8

Faith Is Not Dead In Hollywood

Faith based films have seen a marked increase in Hollywood in the last several years. Critics were quick to dismiss the success of the Passion of the Christ some 12 years ago claiming its success was only caused by controversy, and the bankrolling of the picture by a celebrity like Mel Gibson. However, a few short years later came Fireproof and Courageous.  Both these films had an estimated budget of 1-2 million dollars and they grossed about $33,000,000. In 2011 a subtle pro-life film October Baby came out and moved the genre along to more success.

This set up the wildly successful 2014 which included films like God’s not Dead, Heaven is for Real, Mom’s Night Out etc.  The success continued in 2015 and 2016. Word is the big studios are now reaching out to small faith based companies to see if they forge partnerships, which while helpful also presents some serious concerns for faith based companies.

In full disclosure, the writers and producers of God’s not Dead are friends of mine who a few years ago came to a talk I gave at Family Theater in Hollywood, and then took my wife and me to dinner after reading one of screenplays. In a faith based world filled with Evangelicals, Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, as well as the crew at Family Theater in Hollywood are Catholic.  For those interested in Family Theater, you might want to read my past article on the late Father Patrick Peyton , the Rosary priest who is on the road to canonization.

In secular 2016, it is hard to believe how well received Father Peyton was in Hollywood.  Family Theater is where James Dean and William Shatner got their starts. A trip inside Family Theater affords one an array of pictures from Hollywood’s Golden Era when Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan and Grace Kelly all starred in Family Theater production films. A side note, tucked away in closet at Family Theater is an old film splicer. Rumor has it a young film student from USC named George Lucas used it to edit a Family Theater production film featuring a recently arrived young Canadian actor named William Shatner.

Everyone has their own story on how they ended up in the faith based realm. Chuck and Cary worked with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and other action oriented films for years until they could no longer resist the call to do faith based films. While they like Stallone, too few other people had the heart or character of Rocky Balboa in Hollywood. The initial years were tough, especially when hardly anyone was doing faith based films, they literally went into the valley before they could get back up to see the Promised Land. Needless to say, many thought they had lost their minds saying goodbye to the mainstream and taking the road less traveled.

Some readers might recall my initial 2014 review of God’s not Dead. The film made on a budget of $1,000,000 that initially generated a US box office figure of $60,000,000 and when all the worldwide receipts were accounted including foreign box office, DVD, movie subscription services etc totaled over$100,000,000. Generally writers and producers don’t see the kind of big money on an out of the blue success story like God’s not Dead. It comes later. If one thinks politics can be dirty, one needs to understand how the movie and music industry works.

Some film critics, even those in the faith based community complain that some of the scripts can be predictable, and perhaps the faith based angle needs to be more subtle, grittier and more provocative. Most faith based writers have no qualms with this argument. They are often put in a Catch 22, they either write a film that would be approved by faith based film companies like Pure Flix or risk the big studios saying a more subtle faith based approach is still too “faithful” for them.

Some secular critics showed nothing but venom for God’s not Dead, ( a Variety review actually used the words “Nazi propaganda film” to describe a scene) and the just released God’s not Dead 2 claiming Christians aren’t persecuted by the secular world. Then stories emerged that literally came right out of the plot lines of both films. Yet, these militant secularists give no apology.

While the critics of faith based films will always be sharpening their pens and swords, there is reason to believe that some of the Big Studios are seeing the light–or at least the financial possibilities. As mentioned above, some of the big time Hollywood studios are beginning to reach out to smaller faith based studios. Also, more faith based film companies are emerging. In addition up and comers like Nathan Leon, a talented writer, producer  and director received some notice for his film/documentary Sidewalk Chronicles on Unplanned Pregnancies which led to adoptions that positively changed the lives of so many. He and many others like him are generating some buzz in Tinseltown.

