The Hollywood “culture war,” it would seem, has been an emphatic loss for the religious Right. When a film such as Fifty Shades of Grey can flow effortlessly into the mainstream, one would be hard pressed to claim that the fight is still alive. Most religious viewers have come to expect modern movies and TV shows to embrace a distinctly godless doctrine, one that spits in the face of religious institutions and traditional family structures, preferring instead to exalt basic hedonism and the destruction of tradition. What was once a fiery debate has turned into an apathetic shrug
Now, I am by no means advocating for the Legion of Decency to reemerge and dictate a filmmaker’s creative process (although there are certainly pros to such a scenario), but film on the whole seems to be an arena where the distinctly religious has not fared terribly well. While religious music, painting, sculpture, and architecture have expanded into the 21st century, the same cannot be said for cinema (save for a few gems, of course).
Perhaps this drought can be attributed to the fact that overtly evangelistic movies are notorious for being aesthetic disasters. God’s Not Dead, the infamous Pure Flix portrayal of the perils of a Christian student forced to defend his faith at a godless university, received a whopping 13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, while its successor, God’s Not Dead 2, received an even more impressive 8 percent on the almighty TomatoMeter. Pure Flix, the self-described leading studio of “faith and family media,” has managed to create oodles of movies with the same artistic and didactic stylings of the gospel tracts handed out by your local street-corner evangelist. Not to say that their methods are entirely ineffective in spreading the good news, but they certainly work to confirm the hypothesis that American Christianity must needs be artless and unrefined.
Certainly there are films such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed that are distinctly religious and distinctly beautiful. Imbued with Christian themes, both exemplify a simultaneously charitable and critical comprehension of the faith. The problem is, despite overwhelmingly positive reviews, the films underperformed at the box office — in a consumer-driven market, it comes as no surprise that base entertainment value is preferred over cinematic substance and spiritual themes.
However, there may be hope yet — a shift brewing in the movie industry, in the way movies are resourced, produced, and distributed, may provide an opportunity for a renewed method of producing countercultural cinema.
For a behemoth piece published by the New York Times last week, “How Will the Movies (As We Know Them) Survive the Next 10 Years?,” reporter Kyle Buchanan asked dozens of big wigs in Hollywood about the future of film in a market swamped with streaming services. From his collection of interviews there emerged a resounding conclusion: The movie industry is approaching a unique kind of financial crisis.
While major blockbusters such as Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Force Awakens astonish with box-office numbers in the billions of dollars, such bounty is not shared by all. Owing to the overwhelming supply of content continuously available through the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, it has become increasingly challenging for smaller productions to make a decent profit. In short, Hollywood’s market is flooded — while movies are still immensely expensive to create, the massive increase in supply has forced down their value. For those seeking to create spiritually meaningful, more artistically minded movies, the current market is fairly unforgiving and the future is uncertain.
This disruption caused by streaming services raises a larger question: How are we (and how should we be) funding artistic endeavors in films? I think it is fair to say that at no other point in history has an art form become so aggressively commoditized. In terms of the spiritual and the cinematic, is it a good idea to subject religiously minded films to the raging desires of a characteristically godless market?
A new organization founded this year, the Catholic Alliance for the Film Arts, has a distinct vision to address the dilemma. According to its website, the “Catholic Alliance for the Film Arts is an association of Catholic organizations united towards the financial stewardship and promotion of films of excellence.” Their mission: to “raise funds and facilitate awareness around quality filmmaking consistent with the Christian creative vision.”
Their first project, currently underway, is to raise the funds for Five by Flannery, a proposed anthology film of five of Flannery O’Connor’s cherished short stories, with the final product structured something like the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic and renowned author, captured the mystery of faith through deeply human stories of rural, mid-century America. Her work would certainly be ideal for a project seeking to place the sacred and the cinematic in conversation with each other.
What I find most interesting about CAFA’S project, however, is its approach to raising funds. Taking a crowdfunding approach, CAFA hopes to raise $10 million (with $3 million as its minimum to start production), for Five by Flannery, from regular folk with an interest in faith and film. Having raised $571,000, it has a way to go before it can get the project off the ground.
Although its vision is perhaps more hopeful than realistic, using an angel-investor approach of sorts could serve as a model for a new age of patronage in religious art. If Christians are to take up the Pope Benedict’s call for a “new evangelization,” an approach that integrates faith with art and culture and teaches the “art of living,” patronage of the arts seems like a good place to start.
To the reader concerned with the secularization of young America, a new age of patronage in religious art, especially in the cinematic arena, could be exactly what is needed for the Instagram generation. For the Christian Millennial (or any religious Millennial, for that matter), there exists a substantial divide between the culture of her generation and the tenets of her faith. Instead of waiting for Hollywood to produce a spiritually enriched unicorn every few years, Christians should take up the call to create their own cultural touchpoints that are just as excellent, moving, and beautiful as the best Hollywood has to offer.