Regular reader of this blog M. Hashtag, who has intimate knowledge of the motion picture industry in California, has sent along a handy guide for how to put together your very own Christian film. What follows is a guest post by M. Hashtag, which I hope will be helpful to all of you Christian screenwriter / producer / director / actor wannabes.
Necessary Elements for a Christian Film: A Practical Guide
- God answering people’s prayers: The primary role of God is to intervene directly in the movie in order to give the main characters whatever they’ve wanted since the beginning of the film. Ideally, this happens toward the end, in a scene that lets the entire community rally around the main character in joy and triumph. Especially effective in slow-motion.
- Sacrifice: This is an automatic win for Christian audiences because it reminds them of Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether the sacrifice is necessary within the world of your movie, or even if the reasons for it are clear.
- Tears: Make sure that every main character cries at least once. If you do that, you don’t need to worry about whether the audience has an emotional connection to the characters, since crying automatically lets the audience know that whatever is happening is meaningful and they should care about it. It is also the only way for the audience to know that the characters are sad.
- Family: All members of a family unit should be in harmony and agreement at all times. If disagreements occur, make it clear that it is because someone is being influenced by evil and be sure they come around before the end of the movie. Once you let the audience know that characters are related to each other, it is not necessary to establish whether or not they have a close relationship or think of creative ways to show that they mean a lot to each other. The word “family” automatically implies it.
- 2-dimensional Good Guys: The Good Guys should not have much depth, contradiction, or growth during the film, and their flaws should be minor and all resolved by the end. Remember that the main purpose of the Good Guys is to teach people an important lesson about faith, and if a character is very flawed he or she will not be able to do that. The best position to put a Good Guy in is as an underdog or victim of injustice.
- 2-dimensional Bad Guys: The main purpose of the Bad Guys is to try to lead the Good Guys astray, provide a platform for the Good Guys to be able to teach the other characters and the audience a lesson about faith, or to be astonished at the end whenever God finally answers people’s prayers. They should have no depth, no redeeming qualities, and speak in convenient sound bites.
- Kindly pastor, priest, or nun: It is necessary to have a member of the clergy say something wise and truthful to the Good Guys, because that is the only way the audience will be able to recognize the Christian teaching in the movie. They should have no flaws, or the flaws should be minor and taken care of by the time the movie ends. They should also speak in convenient sound bites so that the audience will know what your film is about just from watching the trailer.
- Faith: The meaning of faith in Christian film is the belief that everything will work out the way the characters want it to. If a character has a crisis of faith, make sure they are chastised (preferably by a kindly pastor, priest, or nun) and repent before the end of the movie.
- A snazzy marketing plan: It is best to use celebrities and conservative political figures to endorse your movie, since that is the only way Christian audiences can tell whether or not something is worth seeing. If you don’t know any celebrities, members of your church can make people feel guilty if they don’t support you. This is especially effective if you can choose a release date that lets you frame your movie in a David-and-Goliath narrative against movies that will make a lot more money than yours. Under no circumstances should you seek promotional quotes from professional film critics. They are never to be trusted.
Things NOT to include:
- Sin: If you show characters sinning or even talking about sin, someone in the audience will think sinning is a good idea and you will be responsible for their soul going to Hell. The exception to this is the 2-dimensional bad guys, who are allowed to talk about sinning if they repent at the end.
- Humor: The occasional quip or visual gag is acceptable, but do not include anything in your movie that might elicit more than a chuckle. If people laugh during your movie, they might not take the Christian teaching in it seriously.
- Intense Conflict or Bad Things Happening: Conflict should be between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, or occasionally between Good Guys and other Good Guys under the influence of the Bad Guys. However, things should never get so bad that the audience thinks God might not be able to sort it out. If you think your audience might be getting confused about why bad things are happening to a Good person, make sure that God quickly answers that person's prayers in the next scene.
- Symbols or Metaphors: Everything should be as literal and easily understandable for your audience as possible. If an action or object has any sort of symbolic meaning, have a character spell it out for the audience. It is dangerous to let people draw their own conclusions about meaning.
Got all that? Now get cracking!
This reminds me of my own guide for How to Write a Really Bad Play. Many writers have taken my advice over the years, and I hope many producers continue to take M. Hashtag's advice. Judging from the sort of self-styled "Christian" movies that are being released, it appears that many producers are.
Good for them! And remember, even if a Christian movie is bad, it's a sin not to go see it.