As I mentioned a few posts ago, I recently spent a week at the Christian Worldview Film Festival in San Antonio. As someone who’s followed the independent Christian film industry for several years now, I’ve been very pleased to see the steady growth of quality in Christian movies. Ten years ago we were hard pressed to find any Christian titles that weren’t unbearably cheap and cheesy (though a few existed). Now several well-made stories are gaining momentum. It’s exciting to see.
I must admit, however, that there are still a lot of Christian films that are weak, poorly done, or just plain bad. After sitting and watching several hours of recent Christian films, I think I can pinpoint five very common problems. Some are very easily fixed, and some are more complicated, but as both a filmmaker and a film watcher, I think some added attention in these areas could dramatically improve our films.
1. Don’t have opening credits.
If your film is less than thirty minutes long and/or has no famous actors in it, dispense with the opening credit sequence. Opening credits have two possible purposes. One is to ease the audience into the world and the story. In a short film, you can’t really spare the time for that. It’s paced differently than a feature. The second purpose is to let the audience know which of their favorite actors they can look forward to seeing. Most indie Christian short films don’t have actors that are widely-known enough to make opening credits worthwhile.
2. Choose an interesting story.
This should be a no-brainer, but over the weekend I saw far too many films that just weren’t interesting. The sad fact is, just because a story is interesting to you doesn’t mean that it will be interesting to others. If you’re making a documentary about a friend’s conversion, you have to give us a reason to care. That sounds callous, but storytelling is about engaging people’s minds and emotions, and if you don’t do that, your story isn’t worth much. Before you choose a topic, stop and ask yourself “Why will this interest my target audience?” or an alternate question, “What can I do to my current story to make it more interesting to my target audience?” Did your friend become a Christian because as he was walking along one day lightning struck the person walking next to him? If so, include that little detail. It takes the story from mediocre to meaningful. Every story has the potential to be interesting, sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper. The extra work is worth it.
3. Stick to your topic.
Again, this really sounds self-evident, but the number of disjointed films prove that it may not be. By wandering from your topic, you weaken your story and your point. If the point of your short film is the value of hard work, don’t include an arbitrary subplot where the protagonist discovers the dangers of orange-flavored Jello. If your documentary is about why children should learn to read before age three, don’t start talking about missionaries in South Africa. Unless of course the missionaries teach African children to read before age three. These are exaggerated examples, but the point is simple. Ask yourself if each scene, interview, or subplot specifically supports your main topic or storyline. If not, don’t include it.
4. Be aware of what message you’re sending.
It would seem that Christians would be very careful about this. After all, if your purpose with your film is to bring glory to God, then every frame needs to be subservient to that. This can definitely be tricky, because we do need to portray evil and sin, and we don’t always have time or means to completely address every single thing that shows up in our movies. But there were quite a few films I saw over the week that had wonderful, godly central messages, but fairly prominent attitudes or implications that were very concerning. One story with a powerful gospel theme depicted a very selfish marital relationship that was never addressed. Another good story indirectly implied that not only could a Christian live perfectly, but that if they did, God would keep them safe and prosperous. We can’t control what people get out of our stories, and this is an issue that requires a lot of discretion. It doesn’t have hard and fast answers. But it’s something we need to examine and be aware of.
5. Don’t throw out solid principles of storytelling.
If you thought I was on a soap box before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I may do a whole blog post on this sometime because it’s a very complex topic that deserves much more than one paragraph. Hollywood often does better than us in this area, but as Christians, we are the ones who should have a better understanding of why principles are important and why they work. The standards of storytelling aren’t arbitrary. They are discovered, they are proven, and they reflect the hand of a Creator. They demonstrate design. The three-act structure isn’t something we made up, it’s something we found. It works not because we’re used to it, but because it appeals to aspects of our lives and our emotions in ways that God put into place. In a conversation I had with a filmmaker after one film showing, I was curious about some simple story structure that I felt his film had violated, and whether he had known about or considered this. His answer surprised me. He was in fact aware of the storytelling rule, but he felt that he had come up with something new that would work better. First of all, we know that there is no new thing under the sun. It can be prideful to think that we can innovate something that has never been thought of before… and it can be prideful to think that as beginners we can throw to the wind the principles that dedicated men and women worked hundreds of years to discover and understand. I’m not saying that all storytelling principles are set in stone unmoveably. Nor am I saying that there is never a time for innovation and improvement. But if we don’t have a proper respect for time-honored conventions of storytelling that have worked for centuries, if we don’t learn how and why they work, if we toss out the work of those before us instead of building on it, how can we expect to turn out powerful, God-honoring movies?
This post may seem harsh, and if it does, I am truly sorry. I don’t point out these things because I want to bash independent Christian films, but because I love them. I want them to be the best they can be. I want them to touch lives and point people to Christ and soften hearts. I believe in Christian filmmaking–and that’s why I take the time to make these observations.
And I look forward to next year’s Festival, excited to keep watching the progress of films that do their very best to touch hearts, change lives, and honor our King.