Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 06/07/21

Producer Chris Wall (VeggieTales) and Angel Studios are joining forces to bring The Wingfeather Saga books to life as a multi-season animated TV series. As they have done with their other programming (i.e. The Chosen), Angel’s CVOD (Community Video on Demand) model is being utilized to raise funds for the project that will ultimately be distributed via Angel Studios platforms and, perhaps, elsewhere. CVOD essentially means that fans themselves become investors who make or, yes, lose money based on how well the show does. The minimum investment is $100. For more details, you can go to www.angel.com/Wingfeather.

(Note: As of this writing, the Angel Studios website says the $5,000,000 investment maximum for The Wingfeather Saga has already been reached but “due to the nature of processing the funds, it is possible that some investments are never completed or are cancelled.” The site goes on to explain that, “even though the offering is full, if enough investments drop out before closing, [would-be investors] may move forward in line within the limit.” They promise to notify the would-be investors one way or the other and to refund those who don’t make it in.  At least that’s my non-lawyer/non-investor reading of it. As always, do your due diligence before investing in anything.)

Anyway, whether you’re a potential investor or just an old-fashioned potential viewer, for a primer on The Wingfeather Saga you can check out this fifteen-minute animated introductory short. It sort of dips your toe into the concept to get a feel for the characters as well as the tone for the envisioned show. It essentially condenses a few early chapters of book one with what are described as “only the mildest spoilers.” My conversation with producer/showrunner Chris Wall follows.

JWK: What drew you to The Wingfeather Saga and the idea of turning it into a TV series?

Chris Wall: Our family had the great pleasure of reading the novels as they were released and just found them to be really exceptional (as a) great fantasy following kind of the lineage of Lord of the Rings or Narnia. It just has kind of the whimsical voice of (Narnia author C.S.) Lewis, the epic stakes of Lord of the Rings and a lot of the wit of The Princess Bride. I just became a huge fan of the series. It was emotionally really moving for me. I have six children and we would read it aloud over the years…There are a lot of fantasy – or other – novels you’ll read where you can kind of imagine their world but, in this case, it was so vivid in the amount of details that the author Andrew Peterson provided. It made it just kind of leapt off the page…It is a family adventure where you really rally around the idea that this little family is stronger together as they try to fight against a great evil. The kids discover their own place in this journey. They discover their identities, what their roles are and have to wrestle with new responsibilities (as they) face what their future might hold.

JWK: How did you connect Andrew Peterson, the creator of The Wingfeather Saga?

CW: Andrew and I had actually become friends through my work at Veggie Tales. I produced that series for a little over a decade…He’s also a prolific songwriter and I was able to use one of his songs for a…Veggie Tales (story). Around that time he handed me the first (Wingfeather Saga) book and said “Hey, I’ve written a fantasy novel.” You know, whenever you meet an artist who’s multidisciplinary, you’re kind of not sure if their (work outside the discipline you know them for) will be any good. So, I took that first book home and started reading it to my kids and we just couldn’t believe it. It was really good! It was really well-written stuff. So, we kind of fell in love (with it).

Over the years, I kept in touch with Andrew and then, somewhat fatefully, in 2015 my time had come to an end with Veggie Tales. The last three years of that was with DreamWorks Animation. They had an offer for me to come out to California (from) Nashville, Tennessee. (My family and I) kind of prayed about it and decided that the better route would be to pursue bringing The Wingfeather Saga to life. Rather than just option the material, I asked Andrew if he and I could partner. I really wanted to protect the tone and what he had written. He agreed and he and I formed a company – Shining Isle Productions – and we got to work.

JWK: What will a series look like? I understand there are four novels and then a collection of short stories. Will the episodes be strictly based on those or will there be some original stories written especially for the show? Also, will the episodes be a half hour or an hour?

CW: Those are great questions. Andrew wrote the book series with rather short chapters to make it easier for parents to read aloud, kind of chapter by chapter. If you’ve ever tried to read Lord of the Rings aloud to your kids, they’re very long chapters. So, we intend to make the series as half-hour episodes — allowing families to sit down, have a good experience together and leave it at that…

…The book series really documents the journey of this Igiby family from beginning to end. So, it’s a narrative arc. The series isn’t meant to be an ongoing series forever…We very much intend the series to be the same story but told from a different vantage point – a new lens – to give a fresh experience to readers of the books but also hit the same marks (so) that new people can find the great high points that the books captured as well. So, it’s a new experience but definitely following the story that’s written.

Now, to your point, one of the things that we did love about the books is there are a lot of footnotes and references to other histories, so there’s a world that happens off the page. There are characters doing things off the page that you’re aware of but don’t (see). We do have the opportunity with the long lens to kind of pull some things in that didn’t get portrayed in the books but maybe we can included in the series.

JWK: How many episodes will be in a single season and how long do you see the show running?

CW: That’s a great question too. So, the opportunity that we have now with Angel Studios – who we are partnering with to bring this to life – means we have some flexibility there. We’re not on a kind of rigid broadcast schedule of 26 episodes over this much time or whatever. We’re launching with a smaller set – similar to what you’ve seen recently from Marvel or Disney – where we’re doing six episodes in Season One, just to kind of get the story going. That will largely encapsulate the events of the first book. The first book is kind of world building and setting up what will happen. So, that will carry us in Season One.

