#NRB15 is Here!

NRB2015_LogoHere’s some things to think about.

~This is the first year with Jerry Johnson as the President of NRB. But you can already see his influence.

For instance, if this was last year, I would already be roaming the atriums at the Opryland Hotel. But this year the convention moved off the weekend. Johnson wanted to make it more friendly to pastors and church staff, so the convention that used carry over a Sunday, now starts on Tuesday.

~Digital media isn’t an afterthought anymore. Social media and the internet are a major focus. There’s a Digital Media Summit right in the middle of the convention. And the social media accounts associated with NRB have been heavily used running up to the convention.

~And the day before the convention starts the NRB FILM Committee (of which I am a member) is hosting a Film Summit with all sorts of people from the film and entertainment industry. Start the day off pitching your projects, and then learn from people who have been successful.

~Another change is the sheer amount of political speakers and topics being presented. The public policy arm of NRB is going to be front and center all week, with topics like freedom of speech and sexual orientation and marriage heading some of the events.

~Other changes are the advent of day passes, where people can buy just one day’s access to sessions, and a FREE Expo pass for the week. These changes seem to have encouraged more vendors to come back to the Expo. I even saw that AVID is coming this year. I don’t remember the last time major video editor was on the floor.

#NRB15 is going to be different and good. I’m looking forward to it!


Parables of the Talents and Bad Christian Film

I recently was trolling, ah, lurking? No, perusing an online group for religious filmmakers. One member very passionately made the argument that we (believers) shouldn’t make Christian films until we have all the resources in place to do as good a job as our secular counterparts.

On the one hand I can totally see his perspective. The last thing we need is more bad Christian movies. We’ve got enough of those.

In his argument we should wait until we have the resources, the technique, the ability to create something that isn’t sacrificing quality.

I agree with quite a lot of that. But I didn’t do what he suggested. I made a series for stupid cheap money, and even wrote an ebook encouraging others to follow suit. Obviously I’m not on the wait-until- you-have-everything bandwagon.

Am I wrong? Should I have waited until the show could have been done for $50,000 an episode? Or maybe $25,000? What is the magic number, anyway?

It shouldn’t be bad Christian vs good secular, it should be bad vs good.

Is it fair to compare low budget Christian films to blockbuster hits and Oscar winning secular films? Are bad Christian themes movies really any worse than bad secular films?

There’s plenty of bad non Christian film made. Lots of them. Tons of low quality short films and even a feature length products that friends and family watch, but almost no one else. In our case, Christian audiences are more accepting of lower quality because of the message. That may say more about Christian audiences than Christian filmmakers.

But bad films are bad films. Period. Our problem is that we, as believers, excuse the flaws, and allow bad religious fare to become widely known. Bad secular films just fail.

Regarding the original argument, I agree that any filmmaker should do their homework. If you have not bothered to learn basic script structure stop read this right now and go buy Save the Cat by Snyder and Story by Mckee. Immediately.

Don’t rush into production because you don’t want to take the time to learn how to be good. There are too many resources out there to learn how to be a better filmmaker.

But there are not as many resources of a more tangible sort. To make a film or show you need gear and people and places. I believe that if God has placed a burning desire to tell a story in your heart, he has also put the resources to accomplish that vision around you.

But most of the time that does not mean you can pull off a movie with a $2 Million budget. Most of the time you won’t have big name actors in your film. Does that mean you should wait, and not work on your dream?

I keep thinking about the parable of the talents in Matt 25:14ff. If the talents symbolize the resources and abilities God has given us, this parable seems at odds with not moving forward because you don’t want to disappoint God.

Imagine, the master returns and asks what I did with the talents he has given, and I say that I knew he was a hard master so I didn’t take the small amount he gave me and create something more, instead I waited. I hid it away and wished I had been given more. Will his reaction be different than the parable?

What if instead I took what small amount if resources I was given and used them to the very best of my ability (which he also gave me). And while we may not have seen five talents in return, we did see one come back.

If you are interested in religious films then you have surely heard of a church called Sherwood Baptist in Albany, GA. Have you ever watched their first film, Flywheel? This is a prime example of small amount being used to great effect, and God returning more and more throughout the cycle. Are any of their film Oscar worthy? No, but they get better each time, and people watch them.

At the 2014 NRB convention I heard one of the producers, David Nixon, say that their film Fireproof has been credited with helping to save 1 Million marriages. (They know this from messages they have gotten from people who were affected by the message of the film). What if they had waited to do Flywheel?

I’m reminded of this phrase, repeated twice in that passage: “You have been faithful over little, I will set you over much.”

So when I think about the argument that we should wait until we can make something amazingly good, I want to agree. But mainly because I am afraid. I am fearful about doing something so big. If only I could be content to wait. That would be easy. I’d be working a job that paid decent, and quietly pining for the moment what all the pieces fall together and I can make my magnificent movie. Dreams are safe if you never do anything about them.

