Can Indie Filmmakers Save Religious Cinema?

Christian movies have a reputation as being subpar and agenda-driven, but directors are increasingly telling rich stories about spirituality, theology, and the meaning of life.

Division Films/Mockingbird Pictures

As “faith-based” films flooded into theaters last year, writers fell over themselves to declare 2014 the “year of the Bible movie.” It seemed as if the market—meaning Christian audiences to many—had finally come into its own, a decade after the runaway box-office success of The Passion of the Christ.

Certainly, movies that reinforce beliefs their target audience already hold can make a lot of money, from political documentaries directed by Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza to films titled with declarations of religious certainty. God’s Not Dead, a drama about an evangelical student who clashes with a philosophy professor, earned $62.6 million on a $2 million budget. Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear, cost $12 million and made $101.3 million. Son of God, which cut down the television miniseries The Bible to feature-film length, made $67.8 million, or three times its budget. And even Biblical epics that religious audiences found questionable, such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, did respectable business abroad.

But those numbers only tell part of the story. Left Behind, a remake of the bestselling apocalyptic novels, starred Nicolas Cage and had a $16 million budget but opened to dismal reviews and grossed only $14 million domestically. Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, universally panned, made $2.8 million, as did The Identical, with a cast including Ashley Judd and Ray Liotta. Grace Unplugged, a family drama, made about $2.5 million; The Song, which most critics ranked a notch above its peers, pulled in barely $1 million at the box office, as did Persecuted, a thriller that grossed $1.5 million.

I watched the “year of the Bible film” happen from the inside, as the chief film critic at one of the oldest and most widely read evangelical publications in the world, Christianity Today. I’ve come to realize there is both widespread category confusion in the industry about what constitutes a faith-based audience and ignorance about a burgeoning religious movement in independent cinema—something that was especially apparent earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

In the movie business, “Christian” or “religious” usually gets conflated with the “faith-and-family” audience, sidestepping a wide swath of people of faith who aren’t looking for “safe” stories. One publicist informed me ahead of Sundance that the film she was representing wasn't “appropriate for Christians.” Another told me it would never have occurred to her to pitch me. Marketers, publicists, and distributors tend to view Christian moviegoers as a monolithically single-minded group staunchly opposed to any film that might garner more than a PG rating, and only interested in movies that depict Biblical stories, tell inspirational biographical tales (mostly about athletes, brave children, or war heroes), or explicitly reinforce their own beliefs.

If you ask me, the most “Christian” film released in 2014 was Calvary, which premiered at Sundance in 2014. The movie starred Brendan Gleeson as a tough but loving priest facing his death in a remote fishing village. Rife with religious imagery and resonances, the film’s message about forgiveness and redemption is thoroughly consistent with Christian theology and features a bracing view of the havoc wreaked on generations of children by abusive ministers (by no means a problem exclusive to Catholics). Though it got left out of many “faith-based” discussions because it garnered an R rating from the MPAA for “sexual references, language, brief strong content, and some drug use,” it earned raves from secular and religious critics alike, garnering a Rotten Tomatoes score of 89 percent.

Calvary, along with movies like the Oscar nominees Ida and Selma, is an explicitly religious exploration of widely asked questions that doesn’t point to easy answers. Several Christian critics writing for religious outlets (including myself) put all three of these films in our top ten lists for the year—while also facing significant backlash from some readers who were horrified that we’d praise, let alone watch, a “blasphemous” film like Noah.

But I noticed something interesting. For every angry reader who contacted me—and there were many, and they were caustic—another expressed gratitude. Many were Christians; some had grown up in church and left it behind; a few were indifferent to religion altogether. All, however, were looking for carefully crafted films that took the religious experience seriously.

“The faith-film category has come to mean agenda-driven, fear-driven, low-quality, low-budget, on-the-nose, teaching, industrial films that willingly overlook excellence and story because they know they can,” Erik Lokkesmoe, the founder and co-president of Aspiration Media, told me. His company helped produce the 2015 Sundance premiere Last Days in the Desert, a film about the temptation of Christ starring Ewan McGregor in a dual role as Jesus and Satan. “They have trained an audience to expect trite, theologically thin, bumper-sticker movies, designed for church outings.”

Filmmaker Joshua Overbay was in the audience when Calvary premiered at Sundance last year. “I asked [director John Michael McDonagh] why he made such a blatantly ‘religious’ film,” Overbay told me. “He expressed his frustration with recent cinema’s failure to use the religious experience as a means for doing what cinema does best: examine the human condition. For him, the faith experience is filled with mystery, pain, and deep questioning: Why does evil exist? Is there a God? Is there a spiritual presence at work in the universe? And if not, how can we find meaning?”

Rodrigo Garcia, writer and director of Last Days in the Desert, isn't religious, but said he saw his film as a way to work out his questions about what it means to live and to die. He told me that his Jesus is a man who goes into the desert to seek answers. “Some people who have seen the movie ask me, ‘Does the movie say that Jesus is the Son of God, or is not the Son of God?'” he said. “And I say, you know what? I don’t care. Jesus—the historical Jesus, the faith Jesus, and the literary Jesus, because Jesus is also a character of fiction—they’re all interesting to me. They all face an incredibly huge human conundrum.”

