2012-08-24

As1 – The Coming Collision of Christianity and Pop-Culture

by Yo Snyder

Change is in the air. I’m not just talking about back to
school. I’m not just talking about how soon we’ll shift from Summer to Autumn.
No, I’m talking about a substantial shift in our culture. I’m talking about the
type of change that can define a generation. I’m talking about an intersection
of culture and faith the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations. It’s
happening, the only question is, what sort of effect will it have? Well, that
may rest entirely in our hands. To talk about this exciting change that’s
approaching the world of entertainment, I recently had a chance to talk with
Jonathan Bock, president of Grace Hill Media and the founder of movement that
hopes the make the most of the coming change. It’s called As1, and here’s what
I learned about how As1 hopes to successfully ride the wave of change that’s
about to sweep across Hollywood.

Yo: First of all,
why don’t you tell us a little bit about what As1 is exactly.

Jonathan: Sure.
Well, As1 seeks to restore the church back to its historically traditional role
as a patron of the arts. You know, when you look back at the history of art, if
you’ve ever traveled in Europe at all, you don’t have to walk but about ten
feet to realize there was a moment in history – actually centuries – where
there was a terrific, fruitful relationship between artists and the church, and
together working in partnership they created some of the greatest art of
humankind. You kind of look at where things are now with the Christian
community and the arts, and for the most part, for the better part of a few
generations, we have abandoned art. We have abandoned pop-culture, and it’s
been to our detriment. So the goal of As1 is to get us back into the game. It’s
to say, “Let’s get back to what worked in the past, it worked incredibly well.”
Let’s get back to a place where we are patrons of the arts, where we’re
rewarding generous commissions to artists to create the art that we want them
to create. It’s a win for them, it’s a win for us, and it’s a win for society.

Yo: So where did
this idea generate from? What was the catalyst for you to want to go forward
with this?

Jonathan: Well,
as you may know, I’m the president of Grace Hill Media, which is a marketing
firm here in Los Angeles that works with every studio in town and several networks,
helping them market some of their shows and some of their films to people who
go to church. For the better part of a dozen years I’ve been doing that, and I’ve
seen a tremendous amount of change happen in those dozen years. We’ve basically
gone as a community from, I would say, near pariah status within Hollywood to
genuinely being seen as an audience. Which is a great, wonderful shift for us
to go from being the enemy to being someone that they go, “Well, you know,
there is an audience there; we should really try to reach out to them.” And
that’s what they’re actually doing. There happens to be a massive coming wave
of high-profile, high-budget, Bible-based projects that are coming out from
some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Some of these projects have budgets
into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Darren Aronosfky and Russell Crowe
are making Noah. You’ve got Steven
Spielberg circling around doing a Moses movie. You’ve got Mark Burnett, who is
the biggest television producer in the world – he created Survivor and The Voice
and Celebrity Apprentice and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader – he’s
doing a ten-part series on the Bible from Genesis all the way through to
Revelation. It’s about the Bible and it’s going to be on the History Channel.
This is tremendous. This is a great, wonderful moment in history. All of the
sudden, you have this moment of history where a portal is opening, where the
Bible is going to be at the front-end of pop-culture again, and what will we do
as Christians in this moment? We have been largely sitting back on our heels
and letting culture happen and then having to react to it. Here’s a moment
where instead of doing that, what we should do is rush headlong into that and
say, “Let’s get back to a place where we’re part of the creative process. Where
we’re involved with this. Where we can make things that we want a hit and then
assure that more get made.” And also, and this is just as important, getting to
a place where we are back in a relationship with artists. Getting back to a
place where they don’t see us as the enemy any more, and we don’t see them as
the enemy any more. Where we’re working in concert with one another to create
great art once again.

Yo: Why do you
think Hollywood is interested in the Bible again as a subject matter? It hasn’t
been that way since from, I don’t know, maybe the golden age of Hollywood back
in the thirties and forties where there were lots of Biblically based epics.
What’s swinging the shift that way again now?

Jonathan: Well, I
think a few things are happening. One, I think they fully understand the size
and scope of this audience, at least on the studio side of things. They’ve all
gone down this road now with multiple projects that they have marketed to the
Christian community. They know they’re out there for sure. Secondly, these are
great stories. Hollywood is in the business of telling great stories and finding
great stories, and much to our benefit, we got great stories.

Yo: There are
some good ones in the Bible for sure.

