- - Wednesday, December 13, 2017


The relationship between the “church” and the “media” has been a strange and storied one from the beginning — going from patronage to protest and back again.

At the birth of the cinema in the early 1900s and for several decades, faith-friendly and explicitly Christian stories from the Bible were the most popular. In addition to numerous biblical epics, over 100 films were made solely about the life of Jesus Christ. The most famous director of that era was Cecil B. DeMille, who happened to be an Episcopal lay minister. With the advent of the “talkie” in 1927 and well into the 1930s, the demand for Christian films flourished. Biblical epics like “King of Kings,” “The Robe,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and “The Ten Commandments” were the “tent-pole” pictures of their day.

Then in the 1940s and 1950s, provocative subject matter was introduced. As soldiers returned from World War II, foreign films became available, and stories containing the seeds of secularism, explicit sex and scandals found their way into the local movie theaters.

From the early 1900s up through the 1950s — with the erosion of cinematic morality — the church responded by doing everything it could to stop production of unsavory films. The Hays Commission and later the Catholic Legion of Decency were established to enforce their severe criticism and to exercise censorship. The prevailing thought of the day was that films were the tools of the devil, and in many church denominations, even going to a film was considered a sin. A tragic byproduct of this thought process was that Christian young people were under extreme pressure not to enter media professions. As a result, a whole generation of young people had no opportunity to contribute creatively nor to reserve “a place at the table” in Hollywood.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the church decided to imitate secular Hollywood. Beginning with Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures, scores of producers and ministudios tried making “church movies.” Distribution companies like Gospel Films sprang up to distribute 16mm prints of these films directly into churches. This strategy had no influence on the secular media; it just provided mostly amateur-quality movies for hard-core believers.

From the mid-1970s to 2000, faith-filled believers got angry about what they considered the morally despicable messaging of films and television — especially the way people of faith were depicted. It was not uncommon to have people of faith denounce television programming as “a Hollywood-built sewer line” directly into their living rooms. Christian organizations mobilized angry boycotts, protest marches, letter campaigns, and sometimes “hate mail” against offending producers, studios, and networks.

Around the turn of the new century, something very interesting started happening.

In May of 2000, CBS aired a two-part miniseries titled “Jesus,” and the first installment garnered 24.1 million viewers, making it the season’s highest-rated miniseries. In Europe, it was one of the highest-rated miniseries of all time. “The Miracle Maker,” “Noah’s Ark,” “The Face: Jesus in Art,” and “Mary, Mother of Jesus” soon joined the “Jesus” miniseries as being some of the most popular programing on television. It seemed like faith-friendly fare was selling.

When surveyed in those years by Barna Research, 75 percent of Americans agreed there was “too much violence in film and on television.” Sixty-five percent said there was “too much sexual activity,” 57 percent said there was “too much adult language or profanity in film and on television,” and 43 percent said there were “too many nontraditional or secular values in films.”

Within a few short years, more than 15 Christian broadcast, satellite and cable TV networks sprang up to an enthusiastic and growing worldwide audience.

Meanwhile, in the music business, only two genres were experiencing consistent growth: Christian and country and western. Album sales fell almost 29 percent in two years, but Christian and gospel music rose 19 percent, marking 19 straight quarters of growth, Daily Variety said in April 2008. “Christian music,” noted CBS News, “was outselling classical, country and western, and new age combined.”

By 2007, “the market for religious products topped $8.6 billion in annual revenue,” D. Michael Lindsay wrote in “Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.” The Association of American Publishers called religious books “the fastest-growing segment in publishing,” while in the nonfiction category, four of the top 20 best-sellers came from Christian publishers, Christian E-Tailing Newsletter said in April 2008.

Today, according to 2017 Pew Research Center statistics, 70.6 percent of America’s 327.4 million population are Christian by some definition. In other words, there is a cumulative audience for faith-friendly media of at least 231.8 million people, who have a combined, disposable annual income somewhere close to $2.1 trillion.

Tapping into that huge audience of Christian believers who were hungry for films that reinforced their beliefs, Mel Gibson directed “The Passion of the Christ,” which grossed $83,848,082 on its opening weekend in 2004 and went on to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie up until that time. It eventually grossed more than $611 million.

In 2005, Walden Media produced “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which grossed $745,013,158. In 2008, the next in the Narnia series, “Prince Caspian,” grossed $419,665,568, and in 2010, the third installment, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” grossed $415,686,950.

Since 2010, there have been hundreds of faith-friendly films produced, including high-grossing titles such as “Noah,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Heaven is for Real,” “The Shack,” “Miracles from Heaven,” “Son of God,” and “War Room.”

In preparation for this article, I spent the better part of last month analyzing the most current statistical data I could find, starting with the budgets of films containing positive, faith-friendly values and their return-on-investment figures, and comparing them with the budgets and ROI figures of films that contained negative or non-faith-friendly values. The results are that faith-friendly films yield a 7.8 times better return on investment than non-faith-friendly films.

The future seems extremely bright, with many faith-friendly films in the pipeline for release in early 2018: “Samson” (Feb. 16), “I Can Only Imagine” (March 16), “Paul, Apostle of Christ” (March 28), “God’s Not Dead 3” (March 30), and “Mary Magdalene” (also March 30), just to mention a few.

The Christian community has responded by increased moviegoing, and the movie industry has increased its offerings to satisfy this huge market — clearly, a win-win.

S. Bryan Hickox, D.H.L., is President and CEO of Bryan Hickox Pictures, Inc. He is an executive producer and producer of more than 80 television movies and feature films; seven of his television films have won Emmy Awards.

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