Almost three years ago, a little $2 million movie named “God’s Not Dead” opened in theaters. The story of a Christian college student who challenges his atheist philosophy professor’s assertion that “God is dead,” it made back four times its budget in its opening weekend and went on to make a little more than $62.5 million worldwide.
The sequel, “God’s Not Dead 2,” about a fictional legal case involving separation of church and state in schools, came out two years later, again in the spring and again on a shoestring budget. It cost $5 million to make and easily earned that back and then some on its opening weekend, going on to earn almost $21 million worldwide. A third movie in the series is in the works.
The common factor between the two films (besides plots, budgets and profitable box office receipts) is a production studio: Pure Flix Films.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-headquartered Christian film production and distribution company was founded in 2003 by David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe. The studio’s credits include the “God’s Not Dead” franchise, “Do You Believe?” and the 1970s-era high school football movie “Woodlawn.” Upcoming releases include the Lee Strobel biopic “The Case For Christ” and October’s “Same Kind of Different As Me,” a true story about a Fort Worth art dealer, his wife and the homeless man they befriend.
The company recently got in the streaming business. The Pure Flix app was released in 2015 and is available on Android, iPhone, Roku and Amazon and can be used via Apple TV or Google Chromecast. The streaming service itself is free for one month, then jumps to $7.99 after that. As of this writing, there’s almost 6,000 titles available on the site, all of which boast “no language, sex or violence surprises.” The selection includes most of Pure Flix’s catalog, as well as other faith-based films, TV series, documentaries, sermons, Bible studies and home-schooling materials.
“It’s all based on what the consumers respond to, and it’s all about what we can bring to them through all the different formats,” Pure Flix Digital CEO Greg Gudorf said. “Actually, one of the strongest markets we have is Houston, and Dallas is one of our biggest home-school material markets.”
Last year, faith-based films made almost $137 million worldwide, according to Boxofficemojo.com. Like the horror film genre, the Christian film genre has proven a lucrative formula: Built-in loyal fan base + small budget + reaffirming stories – sex, language and violence = profit.
And this year will see the release of “God’s Not Dead 3” as well as a smattering of other faith-based entertainment. “The Shack” opened at No. 3 last weekend to the tune of $16 million. “The Case For Christ” opens April 7 and is poised to further help Pure Flix’s brand. But what about their streaming service? Is it any good?
I have watched a pretty steady diet of Christian media along with secular media all my life. I was raised on stuff like “McGee and Me,” “Adventures in Odyssey” and “Psalty the Psalm Book” as well as Disney movies and any action or comedy film I could get my hands on. And I’ve always been fascinated by the divide between secular and Christian media, and why both seem to be diametrically opposed to one another. Is it possible to make good Christian entertainment that appeals to everyone, not just Christians?
I set out to find an answer to this question last week when I picked seven pieces of content from Pure Flix’s streaming service to watch. Some were great, most were OK, and some were really bad — just like any streaming service. A majority of the films and TV shows I watched were produced by Pure Flix, but most of the content on the site is licensed content from other studios.
I live-tweeted my experience @jakeharris4 every night, and I detailed the first night of my #PureFlixWeek in a previous blog post. “New World Order: The End Has Come,” the first film I watched, was a low-rent “Left Behind”-type film rife with inconsistencies and a blindsiding ending. It’s in the “most-watched” category, and it was not made in association with Pure Flix. Its “most-watched” status leads me to wonder if the target audience is indeed preparing for the end times. If so, they would be better off reading the Bible than watching this film, which implies that the Mark of the Beast will look like the Wu-Tang symbol and the Antichrist will be Hispanic.More: Is Pure Flix, the ‘Christian Netflix,’ any good? I’m about to find out
About that target audience — Gudorf told me the company’s main audience is evangelical Christian-focused.
“Our bullseye is typically an evangelical Christian household, yes. But the command we were given was not to just minister to evangelicals; it was to minister to all. And so we have a pretty interesting mix, not just the single view of one particular denomination. And our customer information reflects that kind of broad basis, from people who are Catholic, Protestant, even Jewish. Yes, it’s faith content, but it’s also family content.”
