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April 12, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Industry | April 12, 2007 |

Welcome to Jesus, Etc., the first of what could wind up being a monthly(-ish) column devoted to rounding up the film and TV news of that most ungainly of genres, that often slimy confluence between belief and the bottom line, the faith-based market. I’ve taken the task upon myself of rounding up any items of note in the field for a few reasons: (a) I’ve appointed myself as Pajiba’s default religion guy, since I grew up in a Southern church and went to a Southern private religious university, which in addition to giving me something to work out for the rest of my life (and the ability to read shape notes) instilled in me a deep distrust of the kind of extremist zeal you typically see in Christian films; (b) No one else really wanted to do it; and (c) As a liberal Christian, I’m accustomed to not quite fitting in, whether I’m in the gun-toting flag-waving immigrant-hunting gay-lynching overweight haven that is Texas, or in the Godless abortion-loving drug-addled streets of L.A., where men are openly having sex with other men on street corners and everybody hates the troops. And for those of you who bought into either of those stereotypes, hopefully the fact that I’m doing this column and trying to shed a little light on the good and bad — often very bad — aspects of faith-based media will remind you that, ultimately, there’s more that unites than divides us, namely, that those of us who believe think that faith-based movies are just as bad as all you unwashed pagans other folks do. That’s why I want to use this space to point out the good stuff (if I find any) as well as the bad stuff. And with that in mind:

Who’s ready for some SpiritainmentTM?

Yes, SpiritainmentTM, the trademarked term for the kind of feel-good films that the semi-newly formed Good News Holdings wants to produce. The company’s co-founder and chairman is George Barna, the head of research firm The Barna Group and a pretty big name in Evangelical circles and emergent churches; he’s also responsible for other Stephen Colbert-level terms, like “theolographics,” which he uses to refer to the “spiritual practices, beliefs, and self-identification of individuals.” (I guess.) But what’s so ballsy about SpiritainmentTM is that Good News Holdings is retroactitively claiming films that fit into their brand-new warm-fuzzy genre that, according to their recent hardcover ad in Variety, celebrate “virtue, passion, courage and forgiveness, embodying the best of the human spirit.” That’s cheating. OK? Cheating. You can’t just create a new brand of film for your marketing campaign and decide that some of the most-loved American films of the 20th century — the ad lays claim to To Kill a Mockingbird and It’s a Wonderful Life, among others — now belong to you. To balance that out, Good News plans to make its own films, like the horror flick Dudleytown, which relates to SpiritainmentTM because, um … serial killers need God? It’s not really clear at first. Then again, slightly righteous posturing combined with a willingness to make the kind of cheap splatter flicks that clean up on DVD and overseas makes it seem that SpiritainmentTM (where all the films are Christastic!) is really all about the bottom line. It’s right there in the ad, actually: “Entertainment plus faith = box office success.” I think a little part of me just died.

In other vaguely hypocritical but not that surprising news: Lionsgate has acquired the rights to a series of nonfiction books by Christian author Lee Strobel and also inked a distribution pact with Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson Inc. The Strobel deal will see Lionsgate distribute a series of documentaries based on Strobel’s books: The Case for Christ, The Case for a Creator, and The Case for Faith. The Thomas Nelson arrangement also makes a certain amount of sense for Lionsgate, which is looking to curry favor with Christian audiences who probably wouldn’t go in for some of the label’s more popular films, like Saw, Cabin Fever, and the deeply disturbed House of 1000 Corpses. Lionsgate also hopes to help wrangle the Christian market with its upcoming guaranteed-to-suck The Christmas Cottage, based upon a painting by Thomas Kinkade (strike one) and starring Jared Padalecki (strikes two and three). It isn’t news that Hollywood is all about the bottom line. And it also isn’t news that the quickest way to get that bottom line is to make a film that appeals to the broadest number of people in the blandest way. And I guess it really isn’t news that they’re taking advantage of some people’s faith, which for many is a private and even precious thing, that can’t be bought with slick marketing. Then again, The Passion of the Christ made $370 million in the U.S. alone and was marketed in kiosks inside churches, so what do I know?

Not to be outdone by those punks at Lionsgate, the Weinstein brothers are also getting into the act, bringing all the class and panache that made Miramax such a powerhouse of goodwill in the 1990s to the Christian scene. Harvey and Bob will finance, co-produce and distribute the film version of Max Lucado’s The Christmas Candle. (Seriously, trading on Christmas is just too easy with this crowd; if someone writes a book called The Easter Miracle When Daddy Came Home: A Soldier’s Story, it’ll get snapped up even faster.) Lucado is another well-known name in certain Southern circles; he even attended my alma mater, which fact has been known to split more churches than actual doctrinal beefs. His writing is cornball and more than a little manipulative, which makes it perfect for the screen; it won’t even have to be dumbed down.

Well, this whole thing started out a little brighter, didn’t it? I honestly didn’t plan this version of a round-up to be some half-windy, half-depressed lament for the fact that Hollywood’s reach for cash has gone just a little deeper into the areas that, frankly, it probably shouldn’t. There are a lot of great movies about God out there, but they usually wind up getting made outside the system. Left to its own devices, Hollywood doesn’t give us The Apostle; it serves up Kinkade and Lucado. So I’ll try and take this out on a slightly better note, with a little Lyle Lovett:

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. Most days he’s the tyranny of evil men, but he’s trying, Ringo. He’s trying real hard to be the shepherd. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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Jesus, Etc. / Daniel Carlson

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