Biz takes notice of family, faith-based media

Variety summit features sneak peek at Mark Burnett's 'Bible' mini

Mark Burnett parachuted in from Morocco to show an early glimpse of his miniseries “The Bible” on Thursday at the Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Summit, presented by Variety in association with Rogers and Cowan.

Burnett enthusiastically spoke of his passion for the project, a 10-hour epic to air on cabler History next spring. He echoed the sentiment of many panelists at the daylong gathering at the Sofitel Hotel in emphasizing the huge, often untapped potential of faith-based productions.

However, Burnett also emphasized that bringing “Bible” to the screen has transcended business concerns for his company. His wife, thesp Roma Downey, has been on location in Morocco for weeks working as a producer and thesp on the project.

“I couldn’t give a shit about the business model,” Burnett said. “This was about love and faith.”

Throughout the day, panelists from across the biz spectrum — from indie producers to cable programmers to studio execs — discussed the state of play for family programming and faith-based material. Execs acknowledged that while there is often a built-in aud for such movies and TV shows, overt branding as faith-based can also be limiting. And panelists affirmed that faith and family entertainment isn’t composed of overtly preachy movies and shows.

“We’ve joked that if you want a short pitch meeting at a studio, go in and say you have a faith-based project,” quipped Simon Swart, executive veep and general manager of Fox Home Entertainment. Swart spearheaded the Fox home-vid unit’s Fox Faith initiative, which took the studio into the biz of distribbing direct-to-vid movies with faith and religious themes.

As it tested potential on-air slogans, cabler GMC found that too much overt marketing can be a turn off even to those who flock to faith-based programming.

“Every single person in our focus groups said ‘No — my faith, my family, we don’t want to be told what’s good for us,” said GMC TV vice chairman Brad Siegel, vice chairman of GMC TV.

Instead, studios and advertisers alike have begun to focus on “uplifting” entertainment, a term that offers connotations of quality, talent-driven content with a positive worldview and without much explicit language, sex and violence.

Keynote speakers at the summit included Ben Simon, director of Walmart and co-chair of the ANA Alliance for Family Entertainment, and Michael Flaherty, co-founder of Walden Media. Simon detailed the org’s work in advocating with networks and studios the demand among advertisers for family programming that draws multigenerational co-vieweing, or what he called “the bull’s eye” for advertisers.

Tellingly, much of the discussion revolved around the issue of the “family” and “faith” labels and how the misconceptions of these so-called “niche” genres need to change.

Plenty of financial incentives exist in this field: A study from the Dove Foundation, for instance, shows that family-friendly productions tend to generate more profit than projects with content unsuitable for children. “Family programming has the biggest possible demographic you could hope to reach,” Simon said.

And though a market for family or faith-specific original productions still exists, others are attracted by mainstream projects that contain opportunities for faith-friendly marketing.

Rio Cyrus, senior veep of marketing at Fox Home Entertainment, pointed to examples such as “Act of Valor,” “The Hunger Games” and even Marvel’s “The Avengers,” which, underneath plenty of violence, hold themes of brotherhood, sacrifice and a “code of life” that spiritual audiences can — and do — relate to.

More than anything, experts spoke of the necessity to deliver strong, genuinely compelling stories to viewers without worrying about the underlying message or film style.

As Ted Baehr, founder and publisher of Movieguide, noted: “It’s the heart of the movie that matters, not the genre.”