Filmmaker Russ Doughten is a study in contrasts. He helped produce the 1963 horror classic The Blob, but the 20 Christian films he has made since are virtually unknown to the unchurched. His four films about the end times—A Thief in the Night, Image of the Beast, A Distant Thunder, and The Prodigal Planet—are the most popular video rentals in Christian bookstores, according to the trade magazine Bookstore Journal.
Though his films have won 33 Christian awards, the 63-year-old Doughten has had neither time nor budget to make the type of movie that would attract secular audiences. His videos are in only a few hundred of the nation’s thousands of video rental outlets. He considers his competition to be the secular television, film, and video industry. “They are the ones who are getting the hearts and minds of people glued to the theater or television screen. I have to ask how I can do something that will get people’s attention. I have a responsibility to the Lord to make my films better than the world’s—if I can.”
Doughten’s last project was The Shepherd (1984), but he has not made a new film for six years. He hasn’t had enough money for even one of 35 new projects he would like to start. For example, he would like to make a film about the Dead Sea Scrolls and their relevance to the end times. And he would like to add a fifth to the four best-selling films listed above. But Armageddon would be far more complicated and very expensive because of special effects and production costs.
Major changes in the technology and economics of the film industry account for his inability to mount a new production—from scripting ideas to raising money and marketing films. And churches use fewer 16-mm films due to the growth of the video industry. He sees the biggest problem as the “low profile” of Christian films in the mind of the average Christian consumer. He believes the 40 to 60 million evangelical homes would welcome his films, but there is no channel to get them there. “National visibility is unavailable,” he says, even though Christians’ demographic profiles are nearly identical to those of non-Christians in their use of video.
He made Thief with volunteer labor in 1973 for $61,000. Merely redoing it as done in 1973 would cost a half-million dollars today, he says. Doughten would prefer to tackle new projects, but money is short—due in part to the unique constraints of the Christian film market. “Secular films can have a profitable run in the theaters, and then whatever they make in video sales and rentals is gravy,” he says. “With Christian film, there is no theatrical market. There’s only sales and rentals, and rentals don’t mean wealth. We sell a video to the rental store. They rent it over and over, but they only pay us once. That’s fine, because we want people to see the film. But we also want to make enough money to stay in business and make more films.”
Doughten, who has his master’s degree in film from Yale, is at peace with his calling as a Christian filmmaker. His goal is not to make blockbuster movies but to reach people. Thief alone is said to have reached hundreds of thousands for Christ.
“One of our goals is to get our films in the secular video stores so [the unreached] will see them,” he says. “We have found that when we have our films in the video stores, they are selected along with other videos. And often people will call or write, asking how they can receive Christ.
“But in most respects, we haven’t even broken through the sod yet. People aren’t aware of us. But wonderful opportunities are ahead of us, and that’s what keeps me going.”
By Steve Rabey.
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