Today’s special dispatches from the crossroads of faith, media and culture are comprised of notes from the Variety Family Entertainment & Faith Based Summit that was held in LA last Thursday. I just flew back and, boy, are my arms tired. Incredibly lame jokes aside, the event provided ample evidence that family and faith-supportive entertainment is now attracting some of the entertainment industry’s top talent while actually outperforming more supposedly hip and edgy fare.

1. Early arrival.  I got the Sofitel Hotel on Beverly Boulevard about an hour before the event was scheduled to begin. Good thing I was already registered because, as I understand, it was already sold out. The summit was organized in association with the public relations firm Rogers & Cowan. I was happy to get the opportunity to meet up with a few of the folks who have frequently helped me with this blog in the past, including Senior V.P. Lesley Burbridge, Kimberly Schroeder and Christina Garvin. Their professionalism was on display throughout the entire day which extremely well-produced and came off without any apparent hitches. Hats off to them!

2. Stats. The summit began with some data analysis presented by Rentrak Chief Research Officer Bruce Goerlich, Dove Foundation CEO Dick Rolfe and Mastermedia International CEO Larry W. Poland. The general gist of their reports pointed to an audience for family, faith and values-friendly films and TV shows that is wide, culturally-diverse, educated and, to boot, carries excellent credit ratings (which should be of interest to advertisers).

Dick Rolfe distributed the Dove Foundation’s 2012 Film Profitability Study which examined film box office results from 2005 through 2009.  The report found that of the 1000 most-widely-distributed film during that time frame, 376 (38%) were rated R, 412 (41%) were PG-13, 178 (18%) were PG and only 34 (3%) were rated G.  During the same period, G-rated movies averaged profits of 108.5 million dollars with PG films averaging 65.5 million in plus-side revenues.  PG-13 film, meanwhile, averaged 59.7 million in profits. Bringing up the rear were R-rated movies with average profits of about 12.7 million.

So, the study points out, Hollywood released 11 times more R-rated movies than G-rated movies from 2005 through 2009 — yet the averaged G-rated film produced over eight times the profit of its R-rated counterpart.  As the report notes, the market for G-rated fare seems far from saturated.

The Dove Foundation, as you may know, also awards its seal of approval to films that support positive human values. The report notes that, during the period covered,  Dove-approved films were 2.5 times more profitable as film that failed to meet it human values criteria.  Dove-approved PG films were 2.8 times more profitable than other PG films.  Dove-approved PG-13 films, meanwhile, were 1 3/4 times as profitable as non Dove-approved films with the same rating.

The bottom line appears to be that audiences prefer movies that support traditional values (i.e. faith, family, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude) to those that ignore them or even treat them with ridicule and contempt.

3. Simon says the advertisers are there to support family/values-based programming. Following the numbers display, Variety Deputy Editor Cynthia Littleton  interviewed Ben Simon who heads up Walmart’s global family entertainment marketing initiatives  and is co-chair of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) Alliance for Family Entertainment. The latter group was begun by P&G  and Johnson & Johnson out of a concern that, as network television edged toward edgier and edgier programming, it was losing its effectiveness as a means of reaching all members of a family. What’s more, their customers were clearly telling them that they wanted prime-time programs they could comfortably watch with their children. (Full list of ANA Alliance for Family Entertainment members here).

The ANA Alliance has been instrumental in supporting the development of such shows as Gilmore Girls and Friday Night Lights and in finding talented writers who may be the creators of family-family hits of the future. Toward the end, the organization has named Megan Angelo as the winner of its America’s Newest Comedy Writer contest for her sitcom script O’Connell for Congress.

Simon, who has been a major force behind Family Movie Night, a series films/backdoor pilots Walmart and P&G got onto the prime-time schedules of NBC and Fox (albeit mostly on Saturday nights), convincingly argued that that family audience isn’t a niche audience. It is, in fact, the mainstream audience.

Yes, the audience is there. But, beyond that, if networks want to please their advertisers, they’d be wise to get behind programs that speak to families.

4.  Mark Burnett previews The Bible. The man behind Survivor and The Voice gave an enthusiastic audience an early look at clips from his upcoming 10-hour miniseries which he’s producing with his wife Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel) who also has an acting role in the epic.  Says Burnett, “I couldn’t give a shit about the business model. This was about love and faith.” ( More at Variety)

5. GMC (Gospel Music Channel) and Magic Johnson team up to create a positive cable network. As part of a panel discussion on The State of Family and Faith-Based Entertainment, GMC Vice Chairman Brad Siegel talked about branding his channel as home of “Uplifting Entertainment” (i.e. positive TV movies and TV series in the vein of 7th Heaven). He also talks about partnering up with the NBA legend to create Aspire TV. Set to debut on Comcast systems next Sunday (June 30), the 24-hour channel will offer positive and uplifting entertainment programming tailored toward the African-American community.

