- - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What does it mean to be both a moviegoer and a person of faith in today’s society? Most faiths have some kind of a ritual of communal storytelling. Every weekend for thousands of years, worshipers of all faiths have gathered together for weekly service, often to ponder about and revel in the most epic stories of all time, like Noah’s Ark or Moses crossing the Red Sea; teaching lessons about life and faith.

One could imagine that this tradition of captivating weekend audiences around profound storytelling planted the seeds for modern cinema-going, because remarkably, today this ritual of seeking community, captivation, education, elevation in all houses of worship, Friday through Sunday, may be as familiar to nonbelievers as it is to the devout.

The cinema, after all, is a cathedral to millions — 235 million last year, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners — and despite many secular movies’ attempts to explain, elicit, evoke and elevate through metaphor and morals, faith films continue to gain enormous traction in cinemas, demonstrating a critically commanding ability to drive family and religious values beyond the houses of worship. While moviegoers seek entertainment, some of us also strive for something more; something spiritual, and faith films can deliver profound impact, for they are empathy-building machines.

The celebrated street artist, Banksy, noted, “Film isprobably the best option if you want to change the world, not just redecorate it.” And, the cinema, rather than the church or synagogue, provides a neutral and less intimidating environment for a secularist to first open his or herself to ideas about the impact of faith and spirituality. We’ve seen a tremendous surge of faith films driving gross box office over the last decade-and-a-half. Independently made faith films have gone from representing a total box office gross of roughly $30 million at the turn of the century to $500 million today, and the individual box office return of a faith film went from averaging $2 million in 2000 to $10 million, presently. All the while, the annual total gross domestic box office has stayed relatively flat.

An increase of faith films in cinemas is driving more people to experience the force of tolerance and brotherhood, family and religious values, and redemption, which is ever so important given our turbulent climate today. Nelson Mandela said, “If (people) can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” Where are people learning to hate and where are they being taught to love? No doubt that dynamic is being played out on our TV and movie screens every day. Let’s bombard our cinemas with stories of faith and healing, love and laughter, righteousness and soul.

So how do we do that when there still is a dearth of positive choices in the cinema? Congregate is enlisting the power of the people to pull content to our communities that isn’t otherwise being programmed, traditionally. Using online tools we have democratized theatrical distribution, empowering audiences to crowdsource screening events. When communities get together to watch in this way, Congregate is able to further leverage their collective consumer power to convert their screenings into events with opening remarks and post-screening sermons, discussions and Q&As. The direct results of being able to accommodate multitudes of organic “pop-up” screenings in this fashion are sustained awareness, found revenue, substantive engagement, and further validation and credibility, while the indirect results are a closer-knit community, more tolerance and a greater likelihood of an acceptance of the faith and values embodied by the films.

During a “Faith over Fear: Choosing Unity over Extremism” discussion held at the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s main sanctuary, its Senior Rabbi, Bruce Lustig quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ excellent book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” “when others become brothers and conflict is transformed into conciliation, we have begun the journey to a society as a family and the redemptive drama can begin.” The redemptive drama can play in our cinemas for millions of people to access, everyday. Content can be a catalyst for impact and for faith. We don’t have to be simply moviegoers. Instead, we can make lifestyle choices to join others of like minds in order to use film and the cinema as a vehicle to galvanize our communities around faith, friendship and tolerance.

Amy McGee is of head of corporate communications and brand strategy at Gathr Films. Congregate is a soon-to-launch consumer platform destination for faith-based films that utilizes Theatrical On Demand to drive its theatrical business. It is owned by parent company, Gathr Films, pioneers of Theatrical On Demand. Gathr is revolutionizing theatrical distribution for independent films and documentaries by enabling movie-goers to crowd-source screenings of films to theaters near them. The Audience Has Spoken. Learn more at www.Congregate.net.

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