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Christina, Nathanael, Benaiah, and Layla Matanick
Photo courtesy of Montana Dennis
Christina, Nathanael, Benaiah, and Layla Matanick

Looking for Jesus in the script

Million-Dollar Movie | Nathanael and Christina Matanick gather story pitches for their EchoLight Studios-funded, faith-based film

This is the second installment of our reality series about Nathanael and Christina Matanick, young filmmakers who won Best Film at the 168 Film Festival, earning a prize of up to $1 million to make a feature-length film through EchoLight Studios. We’re following the filmmakers month-by-month as they try to create in a way that glorifies our Creator.

LOS ANGELES—In a small, poorly lit room at Forest Lawn cemetery’s main hall on Saturday, amateur and veteran screenwriters pitched their grand ideas for a feature-length movie to co-producers Nathanael and Christina Matanick.

In under seven minutes each, the screenwriters spun stories of dystopia, sex trafficking, natural disaster, creationism, science fiction, and the Wild West, all with Christian overtones. They ran through budget requirements and actors they envisioned embodying their characters. Each left the producers with a phone number and a handshake.

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The Matanicks listened attentively across the table, asking questions and pointing out aspects of the screenplay that interested them. For the young couple, it was their first pitch session, their first time producing a feature-length film, and the first time they had the power to bring a screenwriter’s story to life.

“I’m impressed with the level of variety in their scripts,” Nathanael, 27, said afterwards. “It’s so exciting to hear how excited they were about their ideas.”

It’s been nearly a month and a half since the Matanicks won the top prize at the 168 Film Festival, giving them the chance to work on a $1 million feature-length film with EchoLight Studios. Christina, 26, said the excitement’s died down, and now they are left with the looming task of putting together the film.

“It’s been interesting—fun, stressful, and interesting,” she said. “There’s this sense of wanting to do it really well and feeling like a lot of people are looking at us. At the same time, we want to make a film about something that’s important to us.”

The first step, Nathanael said, is figuring out who they are as filmmakers: Would their film reach out to non-Christians or challenge Christians? What are they looking for in a story? What movie genre would work best? 

Then the logical questions: What is feasible given their budget restrictions? EchoLight Studio makes family-friendly movies, so how can they show the reality of the situation and still keep it appropriate for children? And of course, what will make money?

With Nathanael working his day job at a commercial production studio, Christina, a stay-at-home mom, took on many of the producer’s responsibilities—answering e-mails, reading scripts, researching, and watching movies. Because the couple didn’t expect to win the film festival, they hadn’t developed any story ideas beforehand. In the evenings and on weekends, the two brainstorm story ideas. Christina said they work well together: “[Nate’s] the dreamer, I’m much more into getting it done.”

The Matanicks met in middle school at an international school in Malaysia, where both their parents had moved their families to work as teachers. The high school sweethearts ended up moving to Southern California—Christina to attend Westmont College in Santa Barbara and Nathanael for YWAM’s Discipleship Training School and a film internship. They got married in 2007 and now have two children—Layla, 3, and Benaiah, 1.

With their international background, they are interested in making a movie that takes place overseas, as long as they can figure out a way to keep it within budget. While $1 million may seem like a lot, a typical Hollywood movie costs between $40 and $100 million. Shooting in international locations makes things more complicated, especially with paying for airfare, getting visas, and dealing with language barriers and foreign governments.

So far, the couple have come up with a few story ideas of their own—an international thriller based on a true story, a missions-based romance, and a drama about a dysfunctional family.

During the next few weeks, the Matanicks will work on narrowing down their own ideas and the ones presented to them Saturday. Then they’ll pitch the story ideas to EchoLight Studios executives and John Ware, 168 Film Project’s executive director, who all have some say over which story is finally picked.

But the couple stressed that regardless of the movie’s subject, they want to make sure the story is driven by character development and that it helps people understand Jesus better, whether explicitly or implicitly expressed. 

“I’m not interested in promoting American Christian culture,” Christina said. “I don’t want to exalt our culture over other people who are not familiar with it: I want anyone to be able to watch it.

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