5 Truths About Christian Film Festivals

I recently attended a Christian film festival. My short The Lost Keys was named a semi-finalist there, so I thought I’d go and find out what we were the semi-finalist of, and get an idea of the landscape of Christian film at the grassroots level.

I’m not going to name the film festival, since I don’t know if everything I’ll say is glowing, but with very, very nominal research, you could determine which one it was.

Here are some of the things I thought over the three days of the festival, and then the ten hours I drove back home.

A Sports Metaphor

If you were going to play in a basketball game, there’s a good chance that before the game, the ref would warn you of his pet peeves. Maybe he hates reaching in. Maybe he “let’s ‘em play” inside. It’s direct insight on what he’s going to call, and a helpful guidance on how you might play the game to avoid picking up foul calls.

Even if the ref doesn’t warn you, within the first few minutes, you’d know what the ref is going to let happen and what he will call. Maybe he’s going to call every dinky ticky tack foul. Maybe he’s gonna bury his whistle in his pocket and let the game develop like it was Friday night at the Y.

When you enter your film into a film festival, you have no idea what the judges are looking for. You will never know what they were looking for.

I’ve read practically every book and article I could find on film festival judges. Roberta Marie Monroe, in her book “How Not To Make A Short Film: Secrets From A Sundance Programmer,” explains that sometimes it’s as simple as length. Maybe the festival needed a film under ten minutes, and yours was twelve, so they went with the shorter one.

She does encourage you, by the way, to get to the point. Judges get impatient, you see, and grow weary of directors being too precious with their shot-making and storytelling.

I’m sure it can get hard watching thousands of films, like Monroe did for Sundance, or approximately 150, like the programmer for the film festival I was at.

But, wait. What? If you, like I did, thought that what was being judged was the film, you’re pretty confused, right? Really what’s being judged is a mass of films, and yours is one of them, and you might have angered the judging gods with that jib shot you spent a day and half storyboarding, lighting, and blocking.

But, wait. If your film was good, it wouldn’t matter how long the jib move was, or if you were twelve minutes instead of ten. If it’s good, the judging gods will push other films out of the way and program yours.

So, just make a good film. Boom. Questions and irrational fears answered.


But, Then Again…

If anyone out there knows what makes a good film*, just go on make a list and send it to me at pro.creator@poveinstein.com.

*Because I don’t think anyone knows what makes a good film. We know what good films are. We know that Godfather and Godfather II are in the top 5, at least, right? Citizen Kane. Someone’s going to want to see Vertigo in there, and 8 ½ . One, two three..that’s five. Done**.

**Except I didn’t put in Battleship Potemkin, which doesn’t belong in the top five unless we’re being pretentious, but ok, if we’re going there, let’s throw in some David Lynch. And all of a sudden, I’m not sure even what a good film is. If someone submitted a Lynch film*** to my festival, I would not have screened it. And, yes, I understand that means I might not be much of a film critic.

***My daughter and I have a list of things we don’t get that also kind of make us angry: 1) Sushi 2) “Nom-nom-nom” 3) Arcade Fire 4) “fur babies.” I’m going to go ahead and put David Lynch at number 5. I have no idea what people are getting out of Lynch.

If you’re thinking that elements of a good film would be excellent shot-making, superior writing, exceptional acting, flawless editing, and pristine sound, then you’re not really thinking this through. We could make a list of movies that are revered, but suck at many of these elements. What exactly was going on in Caddyshack, and does it matter? I dare you to go back and watch how monstrously poorly-lit that film was. It was BAD. And I think it’s a great film.

A good film just needs to be good at one thing. The Matrix* was a jaw-dropping story with amazing effects and really good characters. Caddyshack had Peak Murray. Star Wars** imagined a world and mythology we knew, and had never seen. Dirty Dancing*** and Grease had two of the best soundtracks ever.

*For goodness sakes, Keanu Reeves was at Peak Keanu in The MatrixThat means he could not manage acting two lines in a row. Peak Keanu did not keep The Matrix from being a great film.

**Don’t even get me started on Star Wars. Just know half of my kids tried to watch and after I forced Episodes IV and V on them, they begged we not watch Return of the Jedi. Begged. I said, “But what about Han Solo? Don’t you want to know what happens to him trapped in the Carbon?” They didn’t. The acting was just not good in those first films.

