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Faith, Media & Culture

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

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Coffee Shop is a warm, tasty blend of humor and romance.  The film airs this Sunday (/9/14) @ 8:00 PM (ET) on UP TV.

Synopsis (per UP): Coffee Shop is the story of Donavan Turner (Laura Vandervoort), a smart, independent, twenty-something woman looking for just the right blend of happiness in her life.  She owns a hip neighborhood coffee shop in a quaint, scenic beach town and her specialty is matching people to their perfect, new brew.  While she’s been less than successful fixing her love life, Donavan enjoys her work and has the robust support of her sister Becky (Rachel Hendrix), Becky’s boyfriend Kevin (Jason Burkey) and the wonderful, eclectic family of her coffee shop regulars.  Unfortunately, she’s keeping a secret from them all.  The new bank owner, Frank Miller (Jon Lovitz), won’t extend her loan and she’s facing immediate foreclosure.  Things get further complicated when Donovan’s ex-boyfriend Patrick (Josh Ventura) returns to declare his love just as her clashes with Broadway playwright — and tea-drinker – Ben Carson (Cory M. Grant) get interesting.  Ben is in town writing his new play for his producer (Kevin Sorbo).  With love brewing and financial ruin bubbling around her, Donovan realizes that her identity and self-worth are not defined by what she can accomplish alone.  Instead, Donovan – and her community – can accomplish more together, which leads her to make choices she may not have before.

Mini-Review: Imagine, if you will, that Central Perk (the main hangout in Friends) opened its doors in Mayberry, N.C. (home of The Andy Griffith Show) and you’ll have some idea of the flavor of Coffee Shop. As in both of those classic shows, we are introduced to a cast of likable characters who we wouldn’t mind hanging out with — perhaps even on a weekly basis. There are, IMHO, good grounds for serving up a series version. The setting is strong, the youthful cast is attractive and then there’s Jon Lovitz (a favorite of mine) as the playwright-wannabe banker who holds the coffee shop’s mortgage. The song Low Fat Latte by Michael O’Brien and Danny Palmintier (featured in the closing credits) would even go down easy as cool theme song for the show. Plus, it’s interesting that the lead male character (played by Cory M. Grant) is named Ben Carson. If a certain other Ben Carson actually becomes president, that should provide a source of some humor. Take my word for it. I know. I’ve heard them all. But I digress. Coffee Shop is Recommended.

Filmed in Birmingham and Fairhope, AL, Coffee Shop is produced by Salt Entertainment in association with Erwin Brothers Entertainment and Foxfield Entertainment. It’s directed and produced by Dave Alan Johnson (Doc, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, High Incident) from a screenplay by Theresa Preston and Jon Erwin.  The ensemble cast also includes Cory M. Grant (Nashville, All My Children), Rachel Hendrix (October Baby, The Perfect Wave) and Jason Burkey (October Baby, A Long Way Off), with Jon Lovitz (New Girl, Saturday Night Live), and Kevin Sorbo (God’s Not Dead, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys).  Popular singer/songwriter Mandi Mapes, originally from New Orleans and now based in Birmingham, contributes an original song, entitled In Your Arms

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A conversation with veteran TV producer Dave Alan Johnson

JWK: How did Coffee Shop come about?

DAVID ALAN JOHNSON: Coffee Shop was a script that Theresa Preston and Jon Erwin had written.  They wrote October Baby. I had worked with them on that. This is kind of Theresa’s baby. As I was doing other work with them they gave me that script and said “We were thinking about maybe doing this.” So, I really, really liked it. We worked a lot on the script and, as we were doing it, they said “You know, maybe you should direct this” — because Jon and (his brother) Andy (directors of October Baby) were busy doing Moms’ Night Out. I said “You know, I love this script! I would love to direct this!  So, that’s how it all kinda came about. I ended up producing it and they (the Erwin Brothers) are the executive producers.  

JWK: While the film is debuting this Sunday on UP, I understand it’s actually already found success on the festival circuit.

