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May 10, 2023

Christian Pop Culture Revival Casts Out the Money Changers

“The Chosen,” “Jesus Revolution,” and other successful ventures appeal to a long underserved audience.

By Maggie MacFarland Phillips, RealClearInvestigations

“Jesus Revolution” and “The Chosen” are not just Christian dramas but the avant garde in a revolution in faith entertainment. The former – a feel-good movie about hippies who returned to Christ during the 1970s, starring former “Cheers” and “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer – has grossed more than $52 million since its debut just a few weeks ago, making it the most successful film released by studio heavyweight Lionsgate since 2019.

But the instructive parable may be its predecessor, which made Hollywood sit up and take notice. Since its release in 2017, “The Chosen,” portraying a charismatic Jesus and his youthful disciples, showed it didn’t much need Tinseltown’s blessing. Through crowdfunding, its producers have raised millions of dollars from thousands of fans and the show is now in its third season. It is thus a case study in outflanking Mammon – the biblical term for debasing riches – in the modern entertainment tempest.

The show has been breaking viewership records, screening in theaters and on streaming platforms where more standard fare is “Love is Blind,” billed as a “social experiment where single men and women look for love and get engaged, all before meeting in person” (Netflix) and “The Boys,” an ultra-violent, hypersexualized riff on superheroes, government corruption, and corporate greed (Amazon Prime).

According to its producers, “The Chosen” has recorded more than 450 million views worldwide, including on its app. Starring the previously little-known Jonathan Roumie as Christ (Roumie also plays a charismatic street preacher in “Jesus Revolution”), the show is touted as “the largest fan-supported entertainment project of all time” by the Religion News Service.

Over Easter weekend, Angel Studios, which helped launch “The Chosen,” released “His Only Son” in theaters. Calling it the “first-ever film to crowdsource its theatrical release,” the studio said it raised $1.235 million in February from 2,000 investors, all in under 100 hours – just to finance its distribution. To finance the full production of “David,” an animated film now in the works in partnership with Angel Studios, almost $61 million has been raised as of this article.

A parallel Christian entertainment industry – movies, music, books, television, and radio shows created for and by Christians – has existed alongside the mainstream for decades. Stars like singer Amy Grant have occasionally crossed over to enjoy secular success, and major studios have occasionally reached broader audiences with films like Mel Gibson’s 2004 hit, “The Passion of the Christ.” But until now, Christian media generally has operated under the radar. Part of this was due to the low quality of much of the material. “The biggest critique, right, on Christian art of the last, however, last thirty plus years, is that it’s not good, or it hasn’t been good,” said Terence Berry, COO of Wedgwood Circle, a nonprofit that connects investors and creators to develop projects that are informed by their Christian faith. “And I do think there have been huge strides made in people creating content for the faith market.”

But given the potential size of the “faith-based” film market, the opportunities may not be fully exploited. A 2020 study conducted by National Research Group identifies a target audience of 41 million people aged 16 and over, with an additional 18 million who could be reached “given the right marketing.”

More recently, two companies in particular, Wedgwood Circle and Angel Studios, have found innovative ways to tap into fan interest to create content that connects with audiences while making money.

“Obviously in the last 15 years, a ton has changed,” Berry said. “We’ll call it the ‘faith market,’ or sometimes it’s ‘faith adjacent,’ is having success out there. It’s largely been on its own, so if we’re talking about film, television, streaming, it’s largely been outside of the Hollywood system. And just as there’s been deconstruction, and with distribution getting kind of the way it’s gone, you’ve been able to set up systems and structures outside of Hollywood that work.”

The evolution of the Christian media ecosystem reflects the greater opportunity of niche content to reach audiences. Indian film distributors rent out theaters across the country for showings of Bollywood movies. Similarly, other types of media allow audiences to directly support content that reflects their values or worldview. Examples include Substack newsletter subscriptions, comedian Louis CK selling access to streaming shows and live performances directly to fans, and even other religions. “I think there is obviously a sort of distaste or resistance among the big Hollywood content producers when it comes to Christian content,” said Wall Street Journal film critic Kyle Smith, via email. “There is a major market for Biblical stories ‒ we saw that back when ‘Passion of the Christ’ sold $600 million in tickets and yet there was no rush in Hollywood to do anything similar. But this creates an opportunity for independent companies to produce movies and TV shows for an underserved audience.”

In part, Angel Studios owes its success to an unlikely catalyst – a lawsuit from frequent conservative bête noire Disney – and an inadvertent opportunity, courtesy of President Barack Obama.

Streaming service VidAngel – predecessor of Angel Studios – faced an existential legal struggle when Disney filed a copyright lawsuit against it in 2016. Founded by the Harmons – “four brothers and a cousin,” as brothers Jeffrey and Neal Harmon described them in a recent phone interview – VidAngel allowed families to skip over content in popular films and entertainment that they deemed offensive. To defend themselves, the Harmons exploited new possibilities of crowdfunded equity ushered in by Obama’s regulation-cutting JOBS Act (Jumpstart Our Business Startups).

With fundraising thus supercharged in the fight with Disney, word spread. The Harmons got the ear of Dallas Jenkins – son of Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the popular “Left Behind” series of Christian books and movies ‒ explaining how crowdfunding equity could work for him, "and ‘The Chosen’ raised almost $11 million from almost 19,000 people to do season one,“ said Neal Harmon. After VidAngel settled with Disney in 2020, it sold the filtering business and rebranded as Angel Studios, with an eye to producing independent content.

