God may not be offered a front row seat at the Oscars tomorrow night, but the past couple of years have proven that faith still has a rightful place in Hollywood. Several Christian films flourished this year as audiences flocked to the theater to see them. Behind the scenes of all this success was one Christian media company that has worked for over a decade to promote positive, faith-encouraging films.
Jonathan Bock is the founder and president of Grace Hill Media, a company whose mission is to “bridge the chasm that existed between Hollywood and the relatively untapped market of Religious America,” according to its website. He spoke with Townhall about the company’s efforts - and how it all began when he was working in the Warner Brothers’ publicity department.
“We had a couple films coming out that I really just casually said to my bosses, ‘You know, I think people who go to church would really like these movies. We should hire some company that reaches out to pastors, and Christian radio stations and the like.’ And they said, ‘great idea.’ And then we looked around for a company like that to hire and there was nobody. It’s an enormous segment of our country and it was just staggering to me that nobody was doing really anything to reach out to them in this way.”
So, he put together a proposal and asked Warner Brothers to allow him to him leave and hire him back as a consultant to put his idea into motion. Fifteen years and more than 350 different movies and TV projects later, Grace Hill Media has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Among some of the films Grace Hill has helped promote include “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Bruce Almighty,” and “National Treasure.” One thing these films all have in common, is that in some way they present faith-based messages to their audiences. A few of the projects Bock and his team have worked on stand out more than others. He named a few of the more rewarding ones, such as “Act of Valor,” a movie that starred actual Navy SEALs. Bock said it was an honor to work with such heroes. Another film he was pleased to be a part of was the popular Oscar-winning film about a Christian family who invited a troubled, yet talented African-American teen into their home and helped him forge a path straight into the NFL.
“One of my favorite ones to work on was ‘The Blind Side,’ which was a deeply satisfying movie to see do as well as it did. It hit every category of audience goers. Kids liked it, men liked it for the football, women liked it for the family story, young, old, black, white. It hit all of the categories. So that was satisfying to see it do as well as it did.”
Bock explained that Grace Hill has a few simple criteria when choosing movies to promote.
“Rule number one is it can’t suck. It’s no fun to work on the bad ones. Now we’ve been successful enough that we can be a little more selective than most other folks. It’s just a lot more fun to work on enjoyable, entertaining movies. I always am looking for things that are stories that inspire people, or challenge people. In terms of do we have a strict criteria, we don’t. We’ve done everything from family rated ‘G’ movies, all the way to hard ‘R’ movies. Our point of view on marketing those movies, is that movies tend to be self-selecting. Because the spectrum is so big, we can tailor our marketing to fit a particular audience. My goal is always to try and find movies that predominantly entertain and inspire.”
A more recent film that fit these qualifications was last year’s Angelina Jolie-directed smash, “Unbroken.” The film brought WWII hero Louis Zamperini’s odyssey to the big screen, touching on his faith that helped him through both the war and, eventually, his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For Bock, the opportunity to promote Zamperini’s story was a personal one. He attended the same church as Zamperini when he was a teenager.
"We didn’t know Louie as war hero, Olympian, survivor, we just knew him as a kindly old man who somehow was able to wrangle us free lift tickets when we went on a junior high ski weekend. And of course as I grew up I learned a little bit more about him and what an extraordinary human being he was, so to be involved in this movie and to get to know the Zamperini family, it’s been a real pleasure.”
It’s perhaps superfluous to mention that the faith-based market hasn’t always thrived as well as it has in recent years. Bock notes that while it took a long time for Hollywood to cater to Christians, the red carpet is finally being rolled out for them.
“I’ve always viewed it as an enormous market. I used to say ‘enormously untapped,’ but it’s being very effectively reached now in this arena.”
It’s also an arena in which A-list movie stars are more willing to enter. Bock says a lot of this has to do with supply and demand.
“Faith-based movies, which as a category hardly ever existed a few years ago, have now come on the scene and it’s shown that there’s a business there. If you do it for the right price, and you put it in the right theaters and you do a good amount of marketing, tell the right kind of story, it’s going to make a return. So studios have recognized this and more and more of them are getting comfortable with making these as films on a small scale.”
In addition to financial incentives, actors are choosing biblical films because of their appealing storytelling. For example, huge biblical epics are being produced again, such as last year’s “Noah” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” starring Hollywood heavy hitters Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, respectively.
“I think part of the reason of that is, first off they’re incredibly well known stories, so they have a built in awareness level already...They’re epic stories and they’re known worldwide. Also, they’re public domain. You don’t have to pay Marvel a huge license fee to make them. The more these movies succeed, the more they’re going to make them.”
Considering a majority of Americans consider themselves Christians, why was Hollywood so unrepresentative of them for so long? Bock had some suggestions.
“A fairly good reason for that is that Hollywood by and large is not a churchgoing crowd. Their lack of awareness of friends and family who do go to church, is evident in that...We’re all drawn to the things that we know and are most familiar with. And I think that, when it comes to entertainment, it’s really based in Los Angeles and New York and the people who tend to be involved in these industries are just not churchgoers. I think it’s that simple. I don’t think it’s some massive cultural - it’s a little of culture bias - but I don’t think it’s an intentional culture bias.”
If the last few years are any indication, that secular Hollywood bubble seems to be bursting. Bock says a Christian revival in Hollywood is not as far fetched as some may believe.
“I think there’s already a real renaissance that’s happening. The movies that are explicitly Christian seem to be getting better and better, and part of the reason for that is that the talent pool has gotten better...It’s forced the Christian community to up our game a little bit. The expectation of what a good movie is, keeps going up for the audience and so we have to respond in kind. In some ways that’s helping us get better, but getting studios into making these films has been a great boon, because Hollywood is a collection of the best storytellers. From my point of view as a Christian, I think we’ve got the best stories.”