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The Moral of the Story: An Interview with Ralph Winter

How do you maintain your faith in a high-demand job environment of money, power, and stress?

I've got a support system in place that helps make that all work. Primarily, a wife who understands as well as challenges me. I've been married for thirty-one years. Our lives are centered around our faith in terms of what we're about, where we're going, and why we do things. That remains at the center. And this is a fun job. I like it. I think I'm making a contribution by what I do. But it's a little more difficult when I'm out of town because I don't have the normal support system around: our small group bible study or the two guys that I'd be with on a regular basis when I'm in [Los Angeles]. So I talk to them on the Internet [and on the] phone remotely up here in Vancouver. But generally I think it's about having a support system, and trying to be somewhat regular in worship on Sundays when I'm on location, which is a little difficult. But you've got to keep reminding and remembering and reorienting to true North. You know, “Where am I headed?”

Is Hollywood hostile to people of faith?

I think you need to distinguish some things. I think Hollywood is made up of a lot of people who are good people and family oriented, [who] want to do good things that aren't anti-faith. I think there are certainly people who want to wear their faith on their sleeve. What did Pat Robertson say about trying to assassinate somebody? Well, when some guys like that say things like that, we all get lumped into one category. But I think that happens in manufacturing, in business, in retail, and in banking. It's easy to get lumped in with the whackos that are out there. And I think I haven't really encountered a hostile environment because I'm a Christian. It's known at the studio what I stand for and who I am. But being a Christian certainly isn't something to lead with. [Successful filmmakers must] be the hip, avant-garde thing that's going to get movies made and be at the cutting edge of culture. [Christianity] is not what Hollywood sees as all that. Although, lately with the success of The Passion , people are very interested in a faith market because there's money in it. There's an untapped market, an underserved market, as they say.

Much has been written about this, about the profitability and growing market share of values-driven films. How is Hollywood responding to these market pressures?

Oh, I think they're responding. I think the congressional stuff about studios marketing R-rated movies to kids under thirteen has definitely produced more PG-13 movies and PG movies. And I think the success of movies like National Treasure made studios realize there is a big market out there for kids. Jerry Bruckheimer made that movie and it was PG—but still provided action, adventure, and fun, and was very successful. You've got to pay attention to that. Fantastic Four , which we just finished, I think plays a lot younger. The movie was embraced by the comic book geek world as well as young families and kids. Yes, I think the studios are well aware that market—that six, eight, nine hundred million dollar business that went to The Passion —didn't go to them. And they'd love to tap into that. They'd love to find a sequel to The Passion .

Oftentimes in religious circles, the entertainment industry is characterized as a sort of “cultural polluter.” How accurate is this characterization?

I think it's interesting. I think the guys at the studios—the major studios—do think about the stuff they're making and the impact it has on culture. But it necessarily falls to a small group of people who can sit at thirty thousand feet and look at the landscape and say, “Do we really want to tell stories that have that message?” Now as you get wider out from the studios, you get into a lot of different producers and production companies that are vying for attention, trying to rise above the noise level of the marketplace. And some of that is done by just being provocative, and attracting eyeballs to television sets or butts to seats in the movie business in order to sell your particular product. A lot of what drives that business, I think, is trying to get up front and get some attention. Some of that comes out as poor material. Now, the studios are not immune from that. I think they put out stuff, as well, to make a buck. But I do believe that there's some social responsibility in those people at the head of the studios. I've dealt with a lot of those guys, and they're not out to destroy culture. If you were to ask them this question, they'd be offended. And I think they'd put example after example of the kinds of movies and entertainment that they've made, sponsored, and developed that are good, positive, helpful things. But they're in a business that makes a lot of different kinds of movies from tadpole movies to comedies. And a lot of people like seeing a comedy that might not be down the middle for Christians to go see, something like Wedding Crashers . But if you like entertainment, it's a funny movie and it's not meant for kids. But it's got an entertainment value that the culture wants and responds to. I should also say that these movies would not be successful if Christians did not go see them. R-rated movies would be flops if Christians didn't go see them. So, there's a double standard out there of Christians who say, “Pornography's wrong and R-rated movies and all that,” and yet, you know, pastor after pastor gets convicted with pornography on their lap-tops or caught with their pants down. It's a bit of a double standard.


