The Problem with Christian Movies (It’s Not the Acting)
“I don’t really like Christian movies. The acting is SO terrible!”
I can’t tell you how much I’ve heard people expressing their dislike of Christian movies with variations on this sentence. I guess it makes sense. Independent Christian movies are made on a much smaller budget than their Hollywood counterparts. Actors are quite often drawn from a small pool that includes friends, family, church members, and that nice bald guy from the local Home Depot.
The occasional professional actor in a Christian flick is usually more of a C-list variety. Like, “Oh, I remember that guy, he played Screaming Man #4 in Attack of the Shwormoglobbrians.”
It seems to be a common belief that bad acting is the number one problem with Christian movies, that if only we had the budget or connections to hire big-league actors, our movies would stand on par with Hollywood productions, or at least come close.
I mean, yes, actors with talent and training go a long way toward good production value. But I don’t think a lack of professional actors is the root of the problem.
The problem is not the acting. The problem is the writing.
Christian films, in general, tend to be really badly written. I’m not trying to be mean. It’s just a sad fact. Here are two things I think we’re missing in most of today’s Christian screenplays.
#1: Great Dialogue
Great screenplay dialogue is prompt, witty, and crammed full of subtext.
In most independent Christian movies I’ve seen, the dialogue is flat, predictable, and almost completely void of subtext. People say exactly what they mean, usually with perfect grammar and stilted emotional pauses that were probably written into the script.
Even a fantastic actor would have a hard time making that dialogue sound anywhere NEAR believable. They’d struggle through it, trying to bring every ounce of life they could to the banal script, and then when the movie was out they would get slapped with the verdict of “terrible acting.”
Now that’s just not fair at all.
#2: High Concept Stories
“High Concept” is a term that gets thrown around quite a bit in the world of screenwriting, but what does it actually mean? For me, a high-concept story starts with a synopsis that promises something I haven’t seen a million times before. Something like this:
“A thief who steals corporate secrets through use of dream-sharing technology is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a CEO.” (Synopsis taken from IMDB)
Inception is a high-concept story. Industrial espionage using dreams? Yes, please.
Most Christian films are not high-concept. There seem to be three main story types that these movies fall into.
Archetype #1: Sports Film
A man, who is a major jerk, is a successful athlete until something bad happens and he loses his mojo. In order to be a successful athlete again (and win back the woman he loves) he must learn that his sport is actually a weird convoluted metaphor for life, and that he should not be a jerk anymore. Oh, and also pray a lot.
Archetype #2: Family Drama
A man is a major jerk, and is also very wealthy. Something bad happens. His family falls apart. In order to get his family back, he needs to learn to trust in God and not be a jerk. He does this. Then everything is awesome again.
Archetype #3: Non-Christian Person Gets Stranded
A man is a major jerk. One day he is stranded in a place where everyone else is a Christian. He learns that it is bad to be a jerk, and good to be a Christian. He becomes a Christian who is not a jerk anymore, and good things happen to him.
This is not high-concept.
This is theme, thinly wrapped in story in an attempt to make it a little less like medicine.
Yes, the theme–the message–is important. But a message whispered by an outstanding story is so much more powerful than a message shouted by a mediocre story.
Great dialogue from great characters. High-concept stories. Christian movies need this a lot more than professional actors.
I’d like to clarify that I’m not trying to bash Christian movies. In recent years, the production value of Christian movies has really risen, and that’s exciting. However, production value always begins with a truly great story, and I think that fact is often overlooked in the search for professional actors, pretty cinematography, and cool visual effects.
Next I’ll be talking about books. Stay tuned.