CC.com: How did you get your beginning?
Phil: I got started primarily working in “Christian” media – specifically, Christian TV. I worked with Oral Roberts years ago when he was doing prime-time television specials for NBC. So early on I was working both with networks and Christian organizations, and I cut my teeth working for some of the pioneers in Christian television. So I got a very interesting perspective from there. All along the way I worked also in secular arenas. I directed commercials for a while and wrote a lot of television.
For the longest time I’ve have one foot planted firmly in Christian media, and the other in secular media. So today, our company Cooke Pictures is heavily involved in consulting with some of the largest churches and ministries in the country today. We work with Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, The God Channel in Europe, helping them kind of raise the bar in Christian media.
I’m also partners with Ralph Winter and Mark Thomas in TWC Films, which is a secular TV commercial company. So it’s a very interesting perspective. Or maybe I’m insane.
CC.com: What are some things you consider before taking on a client like a Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer?
Phil: Primarily, their willingness to change. The truth is, Christian media wasn’t started by producers, but by preachers. Guys like me didn’t start it. We were sitting on our hands when pastors and preachers were exploring another way to spread the message about the Kingdom. And so they went on radio and TV, and as a result, Christian media became a largely preacher-driven media. So if I accomplish anything in my life, my goal is to take us from a preacher-driven media to a producer-driven media. I want to move us from the era of TV preachers to TV producers.
I think that we see a different perspective from behind the camera, and I think we’ve hit a plateau in Christian media. Today it’s talking head, it’s preacher-driven, but people are looking for so much more. You know, when you look at secular TV, it’s all story-driven. The most popular programs in TV are movies, episodic dramas and comedies. All three are story-driven, dramatic forms. Yet on Christian TV, you rarely see any of these forms.
You rarely see high-end documentaries, or really high-end television specials. You don’t ever see episodic dramas or situation comedies. So part of our purpose for being is to ask some of these questions. Why not? Why can’t we move into some other arenas and make what we call Christian television more compelling, more interesting, and hopefully, something that will cast a wider net and draw in a bigger audience.
CC.com: Absolutely, but how does someone make that change from going from personality-driven programming to something of a broader spectrum?
Phil: In almost every case, when we’re brought in, they’ve hit a wall. Their viewership is down, their income is down, and they’re frustrated with what they’re doing. We work with people from all denominations; from Billy Graham to charismatic to evangelical, I’m focusing more on people who want to make an impact on the culture for the Kingdom of God. I don’t get hung up on a lot of theological issues. I have a PhD in theology, which is kind of weird I know. I love theology, but that’s not my real expertise. My expertise is media, and I’m looking for people that want to make an impact on the culture using media in an innovative way.
Primarily, people call us in who, for whatever reason, are frustrated with their media. Maybe they don’t like the kind of programming they’re doing, or they’re getting a response they don’t like. Or they’re frustrated with their creativity – it’s a multitude of reasons.
Here’s the core of what we’re about: My message to the church and to the Christian community is that we’ve got to change the way we tell our story in a media-driven culture. Today we live in a culture that is vastly impacted and controlled by the media. Research tells us that the average person sees 3,000 advertising messages a day. The Census Bureau just released an interesting statistic. In 2008, the average teenager will spend five and a half months surfing the web, watching TV and listening to their iPod. Five and a half months!
Now a pastor will preach to his congregation one hour, possibly two hours, at the most three hours a week, but that’s rare. Now people are watching TV and surfing the web an average of 10 hours a day, so who’s going to have the most influence? All we’re trying to do is say it’s a different ballgame. Today the culture has changed, and America has changed to a media-driven culture. So what does the church need to change in order to get our message heard in that kind of environment?
If we can change the way we communicate and present the message, it’s not about watering down the Gospel. It’s really about understanding the power of the media. If we can do that more effectively, we can start to make a bigger impact on the culture.
CC.com: Why did you pursue a PhD in theology? That’s an interesting choice for someone in the media profession.
Phil: I’m one of those nuts who loves to go to school. And I do love teaching. I taught last night at the Student Film Society at Biola University. I love going out and teaching at conferences and universities. I’ve taught at Berkeley, UCLA, and other universities all over the country.
I don’t really have a desire to be a professor, but I love teaching and I love going to class. I believe that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. Look at the natural world. If things aren’t growing, they’re dying, and I believe we need to be constantly expanding in our knowledge and experience.
I got my B.A. in Film and Television and my Master’s in Journalism. Primarily I did it because the communication field at the PhD level gets into a lot of theory, a lot of research, and I’m not really a research guy. I’m a production guy- a “go-out-and-do” guy. So I thought, I’m working with ministries at such a high level, I’m dealing with issues of faith and morality and theology on a daily basis. My dad was a pastor and I grew up in the church. I’ve always been fascinated with it. When I made the decision for theology, I combined it with kind of popular culture. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Throughout the program, I was trying to intersect popular culture with theology. That was really my passion. As a result, I think I bring kind of a unique perspective to the table when working with a client. I’m able to say to them, “Here’s how the culture is going to look at this. Here’s how it’s going to be accepted out there. And remember, in the media it’s about perception. It doesn’t matter how anointed your message is if no one is listening.
In a media-driven culture, perception is reality, and so we can bring those types of perspectives to the table. I think we’ve helped many ministries overcome things like “Christian-ese,” talking in a way that no one understands. We’ve helped the way they look – their set design, the way the program is created. I think we’ve helped them in many ways become more hip, more contemporary. Hopefully so they’re accessible to a much wider audience.
CC.com: You mentioned something that is a source of contention in many churches. You’re trying to appeal to the younger, pop culture, and the older generation is saying “Don’t throw out the things I love.” Do you address that, or do you stay away from it and let the church leaders handle it?
Phil: No, that’s a great question and a huge challenge. Every church has their own personality, and we recognize that. Every church you go to is going to have a certain theme and feel about them, and have a group they’re going to appeal to. A lot of that comes from the pastor and his personality. We work with churches and ministries helping them “brand” themselves; that’s a big part of what we do. Branding is the story that surrounds a person, organization, or product.
When you think in terms of “branding” in a media-driven culture, it’s how do we stand out from the crowd? What is the story that we tell when someone talks about our church, our ministry, my book, or my television program, or whatever. Oprah, Nike, Starbucks, all have brands, or stories that surround them.
I just wrote a book called “Branding Faith” about why some churches impact the culture and others don’t. Regal is bringing it out next spring. I’m really excited about it, because I think for the first time, it’s going to help church and ministries understand the role of branding. Most people think branding is having a cool logo, and that’s not it at all. It’s how do people perceive you, how do they perceive the organization? From a media perspective, that’s the key to them opening the door and listening to what you have to say.
So we understand the personality and the brand of what the church is all about. I had a revelation a while ago about that. A number of years ago, Joyce Meyer asked us to come in and re-brand her ministry. We wanted to take it to a younger audience and make it much more contemporary. But we wanted to make sure Joyce took it and sold it to her older supporters and partners. She went to them and said, “Look, here’s why I’m doing this. Here’s why I’m making these changes, because we want to reach a younger generation. And I believe if we don’t make these changes, us older folks will enjoy the show, but we’ll lose a generation.”
When she did that, the old folks totally got behind her. Her income went up, her funding went up, and people totally supported what we were doing. We started making dramatic changes to her television program and conferences. Now instead of having the typical worship team, she has the worship band Delirious. She’s doing conferences with Darlene Zschech and the Hillsong team. By doing that, she’s lowered the median age of her audience, and has been very effective in reaching a younger generation.
But we did it very carefully and got the older people behind us. They thought it was very cool because they want to reach younger people too. I think if you can teach people that being a Christian is about outreach, not inreach. It’s not about making TV or church comfortable for us, but taking the kind of risk that will go out and reach this culture and generation for the Gospel. When we understand that, then I think we’ll start really making a difference.
CC.com: Have you ever consulted with someone who didn’t want to use the ideas you presented?
Phil: It happened just a few weeks ago with a major national ministry. I’m negotiating with a publisher for a book called “The Change Revolution.” I did it because after spending 20-30 years doing this, I know about the difficulties of change. In my research for the book, I’ve discovered that change is the hardest thing people will ever do. In the book, I cite a study that shows that 90% of open-heart patients go back to their old lifestyles after a couple of years – the same lifestyle that caused them to have surgery in the first place. If the threat of death doesn’t make you change, what in the world will?
People just hate change. So, many times I’ll go into a ministry and they’ll have seen someone like Joel Osteen or Ed Young and think, “They’re cool, they’re hip, and I want to be that way.” But once we come in and explain what needs to happen to reach a bigger audience, they ultimately find it very tough.
Some people think we’re crazy. When I started out 20 or 30 years ago, this was radical stuff and I was hated and reviled. Today, we’ve seen a dramatic change, and people understand. It’s not about compromise or watering down the message, but presenting it in a way that people will understand. So I don’t get as much criticism as I used to.
I do get quite a bit of criticism on my blog at philcooke.com because I’m trying to call the faith-based media and community up to a higher standard. So I’ll write stuff about bone-headed things we do in the media, or in large churches, and I’ll get criticism. But I think we’re not going to get better unless we can all have an open conversation about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. So I love it when people call me and say, “Hey, man, what were you thinking when you did that television show? That was dumb.” Because we’re never going to get better unless we can do that.
CC.com: What’s one of the biggest bonehead things you’ve done that you’ll admit to?
Phil: There’s so many! We make mistakes; we’ve done commercials and promos and shows that have failed. I believe if you haven’t failed, you’re not accomplishing much, so I tell the people on my team to fail gloriously. I want to fail not because we didn’t try but because we tried too hard or reached too far. If you’re really trying to break new ground and be innovative, then you’re going to fail.
Fortunately, we’ve got a great group of clients that we’ve sold on that concept. So they’re very encouraging and realize we’re not going to get to the next level if we don’t make a few bonehead moves on the way. So most of my mistakes have been overreaching or from trying something new and different. Part of it is because we try to be as transparent as possible here on our team. We’ve got 8 or 9 full-time people and a bunch of free-lancers that are virtually full-time. We come in the morning, sit around a conference table, and anything is up for criticism.
“OK – that spot that went out yesterday. How did we do? Is there anything we could have done better? What mistakes did we make?” So we’re in this constant brainstorming, how can we do this better mode. As a result, we don’t make as many mistakes as I think we would have otherwise.
CC.com: You recently had an interesting exchange with Paul Crouch (VP of TBN) on your blog. How do you feel when there’s some controversy stirred up? Does it affect you personally?
Phil: Paul and I are great friends. We go back many years. I wrote on my blog recently that the difference between my blog and a lot of others is that I have a real risk in what I write. It’s what I do for a living – it’s how I pay my bills. Yet I’m criticizing many of the people I’ve worked with in the past and may work with in the future. I’m going to put that in God’s hands.
Paul was really great about it. I wrote the original post about something TBN did – I don’t even remember what it was – that I sent it to Paul and told him, “Hey, check this out. I’d love to hear your response.”
And he jumped right in – he was game for it. He took everybody to the mat. He was so into it that he wrote a response, and people wrote him back; he wrote three times. That’s what I like! His greatest challenge is taking TBN to a new level. He’s done some amazing things and I’ll be the first to defend him. He brought in “Travel the Road” and “Drive Thru History,” and they’re bringing on a new idea called “Innovate.” They’re looking for new programs and are saying, “Hey, we’re looking for new programs. Send us something, if it looks interesting, we’ll air it for free.” It’s a cool thing. So he’s trying desperately to innovate.
I think he’s got a tough road to hoe, and I’m there to help and support him. It doesn’t mean that I’m behind a lot of what TBN does, but I can tell you that he’s really trying to turn this giant ship, and we all need to support that.
I’ve had a few posts that I’ve done in the year and a half I’ve been blogging when I’ll say something about ministries, so they don’t want to have anything to do with me. One guy (the head of a major Christian network) wrote me and said, “It’s taken me two weeks to put this e-mail together. I cannot believe how much you must hate Christian television.” He really missed the point.
Every once in a while I’ll get somebody who’s really hardcore and they’ll hate my guts. But my point is that we’re never going to fix these things unless we can talk about them.
The movie “Galaxy Quest” came out a few years ago that made fun of Star Trek. But when you saw it, you knew the guy who wrote it loved Star Trek. He made fun of the show, but did so in a very endearing way; it was almost a love letter to Star Trek. That’s what I want to be about Christian media. I want to be a critic and call it to a higher standard, but I want to do it in a way that says, “We’re on the same team here, so let’s do this better.”
I’m not writing about theology and personal preference, but perception. It doesn’t matter to me if you have a jet, especially if you’re in international ministry. You’re not going to get Billy Graham or Joel Osteen through an airport without getting mobbed by well-wishers and fans. It just doesn’t work. So there are things that people think are excesses, but they are effective for ministry.
I’m not against jets and nice salaries; I’m just saying that we need to step back sometimes and ask how the world would view that, and how it damages our witness. So I’m about media, the perception of the media, and how the greater audience views what we’re doing. Is it really worth it to have the yacht, 6 or 8 luxury cars, the beach house in Laguna? You may be able to justify it somehow, Biblically or scripturally, but how much more does it damage the cause of Christ to the culture?
It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but perception. So a large part of what I try to do is get people to understand perception in a media-driven world.
CC.com: There was an article on Variety.com’s website about expectations (both lifestyle and personal) for people who go into Christian media (music or film). They maintained that if you don’t want to live under those expectations, you should choose the secular route. What are your thoughts about that?
Phil: That’s true. There’s no question if you’re singing for a Christian audience, there are different expectations than if you’re singing in Hollywood at the Troubadour Club. There are 3 major markets out there. One is the explicitly Christian world: Christian radio, TV, websites, etc. I’m not against that. There are gay channels, outdoor channels, food channels, home remodeling channels, etc. Why not have a Christian channel? I’ve got no problem with that. Christians have every right to create channels with Christian programming.
My problem with that is when they think they’re actually impacting the greater culture, because they’re not. No one can prove definitively that Christian radio, TV, or websites are actually making a huge dent in the culture for the Gospel. In fact, in the biggest age of Christian media ever, Barna reports that Christians have the same divorce rate as everyone else. Their TV viewing habits are identical to non-Christians, and many other benchmarks that used to distinguish Christians have been thrown out the window. So Christian media’s not having a huge impact on the culture.
The other world is the mainstream world, and there are a lot of Christians who feel called to work in that world. I work in Hollywood, along with thousands of other Christians, and you know many of them who don’t make explicitly Christian movies or TV shows, but they work at NBC or MTV or CBS and Dreamworks. They want to be a light in that environment and culture. I’m all for that!
I think Christians should be making movies for those markets. If we’re ever going to get the Gospel out there, we’re going to have to do that.
Then there’s this new thing that’s opened up recently. It’s called “faith-based media.” My understanding is that of today, there are 7 major studios that have faith-based marketing divisions. Some major commercial companies in town have faith-based divisions. I think most have no clue what it means, but they’ve heard there’s money there, and so they jumped in. They have no clue what being a Christian means. In fact, Sony truly believed “The DaVinci Code” would be embraced and loved by Christians. They thought that was going to be the ultimate faith-based movie, but they don’t get what Christianity is about. So that’s a problem.
I don’t have any problem doing films for that market. The name “Fox Faith” could be problematic because you might alienate a lot of people who would choose to watch the movies, but wouldn’t want to watch a “Fox Faith” project. The concern I have about this is the studios are being flooded with scripts, pitches and ideas, and because the executives don’t know the market, they’re picking some pretty lame stuff. I worry that in 6 months or a year from now, they’re going to look back and say maybe the faith-based market isn’t legit at all. They’ve been told there are 71 million evangelical Christians out there, but if they’re not buying tickets they’re going to think something’s wrong.
It’s not because there’s not a good audience out there but it’s because they’re picking the wrong projects. So when I talk with Christians, I tell them to pitch their best work to the studios, and make sure it’s marketable. Make sure you’re passionate about it and don’t give us lousy stuff. It’s going to be critical what goes through those gates in the next year or so.
CC.com: What would you select as the top 3-5 faith-based films you’ve seen so far?
Phil: I’m skeptical about most, to be honest, and I’m going to be controversial right now. I wish the Christian community of filmmakers would model more after the independent film movement in America. For instance, I was at the Sundance Festival. Those directors come out of music videos and commercials, and they know who the leading edge performers are - the up and comers. Music videos and commercials are the leading edge of the media business. We own a commercial production company, and we do commercials for Snapple, Snickers and All-State, among others. Most of our commercials are comedies and are quick turnarounds. Ralph Winter takes 3 years to make “X-Men,” we take 3 weeks to do a commercial.
As a result, the fashion, style, writing and design are the latest, coolest and hippest. They’re the bellweather of the trends in the culture. So number one, independent filmmakers usually come out of the commercial industry, and they know what’s young and hot. Christian filmmakers - not so much. With most Christian films, for some reason, we use stars who are on the back side of their careers. We’re using Randy Travis instead of the next Cameron Diaz. All those guys are great, but there are marketability issues Christian filmmakers need to think about.
Those kind of things are important. The other thing is we need to trust the power of story-telling. I’m excited that we finally stopped doing altar calls at the end of Christian movies. Jesus never did altar calls after his parables. For so many years, we felt compelled to do altar calls at the end of movies, but we need to trust the power of the story.
It’s like Morpheus said in Matrix, “It’s like a splinter in your mind.” If you tell a great story, you may not resolve it or understand it at the moment, but it’s going to grind at you, and, sooner or later, you’re going to understand it. Even today, though we’ve gotten past the altar calls, we still feel an obligation to get an overt line in there that says, “Jesus Christ is our Personal Savior,” or something like that. I just don’t think we need to do that.
I don’t want a person watching a TV show or movie to walk out of there thinking, “Hmm, I should accept Jesus Christ.” I want them to think, “I never thought of that; I wonder about that.” I want to start that conversation.
When I did research for my doctoral thesis, I uncovered something called the Engle scale. It was created by a scholar at Wheaton University for the Billy Graham organization. He uncovered 7 distinct steps people take toward becoming a Christian. It’s not like you decide out of the blue to become a Christian one day, or the first time someone witnesses to you. Some people do that, but very few.
The Engle Scale shows 7 distinct steps. People like to think about it and weigh it in their minds. They want to hear it from different sources. What I’d like to do is see us make more films that push people along that pathway, that don’t feel obligated to always give a salvation message in the movie. I’d like to see them open a door for people to consider it. That’s a big thing for me.
When I work with non-Christians in the industry, I don’t overtly witness to them, but I do start the conversation. It’s not about conversions with me, but conversation. If I were to go up to people I work with and tell them they need to accept Jesus, they’d think I was a raving lunatic.
On the other hand, going back to my earlier comment about Christian television, there is a place for explicitly Christian movies. These would be movies for people who are already Christian, and in those, you can use the lingo all you want. But for me, I’m more interested in reaching a wider audience of non-believers.
CC.com: Speaking of that, how does a filmmaker make a movie like that and take it to a brand like Fox Faith, whose mission statement specifically says they want overtly Christian content?
Phil: I think when you look at the 2 big audiences, you need to commit. I think the biggest mistake Christian filmmakers and TV make is they don’t want to commit. They’ll make a movie they say is for the mainstream audience, but put something in that’s so overtly Christian that they turn off the audience. Or they’ll make a movie for the Christian audience, but it’s not Christian enough, so it fails.
I think when you start a project, you have to commit. If you’re going to make Fox Faith or TBN projects, great, God bless you, go for it! If you’re going to be explicit about the Gospel, be as explicit as you want to be because you’re talking to people who speak that language.
On the other hand, if you’re going to make something for a mainstream audience, let’s not beat around the bush. Understand who you’re making it for. I’d suggest you start reading Flannery O’Connor, or Walter Percy, or people like that who understand how to tell a story with a spiritual theme to that audience. I think if we learn to commit either way to the audience you’re addressing, that will make a huge difference.
CC.com: How, then, can an independent filmmaker who is ready to reach a mainstream audience do it without the backing of a Fox Faith? Also, doesn’t the marketability of a film have to do with its cast? How do you market a film without a known name in the cast?
Phil: I don’t go to Randy Travis movies – it has no marketability for me. I don’t think hiring Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) for the Last Sin Eater drove people to the theater. First, you have to tell a story and tell it well.
I see films all the time with no stars that do very well in the mainstream. I don’t purport by any means to have all the answers. If I did, I’d be a multi-guizillionaire. Film and TV are the two riskiest things you could possibly do with your life, no question about it. There are no guarantees. Get a law degree, get a job with a law firm. Get a medical degree, get a job in medicine. Get a film degree, remain unemployed. It’s very, very hard.
Looking back over the things we’ve tried and failed, it’s really a commitment. And you have to know your audience. The most successful guys in television are guys that know their audience. One of the reasons I think Paul Crouch Sr. built TBN into a such a huge global operation is they know their audience. It’s not necessarily you or me, but he knows his audience. The key to any filmmaker who wants to be successful is to know who their audience is and speak to them.
CC.com: There are people who are reporters about what’s going, there are those who are interpreters of current events, and there are the newsmakers themselves. Some of your critics would say you’re more of a commentator from the outside looking in. How would you answer them?
Phil: I’ve been involved in production my entire career. During film projects, I’ve been arrested in Nigeria during civil war, and arrested during a military coup in Uganda. I’ve been chased out of a park in Jamaica by communists. I was the first person to take a video camera to the headwaters of the Amazon. I’ve lived and filmed Bedouins in the Middle East, and fallen out of a helicopter at 2,000 feet and dangled by a rope while shooting over Kingston Harbor in Jamaica. Shooting in 40 countries around the world gives me a good perspective.
I’m a founding partner in an “A-list” commercial company in LA that represents 10 directors around the world from Bangkok to Zurich. We do commercials for “A-list” clients like All-State and Snapple. We just returned from Cannes, France where some of our directors won awards at that prestigious international advertising competition.
I’m heading up an initiative within our company to move into integrated media: cell phone programming, digital media, web-based programming, things like that. I’m in charge of the initiative there.
In the ministry world I’ve done the branding and production for guys like Joel Osteen, whose podcast was recently #9 on iTunes. Joyce Meyer does 11 versions of a daily program in 18 languages that airs globally. One of our clients is GodTV, the European Christian channel based in the UK, that reaches 380 million people around the world.
I’ve produced hundreds and hundreds of hours of everything from live television to NCAA basketball. I’ve directed live fights in Las Vegas for ESPN. That’s a wide range of production stuff. I’m finishing up a PBS documentary version of the life of William Wilberforce (The recent feature on his life from Walden Media was “Amazing Grace),” which will be all hi-def. Nine years ago I did a television program for Billy Graham called “Starting Over,” that the LA Times reported was seen by 2.5 billion people and has generated over a million phone calls for salvation globally.
Yes, I’m a commentator, critic, whatever., but I’ve spent most of my life in the trenches as a director and producer. I don’t criticize anything I haven’t done myself. I’ve worked with ad agencies, networks, marketing companies, direct mail companies, etc. I risk a lot by saying the things I do, because my clients could decide I’m an idiot and move their business.
On the other hand, I get criticized by people who tell me I should step away from the Christian world. But I’m not prepared to do that because they’ve carved out a huge market. TBN is the largest privately-held network in the world. Do we walk away from that or try to change it, to make it more effective? I’m that way with most ministries. They have a huge reach. Look at Joyce Meyer. She’s a woman with a daily program that airs in Arab countries. There’s something amazing there. If we can harness it, shape it, and help them become more contemporary and speak to the culture more effectively, it could have an incredible impact.
CC.com: Do you ever feel like there’s an earthquake going on underneath your feet because the ground’s about split with one foot on either side of the fault line?
Phil: No – I get whiplash because I’ll go to a secular commercial where the agency will spend a quarter of a million dollars for 30 seconds - then I’ll go to a ministry program where they’ll budget a quarter of a million dollars for five years’ programming for a weekly show. The margins are very small in the Christian world, so most people certainly don’t do it for money – it’s a passion.
We’re not the cheapest guys out there. I learned a long time ago not to negotiate based on budget, because there’s always some guy out there in his garage who can underbid you. This would be my advice to many of your readers. People don’t hire you for your price – they hire you for what you’re bringing to the table. I’ve learned through experience that I can keep going so low that I won’t be able to afford to do the project. So now we say, “Here’s our brand. Here’s what we can do. Here’s our expertise, and this is what we charge for it.”
Ever since we’ve done it, after carving out our niche, we found out that if people aren’t serious enough to want to invest in what they’re doing, they’re not going to be serious enough to want to do anything creatively.
