Magic Lanterns Prepare the Way for Movie Projectors
Before the invention of the movie projector, European audiences gathered in darkened rooms to watch magic lantern presentations. Catholic priest Athanasius Kircher helped popularize the magic lantern, a simple slide projector, by publishing the book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae in 1680. Magic lanterns used a candle or lamp as a light source. Images were projected onto a sheet or wall.
Controversy soon followed as priests and masons used the lanterns "to persuade followers of their ability to control both the forces of darkness and enlightenment" and temperance groups used the lanterns to fight alcoholism. 1
In the 1800s missionaries such as David Livingston used the lanterns to present the Gospel in Africa. After movie theaters emerged, magic lanterns lost their popularity and disappeared from the public. Some magic lantern enthusiasts are preserving this art form. Museum and arts festival attendees can watch The Bible Magic-Lantern Show!
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a popular subject for pioneering filmmakers. The Internet Movie Database lists 4 passion plays filmed from 1897 to 1898 including one film by inventor Thomas Alva Edison. At first these experimental films were short and fit on one film reel. Eventually filmmakers started making longer films about Christ and some of them were the first features:
In 1907 "multiple-reel film comes to be called a feature when Adolph Zukor distributes Pathe's three reel Passion Play." 2
From Manger to the Cross is "the first American feature ..... and much of it was shot in Egypt and what was then Palestine." 3
In Britain "J. Arthur Rank, a member of a Yorkshire flour-milling family, entered films in the mid-thirties, apparently seeing them as a means of propagating his Methodist faith." Although unsuccessful at making Christian films, Rank helped establish the successful Pinewood Studios. 4
Creative Differences: Separation From the World vs. Working With Hollywood
At the end of the 1930s two Christians set out to make movies that would honor Christ and ended up using radically different methods.
Illinois businessman Charles Octavia Baptista produced his first film in 1939, a five-minute object lesson titled "Story of a Fountain Pen." In 1942 Baptista formed the Scriptures Visualized Institute, later renamed the Baptista Film Mission. Baptista refused to hire non-Christians to work on his productions and may have based this business practice on II Cor. 6:14. ["Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership have right living and right standing with God with iniquity and lawlessness? Or how can light have fellowship with darkness?"]
After trying to film a movie in Ohio in 1938, Episcopal priest James Frederick left for California hoping to use Hollywood technicians and actors to make Christian films. In 1941 Frederick's company Cathedral Pictures produced and 20th Century Fox distributed The Great Commandment to movie theaters across the United States. Frederick would eventually use the Walt Disney Studios to make movies for his distribution company. Frederick believed in using the best acting talent available and hired non-Christians to work in numerous roles. "But the outcome of it was that he was called 'the evangelist of Hollywood.' He began every session with prayer." 5
In the 1930s Dr. Irwin Moon was a pastor fascinated with science. He used science experiments in his sermons to illustrate concepts from the Bible. His gospel presentations became popular and lead to the film series Sermons From Science. Moon is credited with inventing time lapse photography and being "the first man to photograph the interior of a heart."6
After discovering there was a market for film projectors for churches, Baptista's company developed the Miracle Projector in the 1940s and manufactured the Tel-n-See film strip projector in the 1950s. Film strip projectors are still in use by Christian missions organizations such as Intercomm and Gospel for Asia.
Distribution Channels Appear
In the 1940s Christian film libraries emerged. Christian businessmen interested in renting audio visual materials started libraries to rent films to churches. Harvey W. Marks started the Visual Aid Center in 1945. Harry Bristow launched Christian Cinema in Ambler, PA. Christian Cinema operated a movie theater that showed only Christian films. (Christian Cinema shut down in the mid 1990s and is unrelated to ChristianCinema.com.)
The growth of Christian film libraries led to the Christian Film Distributors Association being formed in 1974. The CFDA began holding a conference each year for Christian filmmakers and distributors. The Crown Awards were presented on the last night of the conference to honor the best in Christian films.
Christian Movie Studios Emerge
In 1949 Ken Anderson, editor for a Youth For Christ magazine, decided to form a small studio. An old shut-down dancehall was purchased and moved onto some donated land to become the first home for Gospel Films. The company grew into the largest Christian film distributor. Gospel Films distributes Bamboo in Winter, Through Gates of Splendor and The Wait of the World (trailer).