DAJ: Yeah. The former CFO of Paramount he is a mutual of somebody. They had a copy of an early cut of the movie and he saw it and he loved it. He said “Hey I have a film festival in Florida called Movieville in the Bradenton/Sarasota area. He said “I’d love to have this in the festival!” So, we said “Sure! Why not?!” So, we entered. So, wended up having a standing ovation at our screening. Laura Vandervoort won for Best Actress. I won for Best Director. We were the Audience Favorite and a finalist for the Best Movie. It just kinda happened. I thought “Oh, that’s great!”

Then we also actually had a very limited release in Alabama because we shot it all in Alabama (with) with several crowds of like 600. So, maybe 1500 people total and the audience just loved the movie…There were a lot of laughs all the way through and sniffles and tears — not from sadness, tears from joy — and big applause. So, it’s very gratifying when that happens with an audience.

 JWK: I read that you’re a big fan of old “Andy Griffith Show” — which is one of my all-time favorite shows too.

DAJ: I am.

 JWK: Coffee Shop seems to share some elements with that — at least in terms of celebrating small town America.

DAJ: For me The Andy Griffith Show is like the greatest show ever made. I’m always trying to do some of Andy Griffith in everything I do. I did a series called Doc which was on PAX with Billy Ray Cyrus. That was very much like Andy Griffith goes to the city — but he’s a doctor. So, there’s always elements of those kinds of home spun qualities and characters.

This one is a little less of that although it does take place in a small town and has its own set of quirky characters. But they’re all young. What we’re trying to do with Coffee Shop is have it be young and modern and relevant. Something that you never see in culture today — I mean NEVER see in culture — is a young, stylish — in this case — beautiful, attractive female (who is) strong and independent who also says “I believe in God.” You just never get that message.

I have a 27–year-old daughter. She was born and raised in California by somebody in the movie and TV business. She’s as hip as the next person but she also happens to love and believe in God — and it’s not out of the ordinary. There are many people like that but if you watch most TV (shows) and movies, and culture in general in the US, you never see that combination.  We wanted to make sure that we had that in there and people are really responding to that.

JWK: The characters are definitely appealing and I could see them going on in different stories. Is there any chance that a TV series could result?

DAJ: There could be. Laura Vandervoort is the lead…She’s just phenomenal in it. She’s got a series now (Bitten) that is actually all over the world.  She shoots it in Canada. It plays on Syfy down here. She plays a werewolf — the last remaining female werewolf. It’s very different than our movie but Laura is just one of the most delightful people I’ve ever met and worked with. She’s just fabulous. So, if she ever became available I would certainly — and I think the network would — be open to it. Right now, she’s not available for another series. She is available for some other movies so if this one does well — as we hope and believe it will — I think we’d all be up for doing a version of Coffee Shop.

JWK: Speaking of the network — which is UP — it sort of reminds me of the old PAX Network on which you produced shows like Doc and Sue Thomas F.B.Eye. Like UP, PAX sought to produce uplifting entertainment programming. PAX, of course, is no longer around. Do you think today’s market will support a channel that actively goes against the tide of dark programming? It seems to me that the broadcast networks are deep in to dark programming and have all-but-abandoned the idea of uplifting storytelling.

DAJ: The networks have absolutely abandoned it — for the most part. I think there is definitely a huge place for this. I think UP has just scratched the surface of where they can go. You see Hallmark. They’ve had great success too over the last few years. UP is even a little bit more sort of not shying away from faith. I really believe that there’s a big market out there for it.

We’ve seen it with this movie. If you’re a woman who has beliefs — you know, believes in God — and think that’s a good thing in your life and believe that that matters you never see yourself (on TV). So, to see yourself on this network and have your values not only respected but embraced, it’s just a no-brainer. I mean there’s a huge, huge audience there for this. I think, as UP gets known more, people stay. That’s what we keep finding — is that people go…”Gee, I don’t (know) that network” and, as they discover it, then you hear “Oh, now it’s one of my favorites! It’s on my favorites list! I’m on it all the time!”