Indeed I met Leon and many other young talented men and women, while I was out in Hollywood a few weeks ago. I had been invited invited by Chuck and Cary for their premier party for God’s not Dead 2, over dinner they shared with me their big plans. They are literally this week putting the fishing touches on God’s not Dead 3 which should start to film in a month or so and be out in theaters next March or April. Also, they have an ambitious blueprint for the future and are seeking investors for their own studio and several projects are already in the works. Who knows where there this will all lead, but there are shoots and blossoms being seen in Hollywood. In a town known for fully embracing the dark side, shoots and blossoms of faith are a very good thing.

5

Film Review: Do You Believe?

I have a unique perspective in writing this review for the movie; Do You Believe? In full disclosure, the screenwriters, Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman have become friends of mine. I met them about three years back while giving a talk at Family Theater in Hollywood, the old stomping grounds of the Rosary Priest, Father Patrick Peyton.

Later they took my wife and me to dinner after they read a screenplay of mine and expressed further interest in it. At the time, they were getting into the faith based arena after years of working with likes of Sylvester Stallone among others in more action themed movies. I was very impressed with their humility and their desire to want to become better Catholics. They did the all the right things, helping those in need and going to Mass and Confession as much as possible. Needless, to say that sort of humility is in very short supply in Hollywood. They had no big projects in the works and didn’t seem bothered by it. “We just trust in the Lord, He will supply our needs,” said Cary Solomon.

Their continued hard work, despite any faith based success may have culminated in what St. John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul, before their leap into faith based entertainment bared any fruit. That hunger and passion for others to see the truth is evident in their films. Then a couple of years ago they told me they were working on a film, God’s Not Dead, which came out of nowhere and was the biggest grossing independent film of 2014. They had already begun work on Do You Believe before the success of God’s Not Dead was even realized.

In Do You Believe, we have a cast of divergent characters from various ages, racial and socio-economic backgrounds facing various life changing predicaments. We are blessed to have a star studded cast, with likes of Academy Award winning actress Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite etc) and other well known stars such as Sean Astin (Rudy, Lord of the Rings etc.) and fan favorites like Cybil Shepherd, Lee Majors, Ted McGinley. In addition there are rising stars such as the rapper Shwayze, Senyou Amoaku, Madison Pettis, Valerie Dominquez and former NFL bad boy Brian Bosworth.

Ted McGinley plays an Evangelical pastor named (Matthew) who ministers to a diverse flock of in Chicago. Pastor Matthew has his world rocked when he is asked by an elderly African American street preacher (Delroy Lindo) Do You Believe in the Cross of Christ? Pastor Matthew then witnessed the elderly street preacher confront a group of street thugs who attempt to steal a van. They threaten to shoot the elderly street preacher while he tells them that Jesus died so they would live a better way. Pastor Mathew relates what he has seen to his flock. He goes on to say that they must truly live the Christian life. In proving their sincerity, Pastor Matthew and his wife take in a homeless young pregnant woman.

The flock begins to fearlessly live their Christian lives; some take the needy into their homes, while others see their jobs threatened for not watering down their Christian beliefs. All of their lives build up and cross in a dramatic crescendo late one dark and rainy night. The cast plays their part to a tee; the rapper Schwayze plays a reluctant street thug who turns from a life of crime and tries to persuade others who simply laugh and threaten him.

Lee Majors character (J.D) is a wise old sage trying to help his heartbroken wife played by Cybil Shepherd deal with the death of their grown daughter. Brian Bosworth may be the surprise of the film, playing a dying ex-con who takes in a homeless mother and daughter. The former college football and NFL bad boy may well be living out a life of redemption before our very lives.

Two of the more interesting roles are played by Sean Astin (Dr. Farell) and Andrea Logan White (Andrea.)  Moviegoers, especially those who enjoy sports themed movies will remember Astin for his role in Rudy.  The everyman’s hero for his years of being plowed into the ground daily on the Notre Dame football practice squad, only to be given a chance to suit up for a game and be carried off the field after an improbable tackle.

Astin (Dr. Farell) plays an ego maniacal doctor who gets perturbed every time he sees a patient show any signs of religious beliefs. His only solace is his power attorney, money and prestige obsessed girlfriend, Andrea (Andrea Logan White.)  They both spend what little free time they have stroking their egos and belittling the hapless religious believers they are forced to endure.

In the past faith based movies have been criticized for low budgets, poor scripts and little known actors and actresses. Obviously not the case here, as we are treated to a screenplay with many twists and turns from a star studded cast. I knew that to be the case when a sequence that included a pro-life adoption undertow was noticeable. I could see tears in my wife’s eyes as the message hit close to home for us. Continue Reading

11

God’s Not Dead; There’s Something Happening Here

There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear…The opening words to the Buffalo Springfield (the band that would introduce to us the likes of Stephen Stills and Neil Young) classic song written in 1966, but released in 1967 certainly resonated to those who heard it whatever their political leanings. There was a sense even before the famous or infamous 1967 events, like the Newport Folk Festival and San Francisco’s Summer of Love that something in society was changing. The same could be said today in light of a flurry of religious themed movies that have come out in the first three months of 2014.

One could argue that the first signs of the secular sea change we have been under were first seen after the mid-term elections of 2006. By November of 2008 there was no doubt the western world was changing. However, for every action there is a reaction. It may have taken the world of faith a bit longer to react but it has. Already in 2013, the Bible mini-series caught the attention of those in Hollywood who notice TV and cultural move watching habits. The Bible mini-series, the brainchild Mark Burnett and Roma Downey literally spun off into the Son of God film which is currently one of the year’s early top grossing films.

However, it seems that what is bubbling under the current is what catches everyone by surprise, and so it is with the year’s first big surprise, God’s Not Dead.  The film’s entire production budget was between 1-2 million dollars, the mere advertising budget of most medium size films. The screenwriters are faithful Catholics Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, whom I met some four years ago while giving one of my talks at Family Theater in Hollywood (founded by Servant of God Father Patrick Peyton CSC also known as The Rosary Priest.) I was impressed by Cary and Chuck, their frequent Mass attendance during the week, their fervent study and practice of the faith (as evidenced by the St. Thomas Aquinas type logic used in some of their arguments in God’s Not Dead,) and their embrace of the sacramental life, especially the Sacrament of Penance.

Both men weren’t living some fantasy of wanting to hobnob with Hollywood’s hipsters. They had been down that road successfully working and mingling with the likes of Sylvester Stallone among others. Cary and Chuck felt called to write faith based scripts. In an interview with me featured in the National Review both men spoke of the hypocrisy that the faithful have to endure in the public square.

  Hartline: I think a faithful Christian, or anyone of faith, feels a lot has changed in the last five or six years. People of faith are often mocked or belittled in popular culture, and the faithful are accused of all sorts of bigotry and ignorance. We are told to get with the times, as if our consciences could really leave the truth behind. It seems the movie is addressing that underlying feeling in the faith community.

Solomon and Konzelman: Yes, that’s definitely the nerve that’s been touched. Secular humanists insist that Christians in general — and Catholics in particular — are supposed to leave their belief system at home when it comes to matters in the public sphere. So according to the rules they propose, their belief system is allowable . . . and ours isn’t. Which is a deliberate attempt to subvert the whole democratic process. As someone else pointed out: Democracy is supposed to be about more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

 I then posed the question as to why some are willing to defend their faith as did the college student in God’s Not Dead, but sadly most do not.

Hartline: College student Josh Wheaton appears to be the nondescript everyman. While everyone else accedes to the professor’s atheistic rants, Josh decides to take up the challenge, even though he’s far from being a theologian. Is there a message there for most of us?

Solomon and Konzelman: It’s a question of being willing to try . . . and fail, if necessary. Mother Teresa got it right: God does not require us to be successful, only faithful. Secular humanism has really been racking up the score in the culture wars lately, largely because of the unwillingness of many Christians to counter their efforts. Unfortunately, doing nothing is doing something: It’s enabling the other side. Every time we roll over and don’t confront the challenge, our forfeit shows up as a win in the other team’s column and encourages them to push further. Continue Reading