Also contributing to the conversation (moderated by Variety’s Cynthia Littleton) were Ben Howard (Provident Films), Simon Swart (Fox Home Entertainment), Darren Melameth (Crown Media Family Networks) and Dale Ardizzone (The Inspiration Networks).

6. The School That Fell From the Sky. During a networking break, I met with Vince Gratzer, the proprietor of the independent Las Cruces Productions. He’s optioned the rights to the harrowing-but-inspirational autobiography of Fred Hargesheimer. Shot down by the Japanese during World War II, the reconnaissance pilot survived the deadly jungles of enemy-occupied New Britain where (after pleading to God for help) he was finally rescued by villagers who risked their lives to nurse him back to health.  Years after the war, Hargesheimer returned to the impoverished village that protected him and spent several years building schools, libraries and clinics in gratitude to God and the people who protected him in his darkest hours. Vince is seeking a production partner/production company to partner with to bring Fred’s story to the screen.
(Read more here)

7. Marketing Them and They Will Come. A discussion of how to market family and faith-based films was led by Dan Merrell, President and CEO of the Nashville-based entertainment marketing firm Propeller. Participants included Richard Ingber who heads worldwide marketing for Alcon Entertainment, Spark Networks CEO Greg Liberman, Rio Cyrus (SVP/Marketing for Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment), Movie to Movement Founder Jason Jones, Arleen Lopez (who handles faith marketing for Pantelion Films) and Kim Dorr-Tilley who is both co-owner and founder of Defining Artists Agency and an associate pastor with Bel Air Presbyterian Church’s Entertainment Ministries.

8. How to make successful faith-based entertainment? That topic was discussed by a panel comprised of people who have achieved great success doing just that. Motive Marketing CEO Paul Lauer led the discussion. Participants included Brian Bird of Believe Pictures, John Shepherd of MPower Pictures, Michael Van Dyck of the Paradigm Talent Agency, Rich Peluso (Affirm Films), John Kilkullen (Bible 360) and Movieguide Publisher Ted Baehr. If you want to be inspired, read the personal stories of Brian Bird and Michael Van Dyck.

9. Lunch. Great food. Spoke with a rep from The 168 Film Project.

10. The Chronicles of Walden. Variety Film Critic Peter Debruge interviewed Walden Media Co-Founder Michael Flaherty about how the company behind the film version of The Chronicles of Narnia came to be.

11. A New Age. How new technologies present new challenges and new opportunities for family and faith-based media was discussed by a panel led by Variety TV Editor Andrew Wallenstein. Michael Jay Solomon, an industry legend who ran Lorimar/Telepictures (during the original Dallas era)  talked about, a new social networking  site featuring Christian content due to officially launch on July 9th.  Other participants included Jonathan Yang (Salem Web Network), Susan Jackson (Freestyle Digital Media), Dean Waters (Vimby) and Maura Dunbar of Odyssey Networks. Odyssey Networks, Dunbar noted, also remains heavily involved in developing content for traditional television, including the Jeff Foxworthy-hosted The Great American Bible Quiz set to bow soon on GSN (Game Show Network).

12. What’s Next in Family Entertainment? Variety Managing Editor Kirstin Wilder asked October Baby director Jon Erwin, Oogieloves creator Kenn Viselmann, Charlie Ebersol(Executive Producer of USA’s The Moment), Documentary Channel CEO James Ackerman and Flashlight Entertainment Co-Founder Brian Wells.

13. A Star is Born? During a break someone asked me to check out the Official Campaign for Baby Peggy Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Here’s her story, per Wikipedia.

14. Follow the Money. But to follow it, you have to know where to look for it. Tips on that were offered by MJM Entertainment Group Founder Mark Joseph (producer of Doonby). Participants included George Taweel (George Taweel Productions), Cindy Bond (Mission Pictures International), Lance McAlindon (Front Porch Entertainment), GG Filmz Founder Deborah Giarratana (producer of Machine Gun Preacher) and October Baby Executive Producer Dave Johnson.

15. Creative Masters in Family and Faith-Based Entertainment. The final panel discussion was anchored by Variety’s Brian Lowry. Participants included X-Men producer Ralph Winter, Psych and LA Law star Corbin Bernsen (who starred in and directed Rust, a faith-based drama that earned him a Director’s Choice Award at the San Diego Christian Film Festival), producer-writer Dean Batali, producer Lori McCreary (Invictus) and producer Jason Carbone (Beverly’s Full House).

16. Reception. Then it was more good food and networking at the reception that capped off the event. I left making some new friends and more inspired than ever about the future of positive, faith-based entertainment.

I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off from writing this blog to catch up on some of my own writing/consulting work. See you Monday, July 9. Have a 4th of July week, everybody!

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

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