With the recent commercial success of films like Miracles From Heaven and God’s Not Dead 2 (they grossed $61 million and $20 million respectively), it would seem as though the so-called “faith-based” film genre is enjoying a resurgence of sorts. But does the term “faith-based” do more harm than good?
As a producer and marketing strategist, Mark Joseph, CEO of MJM Entertainment Group, has been behind such films as Holes and Because of Win Dixie. He has also been a vocal critic of labels like “Christian music” and “faith-based films.” In an interview with Faithwire, Joseph shares how his experience in the entertainment industry has exposed him to the “philosophical” and “real world” problems that arise from pigeon-holing projects and why he believes Hollywood is so averse to realistically depicting themes related to God and religion on screen.
Faithwire: You’ve spoken openly about your experiences with the “faith-based” genre and the potential trappings of the label. From your experience as both a marketer and producer, what are the challenges associated with the term?
Mark Joseph: Before I moved into film in 2000, I was in the music world and found that the term “Christian music” was a big turn off for many potential listeners because they would tune those artists out before they even had a chance to hear them out. It’s a subject I deal with in my upcoming book Rock Gets Religion. The music world has changed, and many artists today have stopped branding themselves in that way.
It’s a natural impulse for people who are not actively religious to see a term like “Christian” or “faith-based” and simply decide that a movie or book or song isn’t for them. I understand and accept that there are genres like mystery, drama, comedy, etc. But I don’t agree with creating genres based on religious belief or philosophy. It drives people away who might otherwise be interested in hearing the stories.
FW: What do you think are the societal connotations of a so-called faith-based film? Have those opinions changed over time?
MJ: Anybody who accepts the term “faith-based” to describe their work is really agreeing with a cultural paradigm that I have always found strange and will never agree with. It’s the idea that somehow films that work hard to keep religion and God out of stories are “normal” and those that choose to let religious themes be honestly reflected in art are somehow strange and deserving of the modifier “faith-based.” I think that’s a huge mistake.
It’s especially dangerous because we live in a culture where things can be excluded if they are labeled “religious.” What happens when a public school wants to show a film that has been labeled “faith-based” and they can’t because of separation of church and state? There are all sorts of problems that will arise when this kind of labeling happens.
FW: While we are told America is becoming more and more secular and religion is on the decline, a June 2016 Gallup poll found that 89 percent of Americans still say they believe in God. Despite the numbers, there seems to be a resistance in Hollywood to address topics like faith and morality on screen. Why do you think that is?
MJ: It’s hard to write about what you don’t understand. I think of the Johnny Cash movie, Walk the Line, as one of the best examples of this. Johnny had four loves: drugs, God, music, and June. The movie covered three of them well, but God was relegated to that weird scene when he walks into a church as if to explain a conversion experience. The real story of his faith is far more interesting and exciting and filmic even, but the producers and the writer didn’t understand it, so it’s not in the film.
FW: Miracles from Heaven recently starred Jennifer Garner, but have you found there is a hesitancy for “big name actors” to sign on to something that is “faith-based”?
MJ: Yes. An even bigger issue is sometimes they don’t learn until after shooting that a film is going to be marketed that way, and they refuse to cooperate with the marketing. When a major actor is in a movie that is marketed as “faith-based” and doesn’t show up to do promotional interviews, you know what happened—and it happens all the time.
I was once a part of a movie that the faith-based label was applied to after it was done shooting. The actors all refused to do any PR for it, and a public school system canceled a 10,000-unit DVD order because of the labeling. This labeling is not only philosophically problematic; it has real world consequences.
FW: There are box office successes like The Passion of the Christ, Chronicles of Narnia, and, more recently, American Sniper that deal pretty openly with faith and religious themes and yet are seen as “mainstream” films. Is that a decision that is made by the filmmaker or the marketing team or a combination of the two?
MJ: I spent five years at two sister film companies, Walden and Crusader, and we actively resisted and corrected attempts to pigeon-hole the companies as faith-based or Christian. We made it clear that we were doing all kinds of movies like Ray and Holes, as well as ones like Joshua, which was about Jesus coming to modern day America. It simply wasn’t accurate to call our companies religious.
It’s up to the studio or marketing team to set expectations. I understand secular societies—I grew up in one. But America isn’t secular. It’s the second most religious country in the world. It’s important for filmmakers and marketing teams to push back against things that aren’t true and remind everybody of reality. If Hollywood reflected reality, we would have a category of film called “secular-based” movies to service secular people in Manhattan and Malibu and then just regular films to service the rest of the country.
FW: What is your advice for filmmakers who want to create “mainstream” films that still have a faith or moral basis to them?
MJ: Ironically, once you drop the labeling, you can be as overt as you want to be, so long as it’s part of the story and not fake or contrived. You can’t get more religious than The Passion of the Christ, but that film was not marketed as a “faith-based” film. It was a movie made by Mel Gibson about Jesus. Period.
I would say that if you have strong faith, it never hurts to have characters who express doubt as well. If you’re a Christian, try to remember back to a time when you weren’t one and make your film in a way that speaks to the old you as well as the new you. It’s really about being respectful and considerate of your viewer. No one likes to feel like they are being preached at.
When I watched The Butler, I felt that I understood what it must feel like for secular people to be preached at in over-the-top religious movies. In the last few minutes of the film, this story of the White House butler suddenly became a commercial for the re-election of Barack Obama. It was off-putting, and I felt betrayed as a viewer by such an obvious attempt to convert my political soul. They overreached.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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