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Top Hollywood Execs and Producers Discuss Heart and Soul of Religious and Family Films

Assist News Service

CBN.comScreenwriting Expo 4 at the Los Angeles Convention Center was the center of an intense discussion on Friday, Nov. 11 by top entertainment executives and producers about the elements of what makes a good, successful family movie and a good, successful religious film.

The John Templeton Foundation and MOVIEGUIDE®, a family, Christian guide to movies and entertainment, sponsored the two panels on spiritually uplifting, religious films and family movies.

At both panels, Dr. Ted Baehr, founder of MOVIEGUIDE®, produced extensive statistics from his Annual Report to Hollywood showing that the best, most successful movies at the box office are inspiring, spiritually uplifting or religious films with a strong Christian worldview and family movies with traditional moral values and biblical principles.

“The mass media is the primary teacher of our children,” Dr. Baehr told both panels and the audience.

Dr. Baehr pointed to the overwhelming popularity of such movies as The Passion of the Christ, Madagascar, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ben-Hur, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, The Lord of the Rings (originally written by a Christian), March of the Penguins, and Spider-Man, which contains the Lord's Prayer in one climactic scene.

“Movies with humor also do better,” Dr. Baehr added. “What attracts an audience? Heart, humor and values. People want good to triumph over evil. People want the hero to succeed.”

Everyone on both panels agreed with that comment and with Dave Johnson's (PAX-TV's Doc, Sue Thomas: F.B.EYE and many other network shows) comment that all Christian and family films, videos and programs need to have heart, honesty and humor.

“It's got to have excellence,” Johnson added. “It's got to have humor.”

“There's a perception out there that Christians don't have a sense of humor,” said Simon Swart, executive vice president of sales at 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. “I don't think that's true.”

Paul Sirmons, newly appointed Chairman of the Florida Film Commission, independent filmmaker of such movies as The First of May on HBO for 18 months and assistant director of Quantum Leap and other TV shows, said, “You will succeed if you make your audience laugh. If you make them cry, you will succeed even more.”

Sirmons continued, “I want to encourage the independent family film. You have to have passion. People are investing not in your script or in your story, but in you. Have good people around you.”

Brian Robbins, a producer of Dreamer and director of the upcoming The Shaggy Dog and producer of TV's Smallville, One Tree Hill and What I Like About You, said, “Nothing works better for mom, dad and the kids than humor. If you make them both laugh and present a strong, positive emotional core for both. . . Find that combination. A triumphant ending is also important for both parents and kids.

“You still have to tell a story that you really love, that you have to tell. The best movies come from great stories that come from great writers. The only thing you're left with at the end is the movie. So, write from your heart.”

“Humor will stand you in good stead,” agreed Ken Wales, producer of such works as The Pink Panther movies, The Great Race and TV's Christy, “even when you're trying to explain something serious. Inform the audience with delight.”

Wales added, however, that telling a good story was the most important thing.

“The story is the star,” agreed Bill Ewing, president of Every Tribe Entertainment and executive producer of the upcoming Christian movie End of the Spear. “Everybody serves the story.

“We must entertain with excellence,” he added. “If we don't entertain them well, then they [the audience] are out of there. But if we do entertain well, they will open their minds. They will open the keys to their heart. Ask yourself, Whose story is it? What do they want? Why should we care?”

Brigham Taylor, senior vice president of production at The Walt Disney Company said, “In the last 11 years, the definition of a family film has been a shifting definition. We don't always hit the mark.

“We have to distinguish family films from kid films,” he added. “Family films are films for the whole family, for all ages, not just for kids 12 and under. Part of my job is listening to stories. A great family movie has compelling characters, something that inspires the audience and something that's optimistic.”

William Fay, producer of The Shaggy Dog and producer of such popular movies as Independence Day and The Patriot, said, “The key for a successful family film is finding that film that the whole family can relate to. . . that will speak to everybody. Laughing with your kids is a great feeling. Also, finding stories that can cross international boundaries is important. The film business is a worldwide business right now.

“Look for a solid moral center,” Fay continued. “Pass on a moral lesson that parents feel good about. Those sorts of moral stories also speak to kids. Follow a three-act structure, something that catches your interest and sustains your interest.”

Dr. Baehr added, “Please get your craft right. Chicken Little (Number One at the domestic box office for two straight weeks) has great tension and jeopardy.”

Wales remembered that Walt Disney told him when he was young to always remember to put in danger and jeopardy for the characters. Their reaction to that danger and jeopardy is what makes the story.

Jeff Holder, freelance producer of The God-Man and formerly of Sony Wonder, noted, “A good writer is able to translate his ideas onto the page. A bad writer is unable to do that. The difference between a good writer and a great writer is the ideas in their heads.”

Swart added, “When it comes to movies, Christians compromise an awful lot. We tend to neglect the art. It needs to be better. Subtlety goes a long way. Whatever you thought of the content, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was well made from beginning to end. Today, the industry's screenwriting hasn't caught up to the special effects. You don't need a large budget to master the art form.”

Denise Guerin of Regal Entertainment Group, the world's largest theater chain with Regal Cinemas, United Artist Theaters and Edwards Theaters, said her company definitely wants more family movies.

“People want year-round family films,” she said, “not just during the summer or the Christmas holidays, or when kids are out of school. We like to see family films spread out. The more family films we have, the happier we are. More and more of our revenue comes from family films.”

“There's something in all of us that desires good,” added Dave Johnson. “People want to feel better about life and the world they live in.”

Dr. Baehr noted that the Christian definition of art is to promote the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

“Movies have an impact on the world,” he stressed more than once. “Don't stoop to conquer.”

“Think about writing for kids,” Jeff Holder also told the large audience of about 300 screenwriters. “You can do no better than writing something for kids. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”

“Make good choices,” Ken Wales urged them. “Be really critical about the choices you make. Get your act together, especially your faith.”

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Special Feature

Watch video from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

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