Last Days in the Desert was the obvious “Bible film” at this year’s Sundance. But the festival’s lineup revealed a resurgence of interest in the religious: In Don Verdean, an affectionately satirical comedy, Sam Rockwell stars as a “Biblical archaeologist” who becomes a pawn in a war between two rival local ministers. The Witch, a pristine horror debut from writer/director Robert Eggers, is a chilling circa-1600 story of the devil taking over a devout, Scripture-quoting family. I Am Michael, executive produced by Gus Van Sant, tells the true story of Michael Glatze (played by James Franco), a former gay activist who denounced homosexuality and became a Christian pastor.

Other films like Z for Zachariah and Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl subtly draw on questions and motifs that animate Biblical narratives and questions. Acclaimed documentarians are in on it too, with Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Amy Berg's Prophet’s Prey, a film about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Even Jason Segal’s David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour—true to the author’s real-life preoccupations—spends a good deal of time talking about meaning, life, religion, and the human condition.

One of the featured events at Sundance this year was a panel on faith-based films. Several attendees I spoke with were disappointed that panelists focused predominately, once again, on the “faith and family” audience—the same underlying market confusion I’d observed all year. One attendee, Ryan Daniel Dobson, is a Christian filmmaker developing a project based on the Biblical story of Hosea, in which the prophet is told by God to marry a prostitute, who repeatedly abandons him. A project like this will likely interest many people of faith, but not those looking for a “family film.” Like a growing number of Christians who work outside both the Hollywood system and the Christian film industry, Dobson sees films like God’s Not Dead as nearly antithetical to his understanding of what film ought to do and what faith ought to look like.

“Several times ‘faith films’ were compared to superhero movies, where a studio can’t stray from what their fanboy audience wants, because it would guarantee a box office fail.” Dobson told me. “Several times, it was said, ‘We’re doing this for them’—the audience. I find that particularly heartbreaking when said on the grounds of a festival where stories are told with such honesty that it forces the audience to admit they might be wrong.”

Most of the filmmakers who made this year’s spiritual indie films aren't even religious. The director Justin Kelly made his feature debut with I Am Michael, but faith isn’t exactly his hobby horse. “I never intended and still don’t to be talking about religion and sexuality so much,” he told me. “The fact that the film is being seen as controversial means that these things come up, and it’s new and weird to me.”

The film sidesteps the easy caricature of religious characters, a move Kelly attributes to meeting the men with whom Glatze had relationships. “All they cared about was how Michael would be portrayed, and they didn’t want him to be vilified,” Kelly told me. He found this mystifying at first, but their concern helped the director see how to depict characters he might not understand. “I thought, I have to be fair about this, in the same way that I would want him to be fair with me,” he said. Similarly, Don Verdean skewers the jargon that surfaces in American religion. But it isn't fundamentally critical of religion—rather, like many of the films at the festival (including Prophet’s Prey and Going Clear), the film is critical of misuses of power.

Filmmaker Paul Harrill’s indie feature Something, Anything—in which a character experiences a spiritual crisis and seeks answers in a monastic life—has played at festivals all over the country. Harrill also doesn’t count himself among the traditionally religious, but articulates well the sentiment behind this resurgence. “Spirituality is part of many people’s lives, and I wanted to depict that on film with compassion and respect,” he says. “But the last thing in the world I wanted to make was some ‘faith-based’ movie, some advertisement or propaganda for a set of beliefs. If anything, I wanted to make a film that was an antidote to those kinds of movies.”

The “Year of the Bible Film” didn’t conclude on December 31. Christian Mingle, named for the Christian online dating service, came out in January. Old Fashioned, a romance in which “chivalry makes a comeback,” was released on Valentine’s Day as the wholesome alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey. Multiple adaptations of the life of King David are in the works, as well as the long-awaited film Mary, Mother of God. And Christ the Lord, based on the Anne Rice novel, is slated to release in 2016. I receive publicity emails about several more “faith-and-family” movies every week.

But it’s hard to say how many will be hits. Saturating the market has adverse effects on its usual channels for guaranteeing ticket sales. “When we started helping market films 10 or 12 years ago, all you’d have to do, because there were so few, is contact the pastor,” Tim Gray said. “We worked on 10 films this year. Pastors are tell me, ‘I can’t market a film every month. I can’t market a film every three or four months. It’s not my job. I can do maybe one or two a year, but it’s got to be one I believe in.’”

Meanwhile, the “other” religious movies—the ones more broadly about spirituality or religious questions—may wind up having a wider reach than expected. They appeal to a certain segment within the religious community as well as to a broader audience. And for the most part, they haven’t been made for the box office returns—after all, it’s hard to get into Sundance and hard to get distribution. They’re not meant to be crowd-pleasers, but art-house films made for the love of the craft.

“I’d like to think that movies that depict religious doubt, or movies that depict spirituality without endorsing it—maybe those stories could actually promote dialogue between believers and non-believers, who seem so polarized and so suspicious of each other these days,” Harrill told me. “And I think such films could be validating for the many people who quietly wrestle with questions of faith and doubt but are too confused or scared to express this part of their lives.”

There will always be a market for “safe” family entertainment, and there will always be a place for ideologically rigid stories of certainty about the existence of heaven and God, just as politically polarizing ideological films will always exist. But good movies and real religion tend to explore the same sorts of things: pain, gladness, playfulness, fear, and existence. The number of filmmakers realizing the cinematic potential of these kinds of concepts only seems to be growing.