Finding and developing a good script for faith-based movies today is difficult enough, but in most cases, Catholic and Christian filmmakers have two more monumental challenges: financing and distribution.
If the first challenge is met and the film gets completed, major film distributors are not always interested in picking up a faith-based film or marketing it to a wide audience, unless a major studio is involved.
"Hollywood is not faith-friendly, and when they do faith, they do not do it well," said former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who is now chairman and CEO of EchoLight Studios (EchoLight.com), an inspirational film company headquartered in Dallas.
In terms of approach, Santorum, a Catholic, said Christian filmmakers can get good ideas from the Christian music industry: "Christian music teaches and entertains the faithful [while messages are] consistent with biblical teaching."
Unfortunately, Christianity-lite themes are often the mainstay in Christian film, Santorum said.
"It is really important we make films that speak to the [Christian] church [community]," Santorum emphasized. "The church is in so much need of quality entertainment for people who believe."
Filmmaker and co-founder of Navis Pictures (NavisPictures.com) Jim Morlino, who has made the award-winning War of the Vendee with an all-children-and-teen cast, observes that while a filmmaker like himself might produce something of interest to "a certain number of Catholics who take faith seriously, or have a direct concern with the subject matter, the difficulty comes in finding a wider audience for something that is distinctly Catholic."
His films to date were tailored to appeal to a niche Catholic audience.
Morlino looks to successful Protestant-produced films, like ones from Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., whose first film was made for $20,000 and whose second film, Facing the Giants, cost $100,000 and took in more than $10 million at the box office.
"My question is: Where are the Catholics who are willing to put up even a fraction of that to finance well-crafted movies that would reflect the Catholic faith?" he asked. If a good story is involved, it can draw a large audience that does not necessarily have to be Catholic, he said.
He does mention one instance of a successful film that was Catholic-funded by a single source. The director of the Sacred Heart League in Walls, Miss., wanted to make a film as part of the group’s outreach ministry, and the result was 1996’s The Spitfire Grill.
Made for approximately $6 million, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won an award and was promptly picked up by a major distributor for $10 million. The Sacred Heart League not only made production costs back, but, with profits, built a school for 400-plus underprivileged children.
The film dealt with redemption, pain, suffering and justice — "basic, fundamental themes common to all of humanity and that the Catholic Church has clear teachings about," Morlino said, even though it was not an overtly Catholic film.
But since reaching a wide audience through the standard Hollywood distribution system is not possible for many small, independent faith-based films, no matter how good they are, new methods of delivering films are starting to develop and gain popularity.
Santorum explained that EchoLight has decided to go in the front door instead of the back door of Hollywood.
"We’re going to the churches and saying, ‘We need your people to come,’" he said. "We’re going to offer our films to the churches, and we’ll be opening our films in the churches and at Catholic colleges and high schools that have the setup to do a theater-like atmosphere."
"Our idea is to bring film — the No. 1 influence of culture — back into the Church, which should be the center and influencer of culture," he added.
As the new division of EchoLight, EchoLight Cinemas is already beginning to approach churches, Catholic as well as those of other denominations, to implement its new strategy of holding premieres at houses of worship.
"We’re just getting started and are really focused on church outreach first," Santorum said, but, already, he names who is next in line to contact: colleges in the Register’s annual Catholic Identity College Guide. Christian colleges and secular colleges with Newman Centers or Christian-oriented groups are other options.
EchoLight will create a one-month window for each church, which can show the film any number of times it would like. Being able to participate in ticket pricing will allow churches to offer the showings as fundraisers.
"Folks will love the opportunity," Santorum believes. "It will meet the need of parishioners, which is to bring uplifting and inspirational content to the faithful."
The launch of this partnership program is scheduled to begin in September with the documentary One Generation Away.
"We need to lay out the vision of why it’s so important to feed the faithful and get them involved in the country," Santorum explained.
One Generation Away: The Erosion of Religious Liberty is based on President Ronald Reagan’s famous line, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction."
Similarly, producer Daniel Rabourdin’s film in production, The Hidden Rebellion, is a docudrama that deals with the persecution of religious liberty. The Hidden Rebellion tells the story of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Catholics, starting with clergy and religious and including women and children, which took place in the Vendee region in France.
The Catholic producer wants to speak to Catholics and non-Catholics alike with this film.
With filming complete, Rabourdin has yet to receive all of the funds needed to complete post-production editing and the music score.
He turned to a fundraising website for the $30,000 still needed, but has gotten only $11,000. He has put his own $18,000 into the film, for which he takes no salary and receives no compensation of any kind.
He is a seasoned producer, having worked as such for Eternal Word Television Network for 16 years before leaving his job to concentrate fully on making this film.
"I am doing a little bit of a Mother Angelica strategy," he admitted. "I’m not waiting for all the money to be there to start."
He has gotten an endorsement from Bishop Dominique Rey of Frejus-Toulon, France, who wrote publicly: "Our prayers are with you, and we are confident that men and women of goodwill in the whole world will support this initiative."
Rabourdin hopes that, once the film is finished, a parish or diocese will reserve and fill a theater for a showing.
"This is a chance for the Church to seize," he said. "It is a powerful new way for the Church today to commission producers and to produce works of art that glorify the Lord for the good of the people. We must learn to be part of that new support system if we want a new wave of good films."
Morlino is of similar mind. Catholics need to step up and fund film, which "is the most influential and powerful art form today."
Morlino envisions where this can lead: "If a Catholic filmmaker can make a movie that doesn’t soft-pedal the Catholic faith, but that instead integrates the truth of the faith into a beautiful and interesting story, it can serve to open the ears of the secular audience or even a fallen-away Catholic or non-Catholic audience to the wisdom and truth the Church has to offer. I’m convinced it will only pave the way for the presentation of the fullness of the faith."
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.