Q&A: Building a fan base for faith-based pop culture

This summer Grace Hill Media—an L.A.-based marketing firm that promotes faith-based movies and television shows to Christian audiences—launched a new phase in its efforts. The “As1” campaign (www.as1.org) seeks to build online support for projects like the new American Bible Challenge game show and an upcoming big-screen Noah epic with Russell Crowe.

In the process, says Grace Hill president Jonathan Bock, Christians could regain their role as “patrons of the arts,” using their power as ticket buyers to influence pop culture just as wealthy believers sponsored religious art in the medieval and Renaissance eras. Mr. Bock spoke recently with associate editor Bill Fentum.

Jonathan Bock

What if Christian audiences turn out in droves for a movie, only to find it isn’t biblically accurate?

Well, biblical accuracy is a tricky conversation. I don’t think the job of the artist is to be some kind of court stenographer who gives us “just the facts, ma’am.” . . . You may recall the scene in The Passion of the Christ where Jesus is carrying his cross to Calvary and Mary sees him stumbling from a distance, and reaches to him. In that moment she has a flashback to him as a child, stumbling in their house, and she’s reaching out to save him from falling. That is not biblically accurate at all. Nowhere in the Bible does that exist. However, how much does it expand our understanding of who Mary is in that moment? Of course, Jesus is God. But of course, she’s his mother, and sees him as her baby and wants to help him desperately, wants to take the pain for him. We understand viscerally our own place as parents in that moment, and Mary’s role in that as well. And it expands our understanding of the Bible, even though it’s not biblical.

Right now I think the mindset of the Christian community is to stand back, cross its arms and say, “Prove to me that you’re not going to be offensive. Prove to me that this [movie] will be biblically accurate.” We need to get out of that mindset. Because, ultimately, it’s much to our favor to make these projects hits as opposed to allowing them to fail. Hollywood has shown time and again that they are in the business of catching lightning in a bottle twice. So it’s fair to say that if these Bible projects are huge hits, we are going to get more of them. . . . But if a studio puts out a $150 million Bible movie with $100 million of marketing behind it, and it doesn’t open, that could be disastrous for us.

By “open,” you mean drawing large crowds on the first weekend.

Yes.

Why is that so important?

Without a doubt, it’s the barometer by which all success is measured in Hollywood. The technology is such now that by Friday afternoon, studios are able to fairly accurately predict not only what the weekend box office is going to be, but how much money each one of these movies will make in ancillary products: DVD sales, sales to different cable channels, etc. And so, making a movie a huge hit on its opening weekend pretty much assures that on Monday morning at every studio, they’re analyzing how that success was gained and whether they shouldn’t have projects like that themselves.

You co-founded Grace Hill more than a decade ago. Has the world of faith-based filmmaking changed since then?

We’ve seen a tremendous shift happen in the last dozen years between the Christian community and Hollywood. We have gone from near-pariah status to actually being perceived as a potential audience. Which is a great thing, but with that comes new responsibility.

Look back at the dreams of the Christian community 10 years ago: “Wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood saw us as an audience and not the enemy?” Well, you know what? We got to the top of the mountain already. So what’s next? What’s the next 50 years look like? What’s the next hundred years look like for the Christian community, in pop culture? We have to start thinking ahead and trying to claim the future.

bfentum@umr.org

 

Bill Fentum, Former UMR Associate Editor

Bill Fentum

Bill Fentum was a dedicated employee of The United Methodist Reporter from 1985 to 2013, serving as the associate editor. Bill continues his work in journalism in a variety of positions as an independent journalist.

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