So when I was hired to review Christian movies exclusively, my poor bosses spent weeks helping me see the issues: the difficulty of uniting lofty-minded filmmakers with values-driven audiences, the absence of good scripts, the problem of distributing “edgy” material through churches and Christian retail, the limited talent pool, the difficulty of scheduling the few talented cast and crew together on the same project, and the overall inability to define what makes a “successful” Christian film. So, I bit my tongue and tried to be encouraging. About the same time, I put my money where my smack-talking mouth was. After years of script doctoring for secular screenwriters while raising my kids, I made an entrance into the Christian film industry. And then I saw it. With literally hundreds of voices, opinions, and inexperienced players involved in every single movie project, it’s a miracle that anything EVER gets made.
So I began appreciating the people who work against all odds to get a decent film made. I also began to recognize when filmmakers were getting things right. And as an unprecedented number of Christian films hit theaters this year, I hoped for the best. I hoped for financial profits, for nods from curious Hollywood studios, and for support from the Christian audiences and critics.
But after a couple of box-office failures discouraged me this year, the critics’ terrible treatment of Left Behind this weekend nearly snuffed out my last ray of hope. Almost across the board, Christian reviewers hammered nails into the coffin of a $15+ million dollar production involving an A-list actor and a seasoned secular crew. Critics told their readers that it wasn’t Christian, that it failed to instruct people in our faith, that production values were below poor, and that overall it was worse than the original (C’mon, really?).
Several things miffed me about this. First, it’s crazy to ask filmmakers to stop including cheesy dialogue, conversion scenes, and sermonettes in their films, but then accuse them of not being Christian enough when they do (I’ve got a whole tangent prepared for that case!). Second, it’s a shame to smother the diversity of Christian films. Why does every film have to be a drama? Can’t we do action, comedy, sci-fi or disaster movies and stay true to the formats of those genres (think Believe Me, The Giver, and Left Behind)? Third, it’s ridiculous to call out the production and story quality of this film. Every single disaster movie ever made has mediocre character development, contrived plot lines that enable people to escape death (just think Armageddon with Bruce Willis), cases of bad acting and weak dialogue (name about any other disaster movie), and a combination of both quality and mediocre (or even poor) CGI. Left Behind is absolutely true to its genre, and it’s the closest we’ve come to duplicating a successful Hollywood film model.
But the biggest problem I saw in the critics’ panning of this film was the sheer negativity that was spread before the movie even opened. Christian audiences expect secular critics to lambaste their films. But if Christian critics mercilessly slaughter a film, then movie-goers actually cancel their plans to see it. And so the Christian critics literally kill the box office earnings on opening weekend.
We seem to have forgotten that the future growth of the Christian film industry is largely in the hands of its investors (Do the films succeed in a way that investors will invest again?). So when a movie fails at the box office, the entire industry feels it. Plus, it slows our rate of improvement. For instance, there will be no way to improve on the “disaster film” because no one will invest in another one for a good ten or more years if this one bombs the box office. It might also mean that we won’t pay big actors or hire experienced crew. How then can we get better?
Furthermore, it sends a terrible message to Hollywood, who is watching us carefully as we get our sea legs in the major markets. They are deciding whether it is worth doing business with us or setting up well-funded sister studios run by Christians, like Sony’s Affirm Films. And the more films that fail, the more we tell them that we don’t really know what we want in a Christian movie, and that they should leave us alone for another ten years until we figure it out.
So here’s the point of my rant. It’s a call to critics and critical viewers who make comments about these films on various forums and social media:
I’m calling you to a continued pursuit of grace. While Christian films are getting better every year, it is still a B-rated industry with a majority of independent film projects being released. Recognize the limitations of the film space and encourage filmmakers to improve.
I’m calling you to expand your definition of what constitutes a “Christian movie.” Stop pigeon-holing Christian films into dramatic, discourse-driven evangelism pieces, and embrace some diversity in genre and style. It really is okay just to make a disaster movie, an action flick, or a romantic comedy.
I’m calling you to recognize the years of work and political gymnastics it takes to even get a film to screen, and have respect for those who are trying. Encourage them. Support them.
I’m calling you to be Good Samaritans, to heal the wounds that are sliced into the hearts of Christian filmmakers by secular critics who pick their works apart piece by piece. I promise, they will learn from their mistakes. Do our own brothers need to pour acid on their wounds?
And for the critics in particular, I’m calling you to a higher standard of work ethic, to become better at your jobs. Anyone can complain, call out faults, and express their own personal distastes about a film. (I know because I did it for many years.) But who is the one that can offer constructive criticism, civil disagreements, and honest opinions while encouraging and uplifting? It’s one thing to discuss problem areas of a film while also highlighting its strengths (even if the strengths are few, filmmakers need to be told what they are doing right too.). It’s an entirely different thing to be mean-spirited or so brutal that audiences will not even go see the movies. We don’t need to ignore faults or give accolades where they are not deserved, but we CAN follow the Biblical principle of speaking the truth in love.
Finally, and this is a big one, I’m calling everyone to humility and servanthood. I know how easy it is to write a cutting piece of criticism that elevates me to a kind of “expert” status. I know how to write things that makes me sound more professional, more knowledgeable, more insightful or more witty than the other people out there. I can do that. In a heartbeat. (Again, I've been more guilty of this than anyone.) But I had to ask myself...who does that serve? God? The filmmakers? The audiences who want more movies to be made?
Consider your role, my critic and critical friends. Consider your impact. Consider the reason you love movies, the reason you keep watching them, and the reason you love to write about them. Then serve up your opinions from that place in your heart.