(This article originally appeared in the September 21, 1984, issue of Christianity Today.)
Whether most Christians like to admit it or not, movies produced by the secular film industry have an impact on the church as well as society. A recent Christianity Today survey of readers' film interests and attendance shows that this former taboo is disappearing, particularly among younger Christians and members of the clergy who feel films help them stay in tune with contemporary life.
While many Christians lament what they discern to be ever-declining standards in films shown in the local theater, few know what, if anything, can be done to change the situation or affect positively the industry that is generally referred to simply as "Hollywood." Producer Ken Wales, an elder at Bel Air Presbyterian Church and a minister's son who has climbed the film industry ladder, recently spent some time with CT editors discussing motion pictures and the many questions that trouble Christians.
Wales studied film at the University of Southern California as recipient of the first Walt Disney scholarship. He began his professional career as an actor, and for many years was associated with writer-director Blake Edwards. He has produced numerous feature films, including The Tamarind Seed (Julie Andrews and Omar Sharifo and Wild Rovers (MGM; William Holden and Ryan O'Neal). He was also involved in producing the Ernest Hemingway story Islands in the Stream and Darling Lili, The Party, and Revenge of the Pink Panther.
In 1981 Wales received an Emmy nomination and the Golden Globe Award as coproducer of the television miniseries John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Most recently he was producer of the feature film The Prodigal for World Wide Pictures, film arm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Hollywood will not produce films for Christians because they think Christians will not go to films. How do you respond to Christians who say they are offended by films?
The film industry, in general, does not produce films on a large scale for special audiences. Filmmakers go after a story because it has several probabilities in it for success. which translate to economic gain. The elements for financial "success" include: (1) well-known, celebrity-status "star" actors or actresses; (2) "trendy topics," or a story based on a best-selling book, stage play, musical, popular person, or event; (3) a director with a high box-office track record—George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, for example.
Generally, a film has to return at the box office about three times its "negative" cost (the cost of making the film). The point at which profit becomes possible on a film varies, of course, with the negative cost of the film, and demonstrates the huge amount of money a film must "take in" at the box office to approach a profit level.
So you're saying that afilm Christians would like has little chance.
The box office history shows there must be a broader mass appeal to create a high ihonetary return to the studio. So, generally, Hollywood does not produce films specifically for Christians or any group.
Yet we do find films that contain certain elements that are "Christian." For instance, in Tender Mercies we have the character of a broken-down countrywestern singer who is taken in and befriended by a widow. She has a very strong faith, and sings in the local Baptist church choir. He becomes almost a surrogate stepfather to her young son, and he begins to attend church with her, more to please her than anything else, and becbmes more acquainted with the Christian faith. Later he says, "Yes, I want to be baptized along with the boy," and he is.
Was that film developed by Christians?
It's almost too much to say, "There was a Christian writer or director in that film who suddenly wanted to inject a witness for his faith and therefore wrote the baptism scene and fulfilled the stewardship of his vocation." It doesn't quite work that way. The writer of that story felt that baptism was a part of the southwest Christian Baptist experience, and that it would be logical for this to happen in the reality of life. So while we don't have films being produced by Christians for Christians, there are films that contain elements of Christian experience.
Christians are very quick, I believe, to look for film characters that are positive role models. The best example, perhaps, was Sound ofMusic. A number of strong,elements contributed to it becoming an "all-time" hit: the enormous popularity of the stage musical and the loveliness of the story, the memorable music and picturesque, settings, the jeopardy of World War II and the escape, and the very positive role-model character of Maria, portrayed so superbly by Julie Andrews. Sound of Music became more than just a film. It was an event.
Could you define "certain elements" a little more?
Seldom is there an R-rated picture among the extremely popular films. The public, by and large, does not want to have to view something that is extremely explicit—in the treatment of language, violence, and sexual situations. I believe more implicitness is preferable, as in the allegories by George Lucas in Star Wars. In Sound of Music we see love and romance sensitively and beautifully depicted, and personal relationships in jeopardy and solved. The total experience of our movie-going evening is positive as opposed to negative.
Perhaps the most important element is involvement. Films that are highly popular have an extraordinary power to draw the viewer right into the story. Return of the Jedi has brought in over $267 million. A former college schoolmate, director George Lucas, is going to be well set for the rest of his life—but he gave up ten years of his life to create the Star Wars series. He has said he experienced a creative and personal burnout, and is "just beginning to get things in order."
Why aren't more good films made?
No one starts out to make a "bad" or unsuccessful picture. Somewhere along the way all sorts of problems may enter in, and it begins to go haywire. Only one out of ten films is successful. With that kind of economics, the industry can only exist on the blockbusters that provide the buffer and allow the other movies to be made.
Is that because it's a high-risk venture?
