It would seem to many that the feature length film should be one of the most obvious mass-media tools for gospel outreach, yet the Christian film remains a comparably rare artifact in the professional film landscape. While there are many reasons for this shortage, this conversation will address issues related to reach and distribution—making the mission-oriented film a market-profitable film. Film festivals are one avenue that brings audiences and distributors into contact with filmmakers looking to sell their movies. The festival curators and directors therefore have significant influence over what films will be considered for mass distribution. We are looking to discover new insights and actionable items about the reach and distribution of Christian film informed by our experience creating and running the Speechless Film Festival in Mankato, Minnesota.
While this festival was created by the Bethany Lutheran College Media Arts faculty and staff in 2013, it is considered a community event and is intended for a general public audience. For more detail, view the Speechless Film Festival Facebook page, and the 2018 trailer which flashes clips from some of the Festival movies.
We will begin by providing more information on the current model for Speechless, which will be approaching it's 7th annual festival this spring.
- Location: Speechless began in the formerly unused Mav4 theatre located in downtown Mankato. The Mav4 Theatre was converted to a CineGrand location, which led us to use various other makeshift theatres before landing on our current screening location at Mankato's Verizon Center.
- Mission: The mission of the Speechless Film Festival is to celebrate the universal art of visual storytelling. The festival is named for our signature category—Speechless Shorts—though we also receive and show a broader range of films that are not dialogue-free.
- Contest: We receive films from all over the world in 6 categories. Cash prizes (ranging from $500 - $1,000) are awarded to the Best of Show in each category, which is determined by a team of judges from our campus and community. Our judging process is robust, and our judging team reflects our values and sensibilities, generally. We typically receive over 300 submissions (predominantly short films) and our acceptance rate is about 30%.
- Funding: SFF is funded entirely by local grants and sponsorship.
- Audience: The festival is promoted as a local community event. Attendance is typically 300-400 people each year, with some travelling long distances.
Filmmakers' discussion at the Speechless Film Festival
- Education: We are confident in what Speechless does on our campus in terms of the education of future filmmakers, artists, and people in general. We typically host a dozen or so independent filmmakers during the event, many of whom are presented as speakers and panelists.
- Reach: Speechless Film Festival is a tier 3 film festival, which means that we draw a relatively small audience and are insignificant in terms of distribution.
Although Speechless is administered by Bethany Lutheran College, you surely noted the mission of this festival is not centered on Christian film. There are currently no special categories or considerations given to mission-related work (of which we receive very little). Some of the difficulties in exhibiting Christian films are as follows:
- Even small film festivals are incredibly expensive. We would struggle to replace grant and community funding if the festival revised its mission.
- The production quality of the Christian films we have received is generally quite low. Our judges provide comments on the films screened, and we have received comments from Bethany judges stating they would like to accept and screen a film due to its Christian content, but have voted to pass on the film due to the undeniably poor production quality and sophistication of writing in comparison to other entries.
- Questions would likely rise within our constituent body on the range of theology present in the Christian films screened. Currently, we print a statement that the films do not necessarily reflect the views of Bethany Lutheran College and supporting sponsors.
- There is some question as to whether our local community would attend a Christian event.
- When we launched the festival, we were repeatedly asked about censorship. To add a Christian category now would create an immediate controversy over censorship within the public space we are trying to occupy.
In spite of the many obstacles in sustaining an arts event, a simple google search will reveal thousands of film festivals in operation all over the world. Many of these festivals serve a niche audience and many utilize online platforms to expand their reach. We are not experts on the Christian Film Festivals that currently exist ( this database may be helpful in locating and researching such events), but we recognize the value of a mission-centric festival and are open to how we might approach this in the future. It would help us to hear from you, these questions may provide a place to start:
- Would you attend a Christian Film Festival? If so, how far would you travel and how much would you pay to do so?
- Would you "attend" a Christian Film Festival that was online-only? Again, how much would you pay to do so?
- What type of Christian media are you most interested in watching? You might consider various genres (dramas vs. documentary) or films that depict a Bible story (such as The Prince of Egypt) vs. other Christian dramas (such as Fireproof).
- What would be needed to attract an un-churched demographic to a Christian Film Festival? In the end, outreach is still a primary goal.
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I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that we, (western Christian culture) do not properly know how to portray Christianity when not working in the realm of documentary, allegory, or historical drama. But I don't believe we should be limited by genre. My question is do you think it's possible to have Christian Characters in blockbuster films (like Jurassic World, Transformers, etc.)? Would that constitute a Christian Film? And, how are (should) these characters written/portrayed as to not diminish the religious nature of the characters or poke fun at religion in general?
