Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture


Impressions from PURPOSE, Variety’s 3rd annual gathering of family and faith-friendly entertainment leaders

posted by John W. Kennedy

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

Dateline Hollywood. Actually Beverly Hills. Like it was for its two previous sessions (which I also attended), Variety’s 3rd Annual Family Entertainment and faith-based Summit was held at the Four Seasons Hotel. Here’s the rundown:

8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Registration

I arrived early to get the lay of the land and was immediately struck by just how diverse this sector of the industry is. People of all skin colors and women in power positions were everywhere. As the name of the event suggests, what united virtually everyone in attendance was the common purpose of creating and supporting storytelling that uplifts and inspires audiences to overcome obstacles and make the world a better place.

Idealism isn’t a word you hear tossed about very often these days. Everyone is assumed to have a self-serving angle. But, after talking to so many of these folks — not just at this event but through my five years or so years of doing this blog — I have come to believe that, for the most part, they are what they present themselves  to be. And that is people who care about the culture and using their talents to serve God and their fellow human beings. This is not, as some negative stereotypes would suggest, a group of closed-minded, intolerant “haters” (a way overused word in current discourse) intent on attacking those with whom they disagree. In fact, the contrary is true.

One of the primary themes running through all three of these events has been a quest to find common ground with even their severest critics while still holding fast to their uniting values. Those values, I believe,  include faith in a loving God, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, tolerance, wisdom, courage, self-confidence tempered with humility, personal responsibility and the all-important ability to resist hypocrisy and laugh at our own foibles (as opposed to arrogantly mocking those with whom we differ). These values are neither conservative nor liberal, Democrat nor Republican. This was not, in short, a political or religiously-sectarian event. This was about, as this blog likes to put it, about the crossroads between faith and culture –and about how storytelling can help us all to Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

8:50 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Opening Remarks

9:00 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. PANEL DISCUSSION: The Future of Family and Faith-Based Entertainment
In light of recent high-profile major studio and TV network releases that cross these genres – what is next for this business? What are the development, distribution and marketing strategies for these projects to succeed? How are entertainment companies analyzing the best way to launch projects worldwide and gain the right momentum with audiences? What storylines are proving to broadly connect with audiences? Top entertainment chiefs will talk about where they are taking this area of their business next. Moderator: Justin Chang (Variety Chief Film Critic)/Speakers: Deirdre Gurney (Executive Producer Duck Dynasty and Principal Gurney Productions),  Ben O’Dell (President, Production, Pantelion Films), DeVon Franklin (SVP Production, Sony Pictures Entertainment), Charles King (Agent and Partner, WME, Clients include Tyler Perry, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Joel & Victoria Osteen), Brian Edwards (Chief Operating Officer, One Three Media, a Hearst and Mark Burnett Company), Barbara Fisher (SVP Original Programming, UP)
Highlights: DeVon Franklin and Charles King noting that to reach the family and faith-based audience you really need to actually share their values and be sincere about what you are communicating. Pretenders are easily sniffed out and tossed out by consumers. Brian Edwards suggested that it’s important not to pigeon-hole the audience, noting that the same people attracted to faith-based movies may also be tuning into TV shows like Game of Thrones.  Barbara Fisher of UP said that it’s important to entertain first and let the values flow from a good well-produced story. She said that the spinach (values) should go down as easy as a delicious ice cream sundae.

9:45 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Keynote Conversation with Bishop T.D. Jakes
The pastor of The Potter’s House, a non-denominational megachurch based in Dallas, has become a multimedia powerhouse as a bestselling author and a savvy producer of faith-themed films, including Black Nativity and the recent smash hit Heaven is for Real.

I chatted with the affable titan following his keynote event. He spoke of the importance of using media and technology to open up avenues to preach beyond the choir: I think that social media has changed the way this coming generation gathers information — on all platforms — whether they’re studying for a test or whether they’re seeking something for their faith. Our generation was built upon the premise that you preach the Gospel and to invite people to come to church. When you really think about it, Jesus didn’t just say “Come.” He said “Go (into) the world!” And when we go into the (modern) world, we don’t go by camel. We go through all the world’s systems — through social media, through movies, through television. We can no longer sit inside stained-glass windows and wait on them to come. We must be a blessing and go!  And then, go in the language they speak — whether its texts, tweets or whatever that language is, whether it’s English or Greek. We need to understand the nuances as to how they’re communicating and translate the Gospel. The Gospel remains the same — but the method (of communicating it) has to continue to update itself (for the church) to remain relevant in the 21st century. 

Jakes, meanwhile, is practicing what he preaches. He’s looking to expand his media company’s presence on television, perhaps in the form of talk shows and docu-series.

On the film side, he’s continuing to work with Sony and independent producers to find projects that demonstrate how faith can help families through tough times. He says he wants people to realize that “Families of faith have problems we just resolve them differently.”