In 1950 Dick Ross' Great Commission Films produced a documentary of Billy Graham's Portland crusade. Seeing the potential of Christian films, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association created World Wide Pictures as a subsidiary in 1951 to produce and distribute Christian films. Ross would direct their first film, Mr. Texas. Other WWP movies include The Hiding Place, Something to Sing About and The Climb.
In 1960 Ken Anderson left Gospel Films and launched Ken Anderson Films. The new studio's objective was to reach an international audience with Christian media and filmed seven movies in Africa.
Ken Anderson Films is perhaps best known for the movie Pilgrim's Progress which featured stage actor and later Academy Award winner Liam Neeson in his first film role. Other well-known Ken Anderson Films include Fanny Crosby, In His Steps and Love Note (trailer).
Throughout the '50s and '60s Christian films were produced with increasing professionalism and ads for Christian films appeared in magazines like Christianity Today on a regular basis. These films were used by God to reap an abundant harvest. In eleven months two million people viewed The Restless Ones from World Wide Pictures and 120,000 decisions were recorded (source: Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, p.57).
Into the Movie Theaters
Ever since The Great Commandment opened in movie theaters in 1941, Christian filmmakers have attempted to pursue theatrical releases. World Wide Pictures was a pioneer in partnering with churches to bring Christian films to the cinema. Gateway Films was "formed with the express purpose of communicating the Christian Gospel in the secular motion picture theaters" and released The Cross and the Switchblade in 1972. 7
In 1979 the Jesus film appeared in theaters across the United States. This film, based on the Gospel of Luke, was made for $6 million by Campus Crusade for Christ.
Kuntz Brothers produced the crossover film Dakota in 1988. The movie was distributed by Miramax and featured actor Lou Diamond Phillips. Two years later Trinity Broadcasting funded the production and distribution of China Cry, a drama based on the life of Nora Lam. TBN has financed four more theatrical releases: Omega Code, Megiddo, Carman: the Champion and Time Changer. Before starting TBN, Paul Crouch Sr. worked at the Assemblies of God film department in the 1960s.
In 2000 the Canadian production company Cloud Ten Pictures and Namesake Entertainment released Left Behind on home video and the theatrical release followed in 2001. More than 3 million videos and DVDs of Left Behind were sold making the movie a success at the retail store but not the box office. The sequel Left Behind II: Tribulation Force played in church-sponsored theaters for New Year's Eve - December 31, 2002.
Other significant theatrical releases from Christian filmmakers include Mercy Streets, ExtremeDays, Jonah: a VeggieTales Story and Joshua.
Finishing the Great Commission
Before returning to heaven, Jesus commanded his followers to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Missionaries and Christian filmmakers are working together to finish this task of world evangelism. In 1948 Bob Pierce produced the film China Challenge while traveling through China with Ken Anderson. Pierce's life was changed dramatically by the seeing the poverty and casualties of war in Asia. Pierce started the international relief organization World Vision and used films to promote world missions. "While evangelicals were still wary of filmed entertainment, these movies touched them." 8
In the '50s World Vision provided films to churches for the cost of shipping ($3) with the requirement that churches take an offering for the mission group of their choice. Churches could choose between the films China Challenge, Cry in the Night and Dead Men on Furlough.
In 1978 production began on the Jesus film. Campus Crusade for Christ funded the $6 million production. After the movie's 1979 theatrical release, Paul Eshleman was asked to lead the The Jesus Film Project. Portions of the Jesus film have been translated into 816 languages. More than five billion people have viewed this movie making it the most widely seen movie ever made.
Small film teams traveling with battery-powered projectors travel Asia and Africa showing the movie to some people that have never seen a movie before. In the United States churches are buying the video in bulk and distributing it in door-to-door outreaches.
The Jesus Film Project may be the best known missions-oriented film outreach but it is not alone. Gospel For Asia's film ministry uses the film Man of Mercy to share the Gospel. This film features an Indian cast. Mars Hill, a media ministry in Texas, has produced The Hope as a tool for world evangelism. The movie uses three storytellers to present an overview of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation by covering 36 significant events in scripture in 90 minutes. For international distribution Mars Hill intends to break down racial barriers by replacing the storytellers with people of different ethnic backgrounds.
