Here's an interview with a movie producer who I was able to interview on a
trip to New Hampshire recently. It's an interesting situation this
production company is in, and he gives some good background information
about what the hurdles are. The interview appears on Christianity Today
and on my website here:
'Perhaps Just Out of Our Minds'
Christian filmmaker Buzz McLaughlin tries to find a niche between secular
movies and preachy ones-only to find it's an elusive market.
In the independent film *The Sensation of Sight*, Oscar nominee David
Strathairn plays an introspective English teacher who feels himself
complicit in a tragedy, and then begins selling encyclopedias door-to-door
to the locals. But his anxieties begin to consume him as various characters
and dreamlike situations increase around him, ultimately pushing him toward
an unexpected awakening.
It's sort of a strange synopsis for a "Christian" movie-which it isn't. The
filmmakers behind *Sight*-which played 19 festivals worldwide, had a limited
theatrical release earlier this summer, and is now available on DVD-are
Christians, but they didn't want to make a distinctively Christian movie.
But they didn't want to make an entirely secular one either, opting to
include themes of faith and redemption in the story in more subtle,
intelligent ways, instead of being preachy and/or didactic.
Executive producer Buzz McLaughlin and director Aaron Wiederspahn formed
Either/Or Films-named for a book by Soren Kierkegaard-a few years ago "for
the purpose of developing and creating films of beauty and artistic
excellence that provoke the public to engage with the providential mystery
of grace," as their mission statement says.
Frederica Mathewes-Green of CT Movies caught up with McLaughlin at a
conference in New Hampshire recently, and their conversation about finding a
niche in the film business was fascinating-especially as the two filmmakers
ran into outright hostility from industry insiders who even suspected that
they might be men of faith.
CTM: *The Sensation of Sight* is the first movie from Either/Or
How did you come to form the company?
Buzz McLaughlin: I met Aaron some years back in Orlando, when he produced a
play of mine; his theater, Trilemma, had been founded by a group of
Christians. We immediately hit it off and began sharing our concerns over
what was happening in our culture, and in the film industry specifically.
Hollywood was supplying the marketplace with movies that consistently
attempted to reflect the chaos of the world-sometimes quite effectively-but
rarely tried to make sense of the chaos. On the other hand, films that did
attempt to reveal God's hand behind it all were often didactic or overtly
proselytizing, preaching a "message" rather than telling a story
artistically. With few exceptions, we saw films falling into one camp or the
other, with only rare examples that presented reality truthfully and
intelligently, asked important questions, and pointed in a positive
CTM: Could you name a few of those "rare examples"?
McLaughlin: We'd rather hold up a filmmaker's body of work than focus on
individual films, but here are some examples: Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire,
Robert Bresson's Au hazard Balthazar, Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia, and
Krzysztof Zanussi's The Year of the Quiet Sun. Of course there have been
admirable earlier American filmmakers, like Frank Capra. I must admit we're
not sure where to place Mel Gibson.
Other than ourselves, however, we don't know of any contemporary American
filmmakers with films in distribution, who are upfront about their faith and
attempting to make intelligent films outside the commercial marketplace that
are not evangelical or didactic in intent. If they're out there, we'd love
to know them.
CTM: Before The Sensation of Sight premiered in 2006 at the San Sebastian
International Film Festival, you hired a well-reputed firm, Premier Public
Relations of London. But before the festival you received a surprising phone
call from the PR person, didn't you?
McLaughlin: Yes, not long after we hired them, I received a call in which
she said, "I know who you are." I asked, "What do you mean?" She said, "I
was a philosophy major in college. I know about Kierkegaard, and I can see
from the film what you're up to."
This surprised me. We'd thought that The Sensation of Sight would be our
Trojan Horse into the film business, since the spirituality was not overt;
we were trying only to tell a story of a man's search for meaning in a
hurting world. Our mission statement appears on our website, but is not
Her next question was even more unexpected: "Did your church fund you?" I
assured her that all our capitalization had come from private equity
investors. She warned that there would be considerable hostility from the
press, and that we should be careful not to mention anything about our faith
or why we founded the company.
CTM: That must have been a surprising revelation to you.
