Marc Erlbaum wants to make films that touch people’s souls. He is the man behind Nationlight Productions, a film and television production company focused on creating inspiring, meaningful content for mainstream audiences of all backgrounds and affiliations. He was nice enough to take some time to answer my questions about his company and his films.
How did this project get started?
I’m a film-maker. I had made a couple of small films that I wrote and directed and about a year and a half ago I formed this company, Nationlight Productions, with an explicit mandate to make more positive and uplifting films. That was what I was doing already with my projects but I thought the time was right to create a more structured company focused on that mission. So we went out and raised money from some philanthropists who were interested in affecting the world through positive mass media. We made this film “Cafe,” an ensemble drama that we shot here in Philadelphia, that tracks intersecting stories of the patrons and workers in a little cafe, all of whom are dealing with life challenges. It’s infused with spirituality, but most of my work is about putting that in a subtle way.
One of the characters is a guy who’s always sitting in the cafe on his laptop and a young girl appears on his computer screen one day and informs him that he and everyone else in the cafe are avatars in a virtual world she has created. And of course he doesn’t believe her at first. But then things start to happen exactly as she says it will. Ultimately, it becomes a conversation with the Creator, an allegory. She wants him to do something and he asks her why she doesn’t make him and she explains she has built free will into the program. There’s nothing explicitly religious or spiritual but ultimately it is a meditation on a conversation with God.
What is your background? Have you studied theology?
I am a religious Hassidic Jew myself. I was not born that way but got into it in college and became very committed. But our goal, as someone who grew up very mainstream and very secular, my goal is not to preach to the choir but to create content that is going to appeal to people who are more like those I grew up with and instill some thematics without being heavy-handed or didactic.
Why do mainstream films stay away from spiritual themes?
Appealing to people’s baser natures is an easy way to make a buck. It’s easier to seduce people than it is to challenge them. What’s happening in recent years is that people are saying, “We’re not as ignorant as you think we are. If you do challenge us and provide us with messages of hope and redemption, that will appeal to us more than all the thrillers and genre stuff you’ve been feeding us.”
What films inspire you?
The films that don’t preach but that have inspiring themes without being heavy-handed, like “The Matrix,” which has a real message that this reality we’re living in is only superficial and there’s something much deeper. A similar thematic was developed in “The Truman Show.” And others, obvious but just as powerful, “Freedom Writers,” “Pay it Forward,” “The Blind Side.” That’s a great example of a mainstream film with positive values at its core.
What makes your company different?
We are unabashed in our mission. When I started writing, I wrote something with a clear moral framework. I was put in touch with a producer who demoralized me and told me that any art with an agenda is not art at all. I studied literature and I certainly have experienced that intellectual elitism. But we do have a mission and we are not afraid to say that. Great art has the ability to inspire. The images people expose themselves to will affect their outlook and their conduct. If we can participate in that, don’t we have a responsibility to do that in a positive way?
Michael Medved’s book Hollywood vs. America: The Explosive Bestseller that Shows How-and Why-the Entertainment Industry Has Broken Faith With Its Audience inspired me early on. He says if you’re telling me that visual images don’t affect people’s action, the advertising industry should return all those billions of dollars. “The Passion of the Christ” really proved that there is a huge audience that really wants these films. There was a story in the Wall Street Journal: “They’ve seen the light and it is green.” So Hollywood is following the money trail.
Anybody who has strong beliefs or opinions will have to face people who don’t agree with them. You can either go through your life backing off or taking a stand. Even before I was religious I was always raised to take a stand. My personal and religious beliefs are that you don’t try to force anyone but if you act with kindness, the majority of people will respond with kindness.
What is the status of your films?
“Cafe,” with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jamie Kennedy, won the Crystal Heart award at the Heartland Film Festival. “Everything Must Go” stars Will Ferrell as a guy who loses his job and his wife and hits rock bottom before he can pick himself up and start over again. It co-stars Rebecca Hall and Michael Pena. That will be released this spring.
How can people stay in touch with what you’re doing?
We’re really focused on building up a community of people who are interested in our mission and our content. So we’ve launched a community page for Nationlight on Facebook. We want people to come on and say “We want more positive fare.” It’s really a call to action. The more people we have on this community, the more we’ll be able to do.”