Faith Based Cinema Love Finds You

Just when it seems that the world’s largest media congloms are tightening their grip on the airwaves, an independent TV production boom has erupted in the nation’s heartland.

In Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana, Michigan and other states, a new breed of low-budget telepic and series producers is responding to the spike in demand for family- and faith-friendly content from a clutch of growing cable and digital multicast channels.

Indie outfits such as Up, Magic Johnson’s Aspire, INSP, TV One, Bounce TV and BYUtv as well as OWN, BET, Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network are all in need of a steady supply of fresh programming, particularly made-fors. That has helped create an ecosystem for producers working well outside traditional showbiz entities to deliver productions with unabashedly feel-good themes and inspirational stories.

PURPOSE: Variety‘s Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Summit

Movies made on six-figure budgets that would be within a rounding error on even midrange studio pictures are now hot tickets, thanks to heightened competition among niche channels. Producers targeting the African-American demo have seen a windfall, with startups Aspire, TV One and Bounce TV taking aim at BET’s dominance.

“What we do is not considered relevant by Hollywood standards,” says Eric Tomosunas, producer and owner of Atlanta-based Swirl Films. “Yet we’ve built a successful business. We employ a lot of people and provide a lot of work for actors.”

Execs and producers say the expansion of the indie telepic market has been aided by a number of converging trends:

» The significant drop in the cost of lensing and post-production work, thanks to innovations in digital equipment and editing systems

» The growth of production tax incentive programs in various states

» The ancillary revenue potential from post-premiere VOD and digital-licensing opportunities, as well as international sales

» The availability of producers, writers and directors with deep experience in the telepic format

“We’ve hit a watershed moment in the faith film arena,” says Cindy Bond, a veteran film producer and co-founder of Mission Pictures Intl. Noting the swell of faith- and Bible-driven projects hitting multiplexes this year, Bond asserts: “This audience isn’t a fluke any more. For the longest time, Hollywood has been going toward fare that is not right for this market. The next step for us is to raise the bar in terms of quality, because this audience deserves it.”

(Illustration by Peter Ryan for Variety)
The importance of the willingness of established producers to work on microbudget projects cannot be overstated, says Up senior VP of original programming Barbara Fisher, who headed programming for Lifetime and Hallmark Channel before joining the new net two years ago.

Fisher notes that the generation of creatives who once made a good living producing telepics for the Big Three networks in the 1970s and ’80s have struggled for years to find work in longform production. Fisher and others say they’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of actors willing to work for union scale wages because they like the material.

Over the past two years, Atlanta-based Up, headed by vice chairman Brad Siegel, has dramatically stepped up production and licensing of made-fors as a centerpiece of its programming strategy. The cabler has 18 movies on deck for this year, and plans at least 20 for 2015, including the biblical miniseries “Noah.” Up also works closely with Aspire in partnership with Johnson’s team, headed by g.m. Paul Butler.

“There are a lot of very talented people who are anxious to work, and love telling stories in this two-hour form,” Fisher says. “It may sound cornball to some people (in the TV biz), but we are recognizing that there’s a big country out there that hungers for programming that makes them feel hopeful. I’m seeing a new kind of respect for this programming. It doesn’t have to be schlocky or subpar.”

Fisher emphasizes that when she visits movie sets, she often has actors and crew members thank her for allowing them to be part of warm-and-fuzzy fare. “These are people, who are not making a ton of money, telling me what a pleasure it is to be able to work on something that they are proud to show their families,” she says.

Within the feel-good framework, however, there has been a notable shift away from overtly religious content in movies, in an effort to make the channels overall more broadly accessible. The subject of faith is woven into the storytelling, but not with as much specificity as in the past. The new nomenclature among programming execs is “faith-friendly” rather than “faith-based.” And plenty of projects have no direct faith component, but revolve around uplifting stories of romance, overcoming adversity, family bonds and holiday-pegged adventures (Christmas- and Thanksgiving-themed tales are eminently bankable in this milieu).

“It opens up the marketplace dramatically, and that helps with your bottom line,” Bond says.

Up scored this month with the premiere of Mission Pictures’ “Love Finds You in Sugarcreek,” a romance mystery toplined by Kelly McGillis, Tom Everett Scott and Sarah Lancaster (“Chuck”), and set in Ohio’s Amish country. Mission made the pic for $750,000, and has set up homevid rights with 20th Century Fox.

Cabler INSP, based in Charlotte, N.C., made the strategic decision a few years ago to move away from religious programming in favor of movies, and acquired series such as “The Waltons” that resonate with family demographics of all denominations.