That target audience was clearly in mind for the second film I watched, the Pure Flix produced and distributed “Do You Believe?” In this Christian version of “Crash,” the paths of 12 people all collide together after a pastor meets a sidewalk preacher played by Delroy Lindo (here in the “mystical Negro” trope) who helps him clarify what exactly he believes about Jesus. Other characters include Sean Astin as an atheistic doctor who could have only been written by someone who has only been around angry atheists (“I’m the one who saves people, yet they thank Jesus”), Brian Bosworth as a reformed convict, Lee Majors as a man grieving the loss of his daughter and Shwayze as a gangster trying to do the right thing (side note: there are four black main characters in this movie; half of them begin the film as criminals).
And Sean Astin's character is a religious person's view of an atheist: "I'm the one who saves people, yet they thank Jesus." #PureFlixWeek
— Jake Harris (@JakeHarris4) March 3, 2017
Oh, and if you thought “Crash” didn’t have any subtlety, consider this: Sean Astin’s doctor is named Thomas, as in Doubting Thomas. He refuses to believe it when Bosworth comes back to life after flatlining for eight minutes. And in a movie that insists on spelling out its themes for its viewers, Thomas is the only character left with an ambiguous faith at the end.
That’s not to mention the many ways “Do You Believe?” cribs from the “Crash” playbook, including an end sequence that calls to mind the Matt Dillon/Thandie Newton crash scene from that movie. It’s even worse when you remember that Dillon’s cop sexually assaulted Newton earlier in that film and he’s rescuing her later not out of any compassion but because it’s his job. This theme is handled in “DYB?” by allowing a Christian paramedic to rescue the lawyer who previously prosecuted him for administering the sinner’s prayer to a dying patient instead of any sort of aid.
Lest I sound like I’m relentlessly bashing the film, it did make me think hard about the ways I portray my Christian faith to the world and inspired me to live it better. That’s the point of the film, but I could have gotten that message without seeing multiple characters die simply as a service to the film’s convoluted plot and to the film’s main (Christian, mostly white) characters.
So, as Day 2 of Pure Flix Week came to a close, I was impressed with the app, but I wasn’t feeling too impressed with its content. But then I watched “The Encounter.”
“The Encounter” is one of Pure Flix’s first original series. It’s based on a series of films that share the same name. In them, a mysterious man simply referred to as “The Man” shows up to help people out of whatever bind they may be in. It’s later revealed that the Man is Jesus.
The pilot episode is about an amateur convenience story robbery gone wrong, carried out by two brothers and some friends. “The Man” here appears as the store’s clerk. He helps one of the brothers realize the error of his ways, and that influence spreads to the rest of the robbery crew. The 30-minute episode ends with one of the brothers preaching about his conversion to Christianity in a prison chapel.
On Day 4 I watched a second episode, “U-Turn,” which established “The Encounter” as an anthology show. In this episode, a high-profile lawyer attempting to leave her small hometown after an argument with her mom at her dad’s funeral ends up on a car ride with the Man and someone who I think the audience is supposed to believe is the devil. During the car ride, the lawyer comes to grips with her father’s loss and her mother’s grief at losing a husband and a daughter (to the big city). It also ends on a happy note, with the lawyer and her mother reconciling.
I found both episodes to be immensely watchable and not too preachy. Despite some casual sexism in the second episode (why is it always female characters who are punished for having jobs “in the big city” in Christian entertainment?), both were well-done and executed their premises in challenging ways. At one point, the Man offers a riff on Mark 8:36, emphasizing the importance of treasuring human relationships.
A good twist on Mark 8:36 here: "What good will it do if you save the world but lose your most important human relationships" #PureFlixWeek
— Jake Harris (@JakeHarris4) March 6, 2017
Both episodes also dealt with the question of “If God is a loving God, then why is there evil in the world?” by emphasizing humanity’s free will.
This is doing a good job of addressing the "why does evil exist/humanity's free will" question early on: "You made the choice [to do evil]."
— Jake Harris (@JakeHarris4) March 6, 2017
For Day 5 of Pure Flix Week, I watched a game show. “It Takes a Church” is a Game Show Network-produced series hosted by Christian singer Natalie Grant. Grant travels to different churches across America in search of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. The catch? All of the potential matches for each contestant must come from their church.