CC.com: How about some personal things? Favorite vacation spot?
Phil: Lake Tahoe
CC.com: Mountain vs. beach?
Phil: I love to snow ski. My wife Kathleen (a commercial actress in LA) love to snow and water ski. So Lake Tahoe is the favorite place.
CC.com: Favorite restaurant?
Phil: It’s impossible to say. We love variety and love the fact that we can eat at a different restaurant every night in LA and never eat at the same one twice. We love Italian food, but I really haven’t encountered the kind of food I don’t like.
CC.com: What books are you currently reading?
Phil: I have a stack of 12 books next to my desk. I flew a quarter of a million miles last year and I usually throw 2 or 3 books in my bag & read on the airplane. I’m reading a fascinating book called “Punk Marketing,” which is a real radical approach to marketing. I’m reading “Sacred Causes,” which is a look at great political movements of the 20th century that were driven by faith. I just finished “A Branded Nation,” by James Twitchell at the University of Texas. It’s about branding non-profits, mega-churches, and museums. I’m also reading a collection of Mark Twain’s newspaper stories. I’m a big fan of his. I lean toward the bizarre – Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor…
I was a preacher’s kid in the South in the ‘50s, which explains why I lean toward the strange. I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, in an era when there were still White and Colored water fountains at Sears. I learned to embalm people when I was 12. I used to go to a funeral home with my dad and wander around while he was visiting with the family. The guys in the back room taught me how to embalm people. One of these days, there’s a movie about my growing up in the South. I just have a few other books I want to write first.
If there’s one thing I’d say to people out there is it’s interesting to me that I get a group of critics out there who think I’m against guys that make Christian films. Then I get a group of critics who think I’m upset at guys who make secular films. So I go back to that commitment thing I was telling you earlier. I’m not against guys who make explicitly Christian films or guys who make specifically mainstream films. I think they need to do them better, and they need to commit. I’m all for either one, as long as they’re done well.
Whatever you do, commit, and be the best you can possibly be at it. Stop worrying about it and go for it! I think if you can do that, God will honor it and I think you’ll make a dramatic difference out there.
CC.com: Where do you go for creative ideas?
Phil: There are a couple things I do. You’ll never, ever catch me without a notebook and pen in my pocket. Never. Ideas are the most fragile things in the world. If you don’t write them down, the idea that could transform your career might be forever gone. I’ve got reams of notes and little notebooks that I carry around with me all the time.
There’s also a website that’s absolutely free called jott.com. You give them your e-mail address and they give you a toll-free number. Let’s say I’m driving down the road and have a great idea. I have their number on my speed-dial, I call them, leave a message with my idea, and within 10 minutes they have it transcribed and sent to my e-mail box. It’s a brilliant thing for idea people.
I read voraciously. I try to mix it up with fiction and non-fiction. Something I’m going to blog about soon is how masterfully radical Islam is using media to communicate their message, so I’m reading a lot about that right now.
Marketing, branding books, books on advertising and creativity, even love stories. I’m all over the map. I’m also kind of a magazine addict. I think reading magazines gives you a sense of the pulse of the country.
CC.com: What would surprise people who think they know you?
Phil: I don’t know. I live a pretty transparent life. I talk pretty openly, and I try to be authentic. There’s not much privately that I do that people wouldn’t know about. I’m hyper-active, but I don’t have a prison record, and I’m pretty clean, I think.
I have an addiction to e-mail that I’m wrestling with. A few years ago I was directing this documentary on Wilberforce in London. My wife and I were waiting in the hotel lobby for some of the crew and I went to the restroom. Standing there at the urinal, a businessman next to me was looking through e-mail on his Blackberry. I leaned over to him, said, “Buddy, that’s bondage,” and he said, “You have no idea.”
I walked out of that restroom, handed my Blackberry to my wife, and haven’t touched it since. I never want to have such a compulsion to answer e-mail that I do it while I’m going to the bathroom. Yet I see people walking around offices glued to their Blackberry who can’t get through a meeting or a phone call without checking. It’s a real compulsion for some people, and I’ve written about it on my blog. People need to get free of that addiction, because it’s controlling their lives. When you find you’re answering e-mail at a funeral, or wedding, it’s time to give it a pass.