Faith, Media & Culture

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

A Common Purpose. For the second consecutive year, Variety (in coordination with the P.R. firm Rogers & Cowan) held a day-long gathering of
distributors, producers, writers, directors, actors and others who are the faces behind the current boom in uplifting entertainment — which, BTW, is the actually slogan of UP (formerly GMC TV), a cable network which has seen its ratings skyrocket on the strength of original movies and other programming that supports positive values.

It’s interesting to note that the conference was held on the weekend after Man of Steel (which actually portrayed a believing Superman seeking the counsel of a clergyman) soared above all competition at the box office and preceded a weekend in which the family-friendly Monsters University upset Brat Pitt’s highly-hyped World War Z in ticket sales.   After ten years or so in which darkness seemed to rule the mediascape, the tides they are-a-changin’.

I arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where the forum took place, at 8:00 AM Friday morning. I was there on my own dime since I had a few properties to pitch myself and wanted to feel free to do so without any sense of conflict.   I met up with my friend Peggy Kim, a former History Channel programming executive who is currently in the process of launching an absolutely fantastic project of her own which I hope to be reporting to you about in the near future.

Speaking of History Channel (which now apparently prefers to be known as simply History), the cable channel that scored big numbers with The Bible, was one of an impressive list of sponsors that also includes the aforementioned UPOdyssey Networks, Mission Pictures InternationalPaulist Productions, The Dove Foundation, Movieguide, 168 Film Project, Ustream, Affirm Films, INSP TV, Gray Media, Lightworkers Media, New Shepherd Films, BET Networks, Act One, Purpose Driven Sales, Rollman Entertainment, Acme Trailer Company, Frontgate Media, and Mastermedia International.  It’s a list that, particularly when combined with the speakers list below, is pretty comprehensive as a guide to the real movers in the faith/family entertainment sector.

Anyway, here’s a rundown of the event along with some of my own observations.

9:00 to 9:30 a.m. Keynote Conversation
Stephen Quinn, EVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart
Interviewed by Ben Simon, Senior Director of Walmart and Co-Chair of ANA’s Alliance for Family Entertainment
Notes: Walmart, along with P&G, has been a real leader in bringing the concerns of consumers and advertisers to television — a medium which, over the past decade or so, has been more consistently dark in its offerings than even cinema. I attribute this to the fact that your cable fees are distributed among all channels whether you actually watch and support them or not. Also, the creative and, I think, dishonest use of demographics declares a small sliver of the audience to be somehow more important than the entire audience. That’s bunk. I credit Walmart, P&G and the Alliance for Family Entertainment for standing up for the folks who buy their products and are being underrepresented in the network executive suites.   Walmart and P&G, BTW, are the chief sponsors of the excellent Walden Family Theater on Hallmark Channel.

9:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. The State of  Family Entertainment

Families are especially sensitive to the content they watch together.  They hope to shield their children from age-inappropriate materials for many reasons.  Key experts  explored the growing sensitivities of parents in content selection, the trends of studios and producers to create family-friendly content and the marketing challenges and opportunities.
Moderator:  Variety Managing Editor Kirsten Wilder
Kristine Belson, Producer for DreamWorks Animation (The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon)
Meyer Gottlieb, President and Chief Operating Officer, Samuel Goldwyn Films
Dale Ardizzone, COO INSP TV
Eric Rollman, President of Rollman Entertainment
Mark Joseph, President and CEO of MJM Group
Matthew Mallek, Producer of the the upcoming film Max Rose starring Jerry Lewis
Notes: One of the strongest panels of the day. I particularly liked Eric Rollman’s observation that the most-successful big-tent superhero franchises tend to have a faith component and protagonists that stand for traditional values. He particularly an exchange from the billion-dollar megahit The Avengers in which S.H.E.I.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) warns Captain America (Chris Evans) that their opponents are “basically gods” to which Cap replies “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” BOOM! Suddenly, The Avengers moved beyond another display of Hollywood pyrotechnics and connected on an emotional level with millions of believers in its audience. As Dale Ardizzone noted, such sentiments aren’t to be confused with sentimentality.  They, in fact, represent widely-held core beliefs that, despite what some in Hollywood seem to believe, extend way beyond the GOP or the most conservative Christians. The belief in a Higher Power goes way beyond political or religious affiliation. From a business standpoint, honoring them — or, at the very least, not insulting them — is a major component (along with great characters, great stories and artistic execution) of box office success. But, as Matthew Mallek pointed out  if movie makers don’t believe in faith values themselves they’re not apt to want to make such films regardless of what the stats say. (And, even if they do, if told without conviction, the stories are likely to ring hollow.) That’s why it falls to people who actually hold such values to get in there and make the movies they want to see — and want their kids to see.

