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Pablum for profit’s sake?

By William D. Romanowski

When Protestant evangelicals opened a Hollywood front in the late twentieth-century “culture wars,” the result was an odd mixture of moral reproach and commercialization of religion. To no avail, they famously protested MCA/Universal over The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and then joined conservative Catholics — outraged over the movie Priest (1995) — in a boycott of the Walt Disney Company, the world’s largest provider of family entertainment.

Then again, evangelicals contributed greatly to the incredible box-office success of The Passion of the Christ in 2004, and the next year called off their boycott when Disney brought The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the screen. These box-office victories drew Hollywood’s attention to those consumers who were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on religious books, merchandise, and music. Moviemakers wanted a piece of the action. The next year, 20th Century-Fox created FoxFaith, a new home entertainment division, to go after the “Passion dollar.”

These are not isolated or unprecedented events. There is a long-standing and complicated relationship between Protestant churches and the movie industry, and put in that context, evangelical strategies actually went against the central Protestant approach to movie reform.

To establish a fitting role for the cinema, Protestants traditionally sought a measure of harmony between individual liberty, artistic freedom, and the common good. While understanding the need for film producers to make money, Protestants long believed that the cinema should be developed along the lines of artistic and social responsibility. Perceiving themselves as a countervailing force to the film industry’s incessant drive to maximize profits, they argued that by tacitly accepting the industry’s commercial ethos, the church was effectively commodifying religion and values instead of “relating itself to the arts of communication, rather than commercial selling of a product.”

Instead of nitpicking at perceived immoral incidents or being satisfied with the mere inclusion of a religious theme, Protestants focused their criticism on a movie’s overall perspective. A film that was made “decent” by deleting distasteful elements could still be dishonest (in its treatment of life) and dull (as art and entertainment). It was the film’s artistic prowess and embodied perspective that mattered most.

In a departure from this Protestant tradition, the evangelical course was really a replay of tactics pursued by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Catholic bishops used consumer pressure to coerce filmmakers into making changes in movies prior to release in theaters. In contrast, Protestant leaders — by tradition — refused to restrict individual liberty by controlling the viewing habits of church members.

Nevertheless, after World War II some Protestants wanted to imitate the Catholics by consulting with film producers to ensure that Protestants received the same flattering treatment in movies as priests and nuns. But any aspirations that Protestants could deliver an audience large enough to redirect Hollywood’s output were dispelled by The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), a commercial and critical disaster that brought an end to the era of big-budget biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1956).

These events apparently faded from memory, and as the evangelical consumer culture blossomed during the 1980s and ‘90s, evangelical leaders took their turn now — after mainline Protestants and then Catholics — as the nation’s custodian of movie morals. Mixing boycott threats with promises to deliver American pew sitters to movie theaters, they petitioned Hollywood for wholesome family entertainment — meaning no explicit sex, profanity, or violence (in that order of priority). As a result, in the popular perception at least, kid-friendly has become the defining feature of a “Christian” aesthetic that ultimately prizes PG-rated fare attuned to the level of children.

Evangelicals embraced profit-making as their modus operandi for movie reform with much more intensity than any of their predecessors; their appeal ultimately was to the corporate bottom line, not artistic quality or social responsibility.

This market-based strategy harbors an inherent contradiction — one that always seems to escape its adherents. The obvious assumptions are that “good” movies are somehow those that are commercially successful and that a free market will produce movie morality. On what basis then can evangelicals limit screen exploitation other than profitability? The gauge of commercial success can be used to justify family movies as much as crude teen comedies; the Christian-themed The Blind Side and raunchy The Hangover each earned over $200 million domestically in 2009.

With box-office results dictating the terms of quality, film production will always be a slave to momentary fashionable trends. But as the head of an evangelical pro-family organization put it, studio executives should just “give the public more of what it wants — for profits sake.”

William Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His books include Reforming Hollywood: American Protestants and the Movies, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (a 2002 ECPA Gold Medallion Award Winner) and Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in America Life. Watch a video where he explains protestantism in Hollywood.

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Image credit: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe poster. Copyright Walt Disney Studios. Used for the purposes of commentary on the work. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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