- - Sunday, February 17, 2019

The creators of a faith-based TV series have taken crowdfunding to a bold new level.

Producers of “The Chosen,” which chronicles the life of Jesus Christ, have raised $11 million from nearly 16,000 “investors,” not mere donors or supporters. The program tops “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a sci-fi comedy series that has garnered $5.7 million, for the highest level of TV show crowdfunding.

Unlike the Kickstarter campaign for “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “The Chosen” offers contributors a potential return on investment — far beyond the T-shirts, monogrammed mugs and other swag offered by most other crowdfunding efforts.

Team “Chosen” has pledged not to receive any profits from the venture until investors gain 120 percent of their contributions.

The TV show’s investment plan owes its existence to the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, an Obama-era initiative that eases securities regulations on some small businesses. The act went into effect in May 2016.

The equity part of the production comes with strings firmly attached, said “The Chosen” director Dallas Jenkins, who also produces and creates music for the series. The crowdfunding campaign’s $100 minimum investment plateau, created as a result of the high processing costs, is an additional hurdle.

“Navigating through all the legal and regulatory red tape for a public investment offering was mind-numbing,” said Mr. Jenkins, adding that the public offering might not have been necessary. “The vast majority of our investors don’t really care about the potential profits. They just want to see this get made.”

He credited the production’s success to a perfect alignment of elements starting with a successful pilot, “The Shepherd,” which was released on Facebook in December. That proof-of-concept video amassed more than 15 million views in 10 languages.

“People saw it and were emotionally and spiritually motivated to see more and share more,” the independent film director said. He added that it helps that Christian audiences have never before had a project like “The Chosen” offered to them. “It fills a need.”

The Chosen Productions is partnering with distributor VidAngel. They are planning an early release of the first four episodes around Easter, but the full eight-episode season will officially debut in November. Producers are planning seven seasons.

From a purely content-focused perspective, Mr. Jenkins said, an episodic TV series based on Jesus makes sense in the age of binge-watching.

“I love how much you can dive into the characters and develop the depth of the stories,” said the director, whose credits include the religious-themed independent films “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone” (2016) and “Live Worship From Vertical Church” (2012).

Independent film producer Mike Erwin, who is not involved with “The Chosen,” said he hopes to follow the show’s crowdfunding path for future projects but understands it won’t be easy.

“It’s expensive to set up. There are a lot of legal aspects to it,” said Mr. Erwin, who estimates startup costs as high as $100,000, which likely would scare off a segment of content creators who lack that initial capital.

“Most people doing GoFundMe [crowdfunding campaigns] are bootstrapped people,” he said.

He said the target audience for “The Chosen” is a focal point for the series’ success.

“They are going for a Jesus crowd,” said Mr. Erwin, comparing the TV show’s likely audience to the mostly pro-life spectators of “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” the 2018 independent movie about abortionist Kermit Gosnell that collected $2.4 million in its crowdfunding campaign.

Crowdfunding offers an irresistible financing approach for new creators, but it also proves alluring for established projects and filmmakers. The 2014 “Veronica Mars” movie, a continuation of the popular TV series starring Kristen Bell, sprang from a $5.7 million crowdfunding campaign. Veteran performers, including podcaster Adam Carolla and “Scrubs” star Zach Braff, also leaned on crowdfunding for their indie film projects (“Road Hard” and “Wish I Was Here,” respectively).

Mr. Jenkins said “The Chosen” differs from other faith-friendly projects in more ways than its financial roots.

“The style of the filming is raw and real,” he said. “The time period and setting of these stories weren’t pretty or sanitized, so the show isn’t that.”

The series also eschews what he calls the “British white people” casts employed in other Bible-based tales.

“We want people to connect to these characters,” he said. “They were human beings like us, and we believe if the audience can see Jesus through the eyes of the people who actually encountered him, they can be impacted in the same way.”

Given the passion behind any God-centered play, naysayers are inevitable.

“There are many people who believe there should be no portrayals of anything that isn’t specifically in Scripture, and they’re simply not going to like our show,” the director said.

For others, though, Mr. Jenkins promises more than just a show created from a new financial blueprint.

“This show is coming from people who are extremely faithful to and respectful of Scripture, and the back stories and characters we add reflect that,” he said.

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