10:15 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Hollywood Studio Session
Hollywood studio chiefs will explore the latest commercial opportunities for family entertainment. With the current studio trend of building special-effects heavy franchises – where does the family genre fit into the development pipeline? What is that state of audience demand for family content – through theatrical and home entertainment platforms? Which projects are connecting most strongly with audiences?
Moderator: Variety Senior Film Critic Peter Debruge

DeVon Franklin, SVP Production Sony Pictures Entertainment
Steven Wegner, EVP Development Alcon Pictures
Simon Swart, EVP and General Manager at Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment North America
Zola Mashariki, SVP Production at Fox Searchlight
Notes: A nice group of people who spent a lot of time talking about so-called “four-quadrant” films, that is movies that appeal to women older than 25 and younger than 25 and men older than 25 and younger than 25. A good technical discussion of the film business. DeVon Franklin seemed genuinely passionate about promoting Sony’s upcoming release of Heaven is for Real based on the bestselling book about the four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who  has convincingly told of experiencing heaven during emergency surgery. Greg Kinnear is set to star.

11:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Networking Break
These breaks were a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and contacts and to, perhaps, make new ones.

11:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Keynote Conversation with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, Executive Producers of History’s  The Bible 
The (higher) power couple talked with Variety’s Cynthia Littleton about their personal faith in God to whom they credit their extraordinary success with The Bible miniseries. Roma Downey declared her favorite headline to have been “God Beats the Zombies.” That made me pretty happy because I thought I had written it for this blog.  It turns out my actual headline was “The Bible beats The Walking Dead.”  Close but no cigar. Actually not really that close.  The couple also hinted at their plans to build on their miniseries but no actual announcements were made. Roma, BTW, also offered the quote of the day: “Either there’s no God or there’s only God. And we know there’s only one God.”

On another note, the immigrants (he’s from England, she’s from Ireland) spoke of their appreciation for America. Speaking of his success in reality television, Burnett suggested this his talent competition series The Voice has toppled Fox’s American Idol as the hottest show in the genre because of it overall kinder tone. Nastiness on television may have, in fact, reached a point of diminishing returns. 

11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Successful Models for Taking Faith-Based Content to New Heights
There is strong demand for faith-based content – but what is critical to continue to grow this marketplace? Producers are working to expand into new faith-based subjects, such as thrillers and comedies. As the genre evolves, what are key elements to achieve success– talent, storyline, authenticity? What is the right amount of ‘faith’ to put into a ‘faith-based’ project? Is it necessarily important to work towards mainstream cross-over potential? Or is there ample opportunity in targeting faith-based content to faith-based audiences? Top entertainment chiefs will analyze the best way to grow the marketplace for faith-based film, TV and digital media.
Moderator: Kirsten Wilder

Rich Peluso, VP Affirm Films, Sony Pictures Entertainment
Corbin Bernsen, Actor and President of Home Theater Films
Ben Howard, Co-Founder of  Provident Films
Simon Swart, EVP and General Manager for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, North America
Jim Huggins, President and CEO of New Shepherd Films
Maura Dunbar, EVP and Chief Content Officer of Odyssey Networks
Note: I particularly liked Jim Huggins’ observation that it’s not necessary to actually quote Scripture to carry its message forth in film. Jesus, he pointed out, would often make his points through parables that didn’t directly quote the Old Testament. He allowed his listeners to make the connections themselves.

Maura Dunbar effectively delineated the difference between faith-based films designed to directly preach a particular interpretations of a particular Gospel (of the Provident Films variety) and those created to offer positive examples of faith values via stories that aren’t necessarily tied to a specific religion.  Both are legitimate but, while the former may be seen by some as preaching to choir (which is important), the latter probably casts a wider audience net.

12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Lunch
Great food (especially the deserts!) and great conversation. I chatted with Peggy Kim and Jim Huggins. Jim told us about his company which specializes in telling true stories of faith and inspiration via film. Footprints (below) is the true story of an abused and unwanted dog who went on to becoming a healing force in the lives of those around her. Jim offered some very interesting biblical insight on God’s love for animals and their special place in His kingdom. It was a great conversation.

1:30 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. Family and Faith-Based: TV and Movies Everywhere
Bruce Goerlich, Chief Research Officer of Rentrak Corporation reviewed the trends for mainstream and faith-focused content within the family, entertainment and faith-focused networks and theatrical releases they measure. Live ratings, DVR playback, box office results, demographics and audience reach were all discussed.

