As Hollywood continues to catch the "faith wave" by making and marketing more movies to Christians, some of the industry's major players gathered at a conference in Los Angeles last weekend to discuss the pros and cons of the relatively new trend.

While some are excited about the potential of these efforts, some are also frustrated about the "bad art" that has already spun out of these initiatives—including Dean Batali, a writer who served as executive producer on That 70s Show for six years.

Dean Batali

Dean Batali

"I'm quite angry at God, actually," Batali told CT Movies. "I'm angry that he has blessed bad art—even certain Christian films that have been seen by a lot of people. It makes me angry as an artist, because they're bad. Just because people go see it, that doesn't make it good."

When asked if it's inappropriate to complain about the quality of films that present the gospel, Batali answered, "This is my frustration: The gospel written on toilet paper still saves lives. There's power in the gospel."

But he wants Christians to strive for excellence, rather than settling for sentimental entertainment: "I want to see movies about people who don't get pregnant and don't win the state championship … and who go ahead and praise God anyway"—an apparent reference to Facing the Giants, where everything goes right for the protagonist (wife gets pregnant, team wins it all) once he gets right with God.

We interviewed Batali and others at the 12th annual Biola Media Conference, which features Christian leaders in the entertainment industry, forward-thinking and creative folks who give seminars and put their heads together to ask questions like, "What's working? What isn't? What next?"

All those questions were on the table at the conference as speakers and experts discussed Hollywood's newfound initiatives toward the Christian market—including FoxFaith and other similar studio "brands" aimed at a faith-based audience.

Heated discussion

"How many of you are now more confused than you were before the discussion started?"

Phil Cooke

Phil Cooke

So asked author and director Phil Cooke, tongue firmly in cheek, after moderating a lively discussion from a panel that included Batali, Fox Home Entertainment exec Simon Swart, writer/producer Brian Bird, author/producer Mark Joseph, and screenwriter Cheryl McKay.

The crowd laughed appreciably at Cooke's question, but it was fitting in the wake of a discussion that at times seemed more like a debate.

It is a complicated, difficult, exciting time for Christians involved in movies, TV, and digital media. As Hollywood rushes to capitalize on money to be made in the "faith market," each of the panel's experts has been caught up in the action.

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The panelists agreed that Christians must overcome many challenges in order to make faith an acceptable topic in American art and entertainment again. But how should Christians go about that? And are these new "faith-based entertainment" divisions at major studios going to help us?

A call for great stories

With visions of the success of everything from The Passion of The Christ to Facing the Giants dancing in their heads, some are answering Hollywood's call in hopes of striking it rich.

But many others have more noble aspirations. Some hope to produce TV shows and movies that address issues of faith more seriously. Some want to create Christian characters who aren't the typical prime-time "child molesters and lunatics" (to borrow Cooke's generalization). And some want the world to forget the fact that Christian media has a reputation for being mediocre, sentimental propaganda.

Cheryl McKay

Cheryl McKay

McKay, who adapted The Ultimate Gift from Jim Stovall's novel, is excited to find studios interested in material that acknowledges God. "There used to be this opinion that Christian writers should try to 'hide' God somewhere in their writing," she said. "Now, we're encouraged to write about him. And write boldly."

Still, acknowledgment of God does not a good screenplay make. And others are quick to express their concern about dishonest, shoddy Christian storytelling.

"I think the material is getting better," Cooke said, "but we're not making giant leaps and bounds. I joke about wanting to make a museum of bad Christian screenplays and not being able to find a building big enough. I get a lot of stuff sent to me that's pretty awful."

Working on films like Big Fish and Anger Management, Lisa Swain, Interim Chair of Biola's Mass Communication Department, has learned a lot. These days, she's looking at film projects made by Christian students.

"I wish they would learn that they don't have to be afraid of their struggles," she says. "We get so caught up in wanting people to see Christ, we forget that they also have to see us. And by seeing our struggles, then they will see Christ. You don't show Christ by showing them grace first. You have to show them the wound first."

Swain says she encounters many young, talented Christian writers who can't tell convincing stories about suffering because they "haven't lived enough life yet." "We get a lot of prayer scenes," she says, "a lot of lingering looks, a lot of swelling music. And it's just superficial. There's no subtext whatsoever."

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Derivative entertainment

Cooke, president and CEO of Cooke Pictures and a founding partner of TWC Films, is weary of proposals for derivative entertainment. "People come to me all the time to say, 'What we need is a Christian version of Jay Leno' or 'a Christian version of Oprah.' I get so sick of it. We worship the Creator of the universe, and yet we're the least creative people on the planet."

While Batali ranted against "bad art," others expressed concerns about a lack of new ideas and creativity.

Mark Joseph thinks it's time to take advantage of great Christian stories that have been neglected.

