The Second Smartest Thing Christian Movies Can Do Right Now

By  · Published on July 29th, 2014

Focus Features

Because of shoddy source material and a healthy sleaze factor, following the Fifty Shades of Grey production (and now bizarre marketing) has felt a lot like getting to watch Showgirls get filmed in real-time. Like we knew about the creation of a sexploitation, so-cringey-it’s-entertaining classic long before it creates its cult. At the very least, the project has done nothing to diminish the idea that it’s more neon stripper pole than Maggie Gyllenhaal in fishnets.

Beautifully for better and worse, it’s become a movie that everybody knows and has an opinion about, which is a great place for the filmmakers and Focus Features to be, but it’s also an excellent opportunity for movies that want to use Grey’s notoriety for their own purposes.

Enter Freestyle Releasing, who is sending Christianity-based romance Old Fashioned to theaters the same Valentine’s Day weekend that Grey invades with its riding crop. This is the second smartest thing a Christian film could possibly do.

For one, it creates an instant (if not manufactured) dichotomy between the two movies – one benefiting more than the other. Old Fashioned’s writer/director/star Rik Swartzwelder told Variety, “there’s definitely a David v. Goliath comparison. They will have more screens, more money, more hype . . . but we’re hopeful that we are not alone in our belief that there are others out there who desire more from love–and the movies–than objectification or domination.”

Shots fired.

Forget that married couples should be able to get kinky within the bounds of their preferred religious doctrine or that sex isn’t the binary issue that some make it out to be, releasing Old Fashioned purposefully against what looks like a behemoth of depravity utilizes the surface level and perceived ethical differences that should rally a base hungry for faith-based movies while making others aware of its existence. It’s counter-programming as context. Freestyle and Swartzwelder are recognizing a film poised for big box office success and offering what they contend is its opposite.

Plus, choosing sides can have a powerful psychological effect, and Swartzwelder has effectively thrown the challenge down in a way that tacitly paints people who go to his movie as being one way and those who pick Goliath as being another. Those who don’t desire more from love and those who do. It’s an incredibly shrewd and clever move, and you can imagine more faith-based projects in the future making direct appeals within the scope of a mainstream, Hollywood giant.

This follows Freestyle’s big win with God’s Not Dead and the minor flood of Christian films like Heaven is For Real that have found growing audiences in recent years. In Grey, they’ve found a perfect marketing launchpad. If they’re lucky, director Sam Taylor-Johnson or writer Kelly Marcel will say anything more than half a word on the subject and legitimize the fabricated battle (or at the very least, perpetuate it).

So what’s the smartest thing a Christian movie could do? Be good.

Right now the niche market is getting exactly what it wants, which often entails an evangelically overt plot featuring mustache-twirling evil stand-ins (like Kevin Sorbo’s militantly atheist professor in God’s Not Dead) who operate in semi-absurd situations created to best present a non-allegorical dichotomy. Granted, I don’t know who certifies movies as being authentically “Christian” (probably Kirk Cameron?), but the modern crop being vaunted against “Hollywood” suffers from a newfound infancy where there simply aren’t enough examples for quality to emerge. The training wheels are still on.

In a sense, the subgenre suffers from the same existential problem that Christian music has faced for years. Do you have to use “Jesus” in your lyrics for it to count despite how limiting that is artistically? Can a song be subtly spiritual instead of obviously praising Christ? Is Michael W. Smith inherently “more” Christian than Switchfoot?

Extending the theme, you could ask whether a Christian movie needs to feature a cameo concert by Newsboys to be added to the roster.

The point being that the hallmarks of great, non-hammer-to-the-head storytelling have not found their way into faith-based filmmaking yet (unless you count movies like The Book of Eli, Noah and most of The Blind Side). At least not this particular, indie-focused subsection. Sure, there’s evidence that more people want “Christian values” in more movies (in whatever myriad ways they personally define them), but until Christian filmmakers learn nuance and symbolism to communicate those values, they’ll be preaching to the converted.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Companies like Freestyle have proven that low budget flicks aimed with laser focus at a specific group of people can yield impressive monetary results, and that success will undoubtedly build an audience around it, but it will never deliver any kind of message beyond the walls of the Sunday School meeting room that’s required to show the movie.

Until the quality improves, battling Goliath will have to do.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.