Money matters, but Christian movies are on the move for other reasons, filmmaker says

The Young Messiah, about a youthful Jesus discovering the truth about himself, opened in theaters in March, following the success Risen--the tale of a cynical Roman tribune searching for a Jew rumored to have risen from the dead--which opened in February.

It isn't an easy task to tackle Christian movies, which critics often dismiss as predictable. But that won't stop determined filmmakers, says Chris Hansen, a film writer/director and chair of the film and digital media department at Baylor. He takes a look at why and how.

What’s happening with Christian movies?

Filmmakers are trying to tap into what is considered a profitable genre--appealing to people of faith--to make stories that matter to them. But it's clear that the people behind some of these recent films aren't doing it just because they think it will make money. Ever since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ became a runaway hit, the film industry in general has come to understand that there is a large audience for films with Christian themes. Some have been successful and some misguided. But in the wake of that success, many Christians started to mobilize and make their own movies. The film industry saw that they could, in some cases, buy a decently made Christian film for distribution. So now we have a sort of hybrid, with some bigger films with Christian themes being made by the larger studios but with many more being financed independently and then sold for wide distribution. Those independently made movies tend to be the sort that appeal to people who are already believers rather than bringing a ton of non-believers into the theater. In that sense, a Christian movie has become a genre unto itself.

How tough is it to make a Christian movie?

It's difficult because there is not just one type of Christian out there. There are so many different types of churches and generations of believers, and as a result, it's challenging to make a movie that will appeal to all of those segments. War Room--which made about $70 million at the box office from an initial budget of about $3 million--might appeal to some, and Risen to others, or there might be some overlap. While some might want a more authentic Jesus of middle-Eastern appearance, some people relate to Christ on screen if he looks more like they themselves do. While it's always wise to consider what the marketplace is interested in, filmmakers have to have a vision and stick to it, and that means that not everyone is going to like your approach. Risen seems to have been made with a desire to tell the story of Christ from the perspective of a cynical character who doesn't believe but eventually comes to belief--mirroring the journey that Christians hope people in society will experience for themselves.

You mentioned you believe some of these movies are misguided. How?

After The Passion of the Christ, there were several spiritual-themed horror movies released. I believe the companies that made those movies misjudged the audience. The audience that made The Passion of the Christ a hit wasn't interested in seeing a horror movie about demon possession. Over time, most companies gained an understanding that certain elements of a story might appeal to Christians, and for those companies inclined to make that sort of story, they have pursued it in various ways. The Blind Side is a good example of a more mainstream film that deals with faith. The characters in the movie--based on real people--are heavily influenced by their faith to do the things they do, to help someone in need. But it didn't wear its faith on its sleeve, so to speak. So people might see that movie simply because they like movies about football or because they like the actors involved. It had other things that would draw an audience. War Room, on the other hand, appeals to a more niche audience of evangelical Christians and has fewer of those other things that would draw a general mainstream audience.

What do you see in the future for the Christian movie industry?

We never know exactly what's coming, but I think it's safe to say that the "Christian movie" genre is here to stay for at least a while. War Room made a lot of money for its producers, and there's no doubt that people noticed that and will try to capitalize on it. Christians will continue to try to make movies that represent them, and other Christians will continue to see those movies. And the film industry will see those profits and will dabble in making movies that will appeal to that audience. Sometimes they'll get it right, and other times they'll misfire.