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Investing in the Industry of Influence

Whether economic, political, or religious in nature, our world is structured by ideas. And these ideas move so quickly through our media today that they are often accepted before they have been examined for truth. Modern media has the emotional power to make ideas feel true even when they are not. A single moment caught on film can render an entire story somehow “truthful” to an undiscerning audience.

In the entertainment industry, the battle of ideas is fought very differently than in politics or philosophy. Ideas in politics and philosophy depend largely on rhetoric or reason; ideas in film depend almost exclusively on stories. Ideas are woven into themes, into the choices of characters, and into the point of view from which the story is told. The job of writers and directors is to create characters with whom the audience identifies and for whom the audience has sympathy. Filmmakers want us to be on a character's side because once we are and our disbelief is suspended, once we are engaged in the story, we become open to the ideas that the filmmaker shares.

This is perhaps best summed up in a scene from Steven Spielberg's Amistad . In this scene, John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins) gives a younger lawyer (played by Morgan Freeman) a piece of sage advice for an upcoming case before the Supreme Court: “In a court of law,” he says, “whoever tells the best story wins.” The fact is a very simple one: we live in a story-driven world.

It should be no surprise, then, that after an exhaustive study, Barna Research has concluded that the single most influential profession in society today is the film business. So if people of faith want to influence culture, why don't they invest their time, talent, and capital into this most influential business? There was a day when men and women of faith were the pre-eminent storytellers in our culture. As near as fifty years ago, two Christian Oxford dons had an impact every bit as big as Harry Potter does today. And the stories of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis remain highly influential, in no small part because of the filmic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and the upcoming filmic adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia .

But even considering these films, there is a conspicuous absence of faith-influenced films in theaters. Often, this phenomenon is written off as a by-product of Hollywood's attitude toward the faithful. But Hollywood isn't keeping the faithful out of the media; in their ignorance, the faithful are keeping themselves out of the media. For example, although the numbers are growing, there simply are not very many Christians working in the film industry, and sadly, this is mostly because Christians often lack the talent and know-how necessary to compete in the film market. But they often lack the resources as well: with the church almost completely uninvolved in supporting the concept of filmmaking (and sometimes actually discouraging filmmaking), Christians haven't received the training they need to compete in the film market.

Christians who do get involved in filmmaking often face an enormous hurdle in raising the money it takes to make films. Somehow Christians can cough up tens of millions of dollars for enormous church buildings yet money for films of faith is as scarce as water in the desert. Consider this: Mel Gibson's The Passion was made for less money than it costs to build many of our large churches. The Passion brought the story of Christ to tens of millions of people around the world; a large church brings the story to perhaps 5,000 people. If the goal is “to influence the world,” which of these two cases is a better example of stewardship? Which has the better return on investment?

To be fair, not every aspiring filmmaker is Mel Gibson, and many wealthy Christians have tried to invest in Christian movies only to see that investment go up in smoke. But many of these failures have been due to a lack of prudence, where the investors oddly make deals with far less business sense than they employed in the ventures that created their wealth to begin with. In other words, many investors enter the business without understanding a few basic principles about how the film industry works.

First of all, it is important to remember that the single most important aspect of the film business is story development. No amount of money or marketing savvy can overcome a poor story. Investors need to make sure that the industry professionals they invest in have experience in the creative and storytelling side of filmmaking. If their experience is in a technical or business area, these producers may not have the grasp of storytelling crucial to the success of the film. I've seen some seemingly impressive industry experts make some pretty poor films because, although they “know the industry,” they don't understand the art of storytelling.

But care is needed here: businesspeople looking to influence the world through film often mistake propaganda for storytelling. I've seen many investors make the mistake of investing in agendas instead of stories. There is only one reason to make a film and that is to tell a story, not to push a moral, political, or religious agenda. Yes, stories are a powerful vehicle for promoting faith and virtue; but they must not exist primarily as this. They must first succeed as a piece of storytelling art, not as an advertisement. Today's audience is too experienced in the visual language; they know when someone is trying to sell them something. While it's good to have a story or script that serves a higher purpose, don't be fooled. The most noble of motivations can't overcome a poorly conceived film.

Secondly, investors and filmmakers must remember that creating a film is more like starting a business than like creating a product. Every film is its own individual, entrepreneurial endeavor and therefore has the kind of risk that any other business start-up has. But this risk can be minimized if the film has distribution or has strong potential for distribution. If the film does have distribution, it is a good idea to ask if the distributor is also putting money into the marketing of the film. If the distributor is not investing in the film, there is less to lose and thus less motivation to see the film succeed.

Also, an investor should know how much money the producers intend to use to market the film. In film terms this is called the prints and advertising budget. (This should take up about one-third of the film's total budget.) Oftentimes, the producers' creative process gets out of hand and ideas drive budgets beyond what can be returned. As a result, the advertising is compromised and the film flops.

Frequently, businesspeople will invest in a film. But how many successful investors invest in only a single product? Investors need to invest in more than a single film. Why should the law of diversification apply less in this investment than in any other? Again, this is evidence that businesspeople who invest in Hollywood often check their business sense at the door. Good intentions do not make up for poor business practices, no matter what the industry.

One of the ways for investors to spread out their investment, have an impact in the film industry, and thus influence society is to invest in training the coming generation of filmmakers. Young filmmakers and film students can be influential, but they need several things to launch themselves: real world experience on a film set, access to relationships within the film business, and excellent training by industry professionals. By investing in schools and programs that provide these tools, especially those few faith-based film schools, investors can begin to lay a solid foundation for the growth and social impact of their investments.

The media, and particularly films, play a large part in forming what our world will look like. If we want faith and virtue to have seats in the public square, then it is time to start investing in the media. It will take time and it will not be easy. Like all worthwhile ventures, it will involve risk and there is a sharp learning curve. But the only risk greater than investing in the media is the risk of not investing in the media.