Christian movies and series are having a moment in the American landscape as they are championed by the likes of Mark Wahlberg (Father Stu) and Jennifer Garner (Miracles from Heaven) and while they are associated with a segment of society, they can be considered varied in their tones and genres not to mention that Christian values are already in other Hollywood and independent entries since these ideals are part of the Western civilization.
“I think, for a while, Christian audiences have felt underserved by Hollywood movies. Now, I’d argue that the themes and tenets of Christianity make their way into a lot of Hollywood productions, sometimes consciously and other times subconsciously. But for select audiences, they want an overt confirmation that this is a Christian film and that their money is going to Christian production companies,” explains film critic and author Richard Newby from the USA in an interview with Big Picture Film Club. Newby identifies as a Christian of non-denomination background.
For Brazilian Lucas de Souza Martins, a journalist, historian and PhD student at Temple University, this movement is due to the new way of reaching young Christians which is taking place for the last decade and half having as a major player The Hillsong Church, based in Australia with branches in fifteen countries that have shaped the way of the newer generations to experience Christianity.
“We now have a demand for quality products not only related to preaching and music but also movies that contemplate this modern way of experiencing a church. Hillsong stimulated the creation of similar congregations in which performances with technical excellence, including sound and light effects, are appreciated. The advent of streaming services along with the ‘Hillsong movement’ is a profitable avenue to produce movies focused on this audience,” evaluates Martins in an email interview with Big Picture Film Club. The scholar is a member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“Epics are not the current trend when it comes to the production of profitable Christian movies. The box office numbers of Noah (2014) pushed the industry to focus more on real-life screenplays,” states Martins citing that Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ didn’t break in the top ten list of American Christian movies, still Heaven for Real (2014), a telling of the story of a Nebraskan firefighter, made it to the list. A considerable number of Christian movies have low to moderate budgets, a different reality from an epic movie that requires hefty resources.
Many of these products rely on the face fronting them. Martins points out the participation of This is Us (2016-2022) series actress Chrissy Metz in Breakthrough (2019) which follows of bring faces recognizable to the average American like Garner or Wahlberg and that “these movies go beyond the Christian public due to the quality of their production, actors, sound effects, and soundtracks.”
More layered than meets the eyes
Still, there are the lower decks of the Christian movies oeuvre which are done with TV movie budget and talent. “They’re typically low-budget and star actors who have faded from the spotlight, or never really got into the spotlight in the first place. I also think, narratively, they don’t really challenge anything. They just feed audiences their beliefs back to them in an easily digestible way. And in the case of some films, they can actually be harmful in the messaging. I think that kind of messaging tends to give general audiences a distaste for Christian films,” positions Newby.
Newby sees that part of the current Christian movie landscape attends to the political right leanings as an answer to the so-called “wokeism” of Hollywood. While Martins adds that there are layers to Christian movies as there are to those of Christian faith, as they can range from Catholicism to Protestantism and other designations.
“Among this new wave of Christian movies, we can see the most current theological division that exists within the church. By the time you have conservatives values represented on the screen with Sound of Freedom (2023), which was promoted by former Vice President Mike Pence and other conservative media companies across the country, there are more progressive options being released as well, such as The Birth of a Nation (2016), or Selma (2014), two movies that bring the African-American struggle for freedom to the big screen,” affirms Martins.
For Newby, movies on historical figures and other styles have Christian values embedded in their plot without being outright ‘Christian movies.’ ‘Look at the films of Darren Aronofsky: The Whale (2022), Mother! (2017) and Noah, these are films rooted in Christian storytelling and ideals.”
“Take a film like The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), which was a major success, grossing over US$ 300 million worldwide, because of the star power of Will Smith, and the universality of the story. It has Christian tenets, but it isn’t being sold outright as a Christian film, which I think more often than not alienates a broader audience. When a Christian film can make those kinds of numbers, even US$ 200 million, then I think we can truthfully say it’s a mainstream success,” evaluates Newby.
If going by the box office parameters of movies like The Pursuit of Happyness, Christian movies have a mountain to climb; nevertheless, by comparing the recent productions to their not-so-distant past counterparts it can be noted the evolution in budget, talent and technical aspects. Like the series The Chosen (2017 -) which has been lauded by Paul Schrader who is not only a talented director and writer but also a competent cinema historian with deep knowledge of Christianity’s dogmas and its history.
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