Currently, he’s working to ensure that Heaven is For Real gets international exposure. His next film, a comedy called Book of the Year, will be directed by Angela Basset. Meanwhile, at least three other film projects are in the works.  This is a busy and productive man.

BTW, Jakes’ lastet book is called Instinct: The Power to Release Your Inborn Drive. I was fortunate enough to obtain a signed copy from him which I read on the plane on the way home from LAX. It’s a great read — particularly for those embarking on new personal or professional challenges. In my case, I’m involved in a creative venture (which I hope to tell you more about in due course) and I found the advice offered to be both inspirational and practical. Highly recommended.

10:15 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. Spotlight Conversation with Disney Publishing Worldwide
Speaker: Andrew Sugerman, EVP, Disney Publishing Worldwide
The Disney Publishing exec utilized the Variety event to unveil the Star Wars Scene Maker app which is actually due to becomes to consumers this Thursday (6/19). The product is designed to give kids (and adults) the opportunity to reimagine a few iconic scenes from the Star Wars franchise. Sugerman told me that he’s excited about it because it representing “evolution of consumer-driven storytelling.” He adds “For me, growing up with Star Wars, to take some of these iconic scenes and reinterpret them is an absolutely amazing opportunity.” I can see how this could be a lot of fun.
Note: Besides Star Wars and its own amazing vault of family properties, Disney also own the rights to the characters from the Marvel Superhero Universe, The Muppets and Pixar (i.e. Toy Story, Cars, etc.).

10:45 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Networking Break
Note:
This event was great for connecting with or reconnecting with people who are really doing fascinating things in the family and faith-based sectors.  For instance, I met some marketing folks at BYUtv, an amazing channel operating out of Brigham Young University in Utah. The slogan of the Mormon (which employs professionals while offering awesome to students) is “See the good in the world.”

Here’s how Wikipedia describes BYUtv: The channel, available through cable and satellite distributors in the United States, produces a number of original series and documentaries with emphases in comedy, history, lifestyle, music and drama. BYUtv also regularly broadcasts a number of classic Walt Disney films, nature documentaries, acquired medical/crime dramas and religious programs (consistent with the university’s sponsoring organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church)).Additionally, BYUtv Sports is the primary broadcaster of BYU Cougars athletics, producing more than 125 live sporting events in 2012 alone.[3] The channel has won multiple Emmy Awards, and several of its original series have been praised by national television critics.

Among the original series produced by BYUtv is Granite Flats, a Cold War period piece that counts the likes of Christopher Lloyd (Taxi, Back to the Future) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) among its cast and has received some positive reviews.

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I thought I knew virtually everything that’s going on out there when it comes to televisionparticularly faith-related television — yet I had never even heard of BYUtv until last Thursday. I have a feeling I’ll be hearing a lot more about it though.

11:00 a.m. to 11:10 a.m. Having Faith in Family Entertainment: A Conversation with INSP
Speakers
: Dale Ardizzone (Chief Operating Officer, INSP) and John Roos (SVP Marketing, INSP)
Note:
I had the opportunity to chat with John Roos who hinted at some big announcements coming shortly about INSP programming. He promised to keep me posted and I hope to be reporting them to you soon.

11:00 a.m. to 11:10 a.m. A Conversation with Faith-Driven Consumer
Speaker:
Chris Stone (Founder, Faith-Driven Consumer) Interviewed by: Kirstin Wilder (Managing Editor, Variety)

11:20 a.m. to 12 noon PANEL DISCUSSION: Speaking to the Faithful – Finding the Faith-Based Opportunity in Mainstream Entertainment
An exploration into current efforts to maximize marketing efforts for large-scale/mainstream entertainment projects by rallying faith-based audiences. What is the best approach? How might religious leaders be able to advise Hollywood on strategies to effectively speak to their congregations and audiences? What storytelling does this audience particularly crave – and is there further opportunity in crafting entertainment that will appeal to them? How can Hollywood speak to faith-based audiences authentically? Top entertainment and religious leaders will talk about how they are connecting faith-based audiences with major film and TV projects.
Moderator: Kirstin Wilder (Managing Editor, Variety)/Speakers: Rick Ramirez (SVP Targeted Marketing, Warner Bros.), Anne Rudig, Director, The Episcopal Church), Rio Cyrus (SVP Worldwide Marketing, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment), Greg Liberman (Chairman & CEO, Spark Networks), Tom Allen (Partner, Allied Faith and Family), Santiago Pozo (CEO, Arenas)

12 noon to 1 p.m. Lunch Sponsored by Gray Media

1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Fireside Chat on Persecuted