I could write an entire thesis on this concept and how, in attempting to create “‘The Bachelor,’ but for churches!,” the show ends up being no better than the reality TV it’s trying to ape. But I will leave that for another time.
Day 6 saw a sermon from Bayless Conley, a pastor at Cottonwood Church in Orange County, Calif. Pure Flix’s streaming service offers several Bible studies and sermons from a variety of sources. This sermon focused on ways to improve your relationship with God if you feel stuck. It was a great way to start my morning, and I found the message to be inspirational and challenging as well as biblically sound.
Didn't tweet it because I was watching on my phone via the @PureFlix app, but they have sermons on there, too. #PureFlixWeek pic.twitter.com/7s8wyNRr7f
— Jake Harris (@JakeHarris4) March 8, 2017
I watched that sermon on the Pure Flix iPhone app, which worked better than Netflix’s iPhone app at some points and was extremely user-friendly. That’s thanks to Gudorf, who said the company just revamped the app a few months ago and worked out a lot of bugs.
On Day 7, the final day of my week with Pure Flix, I watched “Woodlawn.” The film was produced and distributed by Pure Flix and brought in a little more than $14 million on a $12 million budget, according to Boxofficemojo.com.
The inspirational sports film centers on the true story of Birmingham, Ala.’s Woodlawn High School in the early 1970s. Integration was just starting to take effect, and head coach Tandy Gerelds is tasked with coaching his first integrated football team. Superstar black tailback Tony Nathan ends up becoming the team’s secret weapon on the field, and Sean Astin’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chaplain becomes the secret weapon off the field. Oh, and Jon Voight shows up as Bear Bryant.
This film could very easily have become a “Remember the Titans”-meets-Christianity mashup (indeed, the similarities between the two films are numerous), but it succeeds because the message that unity through a shared belief in Christ crosses through all color lines is deftly dealt with. It doesn’t preach, and it lets the Christian actions of the characters come naturally through their actions, unlike in “Do You Believe?” And Astin’s chaplain is just as convincing as his atheist doctor.
Throughout this experience, I kept thinking about the Christian music genre in my teenage years. The common refrains of “Oh, if you like Blink-182, you’ll love Relient K,” or “Switchfoot is a great band, but they’re also Christian, so that’s better!” rang hollow to me then, and they still do today. I was always confused: Why can’t we have both/and, not either/or? The divide between secular and Christian media was meant to offer a safe haven from the perils of the world I was supposed to be of, but not in. Instead, it turned many people of my generation away from the saccharine messages of Christian media and caused us to search for something that felt real and not merely an attempt to Christianize what Hollywood was doing.More: ‘Silence’ scholar: Tough film ‘should challenge Christians’
So, for this experiment, the parallels became clear the more I watched. Do you like “Left Behind” or other post-apocalyptic films? Watch “New World Order.” Did you enjoy “Crash” but don’t want to deal with the racism or the explicit language? Then “Do You Believe?” is right up your alley. Does “The Bachelor” make you squirm, but do you still want to see a representation of what love should be? “It Takes a Church” it is, then.
And yet, there are still great strides being made in Christian media. The primary purpose of films like the ones Pure Flix offers is to be reaffirming to the faithful. And those films are doing that in a number of ways. “Woodlawn” makes a point about sports being a unifier, and “The Encounter” encourages Christians to look in the mirror and confront their own selfish choices. As a streaming service and app, Pure Flix is top notch, and better than its competition in some regards (looking at you, HBO Now app).
But if the film studio is to expand to become one that can minister to non-Christians, the programming must get better at creating its own original stories and stop simply mining secular entertainment to create pale imitations of other films. Christians, especially young ones, can spot that type of in authenticity a mile away. For Christians looking for a service that promises family-friendly entertainment that will lead to conversations, Pure Flix is a great investment. If you’re not in that target market, however, you might not want to wade into these waters. But that’s a shame, too, because there is some genuinely entertainment here. You just have to know where to look. Just like Netflix.
Final rankings:“Woodlawn” Bayless Conley sermon “The Encounter” pilot “The Encounter” Episode 2 “New World Order: The End Has Come” “It Takes a Church” “Do You Believe?”