Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Following up on my recent interview with Odyssey Networks CEO Nick Stuart, I recently had the opportunity to sit down with him again, this time joined by Maura Dunbar, the multi-faith media group’s executive in charge of content development. Between them, the pair brings a complementary wealth of experience  to the business of creating quality multi-faith driven media.

Nick Stuart’s eclectic TV background includes several documentaries,  God Is Green (focusing on Christian, Muslim and Hindu leaders engaged in the issue of climate change), Clash of the Worlds (examining the roots of the divide between Christianity and Islam) and Victim 0001 (about Mychal Judge,  the NYFD chaplain who perished on 9/11).The latter film won the prestigious Sandford St. Martin Religious Television Award in 2005.

Maura Dunbar comes to her post with over two decades of experience producing hundreds of hours of TV movies and miniseries. Her impressive resume include the biopics Me and My Shadow: The Judy Garland Story and The Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story, three Stephen King titles (Storm of the Century, The Stand and The Shining), a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart classic Rear Window (starring Christopher Reeve) and several episodes of the rotating ABC Mystery Movie franchise (that included new editions of Columbo and Kojak).

Our conversation covered everything from what the company has in the pipeline to a general discussion of what makes good faith-based entertainment and the genre’s growing influence on mainstream Hollywood.

JWK: So, what’s new?

NICK STUART: We’re going to be putting Call on Faith on Over-the-Top (internet-delivered television) solutions next year. We’re moving bit by bit.  Call on Faith has proved very popular. It’s sort of religion and lifestyle geared toward the individual. You can get that on the move. We always want to try and reach families so (our programs are) a shared experience and to do that we need to get back into the living rooms of America and that’s what Over the Top lets us do.

JWK: And what is the Odyssey philosophy on what makes good faith-based entertainment?

NICK STUART: What makes good entertainment per se really makes good faith-based entertainment.  Strong characters, believable characters, believable stories.  It always bugs me that somehow faith is separated…People of faith are people who watch TV anyway and they apply that same interest. We’ve been telling stories for centuries . The Bible is full of fantastic stories. All the sacred texts are filled with fantastic stories.  And they play out. Is it a good tale? Is it a good story? Do we believe in the person? Do we care about that person? And is it well produced?  Because if it isn’t, it ain’t gonna work and it will do no good saying “Oh, don’t worry. It’s faith based.”

MAURA DUNBAR:  There are a lot of different trends  in faith programming and faith films. We have the phenomenon that’s happening with films like Fireproof  by the Sherwood Baptist group, and recently Courageous, and then you have on the other side films like The Blind Side and films like we’ve done for Hallmark Channel, such as The Note series and The Shunning series. And I think the difference in those two types of faith-based films is that one tends to lean heavily on a proselytizing message. There’s something there more of their intrinsic dogma…They want to get a message out whereas, on the other side,  I call them general entertainment with a faith inspiration…I also think the thing for us, when we look at scripted, is  we’re looking for those common denominators  that unite us regardless of which walk of faith we come from or what background we come from. And these are the values that we share as human beings, the virtues we all look for — hope, charity, compassion, forgiveness.  (Those virtues are particularly important) in a world right now where there is so much at risk and in question…Just like in the depression era, people want relief and encouragement.  Faith-based film, when done in the broader sense, The Blind Side and those types of films, give people hope, inspiration and reconnect them to these intrinsic virtues that we share and I think there’s a feel-good opportunity with that. We’ve seen it .  You know, recently Soul Surfer did very well at the box office. Secretariat didn’t do as well but I think it will have a stronger after market home video…

…It’s interesting that Sherwood Baptist is going toward films and telling stories for a very specific  audience. And you find that audience has quite a large purchasing power.  Couragious  was made for 2 million dollars. The opening weekend was 9 million. It’s already grossed 30 million but it’s really driven  by that specific market, whereas, Blind Side had a bigger general audience.  We’re finding that films  we did like Love Comes Softly, Love’s Enduring Promise, The Note movies (and) The Shunning…appeal not only to a faith-based audience but to a general audience who share the (connection to ) these…great redemptive qualities that they’re looking for in great stories.

NICK STUART: What’s really interesting about that  is that it reflects the change in the faith scene in America. We talk about post-denominationism. We’ve looked at what is happening  to the traditional denominations and the way individuals relate to faith and their personal faith  and, clearly, in  the last 20 years we’ve seen a weakening in (sectarianism).   And the films have reacted to this.

One  (sector), as more Maura says, go for the more general  shared feelings and emotions…that we all share in as spiritual and moral beings and then there are the groups who fight the change and always try to ameliorate it. They try to dig in and theirs is a much more targeted message. So you have films that…reflect the exact evolution of faith in America.

JWK: To me it seems that movies run the gamut from being quite cynical about religion to  films that respect and support faith in general to movies that are strongly religious in a more sectarian way.

MAURA DUNBAR: I grew up in television and, for me, television had that wonderful ability to entertain and enlighten and that’s why you have such a broad spectrum of different types of genres because you can send a message in very meaningful ways in entertaining ways whether it’s a drama, whether it’s a comedy, whether it’s an action adventure. So , people like variety.

In the heyday of the TV movie business, we used to have the relatability  hook. I called it the backyard factor – that it either has to have happened  to me or it has to have emotional relevance. You know, in those days during the nineties and the big TV movies, a lot of times it was  primal fears to be honest with you. The TV movies were based on  (things like) if I could make you afraid, if you got on a plane this would happen, if the stranger came to the door of your house, this could happen. All primal fears.

In addition though, I got you to care because it was relatable. It could happen to you, it could happen to me, it could happen to my family — all in my own backward. So, there’s the relatability factor.

The other relatabilities are the iconic things that we share as a (cultural) phenomenon…the wider appeal of big movies like The Beach Boys or the movies about different figures in history. We all have a relative emotional relationship to it in terms of how it impacted our personal lives. So, I may not be able to identify with Dennis and Brian Wilson but I am able to identify and know exactly where I was when I heard Surfer Girl. That music was sort of a shared cultural experience.

NICK STUART: I like what you say about identification (and) the backyard experience because there are two ways that you could divide this up additionally if you’re talking about faith programming.

You‘ve got someone so like you or so unlike you, you know someone so different and special and you make programs about them.  And I did those at the beginning of my career.  I changed because…I did a program on Mother Teresa. Could I ever be like her? Could my daughter? No. I mean they were inspirational figures in a way but I felt distance from them. I admired them but from a distance.

What I’ve tried to do since is to make programs about ordinary people who do extraordinary things.  So, I can look at my wife on the sofa….and my daughters and say “Hey, we could do that.”…What are we called to be? The best we can be, to fulfill our potential as spiritual beings. And, if the example is just so far away, it’s like if I’m running a marathon and if the finishing post is too far away I might give up. But, if I think s possible to get there in the end, I’m gonna stick it out.

MAURA DUNBAR: That’s the wonderful thing about inspiration. It’s the immediacy and the relevancy — that I can make a difference. I may not be able to go be and have the attributes and live a life like Mother Teresa but I can, with my small acts of compassion, make a difference and make a change.  It’s the simple acts of forgiveness , of relationship, of reconciliation.

NICK STUART: You’re right. The doc we did for the Oprah Channel, Serving Life, was around the lines that, if killers can care, the rest of us have no excuse. It was (about) the transformation of people who will spend their life in jail…at the Angola Jail in Louisiana…yet we saw amazing transformation as they cared for the dying inmates in the prison hospice. So changing diapers, getting up at 2 AM to hold a guy’s hand, take their abuse when, you know, when the pain is too much and they would lash out at them. Those are saints in there in many ways.

JWK: I know what you mean. My favorite shows tend to be about flawed characters who end up doing good.

MAURA DUNBAR: I call it the Thomas’ English Muffin Theory. I know, why don’t we bring a food group into this? It’s the people in the middle, it’s neither black nor white, it’s the gray that’s really the most interesting. It’s not the flat store-bought English muffin that is the tastiest and most interesting and flavorful. It’s the ones with the bigger nooks and crannies. It’s the idiosyncrasies, the contradictions  that make great storytelling . Very few of us live in all black or all  white. It’s not as simplistic as that and faith, in particular, is not as simplistic as that.  We’re challenged to experience and live our faith in probably the most dynamic ways that I can recall in my lifetime now because of all the challenges our country is experiencing.  And so we have to find ways we can live our faith not just by what we read on Sundays in the Gospel but how we interpret that, person to person, one on one…

…Technology…is a double-edged sword…it has taken us in a sort of separation…I can reach more people with the push of a button and send more information but where does compassion live then in that technology. You have to put a personal face on it.  Because I may have given a donation  and signed on to these different blogs… but during the day when I’m walking and someone has tripped on the street will I stop and help that person?

NICK STUART:  It’s like when someone sends you a Christmas card or a birthday card as opposed to an ecard. That bugs me. Because, you know, two buttons. What does it take? What does it cost me?

MAURA DUNBAR: It’s not the same thing as “I’ve gone to the store. I’ve thought of you. I’ve bought a card for you.”

NICK STUART: Going back to what makes good TV, good faith-based TV, you said something a second ago about the importance of flawed characters and everything we try and do we try and base on theological perspectives . We look for theological perspectives.

Now, to me , it’s the Incarnation. Why am I Christian? One of the things that excites me most – apart from my cultural upbringing which led me to that anyway – was the incarnational nature of Christianity and Christ and the Godhead….There is God (coming) down…to embrace the weakness and the flawed nature of humanity that is, I think, theologically very important.

Otherwise, God is aloof.  We wonder am I looking at something…that is so unattainable?  Or am I watching something that I relate to?  It acknowledges my weakness but it shows me a way out.  Those prisoners in that program (Serving Life) are people for whom most people would throw away the key.  This program acknowledges that in their very weakness there was a potential for incredible transformation. And that’s what happened

JWK:  Whatever happened to those TV movies that were at were derisively labeled as Disease-0f-the-Week films. The thing I actually miss about them is that they emphasized the values of empathy and compassion.

MAURA DUNBAR: A lot of those were longer versions of morality tales. When I was at ABC  – I’ve actually in my career in television overseen the production of 250 television movies – …(former ABC Entertainment President) Brandon Stoddard (was a champion) of long-form television.

So, he looked at this as an opportunity to really make morality tales…There was a period of time when you had the very first movie that explored incest , you had the very first movie that explored teen suicide. Remember Carol Burnett in Friendly Fire? These were major films that opened the door…(Today) there isn’t always necessarily the patience for good storytelling  that you let a story unfold .

In a Disease of-the-Week you have to kind of let the story unfold  and there’s much more of an internal emotional journey going on (that’s) more transformational than physical.  The circumstances and obstacles that you have to overcome in an adventure  are very physically driven…and then, of course, the economics of the television movie business for the networks just broke down completely.  So, you’re left now with Hallmark  and Lifetime and, to a degree, interestingly enough, Michael Wright over at TNT is taking a page out of the old ABC mystery wheel, the Mystery Movies (that go even further back to) NBC .  I oversaw the Mystery Movies with Columb0, Kojak and those films.

JWK: I loved Columbo.

MAURA DUNBAR: Yeah, I made many of them. Peter was an amazing guy. Very idiosyncratic, a perfectionist. He would do 17 takes of a very long scene and he would always do it over and over again. So, you see TNT starting to do some of these two-hour backdoor crime  pilots, like a mystery movie.

Hallmark has been a great partner to us for our content. If you think about the Hallmark brand, it is values based. It is great storytelling and family connection.  So, it’s a great fit for us.  But it’s really as a result of the fragmentation of the marketplace – that and the nature of the business that you no longer get to have those kind of other films.

NICK STUART: There’s something about the art of storytelling that goes back to what I was saying earlier about this goes back centuries. Interestingly we come from different parts of the entertainment world. (Maura) come from (scripted) films.  I come from news and current affairs.  In news and current affairs the watch word is tell them what you’re about to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.  So, you’re always telling them.

The opposite is true in the skill of (dramatic) storytelling.  It’s what you don’t tell them  which makes you think “Ooh, what’s happening there?” That’s how you engage them.

JWK: Recent box office results seem to indicate that people are looking for kinder and more inspirational storytelling. And I think you are seeing more movies that reflect this. Do you see that trend jumping over to television — which, to my eye, has become more cynical than theatrical movies.

MAURA DUNBAR: I think it absolutely is and it is right now. You see the Martha Williamson series at Lifetime that’s being developed, actually with our producing partner Joel Rice who worked with us on The Note films. I believe you have the Rob Bell-Carlton Cuse project at ABC. And you have Marc Cherry working on (a project). I don’t think they are going to be as sort of quintessentially wholesome  as what you would think of as a Touched by an Angel but those redemptive themes of hope and inspiration I absolutely do think that that’s gonna come back. As I said…at times of great stress people want relief.

NICK STUART: TV, to a greater degree, I think, than feature films, are a mirror image of reality. Because you do not want to be reminded of what you just lived though.

JWK: Life can be hard enough..

NICK STUART: Exactly.  It also goes the other way, I think, as well because if you look at things like Discovery, there’s an escapism there, especially about what  it is to be male.  There’s a lot of things about extreme climbing, river monsters, being out there in the outdoors.  It’s adventure for the male of the species.  We don’t the that anymore. I ain’t gonna wrestle a bear of a fish.

MAURA DUNBAR: When I was  senior in college and studying television criticism – I was a TV film writing major – in the TV criticism class everyone was basically quoting Newton Minnow (the one-time FCC commissioner who famously called TV a “vast wasteland”)…

…And I thought about my parent. My parents were quintessentially sort of All-American,  My father was very, very smart. He worked in the aerospace industry. My mother was…an armchair theologian. She read theology  and philosophy books and could talk to about any world religion and topic. She was also very involved in raising a family…At the end of a hard week of taking care of three kids…they would love to sit down. And escape and they escaped with Love Boat and Fantasy Island…If you think about it, even in shows like Fantasy Island, there were little morality tales.

We got even better in comedy at entertaining and inspiring with All in the Family.  We’ve actually sort of taken many steps back from that where now…(For instance) I was a major Two and a Half Men fan previously but now, if you’ve seen it, it’s just one sort of sex gag after another.

So, I think the time is right. This country is at a place where it is under such stress…I think its 60 or 70 percent think the country is going in the wrong direction, that they are worse off than they were…The people of America want hope and want positive messaging.

NICK STUART: The country needs it. I mean with a capital N-E-E-D-S. We need to rediscover that part of us. Economically, the western countries we have…given over the responsibility  to help the poor to government – from England to Europe and, to a slightly lesser degree. America. The government picks up the tab. The government should look to help the weak but it can’t (always) because of the cost. So, who’s gonna do that? It’s got to be us. It’s got to be that people rediscover that element in their soul.

So, I’ve been really heartened to see stories and come across where people have reached out to the neighbor whose lost his house. Everyone has been touched by this .What I find is my generation – — our generation – is spoiled…People could get mortgages and second mortgages and it rolled on. And, if there was a blip, as occasionally there would be, in six months it had gone.  You just borrowed more. But what has happened?  I keep expecting the downturn to end  and it doesn’t . And it’s dawning on us that it won’t.

MAURA DUNBAR:  And that’s why it’s (about) that inclusiveness… It is broader story of  inclusiveness, of relatability,  of  shared virtues and shared values… It’s reassurance. We find  reassurance in these types of stories that reaffirm our virtues and our values which are the core of our faith beliefs.

JWK: Can you tell me about the Judah Maccabee movie you’re working on?

MAURA DUNBAR: Yes, I’m glad you’ve asked. That can be an article in and of its own.

(And it will be. Tomorrow.)

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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