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Persecuted tells the story of a modern-day evangelist named John Luther, played by SAG Award-nominated and Saturn Award winning actor James Remar (X-MENFIRST CLASS, “Dexter”, DJANGO: UNCHAINED, WHAT LIES BENEATH, RED). Luther is the last hold out for a national endorsement to make sweeping reform in freedom of speech that would compel religious leaders to provide equal time to those of other faiths as a U.S. Senator, portrayed by Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Davison (X-MEN, “Lost”, “Castle”), and his political allies create a sinister plan of denial and scandal to frame John Luther for murder. Suddenly his once normal life is turned upside down as he becomes a fugitive vowing to expose those responsible. It is a mission that brings him face-to-face with the coming storm of persecution that will threaten the moral ethics and freedoms of America.
Moderator: Gretchen Carlson (Host of Fox News Channel’s The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson)/Speakers: Daniel Lusko (Director/Writer/Producer), Fred Thompson (Actor), Brad Stine (Actor), Gray Frederickson (Producer)

Points of Interest:  Daniel Lusko revealed that the plot of Persecuted came to him in a dream. Moderator Gretchen Carlson also has a role (as a TV journalist) in the film. Producer Gray Frederickson, whose previous credits include The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, declared that “People want entertainment with morality.”

Line of the Day: “If you can draw a real good picture of a cow, you don’t need to write the word “cow” under it.”
That comes from Fred Thompson who was making the point that a good faith-based movie doesn’t have to hit you over the head with Bible verses and the like. The story itself can convey the message.

Note: I was looking forward to this panel. Ever since The Fugitive (the David Janssen TV series, not the movie) I’ve been a fan of the man-on-the-run genre. Add to that rooting interest is the fact that among the film’s stars are Brad Stine (who has blogged for Beliefnet and is actually perfect for a role in a TV pilot I wrote), Gretchen Carlson (of my professional alma mater Fox News), Natalie Grant (who I’ve interviewed for Beliefnet), Fred Thompson (I was an extra in his film Unlimited, though I’m not sure if I made the final cut) and Dean Stockwell (of Quantum Leap, one of my all-time favorite TV shows). I’m hoping to have several interviews related to this project.

Persecuted opens July 18.

1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. PANEL DISCUSSION: Strategies to Greenlighting and Launching Faith-Based Projects
Who are the key players who are really helping faith-based films reach target audiences? What criteria are financiers looking for before giving their support? What is the landscape like for securing the right distribution? How might growing appetite from international markets be helping fuel faith-based finance and production? Top distribution, financiers and production chiefs talk nuts and bolts about how to turn a great idea into a fully-formed and released film project.
Moderator: Carole Horst (Managing Editor, Features, Variety)/Speakers: Chevonne Shaughnessy (Co-Founder and President, Mission Pictures International),
Nikkole Denson-Randolph (VP, Special & Alternative Content, AMC Theatres), Sean McNamara (Producer/Director/Writer. Soul Surfer Hoovey), Mark Joseph, Producer, Founder, MJM Entertainment), Paul Lauer (Founder, Motive Entertainment)

Note: I had the opportunity to talk with both Chevonne Shaughnessy and Cindy Bond about the recent ratings success of Mission Pictures’ Love Find You in Sugarcreek on UP TV. The film, based on the book by Serena B. Miller, debuted June 1st and drew 2.2 million viewers. It was UP’s strongest original movie premiere ever and has opened the door to become a franchise for both UP and Mission Pictures. BTW, on the night of the film’s premiere, UP ranked 28th among all ad-supported cable networks. That’s an amazing accomplishment that not only signals the strong potential for the Love Finds You franchise but is an indicator of just how fast UP is growing as a network. People are indeed seeking out Uplifting Entertainment (UP’s slogan) and finding it.  That bodes well not only for UP but for Hallmark and all those who are tapping into the audience’s pent-up desire for encouraging programming.

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2:00 p.m. to 2:30 Keynote Conversation with Michael Scott, Managing Partner, Pure Flix and Producer, God’s Not Dead

2:30 p.m. to 3:10 p.m.  Pitch the Faith-Based Gatekeepers (Submission Rules are listed below)
Variety editors selected the 10 best TV and film project synopses from those sent in by Purpose attendees. A panel of studio execs, talent agents, and other creative gatekeepers debated the merits of each on stage. Those behind each synopsis were afforded the opportunity to ask the judging panel questions during the session.
Moderator: Kirstin Wilder, Managing Editor, Variety/Judges: Ben Howard (Co-Founder Provident Films), David A.R. White (Founding Partner, PureFlix and Producer (God’s Not Dead, Sony/Provident’s Mom’s Night Out), Simon Swart (EVP and General Manager at Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment North America)
Cindy Bond (President, Mission Pictures International)

Note: There were some very promising ideas presented during this segment and the judges offered some very practical advice on how to get them to the marketplace. All in all, it was interesting and provided a lot of useful insight.

