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 Entertainment.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-headquartered Christian film production and distribution company was founded in 2003 by David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe. Their 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 starring Greg Kinnear, Renee Zellweger, Jon Voight and Djimon Hounsou.
A 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 is free for one month, then jumps to $7.99 per month. Think of it as a Christian Netflix. 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 schooling material markets.”
I have watched a pretty steady diet of Christian media along with secular media all my life, and I’ve always been fascinated by the divide between the two. 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 one week when I picked seven pieces of content from Pure Flix’s streaming service to watch.
“New World Order,” the first film I watched, was a low-rent “Left Behind”-type film rife with inconsistencies and a shaky moral premise. It’s in the “most-watched” category, which 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.
About that target audience — Gudorf told me the company’s main audience is evangelical Christian-focused.
“Our bull’s-eye 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 collide after a pastor meets a sidewalk preacher (played by Delroy Lindo) who helps him clarify what 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,” he says at one point), 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. There are four black characters in this movie; half of them begin the film as criminals.
And if you thought “Crash” didn’t have any subtext, consider this: Astin’s character is named Thomas, as in Doubting Thomas. He refuses to believe it when Bosworth comes back to life after flatlining for eight minutes.
The film 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, 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 wasn’t feeling too impressed. 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 store robbery gone wrong, carried out by two brothers. The Man here appears as the store’s clerk and helps one of the brothers realize the error of his ways, and that influence spreads to the rest of the robbery crew.
In the second episode, “U-Turn,” 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).
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.
For Day 5 of my week of Pure Flix, I watched “It Takes a Church,” 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 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., which I watched on the Pure Flix iPhone app. It was a great way to start my morning, and I found the message to be inspirational and challenging. The app worked better than Netflix’s iPhone app at some points and was extremely user-friendly. Gudorf said the company just revamped the app a few months ago and worked out a lot of bugs.
On Day 7, I watched “Woodlawn.” The inspirational sports film centers on the true story of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala., in the early 1970s. Integration was just starting to take effect, and head coach Tandy Gerelds was tasked with coaching his first integrated football team.
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 all color lines is deftly handled. It doesn’t preach, and it lets the Christian values of the characters come naturally through their actions.
Throughout this week, I kept thinking about the Christian music genre in my teenage years. The divide between secular and Christian media was meant to offer a safe haven from the perils of the world. 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.
The primary purpose of films like the ones Pure Flix offers is to be reaffirming to the faithful. “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. But if the film studio is to expand to become one that can minister to non-Christians, it 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 inauthenticity a mile away.