I LOVE MOVIES.
Nothing beats getting a huge bucket of popcorn and seeing a really great movie. It’s even better when its something you can connect with, in my case ”faith-based” or films with Biblical elements. That’s why I believe Christian cinema has had a little bit of a revival as of late. Seems like there are faith-based films being released once a month almost. The only problem is none of them are connecting with anyone other than people like me, that is people of the Christian faith.
I can think of about two Christian movies within the last twenty years that are Biblical and have connected with both people of faith and non-believers: The Passion of the Christ and Prince of Egypt, and one is a cartoon. Every other film I’ve seen that I’m told is a ”must-see” Christian movie seems to get critically panned and isn't really being widely accepted. I couldn’t figure out why but then I realized its because they aren’t good movies outside of the message they're trying to convey.
In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of Invisible Ink. This is the emotional moral hidden within every scene of a well-written film. Why author Brian McDonald calls it Invisible Ink is because it’s meant to be hidden. If not, it begins to become ”preachy” and turns audiences off. A movies primary goal is to entertain, not preach where a sermons main goal is to preach, not entertain. Now you can have elements of both in sermons or movies but when you lose focus on the primary function you lose the audience completely. Christian movies, at least to me, seem to preach to the choir. Maybe because the Choir is who mainly buys tickets or maybe it’s designed to inspire folks of faith. It’s not made to entertain so, therefore, non-believers don't want to see it and, as a result, it can not evangelize.
Ben-Hur (1959) MGM available to own or rent through iTunes, Amazon, or Vudu
One of my favorite Christian films ever made is the 1959 epic: Ben-Hur. Nominated for 11 Oscars and still considered a classic to this day Ben-Hur bolsters an unforgettable story, legendary acting, and action scenes that, considering how old it is, still wow viewers (partly because it’s Stunts, more on this in another post). The most compelling part of the story though is its message. Ben-Hur is about letting go of hate. The villain was great too. He had reasons why he betrayed Ben-Hur and honestly was hurt that he had to. He wasn’t one dimensional.
Some of the biggest faith-based films in recent history have really good messages, like standing up for your faith or what you believe. They have...acting. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to live up to Heston. The plots exist too. The villains are more or less ”facebook meme villains”. Unsurprisingly every faith-based film seems to be critically panned and NOT just because Hollywood has an agenda. I repeat DON’T BLAME CRITICAL FAILURE ON THE LEFT-WING. Don’t believe me? Hacksaw Ridge, a film about a young man standing up for and inevitably conquering through his faith in Jesus Christ, was nominated for...wait for it...BEST PICTURE.
CREDIT: COURTESY OF LIONSGATE
If you are just making a movie to make Saints nod their heads and feel good you’ll never evangelize non-believers. One note evil atheist villains and perfect Christian protagonists who have to overcome not their own flaws, like Judah Ben-Hur needing to repent of his hatred, but just being oppressed by people who disagree with them aren’t entertaining to anyone who isn’t an “oppressed” Christian. Entertaining Christian movies can exist, if they focus on being good movies that have a message, not a message that’s slapped into a mediocre movie.
Maybe they need to shake the formula that seems to be the current format or maybe we as Christians need to ask for more than feel-good mediocrity. Either way, if it's not preaching the gospel to new souls, what’s the point?
Things to Google:
1. Christian Film reviews
2. Ben-Hur (1959)
3. Hacksaw Ridge
4. Creating realistic characters
-Toy Story 3 copyright Pixar Studios
“The greatest story commandment is: make me care” -Andrew Stanton, most likely
Something I’ve had on my mind lately is good storytelling. Partly because my son watches Pixar movies 24/7 and, if he isn’t watching on TV, he’s looking up scenes from the films on his iPad (he’s two btw) (I know I’m a horrible Dad). One thing I can’t get over is how every Pixar movie, at least for me, a twenty-nine-year-old man, seems to always be able to tug at your heartstrings, no matter how silly the subject matter. I feel bad for fish, I root for grumpy old men, and I need a tissue because toys are holding hands in a furnace. What’s wrong with me? (allot but that's another blog post)
I began to look at Filmmakers like Andrew Stanton, Michael Arndt, and Brad Bird, all of whom have wonderful storytelling videos on YouTube, and they all had one thing in common: they wanted to make the audience care. They accomplish this by giving these silly characters REAL problems, relatable, that hit home for everyone that has the ability to feel empathy. The Iron Giant, for example, was built on the premise ”what if a gun didn't want to be a gun anymore.” That seems silly but think about it: We’ve all be in positions that we didn't want to be in because it just wasn't for you. Now apply those feelings to a giant weapon of mass destruction and you have a cult classic, apparently.
In my research, I discovered the name, Brian McDonald. Brian is a screenwriter, director, teacher who teaches classes at Pixar after Andrew Stanton had supposedly read his book “Invisible Ink” in one sitting. The book was said to have helped Stanton finish WALL-E (one of my favorite Pixar’s). So I picked up Invisible Ink and gave it a read. I was fascinated! The book reveals another side of writing the viewer never see’s. In other words, a story's moral, heart, or inspiring message is the Invisible Ink behind the movie or ” armature” as the book explains. It’s the single most important part of the story. This was exactly what Pixar had been doing and without anyone even knowing it.
Invinisble Ink by Brian McDonald available on iBooks and Amazon
Frankl;y, this is missing from most movies that hit theaters today. Why? It seems Hollywood is more interested in the CGI spectacle rather than a movie that can inspire a whole new batch of filmmakers. You hear/read stuff like ”Chinese box office” and ”mass appeal” or ”high concept”. Which is just code for ”money, please”. I'm not against making money, I'm actually very pro-making-money, but I believe movies with Invisible Ink actually make more money than soulless blockbusters.
Let's look at a similar, sister studio, under the same umbrella as Pixar: MARVEL. According to Wikipedia Marvel’s total box office to date is $13.511 billion after 18 films. This is fantastic. Not to mention the fact that they brought to life the first comic book universe like we had only previously seen in the books, where the story of one character would cross with another and eventually to lead to a huge event. (cannot wait for Infinity War) Most studios would have shuttered at the thought of doing something risky like that. I bet some actually said, ”how did they get away with that?” That answer is INVISIBLE INK.
Now let’s look at another huge library of heroes that, in my humble opinion, is the Pixar of the comics world: DC Comics. Who else could make a man dressed as a Bat or an alien from a faraway planet seem relatable? In fact, Brad Bird even draws from Superman in The Iron Giant. Why is it then that the attempted DC movie universe has essentially failed? No invisible ink. They rushed it, stuffed it with spectacle, and packaged it for maximum profit. They saw Avengers BO numbers and cut their nose off to spite their face, disregarding what made the source material so special.
So, as I continue to write and create my own films, I'm inspired to apply invisible ink, to make the audience care, and to speak truth into all my stories. For faith-based filmmakers like myself, I believe this subject is ten times more important. Our invisible ink should come from the truths and lessons of God’s word. How Jesus died for each and every person so that they would not perish but have eternal life. Why do you think Jesus taught using parables? They were also full of invisible ink.
Written by James Burns
Subjects to google: