It has come to our attention that the October 26 issue of Sightings ("The Crush of Paradox") contained two misstatements: 1. The article suggests that the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie was "banned" in New York City. Though the New York Theater Workshop, which had planned a production, postponed its premiere, the play is currently being staged at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Manhattan. 2. The article also suggests that the Royal Court Theater in London "withdrew" this play. The play, however, saw two runs at this venue before moving to a larger theater in London's West End. We appreciate our readers' corrections; unfortunately, Sightings cannot do independent checking of facts on every item submitted and published.
November 2, 2006
FoxFaith and the "Christian Market" for Movies
— Glenn Whitehouse
FoxFaith recently became the newest division of 20th Century Fox, in the latest nod to a "Christian market" on the part of mainstream media producers. This represents both an effort by a major studio to produce new films for this audience, and a new strategy for marketing existing films. The website for the division features theatrical and DVD releases with overt Christian content, as well as associated "family" movies, such as Fox's recent mainstream children's films.
Simon Swart of Fox was quoted in the New York Times, saying, "The FoxFaith banner is ... a Good Housekeeping seal, a marketing umbrella for these pictures, so that people can have confidence the movies won't violate their core beliefs." The Guardian reports that Fox partnered with the Dove Foundation, a rating agency that literally does provide a seal — a logo featuring a dove and the words "Family Approved." Downloadable study guides and video clips are provided on the FoxFaith site for use in church group meetings, and as the Times reports, the studio has amassed a list of 90,000 churches to receive marketing materials.
The Times and the Guardian construe the significance of FoxFaith in terms of the growing power of a Christian market segment. Awakened by the success of films like The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood is finding ways to produce and market for that audience, much like the music industry has done. Of more interest than the existence of this market, however, is what they're buying.
One thing they're mostly not buying is doctrine. Though the "Christian market" Fox is courting should rightly be called the evangelical Christian market, it is notable that this does not translate into micromarketing to a fundamentalist ghetto, if descriptions of upcoming films on the FoxFaith website are any indication. The "Christian" film of the future will not simply be a higher-budget version of the morality plays and judgment dramas that are the fare of youth group movie nights; the Left Behind films actually appear to be something of an anomaly in this regard.
Instead, Fox is betting that conservative Christians want to return to an "older" version of Hollywood itself. The use of the Dove rating system and the marketing emphasis on "safe" films indicate that what Fox is selling is not so much religious films as a portal to get back to a Hays Code version of Hollywood. This is a safe bet, given that it meshes with fundamentalist narratives of cultural corruption in which post-Hays Hollywood features prominently. Even what explicitly religious fare as there is seems oddly reminiscent of a previous era; the descriptions for upcoming films The Nativity and One Night with the King (the Esther story) indicate the kind of respectful but still nonsectarian retellings that would have been familiar from the age of blockbuster Bible epics.
What is there to object to in all this? Perhaps nothing. Parents' desire for entertaining and religiously themed films suitable for children is completely understandable, though there is irony in the fact that FoxFaith's genesis was the success of The Passion — hardly a child-safe film!
On the other hand, one might well ask what the FoxFaith moviegoer is missing. Though Fox is happy to have conservative Christians believe that they are offering the "good old days" of Hollywood updated, I suspect they will get something more akin to a saccharine Hallmark television movie. When every movie was made under the restriction of the production codes, American cinema was at least sometimes able to handle significant, grown-up themes in a format that was also "suitable for younger audiences" — a trick that required subtlety, wit, and some work on the part of audiences to fill in the blanks. My suspicion is that the movies marketed as "safe" today without that code will tend more toward the sentimental, unchallenging, and frankly adolescent tone that characterizes so much of "Christian" popular culture.
And one might yet fear that the FoxFaith or Dove seals could potentially ghettoize religion in Hollywood movies. In reality, there is no shortage of generally religious or specifically Christian themes in popular films today. FoxFaith viewers may ultimately wind up protecting themselves from the opportunity to reflect on the rich religious content offered in some "unsafe" movies — The Matrix, Dogma, or The Rapture, to name a few. This may be precisely what conservative religious leaders want, given that they would probably construe such films as heterodox. But the experience of teaching courses on religion and film tells me that the person whose taste includes both The Prince of Egypt and Fight Club is prepared for religious engagement with her culture in a way that more culturally sheltered people are not.
It would be a pity if the consequence of creating a new home for Christian filmgoers is that they cease to converse with their secular and religiously different neighbors.
"Fox Unveils a Division for Religious-Oriented Films," by Sharon Waxman (New York Times, September 20, 2006); "Hollywood finds Christ as FoxFaith plans a series of religious movies," by Suzanne Goldenberg (The Guardian, September 20, 2006); FoxFaith's website: http://www.foxfaith.com ; the Dove Foundation's website: http://www.dove.org.
Glenn Whitehouse is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Florida Gulf Coast University.