I don't watch (or like) enough blockbuster film to comment on your second question. But if you think this is relevant, I was impressed at the originality of the Christian characters and religious matters presented in The Leftovers (HBO television series) and on occasion Vikings (early seasons of the History Channel series). Neither of these series works as a champion of our belief system (you could argue they do the opposite) but the longer format allows for great subtlety, drama, and sophistication with relation to these spiritual matters. It's hard to reach this level of depth in a short, and harder in a feature (but certainly possible). I think the greater issues and obstacles are theological. We are likely to disagree on the quality and manner of Christian storytelling to the degree that we disagree with other Christians on theology, no?
A Christian film is a hard thing to define for the reasons you described, but I believe most people would think about it as a movie that has overt discussion of faith within the storyline. The Christian attributes would be clearly identifiable within the whole.
When I think about a blockbuster film, I immediately associate the product with commercial/financial return. The biggest movies in our culture right now build upon existing franchises to reinforce already-familiar storylines and characters. If there were to be a Christian character introduced to one of these known worlds, the potential controversy would far out-shadow any reward for a studio. Christianity, but really religion in general, is so closely connected to politics in our society, that it would be difficult to ease Christian themes into an otherwise secular story. I think if it were ever to happen, then yes, I would say it is a film for Christians.
I really like how you used this discussion to get the word out about your event going on and how you gave some background history and told us how you are struggling to have it be a christian festival because as you said “The production quality of the Christian films we have received is generally quite low.”
I believe that if you would have more advertisement leading up to it and sent flyers home with students and got the word out I am sure you could definitely raise the attendance. Something you could try with a Christian film festival is have a seperate one low budget and pick a theme for that year that the participants have to work with. This way you wouldn’t have to worry about all the different themes you might get and you could focus on who made the theme come out more or who totally flipped what idea you might of had on the topic.
It said that you guys use Verizon center for your event. Why not use your campus and have the event outside on nice night or in the gym or auditorium to save money on the event. I understand that some the content may not be fully christian but I am sure you will view it before you show it on campus.
Yes I would definitely attend a Christian Film Festival. Well I go to MLC but if I didn’t I could see myself making a weekend out of it if I lived farther. Probably the UP. would be the farthest I would travel by car.
Something that attacks a darker theme. Like the struggles of depression, or battles against your inner demons. So probably more of a Christian drama.
Have flyers talking about the certain topics that would be displayed like if there is a film on the struggles of having depression advertise it because even if they are not Christians they still might be struggling and for them to hear and see how the film approached it could help them as well.
I thank you for allowing me to see all this info and I pray that what I wrote is helpful.
I really like how you have created this short-film festival in hopes of using it to spread the gospel in some way. However, as you stated, "there is some question as to whether our local community will attend a Christian event". I believe you would have to have a separate event that maybe was not so public and maybe on campus. It would undoubtedly garner less attention, but I believe would still have a fairly good showing. I would think many people from areas around would come to see it.
One thing you pointed out was that you had a lack of Christian short films, not because they were not sent, but because they were not as good as certain others. As the judges pointed out, the film had, "undeniably poor production quality and sophistication of writing in comparison to other entries". Why do you think that is? Is it because there just are not that many film makers out there who are Christian, or is it because Christian film-making is harder to do? How could that be improved?
Thank you for your contribution to the conference!
- At Bethany, we often say the world needs more Christian artists, designers, and filmmakers. The arts are undoubtedly instruments of culture!
- With Speechless we're dealing with independent film. Indie film is hard to finance and hard to sell. The skilled, professional, Christian filmmaker may find that it's a better use of his or her resources to invest in other projects with a potentially wider reach (dramas without an apparent niche).
- I was recently part of a conversation with a Christian student to whom a Christian film project was suggested. The student expressed concerns about doing it wrong (with regard to theology) and ultimately chose another direction. Any film project presents a good share of challenges...I am sympathetic to the artist who is unsure about how to present such delicate matters in addition to getting everything else to "work."
- Finally, we don't show most of the films that are submitted to us. At our most generous, we accept about 1 out of 3. I don't keep track of this anywhere, but I would highly doubt that we ever received 3 "Christian" film submissions in one year. It's possible they're not worse generally, but rather that we're not seeing enough of them.
Secondly, this is not necessarily the topic of your article, but why do you think Christian films tend to lack production quality and sophisticated writing?
