A Bronze Age of Christian Cinema

Let’s face facts. Over the years, Christian themed movies have mostly been bad. Sure, there are exceptions. But until recently, any discussion of quality Christian movies by serious students of cinema often defaults to such titles as “Chariots of Fire,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1981 – nearly 40 years ago.

But we should also face another fact. Moviemaking is hard. In the 18th and 19th centuries, opera was often called the pinnacle of artistic achievement because it had to combine with excellence the disciplines of acting, music, technology, costumes, set design, and more. In the 20th and 21st century, moviemaking has taken its place as an art form that combines all other art forms. So, it should be no surprise that few people do it well. There’s a proverb in Hollywood: “No one sets out to make a bad movie, yet a lot of bad movies get made.” That maxim is true precisely because making a great movie is something just short of a miracle of convergence. A million things have to go right to make a great movie.

But here’s another fact: within the past year or two, something seems to be happening in the world of Christian moviemaking. Sure, a lot of bad Christian movies are still getting made. But we are seeing an increasing number of Christian-themed movies doing well at the box office and rising above mediocrity when judged by critics.

Take, for example, the recent box-office hit “I Can Only Imagine.”  With a $7-million production budget, it brought in more than $80-million in ticket sales. And it didn’t make a thinking Christian grimace to watch. Rotten Tomatoes, a web-site that aggregates critical responses to movies, said this: “I Can Only Imagine‘s message will have the most impact among Christian audiences, but overall, its performances and storytelling represent a notable evolution in faith-based cinema.”

That movie’s directors, Jon and Andrew Erwin (“The Erwin Brothers”) are a big reason for the rise in quality of Christian movies over the past few years. Beginning with 2011’s “October Baby,” the Erwin Brothers have gotten better with each outing. We’ve seen bigger budgets, better actors, more carefully crafted stories, higher production values from the Erwin Brothers from one movie to the next.

One of the things I like about the Erwin Brothers is that they are intentional about mentoring younger filmmakers. They hired Brian Ivie, whose only film credit at the time was “The Drop Box,” a pro-life documentary. Ivie was second-unit director for the Erwin Brothers’ movie “Woodlawn.” Since then, Ivie has directed another doc, “Emanuel,” which takes a redemptive look at the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, S.C. That movie should be out later this year.

Another pair of brothers have made significant contributions to Christian moviemaking, though their path to artistic excellence has not been as consistent. Alex and Stephen Kendrick made “Facing The Giants” in 2006. It was a critical disaster but a surprise box-office hit, and it has allowed them to make other movies in a similar vein: movies that appeal to an audience of Christian moviegoers who like stories with happy endings. The quality of the Kendrick Brothers’ movies has improved, but only incrementally. Still, it is impossible to discuss Christian moviemaking over the past 10 years without noting their contribution.

But perhaps the most significant player in Christian moviemaking these days is Rich Peluso at Sony. Peluso is senior vice president at Sony’s Affirm Films, which is an unusual faith-based “studio-within-a-studio” in Hollywood. Peluso has been at Affirm since 2009, and Affirm has been responsible for a lot of the success of both the Kendrick Brothers and the Erwin Brothers. Affirm has co-branded, distributed, or co-produced Kendrick and Erwin films. They’ve also produced dozens more, using some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Jim Caviezel, Joseph Fiennes, and Greg Kinnear. Affirm’s most notable success was “Heaven Is For Real,” which did more than $100-million at the box office.

Finally, no discussion of Christian cinema would be complete without at least a mention of PureFlix. Founded in 2005, in terms of sheer volume, has produced more movies than Affirm, the Kendrick Brothers, and the Erwin Brothers combined. However, the financial and artistic record of PureFlix is spotty. They’ve had some notable box-office successes, such as “God Is Not Dead.” However, they have had some notable mis-fires. “The Same Kind of Different as Me,” based on a best-selling book, should have been a box-office no-brainer, but the movie was both a critical and a box-office dud. Still, PureFlix keeps churning out movies, often at the rate of three or four per year, and its distribution infrastructure, which includes its own streaming service, has contributed to the success of other studios as well.

Despite these successes, it is far too early to call the 2010s a “Golden Age of Christian Cinema.” I am, however, prepared to call it a “Bronze Age,” an important step forward from the wasteland of previous Christian moviemaking. Movies such as “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” prove that movies with religious components can break out of the Christian ghetto and into the mainstream culture. But such blockbusters are rare, even in the secular space. The real restorative, culture-making work in the cinema will not come from the occasional blockbuster – the next “Chariots of Fire” or the next “Passion of the Christ.”

Rather, it will come from communities of artists who are mutually supportive, constantly getting better, and are supported by a discerning yet generous audience. The good news is that – like a great movie flickering to life in a darkened theater – we are seeing these developments before our very eyes.

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  • Joel Stucki

    Ohhhhh, let’s please not conflate box office success with quality.

    The major problem with Christian art for the last couple decades—most obviously in music and film—is that the people creating songs and movies are not trying to write great music and make great movies. Oh, sure, they don’t sit there in a conference room and decide to create bad art. But a big part of the problem is that they aren’t really artists trying to create great art for the glory of God. Rather, they are preachers who are using a particular artistic medium to preach a message. And while that may sound good and noble and “spiritual” and all that, what it actually does is cheapen the medium and therefore the message itself.

    • Timothy D Padgett

      I think you’ve mistaken his point. He’s not saying that since they’re getting more money, they must be getting better. After all, he notes that there have continued to be some doozies. However, among these have been some offerings that have been better and that some of the creators have been conscientiously working to create not just money-makers but quality works of art. Maybe they’re succeeding, and maybe they’re not, but at least making the attempt is a far cry from what passed for Christian movies in the last decade or so.

      Timothy D Padgett
      Managing Editor

      • Joel Stucki

        Fair enough.

  • Paul McCosby

    May I raise the question of how “quality” in movies is to be assessed?

  • jason taylor

    The Bronze age? You mean the age when the greatest Greek hero was a psychopath who was invulnerable except at his heal because he was to stupid to take a bath, and was born of a god on one side of his lineage and therefore to important to care about proper military discipline. That bronze age?

    Seriously, yes, Christian movies aren’t all that good, because as has been said they are more sermons then movies. Western Romances aren’t bad. Luther was actually pretty good. God’s not dead had a good protagonist, but the villain was a bully without intellectual integrity: he became an atheist out of resentment and converted to Christianity when he was to much the coward to face the consequences and in neither case did he care what was really true. You’ll find that kind to be sure(I won’t say I haven’t), but saying there are no atheists who are not worthy opponents is simply setting young people up for a nasty surprise. The movie is rather like the old cliche of the recruiting sergeant who says that everyone on the other side is a demon.

  • jason taylor

    I was fairly fortunate in my professors, all of whom respected me enough to be polite even when they differed fervently-and to be honest I was a gawky little pharisee back then. They certainly did not use their power to intimidate me. It was more on the internet that I remember both honorable atheists and atheists that were simply trolls. The God’s Not Dead movie pictures skeptical professors as people who have no real respect for reason however much they use the name, and who inevitably will only deploy power as a defense. If that was the only danger it would be only a test of courage, not a real test of faith.