David Oyelowo, star of “Selma” and a born-again Christian, recently had an argument about Kate Mara’s nipples.
Mara is Oyelowo’s co-star in the new film “Captive,” the true-life story of escaped murderer Brian Nichols and his hostage, Ashley Smith, who persuades him to release her using the power of faith and a dog-eared copy of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life.”
Though “Captive” is a faith-based film, it pushes the genre’s carefully outlined boundaries to their limit: It’s a PG-13 movie with violent situations, in which Mara plays a meth addict with questionable parenting skills. Even worse, as an observer pointed out to Oyelowo, in one scene Mara wasn’t wearing a bra, something potentially offensive to Christian audiences.
To Oyelowo, the conversation encapsulated everything he dislikes about faith-based films: the unnecessary sanitizing of real-life situations, the “on the nose” approach to storytelling. “I’ve seen enough of them to know that in many ways it’s about, okay, the Gospel is Jesus and him being the path to light and you play that scene after scene after scene,” he said in a recent interview. “No film that you and I have watched and loved is as simplistic as that, and life as you and I have lived is not as simplistic as that, and the Bible is not as simplistic as that. I think that complexity, doubt, difficulty, unexpected cul-de-sacs, is what we all look for in a story, and in life generally.”
2014 was the Year of Faith-Based Cinema, thanks to surprise blockbusters “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven Is for Real,” in addition to a smattering of smaller hits. But 2015 has so far produced only one faith-based smash, the marital melodrama “War Room.” This is partly due to the natural life cycle of Hollywood — films greenlit in the afterglow of “Heaven Is for Real” haven’t been released yet. It also suggests a growing divide between the desires of newly empowered faith-based audiences and secular ones.
To many Christian moviegoers, weary of movies that misrepresented or ignored them, frustrated by an entertainment industry that doesn’t understand them, their newfound box-office clout offers an opportunity to put movies representing their values in front of mainstream audiences. To those same mainstream audiences, faith-based movies too often bring to mind Kirk Cameron films, with their high school A.V. club production values, cartoonishly villainous atheists, wooden acting and simplistic story lines that prize sermonizing over storytelling.
Faith-based moviegoers tend to enjoy films with overtly religious messages. Mainstream audiences regard the faith-based moviegoing experience as roughly akin to having a Bible dropped on their heads.
“In some ways, the Christian genre is a very organic thing that has grown out of this demand to see entertainment that reflects what they feel and think. That has led to some issues in terms of quality,” says Paul Asay, film critic for the Patheos.com blog “Watching God” and the author of “Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.” “[Christians] want to see these very explicit expressions of faith. They are very affirmational stories, and that really appeals to a certain audience, but that just doesn’t appeal to a whole swath of other moviegoers, Christian and not Christian. When they look at those type of movies, it feels more like church, and that’s not why you want to go to a movie.”
After years of scattered hits that seemed like cultural outliers, such as Mel Gibson’s 2004 landmark “The Passion of the Christ” and Cameron’s 2008 hit “Fireproof,” Christian filmmaking had arguably its most broadly successful box-office year ever in 2014.
“There’s certain groups of people that only watch Christian movies,” says David A.R. White, who produced and co-starred in “God’s Not Dead” and co-founded the Christian production company Pure Flix. “They don’t have cable, they don’t watch mainstream TV, they just watch Christian content. We had so many write in that they went to ‘God’s Not Dead,’ and it was their first movie in eight to 10 years in a movie theater. That opened the door to, like, ‘Oh, wow, maybe the movies aren’t a sinful place.’ When ‘Heaven’ came out, they started going more consistently.”
Christian filmmakers want to reach secular audiences, but often feel their religious principles preclude them from making necessary compromises: R-ratings, violence, drinking, even the sort of mild sexual situations common on prime-time network TV, are usually off-limits. Films that play to the base — wholesome, family-oriented films in which no one seems to ever wrestle with the finer points of faith — are safer to produce, but make it difficult for the genre to ever move beyond its specialty niche.
“Personally, I want to open it out as a conversation,” Oyelowo says. “I don’t want (faith-based filmmaking) to feel cliquey. I don’t want it to feel steeped in Christian-ese that only a certain group speak and understand, and therefore cut a bunch of people out. I’m interested in speaking to a broad audience.”
Faith-based movies are often made on the cheap (“War Room,” budgeted at less than $4 million, made more than $11 million in its opening weekend) and frequently rely on grass-roots community and church outreach instead of expensive marketing campaigns. These films can usually turn a profit without reaching into the mainstream at all.
What faith-based audiences choose not to see is another indicator of their growing power: Unhappy with what they regarded as biblical liberties taken by 2014 films “Noah” and “Exodus,” they very pointedly sent those movies to their doom. “You don’t need to appeal to non-Christian audiences; in fact, I think it hurts you,” says Phil Contrino, chief analyst for Boxoffice.com. “Look at ‘Noah.’ That tried to have a ‘Lord of the Rings’-style feel to it, and it ended up not really pleasing anybody.”
DeVon Franklin, a Seventh-day Adventist minister who produced the upcoming Jennifer Garner film “Miracles From Heaven,” cautions against viewing Christian audiences as monolithic. “When you look at the faith-based audience, it’s not one specific audience. There are a lot of different moviegoers. Some of them will go see ‘Inside Out.’ So it’s very important for us not to ghettoize the audience. When you say, ‘The faith-based audience will only accept this [one thing],’ it’s like saying, ‘The black audience will only accept this.’ It’s not true.”
Movies such as “The Blind Side,” “Unbroken” and “Selma,” so-called faith-friendly movies that subtly interject Christian principles into inspirational mainstream stories, may be the best hope of bridging the gulf between secular and faith-based audiences. They’re difficult to do well, says Rich Peluso, senior vice president of Affirm Films, the faith-based Sony subsidiary that released “War Room.” “Too many times, producers or filmmakers are thinking you can just tap into the faith-based market. They think of them as one giant group, and if you can just stick a priest in a scene, it’s going to connect with those folks, but the community is very diverse.”
For moviemakers, it’s a difficult balance to strike: Too much proselytizing will turn off all but the most devout audiences. Not enough, and faith-based filmgoers will stay home.
“The important thing is picking the right themes that faith-based audiences are going to latch onto without being preachy about it,” says Boxoffice.com’s Contrino. “ ‘Man of Steel’ is a great example of that. It didn’t shy away from the idea that Superman is a Christ-like figure. There is a way to do it, to have it both ways.”
In the meantime, the success of films such as “War Room” will probably lead to bigger budgets for faith-based films, which means bigger stars and better production values. “The more movies that are made, the better they’ll become,” critic Asay says. “When you see that kind of energy, I think it raises all boats.”
Stewart is a freelance writer.