McLaughlin: Up until that moment, both of us had been blissfully unaware
that a sizeable portion of the secular media would be hostile to any
production company bold enough to state what they're trying to accomplish on
the spiritual plane. Our assumption while making The Sensation of Sight was
that the work would be assessed on its own terms, on the basis of quality
and artistic merit. Like most film companies, we'd employed the best talent
possible, from actors (including Strathairn, an Academy Award nominee for
Best Actor in Good Night, and Good Luck) to cinematographer to key crew;
most of them were not religious, and had come on board simply because they
wanted to work and liked the material.
As it turned out, our London PR person was right. This is something that
we've learned to live with since. In some venues where the film has
screened, there hasn't been a problem at all, with everyone seeming to judge
the film on its own terms. At others we can sense the resistance, and
sometimes wonder how the film even managed to slip into the festival. Of
course, this brings up the issue of the gatekeepers and the power they wield
in accepting or rejecting films.
CTM: Who are these "gatekeepers"?
McLaughlin: The person who makes the final choice about whether to accept a
film or reject it. With film festivals, it's usually the Artistic Director
or the Program Director; with distributors, it's the Vice President of
Acquisitions. Of course, before a film gets to that person, it has gone
through a gauntlet of "slush readers" and selection committees, as the
hundreds or thousands of submissions get narrowed down to a manageable few.
So the gatekeeper syndrome really begins with the readers who first set eyes
CTM: Can't anyone make any movie they want?
McLaughlin: Yes, but the issue is getting it into the marketplace. The
Internet is helping filmmakers find new ways to control their own
distribution, but in the end there are simply too many movies coming out for
them all to be widely distributed. Some kind of stringent narrowing is
CTM: What does getting into a festival, or getting a distributor, do for a
McLaughlin: For an independent filmmaker, the festival circuit is the best
way to build a film's reputation, in terms of press, critical reviews, and
industry buzz. Some festivals are more important than others, since they're
"market" festivals (Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and Berlin, for example),
while others offer prestige and/or exposure. And a distributor is the
middleman who adopts your film and gets it into the domestic and
international marketplace-releasing it theatrically, on DVD, TV, cable,
pay-per-view, on the Internet-anywhere it has a chance of finding an
audience. There are big distributors, with lots of clout and money, and
small distributors (like ours) with not much of either. Do-it-yourself
distribution is a growing phenomenon, but it is a tremendous amount of work.
CTM: What would you say about overtly Christian film projects like Facing
the Giants or Fireproof? Do those filmmakers have a different aim than
McLaughlin: I have nothing but admiration for the producers of Facing the
Giants. They set out to make a small budget film for a specific audience,
and succeeded beyond everyone's wildest expectations. They went after their
audience with skill and all engines firing, and did very well. But it seems
to me that Facing the Giants and Fireproof are not so much cracking open the
culture as preaching to the choir. I don't mean that in a negative sense,
but rather that they know their target audience, and are successfully making
movies aimed at them.
Our films are aimed at a different target. We want to reach the person who
would have trouble relating to an overt faith-based approach. We want to
create films that deal in an artful and truthful way with struggles and
moral dilemmas, and hopefully we will leave the audience considering answers
that point gently toward forgiveness, healing, and life-affirmation. We're
trying to reach an audience that is willing to ponder difficult questions,
but doesn't want to be led by the hand-an audience that will, if we're
successful, accept the invitation and begin the search themselves.
CTM: And apparently that strategy has a hard time finding an audience,
McLaughlin: Right. It leaves us between a rock and hard place, practically
speaking, in terms of getting our work out there. The commercial film
industry is leery of our kind of films, because it doesn't have a history of
a "safe sell" in the marketplace. And much of the Christian market is leery
as well, because the stories don't hit the nail directly on the head, and
present gritty characters and situations or language that would be
considered unacceptable. Commercial viability today is not associated with
the genre of "drama" anyway; studios and big distributors tend to avoid it,
even when that drama won top prizes at Cannes or Sundance. So one could say
we're either masochistic for going down this path, or devoid of business
sense, or perhaps just out of our minds. But those are the kinds of films we
feel called to make.
Still, our experience with our first film, The Sensation of Sight, has been
encouraging; at many screenings the feedback has been promising, as have
been the user reviews that appear on sites like Amazon, Netflix, and IMDb.
The film isn't for everyone, but we often hear people-Christians and
non-believers alike-saying that they've never experienced a film quite like
it, that it was a profound experience and stayed with them for days or
weeks, and helped them with struggles in their lives. This lets us know that
what we've set out to do hasn't been in vain, and provides much of the
motivation to make our next film.
*The Sensation of Sight* (rated R for some language) is available
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