For Seasons Two and forward, it’s kind of open. Honestly, we’re hoping for the audience to really attach to it and show support for it and, in that way, we can begin to stretch our legs and say, okay, we can do this many more episodes and this many more seasons to really tell the whole story. So, we have two versions – one that’s shorter where we move through all four books at a quicker pace and then a longer view where we can kind of stretch our legs and get to enjoy some of the more interesting stories inside of (that world) that would add some color. We kind of get to reflexively follow the audience here – not unlike broadcast television…Although, in our case, I just have to say, as a fan of the show Lost, we know what our ending is and it’s really good…(With Lost) they didn’t quite know how they were going to end it. We know how we’re ending it. I’m not dogging on Lost (but that’s a key difference).

JWK: How’s the crowdfunding going? (Note: This question was asked while before the offering hit its $5,000,000 target.)

CW: It’s crowd-“invested.” We like to use that term because it’s not like a Kickstarter where we’re asking for donations. We are not. We are actually selling shares in The Wingfeather Saga animated series. (Investors) can actually buy in and be part of this journey with us. They get to participate with us in any success. Fans can become owners. We launched (last month) and it’s just been amazing. In the first 48 hours we raised a million dollars – which is the fastest ever on Angel Studios’ platform. We beat The Chosen, there other (hit) series by two days which we’re very, very excited about.

JWK: How has your experience working with Angel Studios differed from your experiences with more traditional studios and networks?

CW: DreamWorks was a wonderful environment. They were very supportive. That was the house that had created The Prince of Egypt. They really understood Veggie Tales. They understood that there was an audience for this kind of faith-infused material…

…Angel Studios is definitely coming along as more of a distributor and marketer. They’re excited about their skill set in being able to get you to an audience…We could go make a series but getting it to an audience is a whole other task and Angel Studios really has just a profound – I think it’s going to be industry-changing – way of developing audiences. They have this coined term – “CVOD – Community Video on Demand” – which is really about building communities around content and then bringing those shows to life. We have (built) a great community of fans and readers over the last ten years or more of the book series. That community is excited to see the show come to life.

So, (Angel Studios’) partnership has been amazing. They have been unbelievably freeing in saying “Hey, we trust our content creators to go make the show they want to make. We really don’t want to (encroach on) that. We want you to go and satisfy your fans with the show that they want.” I was just talking to Andrew actually last night about this and there’s just a joy in knowing that we can make a really interesting and distinct show – much like the short film we made – that is unlike other things that are out in the marketplace. We think that’s a real advantage with the partnership with Angel.

JWK: What do you hope kids and adults take from The Wingfeather Saga? What do you think it brings to the culture that’s important?

CW: There are very few offerings for families in (the form of) television series (which is) a kind of chapter by chapter unfolding narrative. There are a lot of movies that we can engage in as families. For a whole family to sit down for a series, that’s less common…

…The other is we have some themes in there that are distinct. We are a fantasy series rooted in some biblical context. Christian families that watch us will go “Oh, they’re saying something about the way in which we see the world.” Much like Tolkien did and, frankly, even like Lewis did with Narnia….(We’re dealing with) big themes of sacrificial love, the importance of family (and) the triumph of good over evil. We hold these things very dearly in our faith traditions. When we see those in stories, it really moves us in powerful ways. So, we’re super-excited about that.

I think when people read the series or when they watch our show, one big theme that we (deal with) is identity – that there is an identity given to us by our Creator. We all move forward and – like David with Saul’s armor – we try on different identities and see what might fit. Some are ill-fitting and sometimes affect us in a negative way. We see today – with social media outlets and other places – that kids are trying on all kinds of identities. The series really wrestles with those ideas of what identities we want to (choose) for ourselves, what identities are (thrust on) us by others and how we find our true identity in the way the Creator made us and the path He has for us (through) the distinct calling and responsibility that we might be drawn to. Those are things that we think families will come away with – kind of talking about, thinking about and discussing.

JWK: Anything you’d like to add as we wrap this up?

CW: Some families may approach and say “Is this thing a Christian fantasy?” That comes up a lot, actually. We kind of move away from that because I think we are a fantasy (that) was written by a Christian author but it’s not overt. There is a lot of great overt content in the world but we really feel strongly that we want to do…storytelling (that) can influence someone and get into their hearts and have them considering truth they may otherwise reject.

Lewis talked about this and his own wrestling with his religious path. He said the “watchful dragons” of his conscious mind would reject ideas that he didn’t want to even consider. Stories, he said, had a way of sneaking past those watchful dragons and (entering) the heart. We believe great stories can do that but we have to do them in ways that are not overt because that will cause someone to reject it and not even watch and enjoy the story. We’re interested in doing those things that create a sense of deep longing in a person – that tickle the back of your neck and say “Something’s happening here. I’m edging into something eternal that I don’t understand.” That’s the kind of story we want to tell – and do that with as much artistic integrity as we can as we try to communicate truths with a capital T, things that we think land a punch. Those are the stories we are drawn to and are championing with The Wingfeather Saga.

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

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