Movie with a message

The Top Story by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

It’s not just slasher movies and “American Pie.” I think conservatives have a point that the movies that we see playing at the multiplex every weekend are pushing the envelope quite a bit. Even supposedly family-friendly movies feature language and situations that I don’t know that I feel comfortable exposing to kids, inured as they might be given what they can access on the cable or satellite at home.

Which is why I admire George Escobar for what he’s trying to do. Because every time I hear from a conservative friend about “the liberal media” or what they perceive as the heathenistic Hollywood, my response is something along the lines of, Pick up your mat, dust it off, and dedicate yourself to doing something about it.

“There are legions of Christians in the film industry and television industry, but we’re just not breaking into the ranks of the big-budget movies that Hollywood can entrust us with. And the only folks to blame there are us Christians. What is it that we’re doing that is not allowing us to get there?” said Escobar, the principal in the startup Advent Film Group based in Purcellville that produced a stirring first feature film, “Come What May,” which follows the story of a young Patrick Henry College student debater and his lawyer mother as each prepares for their own cases involving parental-notification laws.

The cast and crew for “Come What May” come primarily from the ranks of Virginia’s burgeoning homeschool community, Escobar’s “secret sauce,” as he calls it, of talent and gumption to plant the conservative Christian filmmakers of the future. That’s the nuance that I see with Escobar’s story. He’s not just into making movies, but also into training the George Escobars of tomorrow.

“We want to turn the traditional business model on its head,” Escobar told me. “We’re training tomorrow’s young filmmakers, which means we’re essentially creating our own competition, with the idea that together we can build a marketplace. And then we have a viable locational opportunity for all the Christians who will be coming up that we’re training, and the audience will begin to look forward to the kinds of movies that we make.”

Escobar hopes to “turn the words Christian filmmaking into something very positive. Right now people might say, Do you really want to see that movie? It’s made by a Christian director? We want them to say, Hey, we’ve got to go see this movie. It’s made by a Christian director,” Escobar said.

Among Escobar’s cheerleaders is Dean Welty of the Harrisonburg-based Valley Family Forum, which hosted a screening for “Come What May” at Court Square Theater in Downtown Harrisonburg last month that drew two near-capacity crowds.

“What they’re doing offers an outstanding model for how Christians should engage the culture,” Welty said. “It is a battle, I think, just for standards in our culture. The reason I say it is a battle is it’s easy to slip into the slide of despair and despond. It just seems like the evil is overtaking us, and woe is me, what can I do, I’m going to just withdraw from the battlefield. And I think that particularly applies to Hollywood, and to the filth that it spews into our theaters and into our living rooms.

“I see Advent Film Group as one step in a much broader effort across our culture – many other groups are doing the same thing – trying to reform our manners, lift the standard of our moral behavior, lift the standard of our culture, for the future generations,” Welty said.

Another Harrisonburg man, Mac Nichols, a local attorney, put his money behind “Come What May” for the same reason. “What George is trying to do is part of a movement that’s starting that hopefully will provide Christians with mediums other than Hollywood productions, and particularly what’s unique about George’s concept is not only doing that, producing good-quality Christian films with a good message, but also with the idea of training young Christian filmmakers,” said Nichols, who appeared as an extra in the film along with his two daughters.

“Knowing George as I do, I decided that even if lost everything, which you have to go into something like this mentally with that understanding, but even if I did, I saw it as a good cause, and something good to do with my resources,” Nichols told me.

I also talked on this topic with Dr. Ted Baehr, the chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and the founder and chairman of Movieguide, which offers reviews of films from a Christian family-friendly perspective. Baehr doesn’t see the same moral and character issues in what’s coming out of Hollywood that particularly Escobar and Welty are seeing. “In the industry itself, there are lots of people with strong faith and values making big-budget films that do very well at the box office. And there’s an increasing number of movies that have overt Christian content – whether it’s Spiderman going to sit under the cross at a church to be delivered of his sin nature while prayers are being made to a crucifix with an image of Jesus on it or whether it’s Indiana Jones going to church and hearing the words of Jesus quoted,” said Baehr, whose Movieguide list of the 25 top-grossing films of 2007 included 22 that Baehr said featured “strong, redemptive Christian content.”

Which isn’t to say that Baehr thinks those in the Christian film industry are at all off-base. “The major studios make 40 percent of the movies, but they make 99 percent of the money made at the box office. Sixty percent of the movies are made by independents, and many of them are done by young people getting out of film school who can’t afford special effects and can’t afford big budgets for their movies, so they rely on sex,” Baehr said. “So the good news is that they average less than $1 million at the box office and less than 1 percent of the total box office. The bad news is that they are spewing those out, and even when they get major stars to do them, although they don’t do well, they do diminish the quality of life, and they do stir the negative press that likes to create a stir about these kinds of movies.”

So maybe things are already moving in the direction that Escobar wants them to. Even if that is so, I think the case can definitely be made that what Escobar is trying to do is distinctive in that it is being done from a ground-up approach. “What we try to teach is don’t just make a movie because you think you have a great story. Park that great story until you have some other credibility,” Escobar said. “Because what you’re doing when you make a feature film is you’re raising your hand and saying, I’m going to be one of the 4,000 other filmmakers this year making a feature film. It’s a losing proposition. What you really have to do is differentiate yourself – and the best way to do that is to come out with a film that people like and align yourself with a market base. And that’s what we did with this film in aligning ourselves with the homeschool market.”

Escobar concedes that what he’s trying to do “is not going to happen overnight. It could take a decade,” he told me. But the long-term goal for Escobar and Advent is to create an effective family of filmmaking companies that together produce 10 to 15 films a year, “and over time, those films get better and better and better,” Escobar said. “That’s how you win, by establishing a marketplace, and establishing from the ground up your own distribution system, creating a brand, growing your audience base, and giving the resources and know-how to other companies who can use them in the church-planting model rather than becoming a behemoth-type company.”


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