***Oh, and what if it’s really just the soundtrack and some hot people dancing to stuff? Because Grease is a terrible film. I like to call Dirty Dancing “The Abortion Movie.” That’s one poorly-acted film with a great soundtrack and gosh, if they can just raise the money for her abortion, then…

The audience has to be ready, or totally open, or on the lookout for, the one thing. Because if they’re not, then they’ll miss it. Critics and audiences didn’t like It’s A Wonderful Life. It was 26th at the box office in 1946. It wasn’t what it is today until it was rediscovered in the 70’s. Blade Runner opened to a $6.1 million weekend. The Shawshank Redemption wasn’t a success until it became a massive video rental hit.  (Since we’re here, I’ll throw in that John Carter is way better than people remembered. I just think audiences weren’t ready for that kind of film. I think.)

Which brings us back to the Christian film festival, because as detailed above, no film festival shares what it is looking for or what it thinks are good films. They don’t tell you to make sure your color grading is on point, or they will dock your film. (This was very clear for the film festival I attended, where, for some films, going from a wide to a MCU would result in a guy’s skin tone going from pinkish to stop sign red)

And Christian film festivals — will they dock you if you’re not Christianly enough? Cinema Faith readers might be happy to learn the film that beat my film for “Best Comedy” pushed the Christianly envelope.

The film was about a foul-mouthed comedian who thinks he’s going to do a night at a strip club called “The Player’s Club.” But — as if torn from Three’s Company — he was actually going to do a set at “The Pray’ers Club” (sic). So, like Jack and Chrissy, oh, the misunderstandings! The misunderstandings include a misunderstanding where the comedian thinks he’s going to be involved in multi-party sex, but actually, it’s just a prayer. Madcap.

Playing the “Holy Spirit” Card

I was asked to join a panel at the festival to discuss the filmmaking process with four other producer/filmmakers. Each filmmaker explained that their process began with an earnest pursuit of evangelism, and an honest evaluation of the Holy Spirit’s guidance on their project.

To be fair, I don’t think many of the others were interested in sharing their filmmaking process. I think they wanted to sort of give a manifesto on why they were filmmakers. But it does explain the incredible expanse of films and filmmakers participating in a Christian film festival. If you’ll agree with Premise 1) We should submit a good film; and 2) A good film exhibits at least one of several qualities; and 3) Those qualities will need to be noted and enjoyed by the judges and audience; BUT 4) One of those qualities might have nothing to do with filmmaking at all, but rather, what the Holy Spirit guided them to make…then we’re nearing an even more disconcerting mess than usual when judging film.

I’ve run into this a couple of times before. Once, a Christian high school-aged filmmaker was begging online for people to read her script. I didn’t want to do it, but no one else would, so I read it a couple times and then wrote a few pages of notes, including ideas for getting the story in line. (It was about a dystopian future world where Christians were hunted and persecuted.) There are some hard and fast concepts you run into if you write for a bunch of years; and there are some really good rules you can follow to get your film to open like a flower.

She responded by telling me she was going to change nothing. The Holy Spirit had really guided her writing, you see, and she was going to trust the Spirit. (And if you’re wondering why she was asking for help, I did too, in a very direct way.)

Who can argue with that? It does make you wonder if the Holy Spirit is just one of those guys who likes really bad films. Like, he’s begging people to watch Dude, Where’s My Car? with him and we’re all going, “Oh, Holy Spirit, we’re not going to watch that garbage with you AGAIN!”

5 Truths About Christian Film Festivals (#4 Will Shock You)

I watched 39 films at this film festival and 20 at the previous one. Some films were at both film festivals, but I can see some truths emerge:

1. If there’s something Christians can absolutely dominate and reign supreme at, it’s documentaries.

When the angry internet trollish internet crowd sets on Christians, one of the rules devised is that all anecdotal evidence must be thrown out, since it’s really just a personal story fraught with emotion.

It’s a silly premise, since our entire system of laws is largely based on witness accounts, but there are those who believe a first-person account is not scientific, and an Excel spreadsheet of first person accounts is scientific.

BUT film is about the story. Tell the story, and the film comes to life; tell the story well, and hearts are moved.