Mark Joseph

Mark Joseph

"Hollywood's idea of an interesting movie is to go back to a '70s sitcom and recast it, and I think the country is just saying, 'This doesn't make any sense,'" Joseph said. "As creativity in Hollywood is drying up, I think Christians have this basement full of amazing stories. But because we were raised in a generation that was told that [filmmaking] is not an acceptable way to tell stories, we're just backlogged with amazing stories to tell.'"

Bird, producer/screenwriter of The Last Sin Eater who also formerly worked with TV's Touched by An Angel, has some advice for Christian artists: Learn how to tell great stories by copying those who've done it best.

"That doesn't mean rip off the masters, but it means drawing inspiration from them," Bird said. "Throughout history, artists have gone to school to learn to be better artists.

"Young writers and directors need to be voracious students of the best writers and directors.They need to consume great scripts.They need to analyze how the masters nailed the scenes.How they paced the stories.How they let the characters write their own dialogue.They need to draw inspiration from how the masters practice their craft—and then go and do likewise."

Christians a viable 'niche market'

Even if Christian filmmakers produce powerful movies, they face difficult choices about how to proceed. Should they allow their projects to be swept up by the new faith-based media divisions and marketed primarily to churchgoers? Or do they want to fight for a mainstream spotlight alongside Hollywood's heavy hitters?

The idea of marketing "faith-based" entertainment specifically to Christians has inspired a wave of new "niche market" ideas, many of which were discussed by conference guests. Some even spoke about the possibility of a new movie theater chain: separate cinemas for Christians, built within churches.

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Brian Bird

Brian Bird

"Some are saying we are just creating a Christian film 'ghetto,'" says Bird. "I'm not so sure that's the case. Niche marketing is not exclusive to this new faith-based push. Niche marketing is happening across the entertainment landscape. When I went to see The Pursuit of Happyness, the pre-show included trailers for four African-American/urban-themed films.

"Niche marketing is how businesses maximize their profits and provide product to specific interest groups in all sectors of the economy, and it's not going away. I think our goal has to be to understand the nature of the business, but try to deliver films that have as universal appeal as possible so that we are not just preaching to the choir."

"We live in a world of niche content," says Cooke. "We have outdoors channels, gay channels, women's channels, men's channels, sports channels, movie channels. There's no reason in the world that the Christian audience should not be a niche market. If people feel called to make stuff for an explicitly Christian audience, I say 'Go for it.'"

McKay sees value in entertainment designed specifically for the churchgoing audience. "There's still a market to write movies that only Christians will enjoy. And what's wrong with that? Christians need entertainment, too." But she adds, "My hope is that movies born from these new faith-based departments will express a Christian worldview without alienating the rest of the population."

Cooke admits, "I worry that the people we're trying to reach are going to run screaming from the room when it comes to faith-based films."

Swain argues that the Christian audience is quite different from niche markets like the gay audience and ethnic minority audiences. "Those markets have a lot more solidarity than a Christian market does as far as what the audience is looking for. The Christian market is a much, much more diverse market."

Joseph points out that Christians represent the vast majority of the American public. "Ninety percent believe in God," he says. "Eighty percent call themselves Christians, and 47 percent are evangelical. Those are not 'niche numbers.' FoxFaith should become FoxNormal. The rest should be called FoxSecular—they're the niche audience."

With a background in Christian music, Joseph has seen these trends before, and finds it all "a little horrifying."

"We're at a crossroads," he explains. "But the Christian music phenomenon has gone ahead of us, and we can learn so much from that. If we recreate the Christian music paradigm, and create separate venues, we'll have very little influence."

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Are there any examples of films that take faith seriously, that show courageous artistry and uncompromising excellence, and that appeal to a mass audience?

"I think Amazing Grace does that to some degree," says Joseph. "It was a step. But I think it would have helped the picture to have a star. More people would have seen it."

Urgent questions, no sure answers

In this exciting, bewildering time of transition, one question leads to many others.

Will "faith-based" film departments produce lights that shine in the darkness, or will they ultimately hide them under a bushel—being seen only by a Christian audience?

Will Christian movies establish a reputation for truth, courage, and uncompromising artistic standards? Or will they produce shoddy sermons, airbrush the reality of the Christian experience, and perhaps only pander to what audiences want to see?

Will faith-oriented films have a significant, lasting influence in Hollywood? Or will they be disposable, forgotten within ten years?

And what about success? What will Christian filmmakers do if they succeed the way Facing the Giants did, turning a $100,000 project into a $10 million box office surprise? Is financial success a sign of God's blessing, a sign of merely appealing to a niche market's wants, or a reflection of an audience that doesn't demand artistic excellence?

Many of these questions will only be answered through the successes, failures, and testimonies of those who blaze new trails for Christian media.

The Biola conference's theme this year was, "Gold Rush: Mining for Opportunity in the New Hollywood." Screenwriter Craig Detweiler, the conference host, summed it all up when he welcomed attendees with this question:

"Have we hit the mother lode, or will we fall for fool's gold?"