Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Interview: Rich Christiano of ‘The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry’

posted by Nell Minow

I spoke to writer-director Rich Christiano about making — and marketing — faith-based films.
You were really a one-man show behind the scenes for this film.
We have a good production team and worked hard on the distribution. This the third film we’ve put out theatrically. We learned a lot doing it. It played over 300 screens. We lot local churches to sponsor the movie in their cities. The churches that put forth the effort did well. We also worked with Christian radio. In Dayton, Ohio we ran 22 weeks because the radio station got the word out. In another city there was a pastor who really got behind the film and we did really well there. Promotion is the hardest part of it. We made sure we had local groups pushing the movie.
Is there a big audience for faith-based films?
The inspirational films have a lot of upside. One-third of this country goes to church each week and that’s our marketplace. And they’re an under-served audience. If everyone who goes to church would see our movie, we’d have “Avatar” numbers. Our society has changed over the last 20 years. If I’d told you back then there would be a weather channel, you would not have believed it. The Christian consumer group is now becoming more and more a player. They audience wants to watch these films; they just need to know they are there.
What do you hear about the way audiences respond to this film?
We’ve had wonderful reactions. There’s an emphasis to read the Gospel of John in the film. I heard from a lady who said her eight-year-old came home from the movie and read the Gospel of John. Then he wanted to go to Bible study like the boys in the movie. Another woman said her husband had drifted from the Lord. But when he came home he said three words that really lifted her spirit: “Where’s my Bible?” A 60-year-old lady told me her sister was visiting from Scotland and that she’d never, ever seen her cry until she saw this film. One of our sponsors in Fort Worth, Texas took his daughter to the film. When she saw a character change in the film, she told her father she wanted to show that she had been changed. There’s a strong message of forgiveness in this film. We’ve shown it in prison. Several of the prisoners wrote me a letter.
What can a movie convey better than a book or a sermon?
The church needs to recognize how powerful the audio-visual really is. I spoke to a man who was a church-goer and asked him if he could remember what his pastor preached a month ago. He couldn’t. I asked him if he could tell me about “The Wizard of Oz.” Even though he had not seen it for 15 years, he could remember all of the details.
Movies manipulate us, affect us, influence us. Most movies influence people away from the Lord. I want to use them to influence people for the Lord. There’s a spiritual battle going on and the Message of Christ is always being snuffed out. Movies are an entertainment medium, but every movie is religious because every movie has standards, every movie has a message about those standards. We’re trying to put forth films that are entertaining but put forth a message for the Lord, to inspire, to challenge thinking, to provoke spiritually, to make people think about eternity.
It was nice to see the film set in 1970 because that lends it a simplicity that suits its themes.
There’s no cell phones, no text messaging, no X-Box. I showed opening credits over pictures like old-school film-making. It’s like Mayberry with Bible study. It’s a throwback. It’s not edgy. It’s simply shot, no visual effects. It’s story-driven. It’s not an action film. It’s got laughs. And it’s got heart.

  • Chad

    Watched this movie with my kids recently. They enjoyed it and I appreciated the message it was trying to get across. But frankly, I also found it corny and predictable. Seemed like it was a “made for TBN” type of movie rather than something that would have much of any appeal beyond evangelical audiences. I give Mr. Christiano credit for trying, but I don’t see a movie like this appealing to a broader secular audience. So it then becomes little more than Christian entertainment, in my opinion. Maybe that’s ok in and of itself, but I’m not sure that is what they were shooting for here.

  • Bill

    Would love to see Chad or any other emergent Christian pick up a camera and shoot a brilliant ‘Christian’ film themselves.
    I’m not saying ‘Sperry’ was good – it was pedestrian. But so what?
    That’s like going to India and mocking a small church.
    These ‘blogs’ do NOTHING to help the body of Christ. Emergent Christians or ‘luke-warm’ Christians are playing Russian Roulette with their salvation.
    Why? Jesus said to people who were casting out demons that He didn’t know who they were.
    Do you TRULY believe Jesus Christ, God Almighty and the Holy Spirit applaud that Christian Lukewarms like ‘Dark Knight’ over ‘Jonathan Sperry’?
    They’re extremely dangerous to the Body of Christ.
    I applaud Rich Christiano for having the GUTS to stand up for his belief.
    May all the other ‘subtle’ attackers rethink what they’re doing and either fulfill the Great Commission or keep quiet.
    God bless everyone.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks, Bill. I think we and Chad both acknowledge that the movie is not perfect. But it has a sincerity and charm that make up for its other failings in my opinion, and like you I am glad to see believers using this medium to spread the message of the importance of faith and love and kindness and learning.

  • Chad

    I find it interesting that you would label me as an “emergent” Christian when you don’t even know me. For the record, I’m not emergent, and I don’t like being labeled. I think that your comments are an example of the kind of harsh judgmentalism that is precisely what the world finds distasteful in many of those who claim to be Christians.
    In my prior comment I clearly gave Mr. Chrisitano credit for trying to produce a movie that would be both entertaining and expressive of the Gospel. I think he accomplished both of these goals. I only suggested that it seemed a bit corny and predictable. I offered this opinion not to criticize but to try to give honest feedback and to express the impression that the movie left on me. What is wrong with that? Bill seems to think that just because something is labeled Christian we should just all get on board with it and check our minds at the door, ignoring the deficiencies of the product for the sake of it’s greater intention. That’s a foolish approach, in my opinion, because the world is smarter than that.
    I support the proclamation of the Gospel in media. It is a good thing. But the Bible states that we are to strive to do everything with excellence, and it is just my humble opinion that when we put out movies or other media that is clearly sub par in it’s story and production compared to secular alternatives, we don’t do the Body of Christ or the Great Commission any favors.
    I’m just offering an observation, and trying to bring a helpful cirtique, for whatever it’s worth. I am not a movie maker and wouldn’t have a clue about how to produce a movie. I’m just commenting as a viewer, and I believe I have a right to express my opinion whether others agree with it or not. And by the way, I don’t have to fulfill the Great Comission in the predefined way that Bill or anyone else believes. I am only accountable to God, and in this my consience is clear before him.

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you, Chad. I think your comments were fair and constructive. Believers (religious and otherwise, especially political) have a tendency to think that it is not good for “us” to share honest criticism. I can tell you that it is fatal not to. Many thanks.

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