And man, we Christians have stories, don’t we? Just ask me to explain about the best sandwich ever, and I’ll tell you all about it, or what it was like driving home from the hospital to explain to my children the news about their sister. Many, many of us have stories about being broken in this broken place, and how Christ lifted us from that place.

One documentary that moved me, and played at both festivals, was Saved For A Reason.

The movie is about a successful high school basketball team which was on a bus that flipped over. Beyond the excellent production quality and the masterful way the filmmakers chose to tell the story, the documentary includes real footage from local television stations that add a splash of startling authenticity.

Two at this particular film festival that deserve acclaim — one received it, one didn’t — were By War & By God — a stirring film chronicling how Vietnam vets returned to Vietnam to seek forgiveness, forgive, and bring the love of Christ there. If you have anything beating in your chest, you’ll be moved.

The Battle for Brandon has an incredible story to tell, and its editor unfolded it with uncanny deftness. Beautifully shot, the filmmakers were given access to every critical voice in this nearly unbelievable tale of a father’s love for a child stricken with paranoid schizophrenia.

If you’re worried Christians just can’t get it together when it comes to filmmaking, be encouraged by the documentaries out there. I’d also submit that if you just add a few well-constructed shots to the beautiful stories our Lord has written, you’re there. My memories flit to the drone shot of the orphans looking up into the heavens from their orphanage in Poets of the Mountain, and the stirring, moving emotional scenes of a post-genocidal society in Mama Rwanda.

2. No one cares what camera you shot with.

I’m not sure film festivals are all that interested in what you did to make your film.

This is the fourth film festival I’ve attended, and I’m now settling into the reality that as interested as I am in grading with parade scopes and LUTs to bring each frame of each scene in line with a “look;” as concerned as I am about using primes to get the best shots; as anxious as I get that my cameras don’t measure up to a Red Dragon — which may not compare to an Arri — the more I realize that it (mostly) doesn’t matter.

For sure, the best-shot films at the festival didn’t win best film. It can be said that the best films did have very good cinematography and shot selection, and really impressive grading. Two festivals ago, one festival goer asked me about the different color schemes I had employed during two different sequences of a film. Outside of that question, it appears it’s not important to the audiences or the judges.

No one has asked me what cameras I shot with, what glass I used, or why. In fact, if I hadn’t asked at the most recent festival I’d attended, I wouldn’t have learned the budget of each project, which I think is a pretty insightful bit of information to know about films if you’re going to critique them.

Come to think of it, I guess my preciousness on this matter is similar to a musician concerned that no one asked him why the song’s bridge began with a major fourth instead of a major sixth chord. No one cared. Even the people who know what that is don’t care.

3. Music matters.

Music is an integral part of film which actually predates the spoken word in the history of film. As critical a part as it plays, filmmakers will find they are almost instantly in a bind when it comes to music.

They can do what I did with my webseries, and cull through hundreds of bands on bandcamp.com, looking for unsigned artists that have really good music that will also let you use their music for your work; or

You can seek some sort of rights directly from the artist, their representation, or label. I’ve had exactly one positive experience in this, with the rest being absolutely witheringly humiliating. Best worst story is when Warner Brothers ignored repeated online forms I filled out for months. I wrote the president of WB and finally got a response from an underling, who then neglected me for another few months, then came up with a figure of $1800 for festival rights for a cover of a song they owned; or

You can try writing, performing, and recording your own music. This was actually done a couple of times by filmmakers at the film festival (including me); or

You can find terrible, schlocky free music or just keep repeating, like a horror movie, the same small musical phrases you got for free somewhere; or

You can break the law and use someone’s music and play “catch me if you can.”

I’m going to make an open plea that Christian musicians offer Christian filmmakers their music to create films. There should be a covenant that states that if a filmmaker breaks through with another artist’s music (in other words “makes money”), the rights can be arranged at that time. It’s strange to see artists who all seem to share a vantage on the world and art (given to us by the Great Creative Force) to not openly allow others to create with their art. I don’t get it.

4. Narrative films and filmmakers are still wrestling with voice, character and plot, especially features.

It’s heartening to see so many short narrative entries from so many places — geographically, culturally, and creatively.