So are you saying that if people weren't consuming this stuff, it wouldn't be getting made?

I don't know if that completely answers the question, but I think that's a strong factor in all this. Some of the movies out there seem to be sort of senseless—it's surprising how many people go to see them. Now, even as a Christian, I probably draw the circle wider. Actually a friend of mine, Scott Derrickson, a Christian director, has a movie coming out called The Exorcism of Emily Rose [released September 9.—ed]. He's a strong proponent that one of the best ways to discern the story of good and evil is through horror movies. And he says that's the clearest picture of what the Gospel is about because of good guys and bad guys. He's quite an eloquent defender of that idea and has written about it in Christianity Today . Not that everybody that consumes horror movies has thought through stuff to that level, but Scott has, and he is a pretty interesting, creative talent out there trying to make horror movies that have some substance to them.

Do movies have a role to play in promoting human dignity and virtue?

Absolutely. I'm trying to develop with the studio a movie on C. S. Lewis's book, The Screwtape Letters . And I think it definitely is an R-rated kind of movie when you get into the nitty-gritty of what Lewis is writing about [but it also offers] something very positive about morality, about culture, and about what we should aspire to in the human journey. I also get excited about movies like Gladiator , in terms of values, what he fights for, and what a hero is. I think movies are best when they tell us stories that ask good questions and inspire us to go further. It's like a good sermon on Sunday morning: it inspires you to go back and look at the text and say, “I want to go further; I want to know more.” Movies that ask great questions are like that for us and are making a contribution to our culture.

Do you think that people choose entertainment less discerningly than other products? Do you think there's more of a tendency for consumerism with entertainment?

Absolutely. There are so many choices out there for people, I think that's probably right. The movie industry and certainly the music business are worried about how many options there are for consuming entertainment. They're worried about the new guys coming into town and taking some of their market share. [The movie studios] worry about the Internet, cell phones, and games taking people away from spending their money in the movie theater. They worry when people buy video games, PS2, and X-Box games they can play for hours and find the same kind of entertainment as DVDs. I think there are more choices, and I'm not sure that we're getting smarter about it. We're probably inundated with more and more choices and spending more and more time with our entertainment. It's like that Neil Postman book, Amusing Ourselves to Death . We're spending a lot of time doing that.

If we're doing this and we're spending less time thinking about what we're doing, what is the role of the government in censoring the materials we consume, particularly with regard to film? Does it have a role? Should it have a role?

Interesting. I don't know that I've really thought very much about this. I guess there certainly are limits to pornography and things like that that the government should be enforcing. But beyond that, I'm not sure what the role is for government to legislate what filmmakers, artists, directors, or writers want to say or do if there's a market out there that wants to see what they're producing.

Average Rate of Return on Investment by Film Rating

What would you say to religious leaders regarding your industry and how it fits into promoting virtue?

I think we've got to pay attention to the stories and not the surface material. And I think that you're probably talking about people who are thinking clearly and honestly studying some of this. [These religious leaders] are probably well versed in entertainment and stories and seem to value them. There are a lot of folks who dismiss a movie like American Beauty because what's seemingly at the surface seems bad, and thereby, I think, miss powerful stories underneath because it's rated R. Or Shawshank Redemption , which had a greater life in DVD than it ever did in the theater. I think some of that is changing though. I think across the country there are some changes afoot, [with] Christians, in particular, who are not open to seeing R-rated movies, but are willing to embrace stories that are of value and see past some of the language, for instance. And at least the studios are labeling these movies so that you're not tricked into thinking that you're seeing a PG movie when it's truly an R movie. The labels are there, and they're there for a reason. But there are some valuable stories out there that we should be embracing and could be using as tools to teach the next generation about how we live, how we get along, and how we treat each other. There are plenty of those stories out there that we can discover and support. And I think if we can support more of those stories, more of those will get made.