“We’re finding that Americans overall do believe in God, and they don’t mind a story involving those types of things if it’s a natural, organic part of the story,” says Doug Butts, exec VP of programming for INSP. “We don’t want to be overtly religious in any way. … I’m a Christian, and I don’t talk about Jesus all the time or the Bible all the time. I talk about life. That’s what we want to bring to our viewers — relevant stories that touch their hearts and minds deep down in their soul.”

Budgets for these telepics can be as minuscule as $250,000, but typically range from $300,000 to $1 million — less than half of the cost of a network TV drama episode. The productions are usually non-union shoots that run 10-15 days, compared with three to five weeks or more for high-end longform fare.

Tomosunas’ Swirl Films, for one, does not produce under WGA or DGA contracts, but frequently hires SAG actors. Among Swirl’s recent projects are the Kevin Hart comedy “35 and Ticking,” which had a theatrical release via Image Entertainment in 2011, and has since aired on BET; and Up telepics “Marry Me for Christmas,” “My Dad’s a Soccer Mom,” “The Dempsey Sisters” and the upcoming “Mr. Right,” starring “Scandal” alum Columbus Short and “Justified’s” Erica Tazel.

The cablers take various approaches to acquiring programming. Some projects are owned outright by the commissioning network. Some are co-productions with indie players that are active in the faith-and-family space, such as Swirl, Mission, Pure Flix, Legacy Filmworks, Front Street Pictures and Nasser Entertainment. Some are straight licensing agreements with a range of banners such as Franklin, Tenn.-based Provident Films (owned by Sony Music as part of its Provident gospel music imprint). Digital and homevid rights usually remain with the producer, with after-market revenue vital to keeping small companies in business.

Up partnered with L.A.-based Animus Films to develop the Cuba Gooding Jr. starrer “Life of a King,” about an ex-con who launches a chess club for wayward youth in Washington, D.C. The movie had a limited theatrical and VOD run in January, and will bow on Up later this year.

Financing for the productions comes from all manner of sources, from bank loans to churches and other nonprofits to, in the case of BYUtv — which is owned by an affiliate of the Mormon church -— individual loans. Tax incentive coin from production-friendly locales including Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan and Canada are crucial to the feasibility of this low-budget fare.

“A big part of my job is finding the right incentive (program) to make these movies possible,” Fisher says. “We have a lot of devoted producers who know how to get great locations for one-tenth of the price you might otherwise pay.”

Tomosunas started Swirl Films in North Carolina 14 years ago “with a line of credit off of my house” and has since been able to fund production largely out of his cash flow. He’s also developing Swirl’s first scripted series, and prepping for production on a documentary series for Aspire, “Change Makers,” about the charitable activities of prominent African-Americans.

“We put all of our money back into our company,” he says. “We now own our own trailers. We own our own cameras. We spent 10 years building a business.”

INSP last month premiered the telepic “Seasons of Gray,” produced and financed by Dallas-based Watermark Community Church. The pic — a contempo spin on the Joseph story revolving around a man cast out from his family and framed for a crime — had a brief theatrical run in Dallas last year, and has been on the Christian film fest circuit.

Unlike other cablers, BYUtv has focused its efforts on developing original series it owns outright rather than on telepics. Period drama “Granite Flats,” which just wrapped its second season, has been a high priority for the channel, and has gotten some mainstream media attention. Sketch comedy series “Studio C” is produced inhouse at the channel’s Salt Lake City home base.

BYUtv does not run traditional advertising, but does carry PBS-style sponsor underwriting acknowledgements. A good portion of its program funding comes from individual private donors, not all of whom are Mormon, according to Scott Swofford, BYUtv’s director of content.

“We get some from people who tell us they like our programming and like what we stand for,” says Swofford, who joined BYUtv three and a half years ago after working as an independent producer of Imax films. “These people very rarely try to exercise editorial control over what we do — but they do like to show up on the set.”

“Granite Flats” is produced under SAG, WGA and DGA contracts, though it does not use IATSE crews. The show, which revolves around a Cold War conspiracy mystery, was able to attract established actors, including Christopher Lloyd and Cary Elwes, in its second season. They didn’t sign on for the paycheck, Swofford admits.

“We can’t pay people enough for them to do it for the money. They can make more in a weekend at Comic-Con,” he says. “They have to like the material.”

At a time when the media biz is in the throes of another round of merger mania, the level of production activity among truly scrappy indie players is a sign
that the heavyweights can’t serve every niche. And it’s also evidence that nature abhors a vacuum.

“We have found producers and financial structures that allow us to make films at production budgets that the industry has never seen before,” says Up’s Siegel. “I would put our movies up against anything you’d see on Lifetime or Hallmark. Our brand is about uplifting entertainment and telling stories that others aren’t willing to do.”

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