Some assorted thoughts on your other question are posted in response to the other comment : )
I think it is smart how you addressed the issue of making a Christian category to the Silent Film Festival. Some people may not have realized that making a Christian category would end up hurting the overall Festival. Also, as you said, many of these Christian films had “undeniably poor production quality and sophistication of writing in comparison to other entries”. So just because they are Christian does not mean they are effective.
In my opinion regarding the Bible stories vs. Christian dramas, I think that the Christian dramas would be more interesting to me and others. Using these dramas applies more to real-life situations that many Christians face. This relatability would make it very appealing and educational to those who watch it. Also, to Christians, making movies on Bible stories may seem repetitive to them since they already know these stories.
Regarding the audience, you said that it was a “local community event”. Do you think that the audience for a Christian film festival should be singled out for only Christians or should this still be considered a local event?
Thank you for your comments on how you run the SFF and how you are willing to help contribute to Christian film festivals.
I really enjoyed your article. I like how you addressed how insignificant film is in the use of ministry. I agree that it should have a bigger role in how we as Christians try to get the message across, rather than being “a comparably rare artifact in the professional film landscape.” Christianity should be emphasized more with such a high film rate, yet it isn’t.
When it comes to the amount of people attending, I think that more people could be interested if there was more outreach and publicity. People could make social media pages, flyers, and posters to advertise more so that the amount of people attending might rise. I also think it would be a good idea to maybe make the Christian aspect of the festival more prominent and emphasize it.
In regards to the quality of Christian films, you said that “the production quality of the Christian films we have received is quite low.” I was wondering if the quality is low because of the film quality or because it is contrary to what the Bible says. Also, are the films sent in in agreement with the Bible or is there some added/ lost factors?
Thank you for your article!
When it comes to types of Christian media that interests me, it really depends. The Prince of Egypt is a strong movie that so many different religions can back up and support, whereas Passion of the Christ is much more dramatic and hard hitting. I think the best way to attract un-churched groups, is by making it the best movie you can. Those groups shouldn't be preached to right off the bat. They need to be brought into the mix and taken along for the ride that the story has to offer. They want to be immersed in engaging visuals and vivid sound. Sometimes even a subtle gospel message amongst all the movie magic is all it takes to reach new audiences.
I also whole-heartedly agree with you that the story must come first for an outreach film. There is simply so much noise in the system right now, a powerful story is needed to cut through it all. Perhaps the focus should be on making a highly effective hook somewhere in the story. Perhaps weave something into a character's back story so that the gospel has a reason to be in the film, but is not overbearing.
1.) I would attend a Christian Film Festival. I would probably travel from 10 minutes to an hour or two away in order to attend.
2.) I would like to "attend" a Christian Film Festival that was online-only. It would be a lot easier to access.
3.) I am most interested in watching films that depict a Bible story (like The Prince Of Egypt and Joseph: King Of Dreams) and Christian dramas (such as Flywheel, Facing The Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous).
4.) I feel like in order to reach an un-churched demographic with a Christian Film Festival, you have to show films with an overall God-centered message, though not to the point where they feel as though you are pushing Christian values down their throats. Be welcoming, but don't be forceful.
Overall, I loved learning about the information on The Speechless Film Festival! The part that I found very interesting was about how this festival has found it hard to incorporate a Christian films category into its contests. The points that were brought up really opened my eyes to the challenges of Christian media in our society today. Thank you again for the article!
Yes, one might think it should be easy to simply add a Christian Fim category to the existing setup, but it is a difficult thing to ride the balance between between pure entertainment and a story that is message heavy.
If I was to attend an online film festival I wouldn't want to pay anything. In today's society there are literally websites where you can watch any movies that came out new or old, for free.
My preferred genre of Christian films are drama and bible stories.
I believe if you could get an increase with the younger fan base you could reach your goal. Maybe have a young adult/ teen post about it on their social media accounts.
At the beginning you mention the shortage of Christian films. What do you think are some of the reasons for the shortage?
Also, a faculty member at Wisconsin Lutheran College runs a film studio called Salty Earth Productions. I recommend checking it out.
One of the reasons why I believe there is a shortage of Christian films, especially films coming into our festival, is because they are pre segregated into a different category of media; into something like "special interests". This designation is often enacted by the filmmakers themselves as they try to identify a an audience for a film. Matching an audience to your media is necessary if you want to sell your film. There just aren't many investors who are eager to spend money to distribute a film to those outside its most obvious audience, in this case, Christians. There IS Christian media being produced by various other denomonations, but it is still largely destined for internal rather than external audiences.