FAITH FILMS

Lessons learned from watch­ing ‘Chris­tian Net­flix’

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Jake Har­ris jhar­ris@states­man.com

Al­most three years ago, a lit­tle $2 mil­lion movie named “God’s Not Dead” opened in the­aters. The story of a Chris­tian col­lege stu­dent who chal­lenges his athe­ist phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor’s as­ser­tion that “God is dead,” it made back four times its bud­get in its open­ing week­end and went on to make a lit­tle more than $62.5 mil­lion world­wide.

The se­quel, “God’s Not Dead 2,” about a fic­tional le­gal case in­volv­ing sep­a­ra­tion of church

and state in schools, came out two years later, again in the spring and again on a shoe­string bud­get. It cost $5 mil­lion to make and eas­ily earned that back and then some on its open­ing week

end, go­ing on to earn al­most $21 mil­lion world­wide. A third movie

in the se­ries is in the works.

The com­mon fac­tor be­tween the two films (be­sides plots, bud­gets and prof­itable box of­fice re­ceipts) is a pro­duc­tion stu­dio: Pure Flix En­ter­tain­ment.

The Scotts­dale, Ari­zon­a­head­quar­tered Chris­tian film pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany was founded in 2003 by David A.R. White and Rus­sell Wolfe. Their cred­its in­clude the “God’s Not Dead” fran­chise, “Do You Be­lieve?” and the 1970s-era high school foot­ball movie “Wood­lawn.” Up­com­ing re­leases in­clude the Lee Stro­bel biopic “The Case for Christ” and Oc­to­ber’s “Same Kind of Dif­fer­ent As Me,” a true story about a Fort Worth art dealer, his wife and the home­less man they be­friend star­ring Greg Kin­n­ear, Re­nee Zell­weger, Jon Voight and Dji­mon Houn­sou.

A Pure Flix app was re­leased in 2015 and is avail­able on An­droid, iPhone, Roku and Ama­zon and can be used via Ap­ple TV or Google Chrome­cast. The stream­ing ser­vice is free for one month, then jumps to $7.99 per month. Think of it as a Chris­tian Net­flix. As of this writ­ing, there’s al­most 6,000 ti­tles avail­able on the site, all of which boast “no lan­guage, sex or vi­o­lence sur­prises.” The se­lec­tion in­cludes most of Pure Flix’s cat­a­log, as well as other faith-based films, TV se­ries, doc­u­men­taries, ser­mons, Bi­ble stud­ies and home school­ing ma­te­ri­als.

“It’s all based on what the con­sumers re­spond to, and it’s all about what we can bring to them through all the dif­fer­ent for­mats,” Pure Flix Dig­i­tal CEO Greg Gu­dorf said. “Ac­tu­ally, one of the strong­est mar­kets we have is Hous­ton, and Dal­las is one of our big­gest home school­ing ma­te­rial mar­kets.”

I have watched a pretty steady diet of Chris­tian me­dia along with sec­u­lar me­dia all my life, and I’ve al­ways been fas­ci­nated by the di­vide be­tween the two. Is it pos­si­ble to make good Chris­tian en­ter­tain­ment that ap­peals to ev­ery­one, not just Chris­tians?

I set out to find an an­swer to this ques­tion one week when I picked seven pieces of con­tent from Pure Flix’s stream­ing ser­vice to watch.

“New World Or­der,” the first film I watched, was a low-rent “Left Be­hind”type film rife with in­con­sis­ten­cies and a shaky moral premise. It’s in the “most­watched” cat­e­gory, which leads me to won­der if the tar­get au­di­ence is in­deed pre­par­ing for the end times. If so, they would be bet­ter off read­ing the Bi­ble than watch­ing this film, which im­plies that the mark of the beast will look like the Wu-Tang sym­bol and the An­tichrist will be His­panic.

About that tar­get au­di­ence — Gu­dorf told me the com­pany’s main au­di­ence is evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­fo­cused.

“Our bull’s-eye is typ­i­cally an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian house­hold, yes. But the com­mand we were given was not to just min­is­ter to evan­gel­i­cals; it was to min­is­ter to all. And so we have a pretty in­ter­est­ing mix, not just the sin­gle view of one par­tic­u­lar de­nom­i­na­tion. And our cus­tomer in­for­ma­tion re­flects that kind of broad ba­sis, from peo­ple who are Catholic, Protes­tant, even Jewish. Yes, it’s faith con­tent, but it’s also fam­ily con­tent.”

That tar­get au­di­ence was clearly in mind for the sec­ond film I watched, the Pure Flix-pro­duced and -dis­trib­uted “Do You Be­lieve?” In this Chris­tian ver­sion of “Crash,” the paths of 12 peo­ple col­lide after a pas­tor meets a side­walk preacher (played by Del­roy Lindo) who helps him clar­ify what he be­lieves about Je­sus. Other char­ac­ters in­clude Sean Astin as an athe­is­tic doc­tor who could have only been writ­ten by some­one who has only been around an­gry athe­ists (“I’m the one who saves peo­ple, yet they thank Je­sus,” he says at one point), Brian Bos­worth as a re­formed con­vict, Lee Ma­jors as a man griev­ing the loss of his daugh­ter and Sh­wayze as a gang­ster try­ing to do the right thing. There are four black char­ac­ters in this movie; half of them be­gin the film as crim­i­nals.

And if you thought “Crash” didn’t have any sub­text, con­sider this: Astin’s char­ac­ter is named Thomas, as in Doubt­ing Thomas. He re­fuses to be­lieve it when Bos­worth comes back to life after flatlin­ing for eight min­utes.

The film did make me think hard about the ways I por­tray my Chris­tian faith to the world and in­spired me to live it bet­ter. That’s the point, but I could have got­ten that mes­sage with­out see­ing mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters die sim­ply as a ser­vice to the film’s con­vo­luted plot and to the film’s main (Chris­tian, mostly white) char­ac­ters.

So, as Day 2 of Pure Flix Week came to a close, I wasn’t feel­ing too im­pressed. But then I watched “The En­counter.”

“The En­counter” is one of Pure Flix’s first orig­i­nal se­ries. It’s based on a se­ries of films that share the same name. In them, a mys­te­ri­ous man sim­ply re­ferred to as “the Man” shows up to help peo­ple out of what­ever bind they may be in. It’s later re­vealed that the man is Je­sus.

The pi­lot episode is about an am­a­teur con­ve­nience store rob­bery gone wrong, car­ried out by two broth­ers. The Man here ap­pears as the store’s clerk and helps one of the broth­ers re­al­ize the er­ror of his ways, and that in­flu­ence spreads to the rest of the rob­bery crew.

In the sec­ond episode, “U-Turn,” a high-pro­file lawyer at­tempt­ing to leave her small home­town after an ar­gu­ment with her mom at her dad’s funeral ends up on a car ride with the Man and some­one who I think the au­di­ence is sup­posed to be­lieve is the devil. Dur­ing the car ride, the lawyer comes to grips with her fa­ther’s loss and her mother’s grief at los­ing a hus­band and a daugh­ter (to the big city).

I found both episodes to be im­mensely watch­able and not too preachy. De­spite some ca­sual sex­ism in the sec­ond episode (why is it al­ways fe­male char­ac­ters who are pun­ished for hav­ing jobs “in the big city” in Chris­tian en­ter­tain­ment?), both were well-done and ex­e­cuted their premises in chal­leng­ing ways.

For Day 5 of my week of Pure Flix, I watched “It Takes a Church,” a Game Show Net­work-pro­duced se­ries hosted by Chris­tian singer Natalie Grant. Grant trav­els to dif­fer­ent churches across Amer­ica in search of el­i­gi­ble bach­e­lors and bach­e­lorettes. The catch? All the po­ten­tial matches for each con­tes­tant must come from their church.

I could write an en­tire the­sis on this con­cept and how, in at­tempt­ing to cre­ate “‘The Bach­e­lor,’ but for churches!,” the show ends up be­ing no bet­ter than the re­al­ity TV it’s try­ing to ape. But I will leave that for an­other time.

Day 6 saw a ser­mon from Bay­less Con­ley, a pas­tor at Cot­ton­wood Church in Orange County, Cal­i­for­nia, which I watched on the Pure Flix iPhone app. It was a great way to start my morn­ing, and I found the mes­sage to be in­spi­ra­tional and chal­leng­ing. The app worked bet­ter than Net­flix’s iPhone app at some points and was ex­tremely user-friendly. Gu­dorf said the com­pany just re­vamped the app a few months ago and worked out a lot of bugs.

On Day 7, I watched “Wood­lawn.” The in­spi­ra­tional sports film cen­ters on the true story of Wood­lawn High School in Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, in the early 1970s. In­te­gra­tion was just start­ing to take ef­fect, and head coach Tandy Gerelds was tasked with coach­ing his first in­te­grated foot­ball team.

This film could very eas­ily have be­come a “Re­mem­ber the Ti­tans”-meets-Chris­tian­ity mashup (in­deed, the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two films are nu­mer­ous), but it suc­ceeds be­cause the mes­sage that unity through a shared be­lief in Christ crosses all color lines is deftly han­dled. It doesn’t preach, and it lets the Chris­tian val­ues of the char­ac­ters come nat­u­rally through their ac­tions.

Through­out this week, I kept think­ing about the Chris­tian mu­sic genre in my teenage years. The di­vide be­tween sec­u­lar and Chris­tian me­dia was meant to of­fer a safe haven from the per­ils of the world. In­stead, it turned many peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion away from the sac­cha­rine mes­sages of Chris­tian me­dia and caused us to search for some­thing that felt real and not merely an at­tempt to Chris­tian­ize what Hol­ly­wood was do­ing.

The pri­mary pur­pose of films like the ones Pure Flix of­fers is to be reaf­firm­ing to the faith­ful. “Wood­lawn” makes a point about sports be­ing a uni­fier, and “The En­counter” en­cour­ages Chris­tians to look in the mir­ror and con­front their own self­ish choices.

As a stream­ing ser­vice and app, Pure Flix is top notch, and bet­ter than its com­pe­ti­tion in some re­gards. But if the film stu­dio is to ex­pand to be­come one that can min­is­ter to non-Chris­tians, it must get bet­ter at cre­at­ing its own orig­i­nal sto­ries and stop sim­ply min­ing sec­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment to cre­ate pale im­i­ta­tions of other films. Chris­tians, es­pe­cially young ones, can spot that type of in­au­then­tic­ity a mile away.

CON­TRIB­UTED

The film pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany Pure Flix has a stream­ing ser­vice that fea­tures thou­sands of faith-based films, TV se­ries, doc­u­men­taries, ser­mons, Bi­ble stud­ies and home school­ing ma­te­ri­als.

CON­TRIB­UTED

Melissa Joan Hart and Jesse Met­calfe star in “God’s Not Dead 2,” a Pure Flix film that cost $5 mil­lion to make and earned al­most $21 mil­lion world­wide.

CON­TRIB­UTED

Art­work from the movie poster for “Do You Be­lieve,” which is es­sen­tially a Chris­tian ver­sion of “Crash.”

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