Jonathan: There
are some great ones in the Bible that they’ve barely even started to tap. So I
think that being in a place where we have great stories, that’s a nice marriage
with the creators of culture who constantly have a voracious appetite for
telling good stories.

Yo: So what
specifically is As1 going to do to try and achieve some of these goals that you’ve
been talking about?

Jonathan: Well, I
think first and foremost we need to understand who patrons of the arts are. If
we were back in the fifteenth century, that’s a rich guy in tights with a coin
purse. But that’s changed a lot now, and the patron of the arts is the
customer. It’s the ticket buying consumer. Now, on an individual basis do you
have a lot of power when you buy a ticket? No. You have no power. But, when you
do it in concert with other ticket buyers, you can effectively make anything you
want into a hit. The business of Hollywood is the business of trying to catch
lightning in a bottle twice. So that’s why you see Saving Private Ryan is a big hit and all of sudden you see a dozen
movies over the next three years that are World War II movies. You see vampire
movies like Twilight are a big hit,
and all of sudden you see vampires everywhere. It is in the business of chasing
momentum. “Oh, the audience loves cooking shows.” “The audience loves guys in
muddy rivers putting their hands into holes and pulling out fish.” They want to
chase wherever that momentum goes, wherever the ratings are, wherever the
tickets are. So if we understand that, and approach our view toward Hollywood
and entertainment as by choosing to buy we are in effect voting. If we show up
to vote on opening weekend, or when these shows release and make them massive
hits, they’re going to follow momentum once again. So the first part of the
purpose of As1 is for us to understand that in unity, together, we can affect
massive change in Hollywood and the kinds of projects they make. Now that’s not
to say they’re going to stop making the other ones, but Hollywood is a zero-sum
game. If you’re a studio called Warner Brothers, you’re going to make twenty
movies a year. If Bible projects are a guaranteed winner, where you know you
have a bankable audience, you’re not going to make twenty Bible movies, but you
make one or two, and then you multiply that across all of the studios, and now
not only do you have a dozen more of the movies that you want, but you have a
dozen less of the movies that you don’t want. And that’s how you start to shape
culture.

Yo: How do you
think this will play out with people making these movies who may not be as
familiar with the Bible with someone who is a Bible believing Christian? How do
think that will affect the outcome of these movies and the audience’s reaction
to them?

Jonathan: Are you
asking me if all of these movies are going to all be one-hundred percent
Biblically accurate?

Yo: No, I’m just
wondering how you think people are going to react …because you got the Fireproof stuff and everyone’s like “Those
are Christians, they’re making movies for Christians, ergo as a Christian I
should go and see that movie,” as opposed to guys like Russell Crowe and Darren
Aronofsky who may not be Christians, but they’re making a movie about the
Bible, how Christian is it going to be? How do you think Christian audiences
will react to that?

Jonathan: Well,
you know I think that in the case of movies like Fireproof, we should be supportive of those movies. Now, do I think
they’re high art? I don’t think Fireproof
is high art. However, their heart’s in the right place, the movies keep
getting better, Fireproof and the
Sherwood Baptist Church guys are impacting this as a business and, you know
what, I’m okay with giving ten bucks to them on opening weekend because I want
to keep sending that message that I want these movies to succeed. So even
though they’re not necessarily in my wheelhouse, they would never be on my
top-ten list of favorite movies, I do want to see them be hits. I also got news
for the Sherwood guys, though, we got an all-star team of Hollywood filmmakers
who are now moving into the Bible business and it’s going to be incumbent upon
them to raise their game. Because the competition now isn’t going to be other
million dollar Christian movies, it’s going to be the Steven Spielberg’s of the
world, the Will Smith’s of the world, the Mark Burnett’s of the world, the
Darren Aronofsky’s of the world who are now going to be their competition for
part of this business. So, necessarily they must get better at their art, at
their craft and make better movies. Now, in answer to how the Christian
community will respond to this, I guess it remains to be seen. I think it will
spell disaster for us if we respond how…I think right now we would respond, if Noah were coming out today, I think we
would stand there with our arms crossed, back on our heels and say, “Well prove
to me this isn’t going to offend me. Prove to me this is one-hundred percent
Biblically accurate.”

Yo: Wasn’t that
kind of the reaction to The Nativity
when it came out?

