Don’t pander, don’t patronize and don’t preach — at least not overtly. Those were among the strongest messages delivered by producers and executives discussing the state of the faith-based and family entertainment Thursday at Variety’s fourth annual Purpose summit.
The gathering at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills underscored the vibrancy of the faith-based production community and the range of material that can fall under the big tent of faith- and family-friendly entertainment. Numerous panelists stressed the importance of seeking out challenging, even edgy material in order to make stories of faith and redemption compelling to mainstream audiences.
No speaker of the day was more eloquent that actor David Oyelowo, who spoke candidly of his awakening as a Christian at the age of 16 and his experience in being called by God to play Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.”
“If it’s a sermon on film, it will work only for a small audience,” Oyelowo said. He like others urged filmmakers to view matters of faith as a subject that can be woven into the fabric of a story in virtually any genre. And movies that do tackle spiritual subjects head-on had better come from writers, producers and directors with a desire to tell a certain story, not a marketing-driven effort “by a gigantic studio cynically putting something out that they don’t believe in and hoping an audience comes to it,” he said. “When these films work is when there is conviction in the filmmaking.”
Producer DeVon Franklin was among those who urged faith-focused producers to think big and crossover potential. He’s concerned that too much emphasis on a project being “faith-based” can have the effect of limiting the potential audience.
“If we keep thinking of this as a small thing for a small group of people,” we’re going to keep getting the same results,” Franklin said. The greatest story ever told, he observed, is a rich vein of material that deserves ambitious treatment.
Although the faith and family community is expanding along with the general boom in content and platforms, it remains a close-knit community. The Purpose summit at times has the feel of a clubhouse where like-minded people compare notes and bond over shared passions. And of course, there’s relentless networking in an arena that is more open than mainstream film and TV to independent producers. Talent agencies including Gersh and Paradigm also had agents in attendance to scout for talent and deal opportunities.
Among other highlights from the daylong gather, presented in association with Rogers & Cowan:
- Holly Carter, exec producer of Oxygen’s “Preachers of …” franchise, emphasized that people of faith don’t have to be depicted as saints. “Believers have the same issues as everybody else. We go through divorces, we have issues on the job,” she said.
- Stephen Hill, head of programming for BET, said the cabler has long integrated gospel music into its general music programming rather than treating it as a niche. “Next to videos some of you would cringe at we play (gospel) artists on ‘106 and Park,’ ” he said.
- Derrick Williams, exec VP of TD Jakes Enterprises, said prominent pastors are definitely getting weary of Hollywood’s overtures for help in promoting projects. “They’re getting a little tired of people coming to them over and over again,” he said. “You have to have the right type of story and content that is being presented.”
- Mark Ordesky, producer of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, said the bankability of strong faith-based stories has the potential to shore up the dwindling market for non-tentpole movies at the major studios. “The moderate-budget movie is on the verge of extinction at the major studios. You can bring it back with (movies in the vein of) ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ and ‘Chariots of Fire.’ “
- John Shepherd, president of Mpower Pictures, said the studios are definitely listening to producers who come in with more than a pitch. “There’s real opportunity right now. The studios are open to it, you just have to go in with a marketing plan and say ‘We think we can deliver an audience based on this and this.’ “
- Rob Moore, Paramount vice chairman, spoke of the experience of dealing with Glenn Beck and other commentators who criticized the studio’s 2014 release “Noah” for its interpretation of the Biblical story even before they and seen the finished movie. After Beck publicly railed against the movie, Par set up a screening for him. “Once he saw it he was very torn. He was hoping for something different (in the story) but he understood that the movie was a very moving piece of art,” Moore said.
- Mary Daily, president and chief marketing officer for Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, stressed the importance of understanding the selling point of a given project. Otherwise, you can wind up “trying to sell steaks to vegetarians.”
- Traci Blackwell, senior VP of current programming for CW, said the network’s long-running drama “Supernatural” has demonstrated faith-friendly appeal. “We’ve been to heaven on that show, we’ve been to hell,” she joked.
- Actress Meagan Good echoed Oyelowo’s sentiment in citing how her faith has guided her career decisions. She has never done a role that involved nudity because she’s never been offered anything that didn’t seem gratuitous. “I talk to God when I’m not sure about something,” she said.
- Writer-director Michael Carney offered a simple motto in how he approaches developing material. “Movies aren’t Christian. Movies are movies.”
- “Preachers” producer Carter got a laugh out of the crowd early in the day when she was explaining how the preachers that she represents have to be active in more than one area to build up their profiles. When someone in the audience let loose a loud sneeze, Carter delivered a “god bless you” and barely missing a beat in making her point. “See, that’s my job as a believer to talk and bless at the same time,” she said.
(Pictured: David Oyelowo takes a picture with Gersh Agency’s Morgan Long at the Purpose summit)