuous mention of the Bible in the classroom is an exaggeration. The idea that atheists want Christianity banned from the public square is a lie.
Show some diversity? If there’s a Muslim in a Christian movie, that character is going to convert by the end of it. If there’s a lesbian character in a Christian movie, she’ll eventually meet the man of her dreams. If there’s a trans character in a Christian movie, I’m just kidding because that would never happen. Diverse characters are wonderful since it’s a more accurate reflection of our society, but it doesn’t help if those characters are only there to serve an agenda.
Be subtle? I promise you there are no fan forums discussing the real meaning of God’s Not Dead. There are no competing theories about what’s actually going on. That’s because Christian films don’t do subtle. They beat you over the head with the Bible, because that’s what you paid for when you bought the ticket, and you knew it.
God’s Not Dead — the original one, not the sequels — did well at the box office for a variety of reasons. It looked like a real movie. It played into conservatives’ fears at a time when President Obama was still in office. It suggested that all those stereotypes of liberals were true. It was eminently mockable — kind of like The Room if Tommy Wiseau loved Jesus more. And while the story was frustrating for atheists, it obviously made Christians feel good about themselves.
But the success had nothing to do with scriptwriters following Hartland’s advice.
That’s too bad. Her advice is pretty good. Maybe one day, we’ll actually see a Christian film that follows her suggestions.
When that day comes, though, I guarantee it won’t be Pure Flix making the movie.