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Christian Filmmaker Jon Erwin on 'Imagine,' 'Believe' and Returning Faith to the Movie Mainstream

September 16, 2020 | By

It's hard to calculate just how much money the contemporary mainstream movie industry leaves on the table because most of its creators and producers are unwilling or unable to do films that celebrate or at least are respectful of Christian faith.

Major studios have largely ceded the task of servicing this audience to independent producers. But some are getting the message. For example, Sony Studios has its Affirm Films division, which is behind such films as Overcomer, Paul, Apostle of Christ and The Star.

In the spring of 2019, the filmmaking Erwin Brothers -- Christian directors, screenwriters and producers Jon and Andrew -- with partners Kevin Downes and Tony Young, launched a new entertainment-content company at major studio Lionsgate, called the Kingdom Story Company.

Currently under its banner are the brothers' films Woodlawn (2015), I Can Only Imagine (2018) and I Still Believe (2020), all fact-based stories with strong Christian themes. Next on the company's docket is American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story, the rags-to-riches tale of the Hall of Fame NFL quarterback and outspoken Christian, starring fellow believer Zachary Levi (Shazam!, NBC's Chuck)

But it was the unexpected (at least to Hollywood) financial success of I Can Only Imagine -- the story behind the hit Christian-pop song by MercyMe -- that spurred the creation of the new company.

I recently had a chat with Jon Erwin about the Labor-Day-weekend premiere of I Can Only Imagine on cablenet UPtv (read that here), and we got on the larger topic of Kingdom and the future of faith-infused film.

On what spurred Kingdom's creation:

Well, it was the success of I Can Only Imagine. I Can Only Imagine was only supposed to do $2 to 4 million. Over the weekend it did $17 million. It went on to become the number one independent film of the year, grossing over $86 million worldwide -- and numbers don't lie.

So, it was just the overwhelming success of the movie that made, Lionsgate specifically, take note, and other studios as well. So, the more these films work, the more people in L.A. wake up and they're like, "Oh, there's an audience here, let's make product for this audience."

I think they feel, like, "We don't understand this audience, let's go partner with people that do." And we're more than happy to be their resource for the faith audience.

That's what happened with Lionsgate. -- to be able to trust our understanding of the audience and our ability to connect with them. And so, yeah, it's been a great relationship on that front.

On why Christians should go into the mainstream entertainment industry and push to make films -- or help them get made -- that reflect their faith and values:

I would say that we're underrepresented in the entertainment industry, and I think that's our fault as people of faith. We haven't engaged. So, I think, yeah, get involved, get in the game. And I would say that there are so many different ways to do it.

You can do it in a traditional sense, and you can do it in an independent sense, like we did. We were just more entrepreneurial. We did much of what we did outside the system, but we also work inside the system, with Lionsgate and others.

Unfortunately, I know that a famous screenwriter said, "If we knew how to make hit movies, that's all we'd make." So there's no, unfortunately, magic bullet. But I do think that there's a lot of ways in.

Ultimately, make things that inspire you as a content creator. Make things that you would go see, and make things that you feel would change people's lives. If you just do that, the rest works itself out.

My definition, again, of faith-based is just films that inspire and uplift and bring hope to people's lives. If the nature of the story is a little more overt in terms of faith, then great, tell that story. If it's a little less than, great, tell that story, but let the story do the work.

I would say get in the game. We need more people that understand the faith-based audience in the entertainment industry.

On why faith has long been successful for Hollywood, and why it could be again:

Remember the movie we did, Mom's Night Out, a movie we did for Sony? We had a premiere at Grauman's [Chinese] Theater. And there's the Ten Commandments, from Charlton Heston's movie, under glass. I think the first film to premiere there was Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings. [Editor's note: he's right about that.]

If you take the art tour through Europe, there's always been a fusion of faith in art, and it's always been first-class and industry-leading. I don't know where we abandoned the playing field, but we did abandon the playing field, and that needs to change.

We need to get back in the game and we need to learn our craft and embrace this industry. And also that Hollywood thing that, there's an audience here and we can bring that audience to them. And we got to do it one step at a time.

Images: I Still Believe & I Can Only Imagine/Lionsgate

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager and blog editor at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions our website, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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