Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Avril Z. Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and eductaor with over seventeen years experience making films and helping other filmmakers figure out which films to make. As she says in the first article in this series, "while it is good to critique films from a theological perspective, it is equally important that we think about artists who are creating the work," so we're excited to feature Avril's proposal for what filmmakers who are Christians should consider as they decide which stories to devote large portions of the time and talents to. Avril's entire series is archived here. - Editor
Throughout this series, I have been advocating for an expansion of the ways in which we define “Christian” film in terms of the stories we tell. While content is certainly important, I think it's equally important to consider the film industry itself and how it impacts our storytelling. Telling provocative stories, which I have advocated for throughout this series, is great, but what good is that effort if such films are not marketable?
Without a doubt, Hollywood has had a major influence on our culture. Every weekend, studios clamor in hopes of being able to boast of having the most box office sales. This past weekend alone, Warner Brothers’ Suicide Squad generated over $20 million in sales after earning $133 million during its opening weekend. Similarly, film celebrities are heralded as trend-setters, their every move watched and documented on the latest blogs and television shows, and many Hollywood celebrities have become spokespeople for social causes. With this kind of influence, Hollywood seems to be the end-goal for anyone who wants anything to do with the movie business. Most aspiring filmmakers dream of making it big in Hollywood, and most movie-goers believe that mainstream studio films are the End All, Be All of cinema.
Many of the films that are popular within the Hollywood structure follow certain formulas in terms of story and structure. Guy meets girl and they get together in the end. Big hero takes on the big villain, or in some cases, the underdog takes on the big villain. In either case, they win in the end. These formulas have become standard, because studios know that if they adhere to these formulas, they can somewhat guarantee a modicum of success in the box office. Happy endings not only make people feel good, they also bring in big financial rewards, at least in theory. So where does that leave the filmmaker who wants to make the raw, bold stories that don’t fit into those norms?
Behind the allure of Hollywood’s fanfare, independent filmmakers are defying clichés and attacking societal issues head on. With smaller budgets and less reliance on studio money, these independent ventures are usually known for content that is a bit more cutting-edge and sobering. Oftentimes, independent films focus on topics such as family dysfunction, death, rape, and have stories that do not resolve with a happy ending. In the words of Ralph Winter, producer of films such as X-Men and Fantastic 4, “Hollywood films are made to comfort the afflicted. Independent films are made to afflict the comforted,” and perhaps that is just the type of environment and system that filmmakers looking to challenge the status quo need.
However, while these films provide a necessary benefit to the human experience, independent films can fall under the radar of mainstream audiences, because they usually lack the marketing dollars of larger studios that help create awareness and drive people to the theaters. As a result, they often bring in less money, making them a risky investment for anyone looking to profit. This reality creates a dichotomy for artists, often forcing them to choose between art and commerce, between making money and making a difference. It is not always easy to separate the two. In their book, Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts, authors Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin talk about this dilemma:
How can we justify producing work that is seen and appreciated only by a small elite? Shouldn’t our work be on subway walls rather than framed in galleries? Shouldn’t we be making music in schools rather than concert halls, in the market rather than the opera house? Maybe we need to adapt our artistic ‘language’ to communicate to the many rather than the few. On the other hand, the financially and culturally ‘rich’ may be deeply impoverished in spirit, and God needs his people to be salt and light in every stratum of society (117).
So what is the solution? Do Christians need to abandon Hollywood in order to move away from formula and toward a type of filmmaking that doesn’t glorify happy endings at the expense of the realities of pain and suffering? I believe the answer is more nuanced. I believe there is a way for the glitz of Hollywood and the rawness of the independent film world to co-exist. Let’s look at Spotlight as a guide.
This year’s Academy Award Winning film for Best Picture, Spotlight, which follows the Boston Globe investigative journalism team that exposed major child molestation cases within the Catholic church was created independently by Participant Media and a few other production companies. Currently, Spotlight has grossed about $80 million. In terms of box office success, the film did not produce as much money as a studio tent pole film would; however, it forced audiences to grapple with the realities of what happens when abusive power goes unchecked. The film didn't necessarily end with any heroic rescue. Instead, it left the audience with the impression that the atrocities were widespread, trusting the audience to consider ways that they may have turned a blind eye toward abuse. And while its box office number pales in comparison to a film like Suicide Squad (which has to date grossed over $250 million in sales), its critical acclaim indicates that there is a place for independent cinema of this kind. As filmmakers, Spotlight challenges us to reflect on what is wrong with the world and consider ways we might fight injustice with our cameras, to accept more moderate financial success in exchange for making a difference, and to find funding partners willing to accept that kind of success as well.
As we contemplate what stories we should tell, we must contend with whether or not we are willing to take the risk of embracing and reaching out to an audience that is on the margins. The film industry reflects the pulse of its people, and that is true for both Hollywood and independent films. Creating valuable cultural goods when it comes to film means creating art that reflects a recognizable world, a world that resonates within a society and represents a type of multi-dimensional lifestyle. Christian filmmakers must not only create films of high production quality, we must also realize that as artists, our job is to tell the truth, even if it is ugly. We must remember our role as believers portraying a fallen world without celebrating it:
If our commission to be truthful demands that we portray sin, our commission to be holy demands that we do not glory in it. This means treading a fine line -- being brave enough to risk falling off on either side and to face the many critics who will undoubtedly disagree on where we drew it. It also means treading a narrow path between using art as an excuse to moralise and making no moral judgements at all. It means developing work with truthfulness and clarity that shows evil for what it is, without need for pontificating or preaching (55).
This is the challenge for many Christian filmmakers. And to be fair, there are indeed several Christian filmmakers who are grappling with these dichotomies and are creating very challenging stories. Similarly, there are many Christian filmmakers working within the Hollywood system who have not completely thrown away their faith for their art.
But how much impact could the stories we tell have if we had more incubators for telling provocative stories? What would happen if Christian business owners gained a more robust understanding of the Christian artist’s role in society? What if Christian independent filmmakers had a supportive body of believers around us and were able to create more films in community? What if there were organizations or initiatives to help artists find funding and therefore create actual cultural goods that reflect society, and that are not afraid to be bold and to "afflict the comforted?" Some groups do exist among the Christian community to help in this area. Art Within, based in Atlanta, GA, and Act One in Los Angeles, exist to help Christian screenwriters find their voice artistically. Both groups encourage Christian filmmakers to avoid clichés and instead to tell good stories that do not shy away from reflecting a fallen world. However, there is still a large void in the area of financing, which is why these ground-breaking films never see the light of day.
The goal, however, is greater than money or fame. It is to make a contribution to the artistic journey and hopefully create a means for people to experience creation, fall, redemption and the eschaton in new ways. In a certain sense, true artists have a responsibility to fully embrace all of God’s creation around us, not just the good things, but also the bad. The independent film scene allows for creativity and it is an open field for experimentation. To be an artist is to represent God in a way that is fully human. But filmmakers cannot do it alone, and we need the support of the faith community to do so. When the biblical story has infiltrated a certain cultural interpretation through a realistic theological lens, then we will have created art, and thus we will have made our contribution to the conversation on culture at large.
Avril Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and educator who teaches cinema courses at University of La Verne and Azusa Pacific University. She recently earned her second master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, and she continues to produce, write and direct film and new media. Her ultimate goal is to diversify the film market by educating and empowering aspiring artists; thereby creating a movement of media that represents the true, multi-dimensional qualities of people and speaks to the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or at her website.