by Brie Loskota
When I was a kid the Movieguide newsletter would arrive and, if I was quick enough, I could hide it before my mom stacked it on our bookshelf near the encyclopedias. If I failed, there it sat as an arbiter of what movies were “morally uplifting” (which, for Movieguide, meant pro-Christian, pro-capitalism and anti- just about everything else) and which films would send us spiraling down into moral turpitude.
After dinner our table was often transformed into ground-zero for the Culture Wars. My older sister and I were instructed to read aloud the movie reviews that categorized and rated the sins of each film in face-reddening detail. The exercise would end when my father issued a ruling as to which films we'd be allowed to see that weekend. Movieguide was a few thin sheets of paper that separated us from Hollywood's anti-Christian, anti-values propaganda.
A recent Religion News Service article picked up by the Kansas City Star suggests that not much has changed in Hollywood; the entertainment industry remains allergic to religion. Pointing to the lack of religion-based content in successful television shows, the RNS piece highlights a few cases of canceled programs to lend credibility to the common-sense claim that Hollywood is the oil to religion's water. But is that the whole story?
Turns out no. In fact, Movieguide itself asserts that “faith-based films made more money in 2011 than their left-leaning counterparts,” as a FoxNews headline tells us. An annual report by Movieguide “found that in 2011, American audiences preferred movies with strong conservative content and values over movies with liberal or left-leaning values by an almost six-to-one margin.” How is it that box-office successes for Christian films can exist in the heathen haven of Hollywood? (And let's leave the bizarre notion that moral values and liberal / left-leaning content are diametrically opposed for another blog).
According to Movieguide's head, “[E]very studio now has a Christian film division, and several studios are doing major movies with strong Christian content.”
To wit, the New York Times reports on “October Baby,” a “quiet hit” that received high marks from Movieguide, which belies the notion that Hollywood shies away from religion. Tailored to a mostly Christian audience, the film is “distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and the Sony-owned Provident Films, which specializes in socially conservative religious fare” and “benefited from the kind of grass-roots religion-focused marketing (enlisting Bible and prayer groups and ministries) that has carried their other Christian-oriented movies, like 'Fireproof' and 'Courageous,' to box-office success.”
“The [Movieguide] study also claimed that the stronger the Christian worldview in the film, the more money it made,” according to FoxNews. Perhaps that is the real story. Beyond the ongoing debate about Hollywood's ideological proclivities lies one important fact: Studios have recognized the market power of conservative Christian audiences and are tailoring offerings to fit the niche.
How did this happen? Who are the players? What does the content look like? And what does this portend for the future?
Perhaps it's time to get beyond the notion that religion is subjecta non grata in Hollywood and dig deeper into the complex machinery supporting and making money off of the religious market. Remember, they call it “The Industry” for a reason.
Brie Loskota is Managing Director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She also serves as the program officer for the CRCC Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative, a project that seeks to spur new research on one of the world's fastest growing religious movements.