Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Christians Investing in Culture

There has been a lot of talk around Hollywood this past week about the best way for Christians to spend their money to see a positive impact in the culture. I have been to no less than three events this past week on this subject, and about three more in the last month.

And it's great. A dream really. For too many years, we Christians in the business have been operating in a parallel universe from the rest of the Church was has always ready to wag fingers and send recriminations, but never up to actually rolling up sleeves and making the sacrifices to help things get better. So is surreal to suddenly be sitting in many rooms with "potential investors" who are seriously discerning how and where to invest towards a new renaissance.

The change has been due to many things like John Paul II's emphasis on the arts specifically highlighted in his Letter to Artists, and then the success of The Passion of the Christ and LOTR and Narnia, a complete exhaustion with the proliferation of unsatisfying and even degrading stories offered by secular materialists in the last few decades, but probably most of all the dawning realization among the People of God that our natural place is to be leaders in the arts and storytelling. It's a very good movement to realize that nothing will change in Hollywood without an intelligent, integrated strategy for change.

As I see it, there are two ways that make sense as investment approaches. There is the major investment approach, and the minor investment approach. Both are necessary, and ironically, the minor investment approach will probably have the longest term strategic impact. Both of these approaches assume a "people versus projects" emphases.


A) MAJOR INVESTMENT APPROACH

The major investment approach has to do with identifying creative people in the industry who are looking to provide entertainment product for your neighborhood cineplex.

What I mean by that is, in this age of You-Tube, there are lots of people who will be happy to take gobs of money to express themselves on screen. These folks are making movies on a dime, without a lot of training or experience, without any industry relationships, without a serious business or distribution plan, really without much more than a wish and a prayer. This stratum of folks are the object of approach number two, so we'll get back to them. But frankly, they are not the folks to whom you give $5,000,000 or $2,000,0000 or even $100,000 to.

The idea is to find people who share your values, but also have much more besides just your values, that would enable them to get projects on television and in the theaters. They would have all those things I listed above, plus talent. Um, and then they should have some talent. And by talent, I mean, actual, you know, talent.

So, once you've identified them, they need to be trusted with serious investments. Millions of dollars. Ultimately tens of millions of dollars. Because global influence doesn't come cheap. And because what companies need is to support a large slate of projects, each of which is a multi-year, multi-million dollar enterprise. Serious investment will allow thes companies to sustain long-term relationships in the industry, which will be the key to the celebrity talent which drives the global audience, and to distribution. It will also maximize the chances of achieving the magic combination of great story and high-level execution which secures a movie a place in the hearts and minds of viewers.

Investing in the movie business is very much like investing in building construction. You wouldn't hire an architect and contractor to build you a skyscraper just on the basis of their Christian commitment. You'd want to know that they have the technical know-how, relationships, and experience to do the job for you. Movies are just like that. Really expensive. And requiring a very advance level of expertise.

And there are definitely companies like this. Committed Christians, with a vocational dedication to Hollywood, with serious business plans and structures, and with an intelligent understanding of art, story and entertainment.

But the thing is, once you have satisfied yourself that the company fits all of the above requirements, then, you have to step back and let them do their thing. In the same way that you wouldn't try and tinker with where the architect puts the electrical system in the skyscraper he is designing for you, investors shouldn't try and dabble with dialogue in movies, or come up with character quirks or really good ideas for second act transitions.

The truth is, most of us Christians have very little sense of art or story. We've lost any aesthetic standards, starting with what we are doing in our own churches in the arts. We are going to have to trust our artists to be "prophetic voices" for us, borrowing from John Paul II. (NOTE: Again, you don't trust just any one who declares themself an artist. Read above again and then move to Section B.)


B) MINOR INVESTMENT APPROACH

For those investors who can't afford to shell out hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, the next best way to positively impact Hollywood is to support those people who are directly invested in nurturing a new generation of people for the industry.

There will be no long-term change in Hollywood without a whole new generation of people with Christian values coming to be a part of the business at all levels. (Here I go again.... but it is my thing:) We need actors, writers, directors, agents, studio, network and production company executives, cinematographers, stunt people, publicists, grips, mechanics, production designers, graphic artists, animators, editors, hair and makeup people, script supervisors, production coordinators -- get the picture?

But principally, we need people who can affect content: writers, directors, executives, and agents. We need to develop and support programs that identify and recruit talented individuals at top schools who share our values and who have the real possibility of pursuing a Hollywood career. Then, we need to support programs that train, mentor, and help launch the careers of these people.

The training we provide needs to be a combination of high-level, real world craft study, (of the nature that few Christian universities even aspire to), married to an insightful curriculum of ethics and spirituality to support people as their careers in the industry unfold (of a nature that no Christian universities have even thought of yet.) We also need coordinated efforts to rally the People of God to support their brothers and sisters in Hollywood with prayer and resources.

And there are programs in the business that are doing this. Programs like Act One and the Los Angelus Film Study Center, the Angelus Awards, Hollywood Connect, and backing them all up with prayer, the Hollywood Prayer Network. But all of these projects are shoe-string non-profits who struggle month to month to meet payroll for their dedicated, servant-minded staffs. For any of these programs, a donation of five or ten thousand dollars makes a huge difference.

But I think it is shameful, that these programs are struggling. Christians have no business whining about how horrible Hollywood is if they haven't done anything to support those people who are trying to make it better.


So, there it is. A two-pronged strategy for cultural renewal. The question is, how serious are we about having our voice heard in Hollywood?

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