The sacrifices of missionaries have been dramatized in numerous films. Through Gates of Splendor tells the true story of missionaries martyred for their faith. Hudson Taylor shows how a missionary adopted Asian customs and lived by faith to reach the people of China.
In 1981 director John Schmidt attended Urbana - a missions conference held every three years. Schmidt was greatly affected by the conference and directed three films about missions during the 1980s. The Greatest Story Never Told showed how a person's neighbors could be a mission field. The Wait of the World was filmed on three continents as three reporters were sent out to observe and write about missions. In the sequel Guess Who's Coming to America? (trailer) a Muslim from Africa comes to America as a graduate student and T.J. the reporter attempts to witness to him. The movie showed why few Muslims convert to Christianity and was a reminder that college campuses with international students can be a missions field.
After Ken Anderson Films ceased film production, all of its assets were donated to the non-profit organization InterComm, an organization formed in 1991 that equips national leaders with Christian media. The organization partners with Christians to translate films into other languages.
Movies About the End Times
Some of the most popular Christian films are based on the rapture. In 1941 Baptista produced The Rapture and filmed The Blessed Hope in 1943. 9
With a volunteer cast and budget of $61,000 Mark IV Pictures (now Russ Doughten Films) released the classic film Thief in the Night in 1972. Three sequels followed: A Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast and The Prodigal Planet.
Before making movies, Peter and Paul Lalonde presented seminars on the end-times. In 1998 they launched Cloud Ten Pictures and specialized in films about the tribulation. Cloud Ten Pictures produced the Apocalypse series and partnered with Namesake Entertainment on the Left Behind series.
Other prominent films about end times include End of the Harvest (trailer), The Gathering (trailer) , and The Moment After (trailer).
The Youth Market
Throughout the film library era films for youth and children were popular. The Christian Film Distributors Association held its annual convention before the school year began. Youth films of note include The Crossing (trailer), Gold Through the Fire (trailer), The Pretender (trailer, The Restless Ones, Second Glance (trailer), Senior Year, and Without Reservation (trailer).
Dramatic Christian television programming has been discouraged by the economics of religious broadcasting. Religious television is primarily funded by donations and televangelists buying air time - advertising revenue is weak due to low viewership and advertising rates. For dramatic programming to succeed, new funding and revenue sources will be needed.
Sometimes denominations and religious networks take the initiative to produce dramatic programming. The Lutheran Church in America funded the children's show Davey and Goliath which first aired on TV in 1960. The Southern Baptist Convention produced the cartoon Jot the Dot.
A daily Christian soap opera Another Life aired from 1981 to 1984 on the Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN also produced the children's animated programs Superbook and Flying House. 10
Significant children's productions released directly to video include McGee and Me produced by Focus on the Family, Secret Adventures and and Bibleman.
The Film Series
Another contributing factor to the success of Christian films were the releases of indepth teaching and counseling series by Dr. Francis Schaeffer and Dr. James Dobson. Often churches would rent the films and show them each Sunday night until the series was completed.
In 1975 the Genesis Project launched an attempt to film the entire Bible called the "New Media Bible." Cost overruns prevented its completion. These films were also available as a series. Currently the Visual Bible is attempting a book-by-book film series covering the entire Bible.
Christian Film Festivals
In 1993 Tom Saab launched the Merrimack Valley Christian Film Festival in Salem, NH. Each year this festival is held during Easter week and draws an audience of thousands to a theater to watch Christian films for free. Saab gives a gospel presentation and altar call after the films. Saab's organization Christian Film Festivals of America has also presented film festivals in Salinas, CA. and Orlando. Movie director Rich Christiano also hosted an evangelistic-oriented film festival in the 1990s in Jonesboro, AR.
In October 1999 the Voice of Pentecost Church in San Francisco hosted the 1st Annual WYSIWYG Film Festival. (WYSIWYG stands for What You See Is What You Get). WYSIWYG's focus is not evangelism. Instead, the festival serves as a forum for Christian filmmakers to gather and network. Another festival catering to filmmakers is the Dama Film Festival held in Seattle.