Jonathan: Yeah, a
bit. The Nativity was a very average movie;
it was not a terrific movie. It wasn’t a bad movie but it just wasn’t a
terrific movie. I think that hurt us, to be perfectly honest with you. I think
it hurt us that that movie didn’t do better and that we didn’t come out and go,
“Come on, it’s the birth of Christ. We’re going to get out there and support
this movie.” And that’s what I’m advocating here, is that unless this movie [Noah] is patently offensive, and I
happen to know it’s not, I think we need to be out there opening weekend buying
as many tickets as we can. Because, again, we have to understand the other side
of this portal that’s being opened. If we make these a hit, they’ll make more.
But the flip side of it is, if we don’t make these a hit, then what’s going to
happen in the mind of every studio executive is they’re going to go, “Eh, nobody
wants these movies.” It’s too high of a risk. If nobody shows up for these
movies, then guess what they’ll do, they’ll stop making them and it’ll be a
generation before we start before we see any of these movies ever again.

Yo: I think The Nativity was kind of a case study
for that because, yeah it was an average movie, but yet it was about the birth
of Christ, and so rallying people to go out and see it should have been a
no-brainer, and yet you have movies like Fireproof,
also average, and yet Christians were more than willing to support that
because, hey, it was made by a Christian. It was just an interesting case study
in how they reacted at that time, hopefully that’ll change here in the near
future with some of these new projects that are coming out.

Jonathan: Well,
the stakes are incredibly high now, and we have to understand that. By choosing
not to support these movies, we are in effect shooting ourselves in the foot.
Part of what needs to happen here is the Christian community needs to recognize…well,
let’s do something, let’s take this out of the realm of entertainment for a
minute, okay. If you look at our politics, okay, it doesn’t matter whom you
support, which party you support, the Christian community has a very sophisticated
view of politics as evidenced by the two standard bearers of each party. There’s
clearly no litmus test that’s going on for either one of these guys because people
are thinking, “Well, I need to go with the greatest good; where I think the
country should go, how I think things should be. Is this guy a hundred percent
aligned with my values and vision? No, of course not. But maybe it’s close
enough and that’s why I’m going to support them.” Now, contrast that with our
view of entertainment where we have a very unsophisticated view of things. We
do have a lot of litmus tests. “What, there were three bad words in this!” You
know, people counting up those things, “Four instances of upper male nudity in
this movie, ergo it’s not a moral movie.” Come on. Are you kidding me? We need
to get past that, we need to have as equally of sophisticated view of
entertainment as we do of politics. We need come at this smartly. We need to be
clever about how we’re doing it. We need to do exactly what Jesus implored his
disciples to do when he sent them out, which is to be innocent as doves but
also be as shrewd as serpents. This is a case where we have several movies
coming down the pipeline that are high risk, high reward; not only for the
studio, but for us. By making them hits, by saying, “You know what? Good
enough. I’m going to be there.” Not only are they going to make more, but we’re
also getting the gospel preached all over the world. Again, consider the
dollars that are going into this. You’ve got a studio like Paramount or Warner
Brothers who are making these projects; they’re going to spend well north of a
hundred million dollars making these movies. They’re also going to spend well
north of a hundred million dollars in marketing them worldwide. So every time
these come out, that’s another hundred million dollar marketing campaign for
our faith. How is that not in our best interest? How is the gospel not being
preached when that happens? How is this not adding to the conversation? Every
time one of these movies comes out and you have those water cooler moments on Monday
morning when someone says, “Hey did you see Noah?”
“Hey did you see Moses, that was
pretty good, right?” And you’re in to the conversation. How is that not to our
best interest?

Yo: Well I think
it totally is, which is why we’re having this conversation in order to convince
others. Tell people where they can find out more about As1 and more about this
movement as it goes forward.

Jonathan: It’s
very simple. You go to As1.org. You can find out all about the organization,
you can sign up, and then you can start to be smart. Right here, we have an
opportunity coming up, August 23rd for us to impact culture. We’ve
got a show coming out on the Game Show Network called The American Bible Challenge. The
American Bible Challenge
is basically a game show about the Bible; it’s
like Jeopardy with the Bible. The
host is comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who turns out is a terrific Christian guy. He
leads a small group study every week for homeless guys, he’s involved with
Young Life, he’s a really good dude. So I look at that and go, okay, show about
the Bible, celebrating the Bible, by the way, all the contestants are playing
for different ministries and charities. How do we not make sure this thing isn’t
a monster hit? We should. So what you do is, August 23rd, make sure
you set your DVR or make sure you watch The
American Bible Challenge
and make this thing a big, big hit.

Learn more about As1 at As1.org, or like them on Facebook.