Interview by Todd Hertz
In the early 1990s, Phil Vischer and his Big Idea Productions carefully watched the developing trends in family entertainment. This culture-watching led to the enormously successful home video series VeggieTales. But shortly after releasing its first feature film, Jonah, Big Idea declared bankruptcy and sold all its assets to Classic Media LLC. Since then, Vischer has written Me, Myself and Bob (Thomas Nelson), about the faith lessons of Big Idea's collapse, and has returned to watching cultural and technological trends to discover how to best help Christian parents in this much-changed media landscape.
Can you watch Jonah now knowing all that happened afterward?
No, it's pretty messed up. We laid off half the studio the morning after our premiere party. I don't know if you could soil a memory more than that. It was brutal.
When I watch the movie now, I can smell my ambition—the drive to do as much as I could with Big Idea as fast as I could. We were in financial trouble actually before we went into production. The movie became about me wanting God to put a stamp of approval on my ambition. And he didn't. He declined my invitation. Sometimes the best way to grow is to lose and to fail—dramatically and publicly.
Before Big Idea was sold, you wrote the second VeggieTales movie, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. It was made and released by the new owners in 2008. But a major thing in Christian film happened between the two VeggieTales films—The Passion of the Christ. How did that change Hollywood?
It's a different world. So many doors are open. It's very easy to pitch your idea thanks to Passion. The new Big Idea owners invited me to come to L.A. to pitch the story of The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything to Universal. (I was working on contract for Big Idea as a writer and voice talent.) Doing that pitch was bizarre because three years earlier, we couldn't get any of the majors to show any interest in Jonah. That was pre-Passion. In fact, when I got to Universal for Pirates, there were 15 executives in the room to hear the pitch. One commented, "We didn't get this many people together to take the King Kong pitch!"
After I walked them though the whole story, the head of marketing says, "That's really great. But, do you think it's Christian enough? Because if it needs to be more Christian, we're fine with that."
I thought, What alternate universe did I just wake up in? It's a very strange world in the sense that everyone in Hollywood is looking for Christian movies.
However, no one knows what a Christian movie is. This confusion has created a cottage industry of Christian experts working on behalf of studios to help them find Christian movies or help them figure out how to make Christians come to their movies. It's like Hollywood discovering that Lithuanian movies are wildly popular—but no one in Hollywood speaks Lithuanian. So, suddenly there's an industry of Lithuanian translators who watch movies and tell Hollywood if they are any good. Right now, we have people making a decent living telling studios, "Oh, this is a good Christian movie and here's how to get it to them." It's a bizarre time.
Were you tempted to add more overt God content in Pirates after Universal said you could?
I was trying to build a parable for the Christian life in a little movie about three lazy pirates. Because it's a parable, I couldn't have a literal God. When Jesus told the parable about the vineyard owner, he didn't mention God because he was already there metaphorically. When you're in Narnia, you cannot talk about Jesus because you're living in allegory.
What do success stories like Passion, the first Narnia film, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy tell evangelicals about making successful films?
I've learned the hard way that movies are not a great teaching medium. If you want to engage people emotionally, great—but you can't ever turn to the camera and say, "Now I have three points I want to make about parenting." You can do that on TV. Sesame Street does that. Dora the Explorer does that every day and nobody says, "That's not filmmaking! That's didactic!" The difference is that people do not go to the movies to be preached at. That's the bottom line. The more you preach, the fewer you reach. What frustrates me with the film business is how much time, energy, and money you have to spend to have the opportunity for two sentences of real transparent meaning.
The Passion was such an anomaly; you really can't use it to learn much of anything about the nature of film. You had the most popular film actor in the world making a deeply personal work of art about a religious story. What are the odds of that happening again?
The movies inspired by the Narnia stories and the Lord of the Rings are also tough test cases. How many Narnias are there? How easy is it to come up with another Lord of the Rings? It's not.There's Tolkien and Lewis and then everybody else. Besides, Narnia had a 50-year history of engagement with fans—and a grandfather-clause evangelical exception for the use of fantasy and magic. You can't get away with that today. Now, if we go to another fantasy world, we need to find Jesus there—literally.
That is why for some evangelicals, the Harry Potter books are seen as being straight from the pit. Even if Rowling says she's employing Christian themes, forget it. How do you write a Christian fantasy today? I have no idea. I don't know that you can. I think we've killed it. I think we are so concerned with how oppressed our worldview is and so defensive that we've painted ourselves into a corner. And thus, we can't tell the kind of stories that Lewis or Chesterton would have told to share the gospel. It's kind of depressing, frankly.
After Big Idea was sold, you started Jellyfish Labs, an idea incubator. What was the goal?
We wanted to go back to being like Big Idea Productions in 1993—when we were just looking at trends. Back then, that led directly to VeggieTales. Now, it has led us to launch JellyTelly (JellyTelly.com), which is a seed planted online for a Christian Nickelodeon.
We need some way to interact with kids on a daily basis. With VeggieTales, even at our peak, we were telling two stories a year. The average American kid is consuming about 5 hours of media a day—including more than 3 hours of TV. So, telling two stories a year is not helping parents as much as they need to be helped.
Instead, we want to be there every day—like Mr. Rodgers was—and say: "Good morning, kids, here's what we're gonna learn today." Even if it's just for a half hour a day, we could have a huge impact by taking them out of the Hollywood media stream.
Kids consume media in so many ways. Some have assumed that tv is dying because of all the other growing media. But tv consumption has held steady for five years. Instead of being replaced, it's merely being augmented by all these other options, and media consumption is rising. So, we need to be on tv. What's the best way to get there? Sony rolled out their new line of tvs, and they all have internet ports on the back. All entertainment is becoming data. In ten years, the internet will be how all data is transmitted—whether you access it on your tv, laptop, or iPod is irrelevant.
As Christians, we need to be platform agnostic: "No, I am not in the tv business or the internet business. I am in the content business." We need to get our content out in as many ways as possible: iTunes, Hulu, YouTube, Comcast Video on Demand, etc. There are so many ways to transmit storytelling and teaching into a household, you can't say there is one way. They are all how we can reach people. It's an interesting and quite tumultuous time in media.
What is driving you now as you develop JellyTelly?
According to one study, half of Christian kids raised in the church are walking away from their faith after high school. We are not doing a good job passing our faith on to our kids. A big part of the problem is that no one passed it on to us very well. We have a generation of parents who don't know their faith either. Gallup looked at data a few years ago and found that half of adult Protestants can't define the word grace, much less live it out. They don't even know what it means.
I learned my numbers watching Sesame Street. We need to do the same thing in Christian homes today—writing little songs about grace and forgiveness. Let's teach church history. Let's bring biblical literacy to life so we can raise a generation of Christians who actually know what they believe. Let's put flesh on theology for kids the way that Sesame Street brought literacy to life.
The world of entertainment is splitting into two directions: 1) The ultra-high end. This includes the $200-million films like Iron Man and the Pixar productions, which are becoming more and more common. 2) The ultra-low end. This is everything from YouTube videos to the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network to $10,000-per-episode reality TV shows. What's dying is the middle. What was once the bulk of the industry—prime-time television and high-end kids' shows—is just withering because the economics don't work anymore. So what we're looking at is not how Christians can make $200-million movies—I'm not sure that is a viable pursuit—but how can we be in the daily flow of ideas. No longer is the plan to work five years to tell one story with all the resources of a small Asian country.
Todd Hertz is a film critic for ChristianityTodayMovies.com and a freelance writer.
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