Before directing The Gospel Blimp, Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. directed the 1958 classic horror film The Blob. The horror film's music score was composed by Ralph Carmichael who has been called the "father of contemporary Christian music." 11 Carmichael also composed scores for films from World Wide Pictures. And now for the most prominent Christian filmmaker to work on The Blob: associate producer Russell Doughten formed Mark IV Pictures and produced 20 Christian films including Thief in the Night.
From death to rebirth
At one time New Year's Eve was THE movie night for the church. Ken Anderson Films would ship about 600 prints for this night. Then the film print stopped being used in churches in the late '80s and early '90s. The drop in Christian film usage was attributed to two trends in the church: (1) Sunday night services in many churches were discontinued and it was during this time when many churches showed the films. (2) A large number of churches replaced film projectors with VCRs and television sets. It would take time for video projectors to be widely adopted in churches.
The drop in film rentals led to the closing of every Christian film library. The Christian Film Distributors Association reinvented itself as International Christian Visual Media. Many film producers retired from the business. Some producers turned to distribution for financial survival.
Gospel Films started the web portal Gospelcom.net in 1994. Three years later the nonprofit organization changed its name to Gospel Communications International, Inc.
Filmmaker Rich Christiano was one of first filmmakers to launch a website: Christianmovies.com. In 1998 Norton Rodriguez started ChristianFilmmaker.com. Soon the mail-order catalogs to churches would decline in importance as internet and television promotion would reach a new audience - the Christian consumer. Filmmakers began to partner with television ministries and their videos were offered in exchange for donations.
In 1994, Rich Christiano and the Family Net satellite service began working together to produce Family Theatre - a two-hour weekly series showing dramatic Christian films. Years later The Inspiration Network would air Reel INSP on Saturday nights. In 2001 The Inspiration Network broadcast the television premiere for Late One Night (trailer) commercial-free. After the film ended, the network showed an interview featuring the director and two of the actors. Television premieres are now becoming a popular way to promote the Christian movies.
Future of Christian Films
DVDs to Replace Videotape
Recent technological changes are changing the Christian film industry. Soon DVDs will surpass videotape as the primary method of distribution for Christian films. DVDs, with their ability to carry multiple language tracks, will enable the American filmmakers to reach foreign markets. Until now sales in overseas markets have been minimal. Foreign language versions of films are mostly made available by partnering with ministries.
Digital Video to Replace Film in Production
Filmmaker Danny Carralles released Escape From Hell, one of the first Christian films to be produced on high definition video, in 2001. Most high budget Christian films will be shot in high definition video. The low cost of digital video cameras will make more low budget productions possible and churches could produce many of the new films. Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA, recently funded the film feature-length movie Flywheel for $20,000.
Theatrical Distribution Grows
More Christian filmmakers are aquiring experience in theatrical distribution. During 2002-2003 filmmaker Rich Christiano distributed Time Changer to the movie theaters without the support of a major studio. Christiano's Five and Two Pictures partnered with Christian radio stations for promotion and used a booking agency to get into the theaters.
Michael Brown, director of The Calling, is forming the Christian Film Foundation with the intent of setting up a network of people to distribute Christian films in the theaters.
Christian businessman Phillip Anschutz has taken over one-fifth of America's theaters by aquiring Regal Cinemas, America's largest movie theater chain, along with Edwards Theatres, and United Artists. Anschutz could play a major role in the distribution of Christian films theatrically. 12
Reforming Religious Television
Greg Robbins, producer and lead actor in the television series Pastor Greg, wants to reform religious television by replacing bad televangelists with godly dramatic programming. New funding and revenue sources will be required to produce this programming. A combination of advertising, product placement and sponsorships could make dramatic programming profitable. Christian filmmakers could also pursue pay-per-view and video-on-demand services as a way to get the movies on cable and satellite.
The reform effort will also require that Christians put prophecies to the test and networks remove any televangelist that issues false prophecies on TV.
For further research, check out the Billy Graham Center Archive at Wheaton College. Christian filmmakers have donated numerous films, videos, photographs and documents related to the history of Christian films.
Special historical collections: