Homeschooling Dad and Founder of Advent Film Group George Escobar
George Escobar, director/writer/producer of the new movie “Come What May,” is a homeschooling dad who made a radical decision a few years ago. He chose to leave a fast-paced career as a Vice President of Product Development for Discovery and Executive Director for AOL/Time Warner to start Advent Film Group, an organization dedicated to raising up a new generation of filmmakers. Just one week before his new film Come What May releases on DVD on March 17, we talked with George about the career move, working with homeschooled students, and his new filmmaking model.
It’s a big career change to go from working with some of the top entertainment and communication companies in the world to creating films with homeschooled students. What prompted that transition for you?
George: The move from basically a Hollywood-run industry to the Christian filmmaking side was a mutual one. The inspiration for that really came from Sherwood Pictures. I had an opportunity to speak directly with Stephen Kendrick at the San Antonio Independent Film Festival back in 2006, and he really challenged me to consider the fact that I had been given opportunities from the Lord, and what was I going to do with them? Who was I working for?
That was a great conviction, so I got down on my knees and cried out to the Lord, saying, “Lord, this is all yours. I don’t want to do this any more for myself.” Three months later Advent Film Group began. When the Lord wants something done, He brings people and circumstances to make it happen.
When you started Advent, what did you have in mind as the future of the Group?
George: Because of my background with Discovery and AOL, I was forced to think strategically. With those organizations, I was responsible for advanced products, so I looked through the same lens at the Christian marketplace.
I asked two fundamental questions. Where are Christians involved and most effective, and where is the Lord leading? What is He blessing? Putting those two things together resulted in the business plan and mission of Advent Film Group.
It is to raise up and train the next generation of Christian filmmakers, because I felt if my generation was doing an effective job over the last 20 years, then really, we should have been the ones qualified to direct the big-budget Christian-themed, Christian-authored movies like Amazing Grace and the Chronicles of Narnia. But we’re not, and there’s a problem with that. We can’t keep doing the same things over and over and expect different results, so let’s turn the whole film school model upside down.
We also want to work with Christians that are already hard at work in the industry. How can we utilize their talents and become mentors to the next generation?
Finally, in looking at what the Lord is blessing, I looked at the track record of films that were made after The Passion of the Christ, and obviously the most successful ones were Facing the Giants and Fireproof from a budget to box office performance ratio. So I wanted to adopt that model. It really comes down to a simple concept: make movies that serve people and serve organizations that the Lord is already working through and blessing. It seems to be really effective.
It does seem to be an effective model, but where does that leave the film as art or entertainment? When the primary purpose of a film is to serve a specific group, doesn’t that make it a tool?
George: Fundamentally, every single movie has to serve its audience, and that is done by the mindset or the worldview that’s been imbued in that particular film. When you look at the classic Hollywood training for screenwriters and filmmakers, they adopt a very secular worldview right from the start. They use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for character development, which ultimately culminates in self-actualization. But is that what the Bible teaches? Absolutely not.
So our characters need to not adapt to the secular worldview in their development. It needs to be centered on our relationship in Christ. The struggles and triumphs around that. So we begin to craft stories in a different direction that can still have the same drama and entertainment, but the heart of it begins to change.
You mentioned earlier that you’re turning the film school model upside down. What does that mean, and how did it affect "Come What May?"
George: I myself am a product of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles as a producing fellow. So I know from the inside what that feels like, and what it does to someone who’s a Christian. Again, it comes to understanding your worldview and what kinds of films you need to make.
When you go to a university for a film school, you really have to tailor your teaching and approach to the lowest common denominator, because they want everybody in the class to succeed. We just forked over $20,000 or $30,000 for one year of that film school, and you multiply that by three or four years, and you’re in it for a lot of money. I’ve met a lot of film school students, and they really don’t have a clue, outside of production, what it means to be a filmmaker.
We thought we could certainly teach production while our films are in production, but we’ll also take in those interns to teach them everything else hands-on. Business, legal, finance, sales, marketing and distribution are things you don’t get in film school.
Why pick "Come What May" as the first project for AFG?
George: We followed that model of deciding who we can serve and what issues are critical. We teach our film students that being a filmmaker is an act of rebellion. It’s built into your heart that you have something important to say; that’s why you want it up on the big screen. We try to teach them to put aside their ego and to take that passion and use it to serve someone else.
In the case of Sherwood Pictures, the Kendrick brothers were under the authority of Sherwood Baptist Church, and we sought to do the same with Patrick Henry College. Every film that we make will also have that same approach.
We prayed and asked God what story He wanted us to tell to an audience He was going to prepare and for the time He was going to have this movie out in the marketplace. At the time, who would have known the whole pro-life and abortion issue would be so critical for such a time as this? Unless you’re looking for what the Lord wants to do, you’re not going to find it.
Why did you align with Patrick Henry College?
George: That choice was driven by practicality and like-mindedness. I already lived in the same town where Patrick Henry College is located, and we’ve been supporters of the college even before it started because we’re a homeschooling family. They knew us, and we had a great working relationship already on some projects. So they were a natural partner. Plus we believe very much in their mission and vision, which is to shape culture and create leaders.
You wrote the first outline and story treatment, then brought Manny Edwards in to write the first draft of the screenplay. Why not do it all yourself?
George: That was another of those miracles. I had pitched the whole approach to the school back in 2007 and had a very successful meeting. Afterward, I went to our local library to see what I could pick up on DVD. There was a movie Manny had made called Mysterious Ways, and I pulled it out. I got interested in it because I knew he was a homeschooling dad.
I watched it and saw all the flaws and mistakes and I also saw his commentary where he revealed all the problems and mistakes and how he would fix them. I thought, “This guy is great, because he’s teachable and he’s humble,” so that’s how we began.
You’re in Virginia, but the two leads in the film are from Oregon. Can you tell us about the audition process for them and the rest of the cast?
George: It’s what I’m telling people is the “secret sauce.” There’s great talent in the speech and debate league for homeschoolers. It’s called NCFCA. They are training a lot of young men and women to become communicators for Christ. They’re teaching them to prepare for speeches and debating issues relevant to today.
At the national tournament in 2007, I posted an audition notice, and Victoria (Emmons) and Austin (Kearney), who were qualifiers for nationals that year, gave the best performances. The NCFCA is where we draw a lot of our talent from.
I auditioned 30 young ladies and half a dozen young men. The most difficult casting was really the Don and Judith Hogan roles, the parents of Caleb. This was a very specific prayer that Manny and I had.
We wanted to find professional actors. We liked the idea of them being married because we wanted them to kiss in the movie, and we wanted them to know about homeschooling, or better yet, to be homeschooling parents themselves. We wanted them to have a passion for teaching actors, especially novices, and they needed to have five weeks available to do the film with us.
The Lord filled every single one of those requirements with Ken and Karen Jezek.
How did you prepare them for that kind of role in your production? Usually the cast is on much more even ground.
George: They came prepared themselves. We worked through the script and had some rehearsal periods before we began filming. I had a lot of confidence in them because they knew the mindset homeschoolers have because they’re homeschooling parents themselves. So they knew the approach to teaching homeschoolers. All of that culminated not just in great performances for themselves, but also in how they were able to help our young actors.
How did the first few days of production go?
George: Originally, we scheduled two weeks of rehearsals and technical training, but our schedules got turned upside down. Victoria Emmons’ schedule got changed because of conflicts with a band she has with her sisters (Emmons Sisters) in Grants Pass, Oregon. Then Kenny and Karen couldn’t come out until a week before. So everything got changed.
Instead, we stretched the training period out over a longer time. For the first couple of weeks, we trained the students for the first two or three hours of the day, then we would film what we had just trained on in the afternoon. Another approach we took was using three cameras: A, B, and C. Typically, in a production, you only use an A camera, and if you’re lucky, a B camera. We decided we needed a C camera that was always going to be manned by a student so they’d always be right in the mix of the production.
It’s costlier in terms of lighting set-up. Sometimes you’ll get amazing footage from the C camera, and other times it’s not that good. But at least it’s a real training opportunity because it’s the students doing it hands-on.
How did you select the crew? Did they audition as well or did you put out a general call-out?
George: We did a general call-out, but weren’t able to accept all the applicants. Again, it was just prayer to the Lord. We said, “You know our situation, and we cry out to You to bring the people that You want to work on this.” Every step of the way, we followed the Sherwood Pictures model: pray and the Lord will answer your prayer. It comes down to a question if He wants this film done, and He definitely did. We had a miracle in our funding, and that was the biggest one of all.
We started Advent Film Group in January of 2007. April 2007 is when we really needed things to kick in after doing all this paperwork with the SEC. Our shooting date was July 9, and it was a hard starting date because that’s when the facilities at Patrick Henry College were available to us. That’s not a lot of time to raise $300,000. Even though that’s considered a micro-budget movie by Hollywood standards, it’s still a very daunting task.
I went out to Hollywood with my business plan and talked with some friends. They thought it was very doable, but said I’d need to hire a sales force to call people, especially investors. They said I’d need to talk with 30 people before I’d find one investor.
Well, the Lord wasn’t interested in a 30:1 ratio, or even a 10:1 ratio. He gave us 1:1. I got home, and the Lord literally brought 12 investors one after the other. I talked with all of them and they invested 100%. After we finished principle photography five weeks later, the Lord brought eight more investors our way. Again, I didn’t call them, they all called me, and it was 100% with them. In fact, the last two were fighting over the last share.
George Mueller, who had an orphanage back in the 1800s, said that what the Lord orders He’ll pay for. So that validated things for us. The Lord extended that to distribution, and we had terrific offers. We ended up with one of the most successful Christian distributors right now, Provident Films.
You had an interesting “virtual release” with the American Family Association and GodTube. How did that happen?
George: It all boils down to the original premise we had of asking how to use this film to serve God’s people. The movie was just about ready in October, and as we prayed, the answer “Show it for free during the election” cycle came. Maybe it would change the mind of people to vote for pro-life candidates.
So I started looking into how much it would cost us, and I got bids of $35,000 to $100,000 to screen the movie. Obviously, we couldn’t pay that, then suddenly I got calls from GodTube and American Family Association asking what they could do to help promote the movie. I gave them this crazy idea of showing it for free and they loved it.
They showed it for free, which effectively does a couple of things. It’s like a theatrical release in that you’re raising awareness about the movie in a big way, yet you don’t have to spend all that money to get it known out there. Fundamentally, if you did a theatrical release for this kind of movie, only two people make money: the theater owners and the distributor. The producers get very little, if any at all.
So we were able to generate huge awareness, and hopefully that will pay off when the DVD releases on March 17. It also does another thing. It allows us to retain the theatrical and non-theatrical rights for the movie.
By retaining those rights, we can use the movie to help raise funds for pro-life groups and Christian ministries who want to underwrite theatrical screenings or show it at churches. They can sell DVDs and do all the fundraising they want with the movie.
What’s next for Advent Film Group?
George: We have a slate of films in place, and it’s kind of the same investor story. We haven’t released our private offering yet, and we’ve already received seven investor offers, one of which happened this morning. It’s amazing, especially in today’s economy.
What encouragement do you have for other filmmakers?
George: The Lord is moving big time in this area, but the fundamental premise is how can you serve His kingdom? If that’s not your heart, how can He bless it? It’s that simple. You have to confound the wise and the world, and the Lord is doing that by having these films come out of these tiny little towns: Purcellville, Virginia, and Albany, Georgia.