The film festival I attended had two shorts from Australia. Robbie Fatt’s The Towns We Lived In was well constructed and had its own unique voice. Really well done, and does a good job of showing how disconnected we are as a church body.

Christopher Lamark’s Shine featured two promising young black actors squeezing the most out of a pretty good script which bottled them in a hospital room.

With almost no exceptions, features miss the mark. (I’m focusing solely on film festivals, and not Hacksaw Ridge) Some reduce faith to a cross a guy holds while he is trying to do the VERY HARD THING, or a tearful moment in pursuit of the VERY HARD THING.

Most suffer from bloated plots and characters. Restoration, for example, had a main character who lost her father and wanted to, in her father’s memory, win conference as a high-school wrestler.

That’s a movie right there. It might even be a great movie just stopping right there.

But it ended up being just one of many, many overly complex characters and plot points, including a Mr. Miaggi ex-FBI agent turned mechanic who lost his family in a wreck and reluctantly, despite his alcoholism, is convinced to coach the girl in wrestling. There’s also a whole thing about the Russian mafia, and a family member who owes them money who is actually an evil family member, and on it goes.

The same is true — although less troublesome — of Because of Gracia, which I actually liked in spite of its many, many interesting and odd/complex character and plot points.

A Christian high schooler struggles with pressure from her boyfriend for increased intimacy, and eventually becomes pregnant. She’s afraid to tell her often-distant father, who is a pastor, and ends up at the abortion clinic, walking down the hall. Gripping, right? Well…that’s just a subplot of the film.

You also get the title character — a glowing, “WOW, who is that?” performance from Moriah Peters, who has a rough past we aren’t shown and is now attending a new school. The main character is a shy beat poet with hilarious daydream delusions right out of Scrubs. Oh, and there’s also this whole thing about an atheist teacher, a Christian teacher, some girls who get the Christian fired for praying….and on it goes.

(and, since you are dying to know — the grading and shotmaking seemed to follow the money. Gracia’s budget was close to $1.5 million, and it showed, with really great lighting — even exposing for bright Louisiana sun with ND filters, classy drone shots and a pro grade. Restoration’s budget was 80k, and it showed by delivering less.)

5. Three theories

Theory 1 about the muddle Christian storytellers are in: without a single dollar of budget, we’re already concerned about what our brothers and sisters will say. Should the boy kiss the girl? Will Christians react? Will I lose audience if they hold hands?

Two festivals ago, I sat next to the writer/director/star of Old Fashioned  — a little feature that opened well, and continues to do well all around the world. He said he got flak from Christians because it depicted people in a bar drinking alcohol.

The church has a bad habit of asking, “What does it do?” when it sees art. The answer should always be, “It’s beautiful.” Instead, Christians find themselves trying to get the art to do something, to depict proper dating procedure, and of course be pro-life, and also maybe speak out about atheism in schools. It’s too much.

Tell the story. Don’t get distracted and start telling lots of stories.

Theory 2 is that when money starts coming in, Theory 1’s advice is shot. If you’re getting support from churches and wealthy donors who want to see things go a certain way, you really can’t fight the money. I think that explains why the no-budget shorts have a very precise point and plot, and the larger films feel like lots of daily devotions cobbled together.

Theory 3 is that the solution is pretty obvious — stop making features. I’d argue that every Christian feature with story problems — and now I’ll include Hacksaw Ridge, which I think got to the military quickly because it had to get to the military quickly in order to tell the story in two hours — would have been an exceptional television series.

Now I have time to explain the ex-FBI agent’s loss, and I can talk about Gracia’s past. I can spend an episode locked on the mortifying decision in the halls of an abortion clinic. I can go back to Desmond Doss’s past, and spend a half hour on the violence he saw.

I refer you to my earlier comment about documentaries. We have stories to tell. But often, the stories are complex because we are. Then, let’s take the time and explain. Stop looking at a watch or worrying about theatrical release. Tell the story.

(I get that means more budget – and usually there’s little, if any. That’s a whole ‘nother 4000 words. We’ll visit that someday.)

I left the film festival emboldened to hunker down and somehow, keep telling stories. This art is changing radically on both the production and consumption end. Film festivals aren’t keeping up. But the one true thing is the story.