3:10 to 3:25 p.m. Networking Break

3:25 p.m. to 4:00 PANEL DISCUSSION: The Faith-Based Personalities – Staying True to Themselves and Fans
A look at the growing number of stars and celebrities who are strong with their faith – what does this mean for their careers? How are they choosing projects with their faith in mind? How are they relating to their fans about their values?
Moderator: Touré Roberts (Author and Pastor of  One Church International)/Speakers: Erica and Tina Campbell (Mary, Mary), Kolby and Victoria Koloff (Preachers’ Daughters), Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, God’s Not Dead)

Note: The only one of these people I’m actually familiar with is Dean Cain but then he is my favorite Superman and I got a chance to chat with him a bit, so it was good. Besides, his recent success with God’s Not Dead (which both surprised and pleased him), the busy actor is currently starring in the VH1 drama Hit the Floor and is executive producing and starring in an upcoming holiday film comedy called Merry ExMas due in December.

4:00 to 4:10 p.m. Movieguide Study
Presented by Dr. Ted Baehr, President of Good News Communications and publisher of Movieguide

Dr. Baehr spoke about the 2014 Movieguide report on what box office results reveal about audience taste.  The report finds that movies with strong Christian, redemptive worldviews and content actually make more money than those that don’t.

4:10 to 4:50 Success with Faith and TV – What Wins Over Audiences?
A number of shows with faith messages have broken though – i.e. The Bible and History; Duck Dynasty and A&E; Game Show Network and The American Bible Challenge. Is there a formula to follow to break through to audiences? Many break-out shows are reality – what is the landscape like for scripted shows? Top network executives and producers will talk about how they are succeeding in this space.
Moderator: Michael Van Dyck (Agent at Paradigm)/Speakers: Traci Blackwell (VP Current Programming, The CW),  Amy Introcaso-Davis (EVP Programming The Game Show Network), Shana C. Waterman (SVP, Event Series & Multi-Platform Programming, Fox Broadcasting Company), Alan Eyres (SVP Programming and Development, National Geographic Channel), Stacy Mandelberg (VP Limited Series and Event Programming, CBS), Michelle Vicary (EVP Programming, Hallmark Entertainment), Tom Forman, CEO Television, Relativity)

Notes: A very interesting panel. Traci Blackwell attempted to make The CW’s Supernatural’s current plot line sound like it would be something that would appeal to this crowd. Somehow, I doubted that but, then again, I haven’t actually been watching it. My impression, however, is that The CW is too concerned with being “edgy” and doesn’t have a particularly good handle on what really appeals to faith-driven viewers. I believe that goes back to what Sony’s DeVon Franklin and WME’s Charles King said during the day’s first session when they noted that to reach the family and faith-based audience you really need to actually share their values and be sincere about what you are communicating. On the other side of the spectrum, I think Michelle Vicary of Hallmark Channel did a good job making it clear that, while her network is concerned with entertainment and not religion, it is happy to present programming with positive faith elements.

Moderator Michael Van Dyck, BTW, is the Paradigm agent who famously said to Hollywood Reporter “In this economy, people are starving to see real characters that have a relationship with God on the air. And as soon as one of those shows hits, whichever executive is behind it will appear to be a genius.” The evidence of 2014 appears to be bearing him out.

4:50 to 5:00 p.m. A Conversation with Frank Smith, Chief Operating Officer, Walden Media

5:00 p.m. to 5:40 p.m. PANEL DISCUSSION: Innovators of Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Storytelling
Producers and writers will talk about their inspiration and storytelling process in creating content that attracts family audiences, and may feature redemptive themes that the faith-based community embraces. What are examples of breakthrough film and TV within these genres? What may be the future of storytelling for families and faith-based audiences?
Moderator: Steve Gaydos (VP and Executive Editor, Variety)/Speakers: Chris Parker (Writer, Heaven Is For Real), Scott Swofford (Director of Content, BYUtv),
Chris Sanders (Director/Writer,The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon), Michael Flaherty (Co-Founder and President, Walden Media), Andrew Panay, Producer, Earth to Echo)

Notes: A strong finale to a strong lineup. I’m looking forward to writing about this group’s upcoming projects. In fact, I’m off now to go to a screening of Walden Media’s The Giver. Adapted from Lois Lowry’s book of the same name, here’s how Walden’s website describes the plot In an insular society known as The Community, a culture of “sameness” is embraced. Pain and suffering have been eradicated from daily life, along with any notion of individuality or choice. Members of the Community lead a seemingly perfect existence, unburdened by the harsh realities of the “real” world. A lone man among them has been designated to retain all memories of the way life once was. Now the time has come for that man to pass his knowledge to another.

More about that one…and many other promising upcoming projects…in due course.

Till then…

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



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