I feel it is high-risk because of the foolish choices of subject matter. Hollywood continues to be an island, in many respects, and the creative forces—producers, directors, writers—are alone on that oasis. Movie-making deals made and arrangements consummated (or not consummated) represent an entire separate industry. There is too much frantic energy and money spent in all the deal making. Persons who are not qualified are suddenly producers, and so a producer who is not a filmmaker but perhaps a legal expert and financier now has the creative control over a project. It is only when there are enough creative persons who buck that system, who are willing to go up against it or work quietly within it, that somehow the films that have "heart" and a meaningful center are made.
How much of that is a quest for the blockbuster? In other words, is it "go for broke" almost every time?
Each studio wants as much as it can get. It's very much akin to what is happening in the book-publishing field. Publishing houses seek out authors who present themselves well on television, and they say, "You keep writing the books, and as long as we can put you on the talk shows, and the promotion trail and the sell market, we're going to have a hit."
Most successful Christian book companies acknowledge that you cannot go for the best seller every time. You must have a certain percentage that will be good, steady, long-range sellers, and a certain percentage that will be modest sellers but good for the company.
Filmmaking, from the very start, has been a rather strange business. There's never been an industry that has invested so little in its future in research and development. The early producers took all the money out without giving some back. We have a world in the film industry that is entrepreneurial when it really should be a creative enterprise that has the business as the by-product.
The film industry and Christians view movies from different perspectives. What does Hollywood consider a good film and what do you think Christians consider a good film?
I feel that Christians must look beyond the errors of the filmmaker. There may be something in a film that is redeeming and has much value, so let's be sure that our condemnation of language and violence doesn't blind us to the good values that may be there. Christians should not be petty in perceiving offensive material in film. At the same time, we should find ways to commend films that make a strong effort to convey Christian values and are exemplary—and, I think, this is a key thing—a "Christian vision of life." We also need more courageous Christians in the decision-making process as writers, directors, producers, actors. And, very important, we need Christians who are able financially to invest substantially large amounts of money in the initial development of desirable, well-done films.
We can start this by encouraging Christians to view films selectively and to accept film as film, and then say, "I agree or disagree with this." A film should be described as "good" or "poor" on its own merit as film. Second, Christianity Today can assist by continuing to review current and popular films. It is very important to inform viewers of films that should be seen. Third, we should urge Christians to respond to the studios and theaters with comments, both positive and negative. We especially must have positive feedback when it is deserved. Fourth, we filmmakers need to try to avoid potentially disastrous film productions where severe problems and failure are predictable.
What does the rating systemreflect for us who are Christian?
Basically, the ratings board, which is sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America, is an association of producing organizations, mainly the major motion-picture studios. The studios support the ratings board by submitting films for a rating of G, PG, PG-13, R, or X. Most films are PG; most producers desire PG because so many teenagers "wouldn't be caught dead" in a G-rated film. Peer group pressure is heavy here.
So we have a factor working on the rating system that really doesn't have anything to do with the film or the industry itself, except that it's a social phenomenon: it's not "cool" to see a Grated film. An X is equally a death knell for a film. Someone who receives an X does everything he can economically to pull it back into an R. There is a very fine line, and I have wondered why many PG films haven't dropped into an R; there is an incredible blur there.
Film companies (and even some Christian organizations producing films) either overtly or subconsciously go after a PG rating—in order not to miss the mainstream of the viewing audience, said to be the teenage audience from about age 14 on into the 20s. I think that is rather interesting, because even in trying to present values that are fine and uplifting and morally challenging, we're saying we can't really quite accept the label of goodness, that we have to compromise it a bit so that "everybody" will want to see our film. I think this is an issue that should be wrestled with.
How useful do you think the rating system is then? Do you think people pay any attention to it? Does the motion picture industry take it seriously?
Probably more so than not. The ratings have undergone a lot of change over the years. One of the earliest rating systems was basically the Catholic Legion of Decency. Its C rating on a film condemned it. Then, suddenly, a C began to be sought. This happened with The Moon Is Blue, a film in which the words "virgin" and "seduce" were mentioned, and the world was broken open. The picture was released without the code of approval. Suddenly, here was a film released without approval that did tremendous box office.
I think people do pay attention to the ratings. My feeling is that parents would rather see the rating system in place than not used at all.
Chariots of Fire was widely received by audiences, Christian and secular alike. Why do you think that happened?
David Putman, the producer of Chariots of Fire, had produced it in London and Scotland, and the film really did not have a "home" or an "umbrella." It was done by a small producing organization, who offered it to several major studios that turned it down, and it wound up in the Ladd Company at Warner Brothers.
