About the time Americans began watching feature-length movies in their living rooms, Christian film producers responded with “talking-head” videos of popular authors and speakers. Usually rented to churches to be used in small-group settings, they were hardly the stuff to compete with Star Wars. But recent sales figures suggest those producers have come a long way in joining the video revolution. “In 1986 when we started handling video, only 480 of our 6,500 Christian accounts bought video from us,” said Rob Murphy, video coordinator for Spring Arbor Distributors, the largest Christian distributor of books, music, and video. “Now 3,000 of our stores carry video. In 1986, a best seller would sell 3,000 units a year. Now, we have a number of products that have sold over 100,000.”

In spite of the growth, however, Christian video remains in the media minor leagues. Video versions of popular movies such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade may sell more than 5 million copies at retail. And while secular lists include some 50,000 secular titles, with as many as 400 new releases every month, there currently are fewer than 1,500 Christian titles available, with 10 to 25 new titles appearing every month.

Distribution poses an obvious problem. Christian videos are generally found in Christian bookstores, which number some 6,600 across the country, compared with tens of thousands of secular outlets—seemingly one on every corner. In addition, only about 25 percent of Christians go into Christian bookstores, and, according to the Barna Research Group, few of those customers think of Christian bookstores as a source for prerecorded videocassettes.

Most industry experts agree, however, that quality and cost pose the greatest barriers to the growth of Christian video and film.

Steve Fassl, manager of a Christian bookstore in Illinois and author of How to Have an Effective Ministry with Video, describes the quality of most Christian films (and their video versions) as “atrocious.”

“You’re asking a generation of people who have seen Star Wars, E.T., and Rocky to sit down and watch a film where the dialogue is corny, the settings are cheap, and the special effects are poor,” Fassl said. “And they have to plunk down 40 to 50 dollars to purchase these things!”

Paradoxically, consumers pay more for Christian videos. Popular secular films like Batman sell for as little as $10 and rent for as little as 50 cents, while most Christian videos sell for $40 or more. In fact, some Christian films are not available for sale and must be rented at prices of $45 or more.

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One reason for these glaring differences is found on the big screen. Secular movies make most of their money in theaters; when they reach video, they may have already made huge profits. Christian films and videos, however, must make all their money on sales and rentals. As a result, many don’t even show a profit.

Kid Vids

Though prices have been high in the past, Spring Arbor’s Murphy said Christian producers are lowering their prices. “Now there’s a number of items with a suggested retail of $9.95, $12.95, or $14.95,” he said.

Murphy also sees quality improving, led surprisingly by children’s video features. One of the biggest recent successes in Christian video is McGee and Me, the popular children’s series produced by Focus on the Family and distributed by Tyndale House. The first five installments hold down the top five spots on Bookstore Journal’s video chart and have sold a combined 500,000 units.

A number of factors—including pricing, production quality, and the influence of Focus on the Family—have led to the series’ tremendous success. In addition, Tyndale has pioneered some innovative marketing plans, including a promotion through Chick-fil-A, a chain of fast-food restaurants that has previously done Christian concert promotions.

Another popular series is Hanna-Barbera’s Greatest Adventure series, distributed to Christian stores by Sparrow. Many hope the creative and financial success of these “kid vids” will pave the way for more and better adult productions.

Impact In Church

As more and more pastors, production companies, and ministries gain access to video-production tools, products will become more plentiful and consumer prices will go down. Already, according to the Christian Booksellers Association’s Suppliers Directory, 170 companies offer video products.

But the ease with which video can be produced also means the quality of production and teaching may suffer. That concerns Ziden Nutt, president of the International Christian Video Association (ICVA). He hopes the ICVA will select a “seal of approval,” to be used for evaluating film content, at its next organizational meeting in Denver in July.

Another frequently mentioned concern is that video attacks literacy and weakens the historic Protestant commitment to the written word. But ICVA’s Nutt believes that “video enhances print publishing.” “Many of our members are combining the print media with video,” he said. “Plus, a lot of people will be more interested in a book because they’ve seen a flashy 15-minute presentation on video.”

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In spite of its growth, video has had little effect on the stalwart of church media programming, the 16-millimeter film, according to Paul Marks, owner of Denver’s Visual Aid Center and a consultant to the organization Christian Visual Media International. “Video doesn’t approach the quality of film,” Marks said. And new products, he points out, often cost the same to rent in video or film. “Film might be replaced, but not by video. Maybe by something still down the road—like laser projection.”

By Steve Rabey.

VCRs on Campus

For many Christian colleges, the video revolution has put a new twist on long-running debates over rules governing student entertainment. With VCRs affordable even to many college students, administrators are scrambling to formulate new policies that permit legitimate uses of the technology.

Biola University, for example, has chosen an educational route to deal with potentially questionable material, said David Young, dean for student relations. “We try to have chapels that talk about the issues of pornography and sexual stereotyping, but our position is that we wouldn’t resolve all the problems by not allowing students to have VCRs.”

At Houghton College, students are expected to exercise good judgment with respect to their choice of entertainment. However, the school’s residence-hall staff “would do some counseling if a person were abusing that privilege,” dean of students Robert Danner said.

Some institutions refer to the film-industry ratings code in establishing guidelines. Wheaton College, on the other hand, articulates general principles in its statement of student responsibilities. “If we knew of a VCR being misused, we wouldn’t have any hesitation to confront that issue and deal with it,” said Ruth Bamford, associate dean of students.

A small number of schools have chosen to prohibit student-owned VCRS altogether. Each dormitory at Spring Arbor College, however, has a unit that may be rented, provided that students have their viewing fare—nothing rated beyond PG-13—approved in advance.

At Taylor University, students are not permitted to own VCRs, either in dormitories or in off-campus housing—at least for now. The policy was hammered out “during about two years of argument and debate and study,” said dean of students Walt Campbell, and the student senate is on record in favor of it. But in light of daily requests to revise the policy, Taylor may take another look at it.

Though policy debates are far from over, the real goal, said Biola’s Young, is to help students internalize high standards and arrive at scripturally based entertainment decisions.

By David Baird.

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