This is the fourth 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.
The past month for the Matanicks was filled with waiting. They had their story idea down, they’d written drafts of the script, they’d submitted a treatment of the script to EchoLight Studios. Now all that was left was hearing back from the studio the long-awaited answer, yes or no.
If yes, they’d march ahead with their dream project, a thriller about Muslims in the Middle East finding Jesus.
If no, they’d turn to one of their backup scripts to produce a movie through EchoLight. But they still planned on making their original script idea some time down the line.
I spoke to Nathanael and Christina as they waited for a call from Jeff Sheets, the new president of EchoLight, to tell them the fate of their film.
“Either way, it’ll be nice to know,” Christina said. “If they say no, we’ll move forward and find another film we’re excited about.”
But the waiting dragged on. EchoLight was busy releasing its first theatrical film, The Christmas Candle, and working on casting for another project. Sheets seemed excited about the Matanicks’ film idea when they talked on the phone a few weeks before, but he still needed to convince the board that the film made sense financially and would interest their target audience.
In the meantime, the Matanicks continued working on the script and fleshing out the story. They figured that even if EchoLight didn’t approve the film, they’d have opportunities to make it in the future, and they wanted to continue refining the script. Christina wrote the first three drafts of the script with Nathanael reading it and giving his input. In the last few weeks, Nathanael took over more of the writing, trying to work out some of the issues in the earlier drafts. Nathanael never saw himself as a writer. He gained respect for writers through the process. “They take an empty void, and fill it with a good story,” he said.
The Matanicks are passionate about the story and believe it will be groundbreaking for Christian films. They hope it will reveal to Christians the work God is doing around the world and convey to non-Christians a powerful true story about two characters who start as enemies and end up willing to die for each other, like a modern-day version of Paul’s testimony.
“The broader story is about a person going through change and realizing the faults within [himself],” Nathanael said. “The basic story anyone can identify with.”
The Matanicks recognized two concerns that EchoLight might have had with their film. One was the budget. The 168 Film Festival prize was up to $1 million, low for Hollywood films that typically cost between $40 and $100 million. Especially because the story was set internationally, the cost of filming could quickly escalate. The second was the film’s controversial topic. EchoLight usually produces family-friendly films, and a movie dealing with Muslims who find Jesus was bound to get a strong reaction. EchoLight might have wanted a film on a less touchy subject.
In the waiting process, Christina said being a parent first helped her keep priorities straight. When her two young children cry out, they want their mommy, not a screenwriter. The whole family took a week break over Thanksgiving to visit relatives in New York, where their main focus was keeping their kids warm rather than saving their main character from catastrophe.
Finally, an email from Sheets popped up on their inbox. In it, he wrote that the studio felt the topic was too sensitive to take on at the current time. They wouldn’t be making that film.
Sheets did add that he was interested in the story idea and wanted to see if other partners would be onboard to fund the project, but it most likely would not be for the 168 Film Festival prize. The Matanicks will now need to look at other scripts, some of which EchoLight have stockpiled.
Furthermore, Sheets said that the studio only budgeted $250,000 for the 168 Film Festival win. That took Christina by surprise. The studio said from the beginning the prize was “up to” $1 million, but they had reassured the Matanicks that if they came up with a compelling story idea, they would back $550,000 or more. Now the filmmakers are unsure what they’ll be able to do with such a small budget.
“We were definitely dreaming big, but we also felt a lot of confirmation for it,” Christina said of their original film idea. “I don’t know how it’ll all work out. I don’t think my hope was ever in EchoLight. It’s in following God. We’ll just find something else that we’re all excited to work on, and it’ll be good practice.”