Christians aren’t the only believers seeking various avenues to spread the word. In his book The New American Judaism, sociologist Jack Wertheimer writes about "religious startups,” which he defines as “new settings for Jewish religious gatherings,” catalyzed by “a cottage industry” working to reignite interest in Jewish life. 

Dr. Steven Windmueller, interim director of the Zekilow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew University College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, makes a crucial distinction between the wild west of Christian crowdfunding with the Jewish faith-based startups that Wertheimer chronicles, saying the latter’s funding tends to come from foundations, which can create a bottleneck as numerous groups compete among the same donor pool.

“Philanthropy and causes are important, and people get behind them and they’ll donate money to them,” said Neal Harmon, “But when people get to be part of it, and they actually get to be an owner in it, then they double down in a way that is on an order of magnitude more powerful than the donation model alone.” And on the production end, “the filmmaker’s engagement was way more powerful when they were accountable to their audience rather than to a Hollywood studio.”

But even amid all the disruption in Christian media investment, there is still a place for foundations. The California-based Come and See Foundation now funds the production costs for “The Chosen,” as well as the translation and distribution to enable the show to be available worldwide, through tax-deductible donations.

“I just donated for the first (not the last) time today,” wrote Instagram user Kayla on a December 28, 2022, post by “The Chosen” showrunner Dallas Jenkins. “My sister passed away this year, at 27. Right now, she is experiencing the real Jesus. I can’t even imagine how amazing that experience is. However, I believe that this show helps people on earth have a small glimpse of that. It feels SO GOOD to give back to something that has been such an encouragement in my own life. When I have been experiencing tremendous grief, I have turned this show on to help bring me comfort. I know I am not the only one that feels peace while watching. I’m grateful for the small opportunity to give and support.”

Angel Studios also offers more traditional crowdfunding through its “Pay It Forward” system, in which donors receive no financial return, but can access different levels of perks or benefits, and see how many people their donation will help to access episodes. “We had only done that on the streaming side,” said Jeffrey Harmon. With “His Only Son,” they transferred the mechanism to theatrical releases, enabling audiences to purchase tickets for others to see the film. But the film was groundbreaking in another way. According to Harmon, it is the first time a film has crowdfunded its print and advertising budget (or P&A, an industry term for theatrical marketing). “That’s how the studios spend millions of dollars to put movies in theaters,” he said, noting that P&A is typically covered by bank loans or major investors. According to the Angel Studios press release on the film’s success, crowd investors earned a 120% return, and will soon receive a notification on how to access their payout.

“I have read and heard the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac many times and felt I knew the story pretty well,” said investor Theresa Rhodes of Vidor, TX. “However, the movie ‘His Only Son’ really brought these characters to life. We see their joys and their struggles with God and each other through real relationships and emotions. And throughout the movie there is the subtle connection to the sacrifice God made for us all as He sent HIS ONLY SON to die in our place to pay sin’s price so that we can spend eternity with Christ in Heaven. It was my honor to make a donation in support of this movie. If only one person watches this movie and is moved to search God’s Word and their heart for what they truly believe about God and His Son and they are led to accept Christ as their Savior then it was worth every penny and so much more!

Will Angel Studios and "The Chosen” spawn imitators? “My guess is there’s probably room for a few of them to survive,” Berry said. But what he calls “the big question,” is whether they will cater specifically to an underserved audience of convinced Christians.

Wedgwood and Angel Studios propose what Berry calls “a third way.”

“Can you offer stuff that is not perceived as faith market, and that is really well done, and it’s good, true, and beautiful, and it’s speaking to larger questions and it is aligned with your faith,” he asked, “but it is done so in a way that allows other people from outside the faith to engage and like that content?”

The NRG study said only one in three members of the target audience for the faith-based market identifies as Christian, and notably,His Only Son,” about Abraham’s last-minute reprieve from a divine mandate to sacrifice his son, is a story that appears in both the Christian and Jewish Bibles, and in a different form in the Quran. 

“We think of ourselves as very faith friendly,” said Neal Harmon, “But we’re not a faith-based studio.”

“It might sound funny coming from the group that brought ‘The Chosen’ to the world,” said Jeffrey Harmon. He cites other Angel Studio shows; in addition to its “clean” standup offering Dry Bar Comedy, kid-oriented shows like “The Wingfeather Saga” and “The Tuttle Twins” are not religious programming. But they are all projects vetted by a group of investors and Pay It Forward donors for adherence to the Philippians 4:8 standard (“… Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise …”)

If the vetting group would be “disappointed” were a worthy project not to reach audiences, “that’s going to be what we include,” Jeffrey Harmon said.

While big studios looking to increase audiences and revenue in the streaming era may not decide to flood the zone with faith-based content, Angel Studios and Wedgwood Circle, whose investor successes include the Martin Scorsese film “Silence” and Grammy-award winning musicians, may nevertheless have something to teach them.

“Maybe people are tired of being so divided and they want entertainment that is not so politically polarizing,” Berry said. “That remains to be seen. But I think that’s kind of what we’re hoping. We’re still fighting for that and encouraging that.”

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