That’s Ministry! by Tyler Smith

12 May

At this very moment, all over the internet, one can find classified ads seeking out actors and crew members for films shooting in and around Los Angeles. These ads often give general details, such as the length of the shoot and perhaps a few specifics about the type of film being shot. As you skim these ads, you’ll eventually arrive at the pay rate, which, more often than not, is “low/no”, meaning that those involved likely won’t be getting paid. The ads will often specify, however, that actors and crew members will be compensated in the form of “exposure”.

There is some value in this. It is important for those in the film industry to gain experience and get a few jobs under their belt. After all, a cinematographer can’t exactly show off their reel if they’ve never shot anything. Actors need to be able to showcase their past work for possible future employers. So, in the spirit of “paying your dues”, novices should expect to do a bit of work for free at the beginning so that they might be able to “expose” their talent in the future. So there is some level of benefit.

But, of course, the primary beneficiaries of so many people working for free are the producers. By the end of the shoot, they’ve spent very little money on actors and staff, but they reap all the reward if anything ever actually comes from the finished product. This may be a moot point, however, as these films usually wind up going nowhere, ultimately proving the old adage that “you get what you pay for”.

Given the craven nature of the movie business, it would be easy to dismiss these practices as just another example of Hollywood’s winking self interest and move on. But, when it comes right down to it, this could be viewed as exploitation. People attempting to break into a difficult industry are taken advantage of by those who seek only to benefit themselves. Once the production is finished and the unpaid internship is at an end, the lowly crew member or performer often finds himself no better off than when it started. No contacts, no connections; only another item on a resume already filled with obscure, unimpressive credits.

But, hey, for many Christians, this is just the nature of Hollywood. It’s the den of sin that spawned such exploitative predators as Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen! What could one ever expect from such an inherently Godless place? Surely we can expect better from the ever-growing Christian film industry, right?

And here’s where the whole business of “exposure” takes a darker turn.

Having recently returned from the 7th Annual International Christian Film Festival, I’ve found that the practice of non-payment is not only common in the Christian film industry; it is apparently morally justified. After speaking with a number of filmmakers and performers, the frustration felt by those artists struggling to make it in the world of Christian film was palpable. As the industry is still emerging, the practice of “low/no” is still employed, but it takes on a particularly insidious tone, as those in positions of (albeit limited) power are quick to invoke the name of Jesus when the contracts are being signed.

Suddenly, the Christian film industry isn’t an industry at all. It is, instead, a “ministry”. And anybody in ministry knows better than to expect any kind of notable payment. This is a calling, after all. It would be crass to expect some kind of remuneration for one’s work.

Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t seem to extend to those making the decisions. As new production companies emerge and new streaming services begin to grow, the need for content has become more urgent. At events like the International Christian Film Festival, dozens of films and fledgling televisions shows are presented, and the various platforms and studios that are attending are eager to snatch them up. And, yet, when the conversation turns to money, the tone changes. As the Christian film industry is still in its infancy, so there’s just nothing left for content creators, though there is often plenty for the executives running the platforms and distribution companies. It would appear that, to them, for a filmmaker to be seen on these platforms will legitimize them and quite possibly facilitate future projects.

“And, besides, these are Christian productions. So certainly the important thing is getting the message out there, regardless of financial risk or loss. People need to see these films to be encouraged and challenged in their faith. That’s what’s really important. Why would somebody keep audiences from being blessed by their film simply because they’re not getting paid?”

And so on. The invocation of Christian intent as a means of insulating producers from criticism is nothing new. For years, Christian filmmakers and studios have used these intentions to dismiss any and all negative comments about films that are clearly flawed. It was how they were able to justify (to themselves and their viewers) the continued production and distribution of inferior films. The number of times that I found myself in the middle of an argument with a fellow Christian – asserting that our faith suggests that our films should be of higher quality and should be more truthful, rather than lower quality and less honest – became exhausting. I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that the success of Christian film relied so heavily on the lenience and eventual forgiveness of its audience. Few other demographics have been so obliging.

Just as I believe that a faith-based film should respect its audience as intelligent adults, I also believe that faith-based production studios should respect their creators and artists. Certainly there is secular precedent for trying to skimp on payment for directors and actors, but, in talking about Christian film, we’re dealing with an industry that often sets itself up in direct opposition to Hollywood. And, yet, when the chips are down, these executives resort to many of the same underhanded methods as their Hollywood counterparts. And when somebody objects, rather than stick by the old axiom, “That’s showbiz!”, they’ve managed to give it a faith-based spin in their response, “That’s ministry!”

While I understand that Christian film is an industry just like any other, the constant incorporation of Christian concepts into their business model allows me to be a bit more abstract – dare I say, ideological – in my approach to it. Just as any church would attempt to do right not merely by its congregants, but also by its staff and even its surrounding neighborhood, I would hope that the Christian film industry would be a sort of shining light. Not only should the productions espouse a Christian worldview, but also a Christian understanding of the fallenness of the world and a deep love and honesty about the characters inhabiting it. Christian films should be brutally honest, but with a deep, abiding hope just under the surface.

Similarly, I think that the Christian film industry should attempt to honor not merely its viewers, but also those that have chosen the extremely difficult path of film production. It is a calling that involves constant introspection and self doubt. It requires being acutely aware of one’s own flaws, so that they can be incorporated into the final film, yet systematically weeded out of the filmmaking process. To be an artist of any kind is to risk one’s own self image, leaving it at the feet of an ever-fickle audience. A Christian film studio should understand this better than most, and do everything it can to empower its content creators, rather than shortchange them while mumbling something about Jesus. Of course, there is a need for fiscal responsibility; an industry that bankrupts itself is no use to anybody, but the constant refrain of “Ministry” should represent an earnest desire and attempt to support artists – both creatively and financially – rather than a half-hearted excuse to abandon them.

One Response to “That’s Ministry! by Tyler Smith”

  1. Steven Brown June 1, 2019 at 7:05 am #

    Tyler, I agree wholeheartedly!
    I have been acting and performing music professionally for many years now and it’s not just in the Christian venues and productions that the producers will try to take advantage of the talent, but I have certainly seen this phenomenon time and time again.

    So how do we begin to change this culture?

Leave a Reply