Voices

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Can Christians change the culture by going to the movies?

Issue: "Stand in the gap," Nov. 5, 2005

Here is how Christians can change Hollywood, according to Jonathan Bock: "Go to more movies."

As a publicist, the founder of Grace Hill Media, Mr. Bock might be biased, but here is his reasoning, as explained in the book Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture (Baker): "If Christians would go as a demographic bloc to a movie on opening weekend, we could make that movie a hit. And the studios would make more films just like it."

The movie industry has been in the economic doldrums, with declining ticket sales and a smaller demographic slice going to theaters. But 43 percent of Americans are church-goers, many of whom find themselves mocked and their values undermined in the typical Hollywood fare. But when Christians found a movie they liked-The Passion of the Christ-they made it the third-biggest moneymaker of all time, last year accounting for one-fifth of the movie industry's total profits.

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Mr. Bock quotes Disney mogul Michael Eisner: "We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective." If this is true, Christians can use the power of the marketplace to influence the marketplace of ideas.

Christian pollster George Barna has engineered an arrangement with the movie studios and theater networks to test the concept. BarnaFilms Preview Night will select four worthy movies a year. Churches and other groups can buy blocks of at least 50 tickets. This will entitle them to a special showing the night before the film is officially released.

"The success of a film is largely determined by its opening weekend box-office revenues," Mr. Barna told WORLD. "By churches turning out in a bloc to witness a particular film, we begin to exercise the power of numbers, which can then influence the creative and business executives in Hollywood to develop movies that satisfy the entertainment interests of Christians."

The first movie featured with a Preview Night is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Mr. Barna admits that the Narnia movie, already being hyped to churches with the same marketing campaign used in The Passion, "will have virtually universal awareness whether we have a preview or not." But "future films that we expect to preview are likely to go unnoticed without a special effort to gain people's attention."

(Churches that would like to organize a preview of the Narnia movie so members can see it a day early, on Dec. 8 instead of Dec. 9, can go to www.barnapreview.com.)

But why concentrate on movies? Isn't our preoccupation with perpetually entertaining ourselves part of our cultural problem? Mr. Barna said that according to his research into the factors that influence people's lives today, "The upper tier is comprised of seven influencers: movies, music, television, the internet, books, family, and public policy. Together, those seven entities appear to have about 60 percent to 70 percent of the influence on what people think and do." In the very bottom tier of cultural influences, he said, is the local church.

Using Christians' buying power as a way to influence the culture has its skeptics. "The idea that Christians will go see films targeted at them has not been borne out by the marketplace," says film scholar Thom Parham, also writing in Behind the Screen. "Christians, it turns out, see the same films as everyone else."

That is part of the problem, says Conservative Films' David Stidham, who has devised a rating system to assess the moral content of a movie. If Christians would both refuse to go to morally questionable films and support the relatively few positive movies in droves, then they would make an impact.

But marshaling economic clout for cultural influence is a provocative tactic, beyond just the movie industry. Christians have tried boycotts, but those seldom work. The opposite-rewarding Christian-friendly and morally sensitive companies by giving them our business-might pay bigger cultural dividends.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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