It was an excellent film that included a unique story, competitive characters, visually exciting settings, and the excitement of the 1924 Olympics. But most important, the visual sense of the film, the style, the music—all of those elements were fresh. Eric Liddell's character was greatly admired by the Christian audience for his strength of conviction. The Jewish audience also cheered its hero. Here were two hero and role models that the audience identified with strongly. They had human weaknesses and frailties, but their strengths overshadowed their frailties. The film received very good critical reviews. The reviews really helped to make the picture successful.
What are some specific changes that you would like to see in the relationships between Christians and the film industry?
First, openness on both sides. There has been such a wall created, and a "warring" across that wall, that any attempt at conciliation and reconciliation should be highly praised and encouraged. If it is true, for example, that Norman Lear is going to include a sympathetic Christian character in his sitcoms, that's a great step.
Second, Christians should let the industry know when it is on target. One response is support at the box office. Another is by letters to the editor. That kind of reaction is highly effective.
Also, we need to develop writers and artists of the written word, of the screenplay, who can capture Christian reality and create a script that will have all the elements of any good film. We need desperately to develop fine Christian writers to do this, because the film screenplay is the foundation and key to an excellent motion picture.
Other than as an evangelistic tool, how can a film with a Christian message be used?
Films Incorporated, a 16-mm film company, provides rental 16-mm films that cover a broad range of general interest films, including those released commercially. Over the years they have published a very good discussion guide called Dialogue with the World that goes hand-in-hand with each of their films. You can rent a film, and there will be a discussion guide available with it. I've used this to have a film series at church.
In a church, Christians can become more familiar with film as film, and learn how to view films. The important thing is to use film as a basis for discussion. Another way is for a church to go together as a group and see a film at a theater. For example, if Tender Mercies is being shown, you could plan an evening and go as a group, then meet for a snack afterwards and talk about it.
What have you faced personally as a Christian in the film industry?
In any art form and creative endeavor where the emotions play such a strong part, there is an incredible need for a strong faith at the center of one's being. When I was an actor under contract, one's acceptance or rejection was based upon not only talent and preparation, but rather on one's looks, luck, on whether the casting director had his eggs upside-down that morning or wasn't feeling well—all the things that really were not germane to the process.
I have seen many friends, actors and actresses, go off the "deep end" because of a lack of spiritual-centeredness. In contrast, more and more I see younger actors and actresses who are very much in the Lord; and Christ and God are a central part of their lives.
This has been exemplified by the Vineyard, which includes many arts people who meet in a rather unorthodox way and express themselves in experimental forms of worship. There are people in films who are living their faith and quick to express it. I'm finding more and more of that witness as I go about the industry.
On a personal basis, I'm very human, and while I'm a Christian and attempt to practice my belief, I so often fall short. One positive aspect I can point to is that in problem-solving as a producer, my value and contribution is like a psychologist's. It really is as a spiritual leader, a shepherd. And I view my role as a producer as all-encompassing. I am on the set ready to minister to the needs of the filmmaking process. If I know we won't be able to get a shot because it's going to cost too much money, I can go to the director and say, "Here are four other ways we can solve that." I'll offer him an alternative rather than put him against the wall and say, "You can't do that; that shot's out." I can offer a support to his creative process. I have found that really stepping aside and taking time for quietness, contemplation, and prayer when I've been faced with a dilemma has inevitably brought about the right solution.
One example is when we were shooting the television miniseries of John Steinbeck'sEast o f Eden in Savannah, Georgia. I went out to the village, a Georgia lumber camp that we were supposed to make into a New England village. Lo and behold, we had a New England village with western porches. The set looked like something out of a western! Here we were, one day from shooting that set. I remember saying, "God, send me not only a new art director, but about 10 million gallons of black and white paint and a few things like that." The cameraman, Frank Stanley, and I had to find all the black and white and red paint in the county. We tore the porches off the buildings, quickly put up shutters, painted the barn red, painted the other buildings gray and white, used black hardware, and brought in artificial grass from a funeral home.
Finally the new art director arrived. I said to him, "I've seen you somewhere before." Suddenly I asked, "Where do you attend church?"
He said, "I go to Bet Air Presbyterian." We had worshiped almost literally side-by-side.
Also, I don't "blow up," even if everything is going haywire. That is simply a hallmark of my approach to things that I stay calm. Sally Spaulding, the script supervisor on East of Eden, came up to me. "You know, I've been watching," she said, "and I appreciate your approach to the film. Something else, too: we go to the same church." There were four of us on that crew who all went to the same church but who had not known each other because of the size of the congregation.
On Good Friday we were back in California shooting in Salinas. (We had to shoot on Good Friday, and I wasn't fond of that, but it was necessary.) While they were preparing a shot, the four of us went off onto one side of the field and had our own quiet time. We shared a very intimate Good Friday observance. My faith is an indigenous partner in the entire process of creating a film.
