I’ll use a term that is used regularly among missions folk and one I also hear guys like Seth Godin using – tribes. These are identifiable groups of people with certain affinities. They like the same music, food, hobbies, politics, religion, etc. Something or many things join them together. For the new world of marketing, guys like Godin tell us that we must think in terms of tribes. There is almost no such thing as mainstream anymore; everything is niche. Some niches are larger than others, but there will never again be a cultural effect where the whole country stops to watch an episode of a TV sitcom. A few lowest-common-denominator shows like American Idol can come close, but they don’t compare with I Love Lucy or the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in gathering audience share. A big hit now means something entirely different than it did in the 1960’s.
There are more and more films being created by Christ-followers that are not what anyone would call ‘mainstream.’ That is, they don’t fit into the mold of family-friendly, didactic, films that get a lot of attention among evangelicals in America right now. The call has been, “Let’s stick it to Hollywood” by creating G-rated, wholesome entertainment that can mobilize audiences who want to “…stick it to Hollywood.” And there has been some success with movies like Facing the Giants and Fireproof as the models. However, I wonder what influence these films have had outside of the core audience of a certain kind of evangelical Christian. I will argue that ‘evangelical Christian’ is a term that can hardly have meaning any more in America. I think there are many tribes of people who share some common beliefs that make them Christian, but there are many other passions that make them very different when it comes to creative things like music, art, and film.
For instance, I have Christian friends who genuinely like the films I mentioned. But I have many Christian friends who are softer in their support. They tend to support them because they don’t want to say anything bad about the message or the good people who produce the films. Then, I also have Christian friends who are not shy to say, “I think those films just suck – from an aesthetic point-of-view.” They would never go to see them. They eagerly await quality films from whatever source, non-Christian or Christian. And their standards don’t make exceptions for the good intentions of the filmmakers.
I, too, want to be careful not to be in a negative mode. I want to be about casting vision, not casting stones. I hope to be following obediently what I am called to do, just like every other filmmaker who is looking for direction from God. Films that speak more directly to Christians, to teach and encourage them, have their place and I am involved in making them. I also know that there are some people who are not following Christ who are touched deeply by those films. I applaud what the folks at Sherwood are doing to encourage marriages, present good morals, etc.
But what if that’s not the audience that I feel called to have a conversation with? The main rub of all this is that the Christian film industry, just like music and books, is a business like any other. Success is measured by things like sales. Broad, easy-to-reach audiences are favored. I’m OK with that and understand that, coming from many years in marketing communications work.
Here’s the point (finally!)
In the broader world, there are systems, companies, and channels that exist for the smaller ‘tribes.’ Think PBS, Landmark Theaters, the many indie film distribution companies, cable channels, etc. These understand niche audiences for documentaries, public service programming, classical music, jazz, dance, and culture. They have found a way to nurture creative human expression and yet make the system work. Some are non-profit by design; some are for-profit but lean and mean to survive. But they do survive and they do speak to definable, targetable audiences. This is what I am looking for within the world of Christ-followers.
Where are the indie, underground, alternative, film labels for films that fall into the cracks, but do have an audience that can be reached? Where is the equivalent of PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts? When the mainstream Christian record labels ignored the harder-edged grunge, speed-metal, hardcore, techno-industrial bands that were populated by Christians, the bands and fans created their own labels, concert tours, and fan networks. They survived and got the music out. Or think of artists like Sufjan Stevens, David Wilcox, Anathallo, and others who write out of their faith. Most will never be the cash-cow that the Steven Curtis Chapmans, Mercy Mes, or Third Days are for the big record companies, but they inspire tribes of music lovers who are deeply Christian but deeply not into what they hear on the Christian radio stations. More importantly, they speak much more broadly to alternative music lovers who don’t yet follow Christ – there’s a tribe that can be identified.
Music seems an easier nut to crack for indie distribution. It’s usually cheaper to produce. Cheaper to distribute. Comes in small packages that can be easily passed around (even with torrent sites, it’s an effort to share feature-length movies). People will have thousands of songs on their iPods, from hundreds of different artists. But it seems less likely that they’d have thousands of movies or even short clips on those players. Bands also make their money by touring rather than by CD sales. You don’t often hear about indie filmmakers touring with their film in an old van. Could happen, but it’s not the norm.
What if there was a Miramax, Zietgeist, or similar ‘label’ for indie films with a Christian worldview? It could run a web site where people could come to chat about film, ideas, art, music, and learn about new stuff. It probably would not aim for taking films to wide theatrical release. It would focus on segments of audiences like bands do with their music. Not everyone likes reggae, techno, punk, or country; and not everyone is drawn to thrillers, romantic comedies, or foreign-films. But, if you could identify the tribe and let them know that you had something they might like, you could gather them. If it is low mass, tribe-driven, and innovative I just think it could survive.
If this exists, I would love to know. My sense is that that films that can deeply touch people who are currently not being touched need a champion, a home, to be nurtured, and to be delivered. We need to be with those tribes and I think our stories need to find a place among them.