1:45 a.m. to 2:15 a.m. Walden Family Theater – Elevating Films for Families
Peter Debruge
A look at the companies involved in bringing family-friendly movies back to primetime, spanning corporate, programming, production & network partnerships. How are the partners creating dynamic stories that families will want to watch together? What has been the response of audiences and partners with the first release, Return to Nim’s Island? What comes next?
Randy Pope, VP Original Programming for Hallmark Channel
Brian Wells, Co-Founder Flashlight Entertainment and an Executive Producer of Walden Family Theater
Dr. Randy Testa, VP, Education & Professional Development at Walden Media
Notes: Walden Family Theater is a great initiative by a coalition of some of the greatest  positive culture brands out there, including Walden, Hallmark, Walmart, P&G, Flashlight and ARC Entertainment. I must say Dr. Testa’s obvious passion for the franchise’s  upcoming adaptation of the popular book The Watsons Go to Birmingham has me looking forward to seeing and reviewing it. Walden, of course, has its own book division and is particularly adept at bringing children’s literature to screen life.

2:15 p.m. to 2:50 p.m. Parents, Kids and Second Screen – How Families Watch Now
Variety Digital Editor-in-Chief  Andrew Wallenstein
Advancing technology is transforming the ways families watch content – as parents and kids enjoy on-demand and streaming options on increasing numbers of devices. Top digital distribution chiefs, service providers, and technology partners will analyze how they are striving to better connect with families’ new viewing patterns. How are we using technology to enhance the family viewing experience? How is the current and next generation of storytellers, filmmakers, and content producers adjusting to the advancing technology?
Joellen Ferrer – Director of Communications, Ustream
John Kilcullen, President of The Bible Series, Strategic Partnerships/Ancillary Products
Tim Gray, President and Owner of Gray Media
Christina Lee Storm, Executive Director of Act One
Alan Riley, VP Online Video Platform Sales for KIT digital, and the VP for 316 Networks
Father David Guffey, Head of Production at Family Theater Productions
Note: Television used to bring families together as they gathered to watch programming that was designed to appeal to everyone in the room. New media platforms however have turned that equation on its head as TV viewing becomes more and more of an isolating activating that sends everyone off on their own to watch programming produced for their specific demographic. I’m not against technology but there’s something to be said for the communal experiencing of everyone watching the same show at the same time.

2:50 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
How to Succeed in Faith-Based Films Without Losing Your Wallet

Movieguide CEO Ted Beahr talked about the 2013 Movieguide Report to the Entertainment Industry. (More on this tomorrow)

3:00 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. The Emergence of the Mainstream/Faith-Based TV Success – What Comes Next?
There have been a number of break-out shows featuring characters and storylines where faith takes a central role, such as WE TV’s Mary Mary and Game Show Network’s American Bible ChallengeThe Bible on History Channel hit and exceeded this mark – might this open the doors to like-minded programming?  What are strategies around creating broadly appealing faith-based and faith-friendly hits?  How are new digital distribution platforms, such as YouTube, Netflix and Hulu expanding opportunities to create and distribute faith-based content? Top entertainment and digital chiefs explore how they are developing and marketing content today for the faith-based audience.
Moderated by:
Michael Van Dyck, Agent at Paradigm
Amy Introcaso-Davis, EVP Programming and Development at GSN (Game Show Network)
Charlie Jordan Brookins, SVP, Original Programming at BET Networks
Adrienne O’Riain, Director of Drama Development for TNT
Tom Forman, CEO of Relativity Television
Barbara Fisher, SVP, Original Programming at UP
Notes:  As Michael Van Dyck once told The 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.”  To their credit, these folks seem to get it — especially Amy Introcaso-Davis whose support of The American Bible Challenge has given GSN its biggest hit ever and Barbara Fisher who has been a trailblazer for faith-friendly programs ever since her days as senior programming executive at Hallmark Channel.