I've never as a Christian been comfortable saying, "I have a burden." But that is changing, thanks to an industrywide organization called Fellowship of Christians in the Arts, Media, and Entertainment (FCAME). I happily find myself spending 8-10 hours a week with aspiring Christian actors, actresses, writers, directors. That's all right; along the way other people gave me a hand, and helped me. Now I can return this kindness to someone else.
FCAME is now growing to where persons at decision-making levels are gathering for fellowship and Bible study. I'm encouraged by what I see in terms of the professionalism and the competency of that group.
What projects, stories, ideas, concepts do you have in mind? What would you consider to be the most satisfying thing that you could be doing?
My hope for the last nine years and passionate burning desire is to see Christy, the book by Catherine Marshall, become film. It was on the agenda at MGM in 1969, but it was cancelled along with a number of other pictures there when the studio ownership changed. It offers an excellent story, and it has the familiarity of a very well-known and well-loved book. I think there's an audience that is awaiting that. Many times when I was with Catherine, people would come up after she had spoken and say, "When is Christy going to be a film?" I think this is a very good project. The story.is moving and exciting, and it has the potential to be one of the best films ever produced. Over five million copies of the book have been sold (it is in its seventieth printing), and it continues to be a well-loved best seller.
The important thing is for me to be involved in projects that have a meaningful center. On a more secular basis, the one that is the most exciting for me right now is the life of John Steinbeck, done as a miniseries. Steinbeck has some very interesting Christian allegories in his writing. In his East o f Eden, we see the whole Cain and Abel story told over and over. In fact, the characters are C and A—Charles and Adam. Cain and Abel, Caleb and Aaron. The theme is that the sins of the father are indeed visited on the sons. Steinbeck writes about the Hebrew concept of timshel. It is the concept of choosing right over wrong, the concept of free will. There's very much an awareness, on the part of Steinbeck, of God as Supreme Being. So that particular project excites me.
How do you view the relationship of the art and science involved in film-making?
Science basically involves technology. Film is an art that relies heavily on technology. There is a strong colaboration, and the director and producer and writer must use all of that technology as a tool of the art expression. The film takes on a life of its own, I believe, from the script. Often you suddenly discover that something is there you didn't even realize was there. It may be a whole other subplot that suddenly comes to the forefront, or a character that has grown immensely. That happened in The Prodigal with the character of the father, played by John Cullum. It was not a very strong role in the script, yet when Jim Collier directed and finished it, that role became a key.
I wonder sometimes if we will get to the place where technology will be the rule. There is being developed now a technique, a computer-generation technique, that will allow you to put an actor in a room and shoot him in all sorts of different angles, all sides of him, and take a complete inventory of his looks, his being, his voice, the whole person. From that, the computer will be able to draw him in any conceivable position. Look happy, look sad: punch it into the computer. So once you've "shot" the actor, you literally may not need him the rest of the picture.
What do we need to tell people about objectionable films?
I have mixed feelings about that. One approach is to ignore something and not create a lot of fuss, because in turn, a lot of fuss excites people, who will then go and see a film. Then the studio makes more money at the box office, and it validates the film company's belief that the film was economically successful. And all we've done is to contribute to the perpetuation of the whole thing.
On the other hand, there are occasions when we simply cannot let something slide by. We need to speak up, especially if we see a portrayal that is misrepresentative of Christians, or something that violates our standards of decency. A good thorough sort-out ought to take place instead of a hasty condemnation.
Isn't it too bad that films with Christian themes are so weak? The television miniseries on Peter and Paul, for instance, was poor.
I was sad, because I would like to have done that program. Three companies were working on Peter and Paul projects—but why wasn't there a Christian effort mounted before those three got the idea? It is important that a film with a Christian message be so well done and so professional that it stands on its own as a filmgoing experience. It also boils down to funding—just to get something started. Christy can be a financial success; it's economically possible. The money is there—we see it going into all other forms and definitions of mission and evangelism. I remember Tom Howard's article in Christianity Today on "Expensive Churches: Extravagance for God's Sake?" [Aug. 1979]. In it he uses the analogy of bringing lovely yellow roses to an old lady and giving her a sense of beauty and inspiration, and didn't that have as much merit as bringing her a cup of soup? There's something to be said for providing an experience in which people gain hope and further reflection on their own lives.
This article originally appeared in the September 21, 1984, issue of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing on our site today:
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Reel School for Real Christians | Act One prepares Christian screenwriters to write Hollywood blockbusters.
A Los Angeles Times article wondered if Christy could mean the return of family wholesomeness.
On NPR's Morning Edition, Monique Parsons interviewed devout Christians Karen Hall (Judging Amy), Ralph Winter (Planet of the Apes), and Ken Wales (Christy) on how Hollywood portrays faith.
Every Thursday, Christianity Today.com's Film Forum looks at what mainstream and religious critics are saying about current films.
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