Parents seek new pundits' perspectives

While mainstream moviegoers seem to care less and less about which films get a thumbs-up or four-star review — for proof, look no further than the recent, mostly panned blockbusters “300” and “Ghost Rider” — conservative Christian audiences pay close attention to their trusted critical sources; their guides just don’t work for “Entertainment Weekly” or “Entertainment Tonight.”

“When you’re listening to Roger Ebert, you’re listening to his puffery, his opinion,” says Ted Baehr, founder of Movieguide, a ministry that evaluates mass media according to biblical principles, receives approximately 3 million online visitors a month and has 11 million subscribers to its email newsletter. “There’s no historical analysis, no philosophical analysis, no background.”

Baehr says the American evangelical community, a group estimated up to 100 million strong, isn’t interested in an individual critic’s take on a film. “The people who turn to us want a detailed look at a movie from a Christian perspective. We’re as comprehensive as possible not just about the entertainment value but about the acceptability of its worldview.”

For example, Michael Apted’s drama “Amazing Grace,” about the British abolitionist movement, garnered generally favorable reviews according to Metacritic.com, but in the Christian media, it earned huge raves — even though DGA president Apted isn’t known as a Christian filmmaker.

“We don’t care who makes or markets a movie; we care about the messages it’s sending,” says Bob Smithouser, who edits Focus on the Family’s Plugged In magazine and reviews films for PluggedInOnline.com. “Is ‘Amazing Grace’ a mainstream film or a Christian film? Frankly, I don’t care because it’s terrific.”

Savvy to the spending power of Christian auds, studios regularly invite church leaders and their staff to preview certain releases in hopes of an endorsement or perhaps a sermon mention.

“We don’t directly recommend movies because we don’t want to fall into being part of a movie’s marketing machine,” says Gene Appel, head minister at South Barrington, Illinois-based Willow Creek Community Church, which has more than 20,000 weekly congregants. “But we appreciate movies that provoke people to have conversations of substance.”

Last year, Willow Creek held a five-part sermon series responding to “The Da Vinci Code,” took the student ministry on a trip to see “The Chronicles of Narnia” and showed clips from “Cheaper by the Dozen” to illustrate how families communicate. Says Appel: “We want to harness popular culture for good and to help people think discerningly about what they watch.”

In addition to relying on Christian media outlets and leaders, religious moviegoers can turn to thorough, often spoiler-filled content descriptions, especially when considering what their children can see. Web sites like Kids-in-Mind.com and ScreenIt.com provide parents with painstakingly accurate lists of how much sex, violence and foul language there is in any given film (few would be surprised to learn there are 63 F-bombs in Chris Rock’s “I Think I Love My Wife”).

“Conservative parents are bothered by sex, while liberal parents are more sensitive to violence; conservative Christians are very upset about language containing religious profanities, while liberal Christians are more upset about the F-word, etc.,” says Aris Christofedes, editor of Critics Inc., the parent company of Kids-in-Mind. “Our reviews are basically a list of ingredients, similar to what you find on food item labels.”

These days, Baehr says, Christians have more options at the box office than they did two decades ago. For every “non-Christian” film like “Brokeback Mountain” or the latest “Harry Potter,” there’s a Christian-friendly film like “Narnia” or “Superman Returns.” “In the ’80s, one of the only movies with positive references to Jesus Christ was ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ but now the figure has risen to 50% of films. That’s a very good sign.”

(Formerly AOL’s Moviefone Mama, Sandie Angulo Chen writes movie reviews for parents at Common Sense Media.)

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