3:40 p.m. to 3:50 p.m. Networking Break

3:50 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Building Inspired Content – Finance, Production and Marketing
In today’s marketplace, what is the state of financing, producing and launching projects that feature spiritual, inspirational and faith-based messages? Who are the major players that are backing these projects – what criteria are they looking for before supporting them? How might such content be tied to cause and charitable activities to attract audience interest? Leaders behind inspiring and faith-based content will talk about the mechanics of their business.
Moderator: Joe Cohen, President of American Entertainment Investors
Brian Bird, Co-Founder of Believe Pictures
Jason Jones, Founder of Movie to Movement
Rio Cyrus, SVP Marketing at 20th Century Fox
Chevonne O’Shaughnessy, Co-Founder and President at Mission Pictures International
Terry Botwick, Co-Founder 1019 Entertainment
David Brookwell, Producer of Soul Surfer and Co-Chairman of Brookwell-McNamara Entertainment
Notes: The combined resume for this panel was about as impressive as it gets and their generosity in sharing their knowledge about the often vexing process of obtaining financing for projects is commendable. 

4:30 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Storytellers SuperSession
What is driving the creativity for successful storytellers – spanning broad entertainment and faith-friendly and faith-based topics? At the same time, how might storytellers’ personal convictions impact how they are working in this business? Leading creative talent will share how they are achieving in this business today.
Moderator: Brian Lowry of Variety
Alli Shearmur, Producer of Disney’s planned 2014 release of Cinderella
Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, Screenwriters for Despicable Me
Patricia Heaton whose performing well-known credits include ABC’s hit show The Middle and the classic CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Her production company is Four Boys Films.
David Hunt, Patricia’s actor husband (Liz and Dick) is also her partner Four Boys Films. Working with Walden Media, Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions the couple served as producers of Amazing Grace
Chad and Carey Hayes, the twin brother screenwriters of such films as The Conjuring and The Reaping
Scott Mednick, Producer  of Michael Bay’s 2014 release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Co-Founder Legendary Pictures (Man of Steel)
Matthew Mallek, Producer of Max Rose (back from the first panel)
Notes: A great panel comprised of artists who have done some great work. Everybody Loves Raymond, for example, made the All-Time Ultimate TV Schedule I put together for The Wrap.

It was particularly interesting to hear Patricia Heaton talk about Rev. Tim Tom, the youth minister who shows up on some episodes of The Middle. Goofy in a good way, the totally sincere character as portrayed by actor Paul Hipp is free of the usual cynicism and hypocrisy present in  TV and movie depictions of the clergy. A spinoff might not be a bad idea.

Amazing Grace, meanwhile, is a prime example of a faith-based film done exceedingly well. (I’d still like to see a prequel telling the story of John Newton, the ex-slave trader who penned the immortal song and whose fight against slavery inspired Parliamentarian William Wilberforce to lead the successful fight end slavery in  Britain.

Getting back to the panel discussion, the talented and good-natured group attributed Hollywood’s continued apprehension about faith-based material to being the result of a fear of offending Christians if they make an inadvertent mistake in handling the material. It’s certainly true that Christians, like virtually everyone else in our society are sometimes way too sensitive. (That is with the possible exception of Mormons who as, I believe, Patricia Heaton pointed out handled satirical musical The Book of Mormon with amazing grace and humor. ) On the other hand, there are so many instances in which the Christian faith is targeted for blatant ridicule that it’s unfortunately hard to attribute all the reluctance to a concern over offending.

Summing up: All in all, a great event. Variety, Rogers & Cowan and all the participants deserve a lot of praise for making it happen. If I might suggest some participants for next time, how about Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, Bounce TV, David A.R. White’s Pure Flix EntertainmentThe Christophers (which, BTW, offers a fantastic leadership course I took and highly recommend) and SiriusXM (which carries my former employer The Catholic Channel, as well as other faith and family-themed channels). And then, of course, there’s new EchoLight Studios CEO Rick Santorum. Coming soon from EchoLight is a traditional western called The Redemption of Henry Myers. It’s from prolific producer Chad Gundersen (Gundersen Entertainmentin  association with Visionary Pictures. Here’s a preview:

Chad Gundersen is also in post production on another film this blog has been keeping an eye on called Unlimited, a faith-themed action-suspense yarn with a bit of a sci-fi twist.  You can view the trailer for that promising film here.

My own definition of  a great story (whether labeled faith-based or not) is that it features great characters in an interesting plot while  incidentally supporting timeless human values. And those values include faith in God, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, tolerance, wisdom, personal responsibility and the all-important ability to laugh at one’s own foibles (as opposed to spitefully mocking those with whom we differ). These values are neither conservative nor liberal, Democrat nor Republican. They are not religiously sectarian. They are simply matters of Supreme Truth – the basic building block of all great drama and comedy.

Anyway, I met with some interest in my pitches at this event.. With God’s help, I’ll have more to tell you soon. Perhaps I’ll be able to utilize this space to chronicle a project from start to finish.

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

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