I think as they can grow bigger, the programming will continue to (grow even more in quality).  On Coffee Shop they spent a little bit more money than on some of their other stuff and I think it looks that way. The movie has a fabulous look and feel to it. Success begets success in our world. I think there’s a chance that we’ve just seen the very beginning — the tip of the iceberg — on UP.

JWK: I’ve been doing this blog for quite some time now and I think most of the other networks aren’t understanding how much the young audience wants to see uplifting programming. They’re tired of being dragged down.

DAJ: Absolutely! The data says that. They do research and polls. Faith is very strong among young people. Now, it may not be the same kind of organized church or religion that other generations have had but the idea of (other) believers and faith and God in their lives is very important to this generation. I know it anecdotally. I have a 25-year-old son and a 27-year-old daughter. So, I know them. I know their friends. I know the world they live in’

JWK: Speaking of Hallmark, you did a film for them that I enjoyed called Christmas with Tucker. What was that experience like?

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DAJ: That was for last Christmas. It was actually on just a year ago. It was a great experience. It came from Greg Kincaid’s book — a sort of small, Christmassy book. He knew my work. He and his agent called and said “Hey, would you like to do this?” I said “Yeah, I like this book and I understand this world. I think this could be a great, kind of classic, Christmas movie. So, I sent it over to Hallmark and they said “Yeah, we like it” So, we did it. James Brolin came on board. He had never really done anything like this. He just loved it and had a great experience. How can you go wrong with dogs and Christmas and cute kids?

JWK: It reminded me of classic family shows like Lassie.

DAJ: Absolutely!

JWK: You don’t see those kinds of shows anymore.

DAJ: No — and it’s too bad. Because every thinks that programming has to be edgy and it has to push the boundaries. That’s really just not the case.

Sue Thomas F.B.Eye is an example…I meet families all the time — and we get emails from people — (saying) “We loved this series! It was our favorite series!” We have people watching it who weren’t even alive when it was made…These are time-tested principles and characters and relationships.  If you do quality work with likable characters and humor and heart, there’s a huge audience out there for it. You don’t have to push the envelope. There’s an audience out there for Game of Thrones too. Nobody’s gonna deny it. There’s an audience out there for things that push other boundaries.  No one’s denying that.  But, at the same time, you shouldn’t deny that there’s a huge audience out there for stuff that has a bit more — I guess I would call them — classic values.

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JWK: Those values were definitely on view in your other PAX show Doc which I watched regularly. I know you were inspired by The Andy Griffith Show but I always thought of it as sortMcCloud as a doctor.

DAJ: It was an exact combination of the both of them. I sat down with Jeff Sagansky who was running PAX then. I knew Jeff from CBS. I had done some projects with him and I had written a couple of episodes of Brooklyn Bridge and things…So, Jeff said “What do you want to do?” I said “Well, I want to do The Andy Griffith Show which is what I always want to do.” He said “Well, I kinda need it set in a big city.” I said “Okay. Well, McCloud’s kinda been done — the country sheriff who goes to the big city.” He sat there for a minute and said “What about a country doctor?” I said “A country doctor who goes to work at a big corporate HMO! I get it! I know how to do that show!” That was the entire development process for Doc.

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JWK: Why do you think the broadcast networks have pretty much given up on uplifting shows with likable characters — despite the evidence that people like those shows?

DAJ: Because it’s not where they live. That’s really the answer. It’s about “How does this affect my standing in the club?” They’re always sort of trying to make shows that other people will think are cool. So, they’re always thinking “Gee! HBO or House of Cards is nominated for all these Emmys so we have to push the envelope and we have to go there.” Yet, when you look, CBS is the one that doesn’t do that (as much) and they’re the ones who are doing the best. You look at their big hits, they’re pretty standard — kind of classic shows. The NCISes of the world, even CSI to some extent. So, you watch what they’re succeeding with and you look at shows like American Idol or The Voice. Those shows are just classic Americana shows. They don’t push any envelopes…American Idol tried to push the envelope a few seasons ago and then their viewership dropped.

It’s kind of one of those baffling things in life. They sort of refuse to look at what’s right in front of them — but it’s what gives a place like UP the chance to come in and own that audience and they are starting to do that.

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

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