What if God has given me a story to tell. And I wrote the best script I can, and then get the best gear and best cast and crew, and we make it. And it’s not 100%, more like 80%. But people see it.

Or what if God gives me a story to tell and I spend years waiting until I’m ready to deliver 100%.

Which one has more impact? Which one will allow me to gain experience and knowledge so the next project can be better?

Why We Shouldn’t Have Won the NRB Media Award for Best Creative TV Programming

NRB-Award-2013-410x410Last week National Religious Broadcasters announced that Peculiar would receive a 2014 NRB Media Award for Best Creative TV Programming. That’s a huge honor.

NRB has been around for 70 years. Every year they give out awards for various categories in the different media disciplines. Getting one is kind of a big deal in some circles. This isn’t some fly by night organization that just decided do some awards.

So, when I first heard we had won, I was surprised, pleased, proud of my team. What we did with a volunteer cast and crew on a micro budget is amazing by anyone’s standards.

But then I realized… We shouldn’t have won.

Not because we had done something wrong, or it didn’t meet the criteria, or anything like that. We shouldn’t have won because we shouldn’t have been the best program submitted.

I’m not blind. I can see the other winners in other categories. Any objective comparison of production quality will show that we are not in the same ballpark. Of course, they are using millions of dollars in equipment with a decent budget while we got by on borrowed gear and a dream. Nothing wrong with that, but we are not in the same league.

Now, I know creativity and story can overcome lack of production values. It doesn’t matter if the video is mind blowing if the story stinks. A bad story would still stink, no matter how good it looked. We can see that every year on major networks. They spend millions producing pilots that look amazing but don’t get picked up because they don’t work, aren’t good, etc…

But let me just be transparent. I am not the most creative guy alive. Sure, I can come up with a good idea. But for my first show out of the gate to win this award, well, color me shocked. I know I need to learn more about writing, directing, producing, and everything else. There are better producers, writers, directors, show runners out there. There are more creative people out there.

In Christian TV there aren’t a lot of shows like Peculiar. I can count on one hand the number of Christian sitcoms I have seen, and have fingers left. Same goes for Christian dramas. For whatever reason, there just aren’t many in production. But there should be.

I know that in Christian TV a lot of money changes hands. Some of the major networks, they take in millions and millions on the course of the year.

What if some of these networks or stations took just a portion of their budget, and hired producers to create creative programming? And took a bit more of the budget and earmarked it for production?

Imagine if a network set aside $1 million, and hired 5 show runners to produce 5 different series of shows (13 episodes each). Imagine if they set aside a one decent salary and a $100,000 budget for production.

Don’t tell me it can’t be done for that. I produced 10 episodes for under $9000 total. If some had handed me a $100,000 budget and paid me a salary, imagine what we could have done. Peculiar would be the same show, but 10 times better.

And don’t tell me they don’t have it. I know it would require retooling the budget, obviously. But there are networks that have it. And it could be focused on making new programming, creative programming. It’s a matter of priorities. Is it a priority to reach generations we are missing with our current content? (I am really trying to resist the urge to sermonize about this point…)

Of course, the question immediately follows: A network or station taking $100,000 earmarked for something else and investing in a new venture? What’s the return on investment? How do you recoup the money?

At first, you don’t.

The Christian TV market isn’t set up to do normal TV. As the station/network you can fill break slots with fundraising content and provoke some viewers to send in money. But that sort of thing is dying off. Younger viewers are not as likely to respond to that sort of request.

Maybe the key is selling digital copies? Maybe working with a distributor to get a DVD placed, and digital versions available for purchase on iTunes and the like.

Maybe it’s doing more “enhanced underwriting”. What’s enhanced underwriting?

Here’s an excerpt from an article on transition.fcc.gov:

“In 1984, the FCC granted stations more flexibility by adopting a policy of “enhanced underwriting,” which permitted noncommercial stations to broadcast donor and underwriter acknowledgements from for-profit entities. These acknowledgments can include logograms and slogans that identify, but do not promote, sponsoring businesses. They may include business location information, value-neutral descriptions of a product line or service, and brand and trade names along with product or service listings. That is why some underwriting messages resemble ads. Subjects that cannot be mentioned in underwriting announcements include price information, such as discounts, rebates, and interest rates; calls to action; inducements to buy, sell, rent, or lease; and any language that states or implies favor- able comparisons to other like businesses or competitors.”

A show that has viewers can attract sponsors. If the content is driving viewers to the station, then the underwriting becomes a good option for sponsors. This is a delicate balance. You don’t want to do something you shouldn’t or that’s not permitted on the non profit station, but you can do some sponsorships. Plus there is no limit to how you can advertise on the station’s website.

Obviously, an education license station can’t switch to all entertainment programming. There has to be a lot of teaching programs on the air or the station is in danger of losing its license. But creative programming can be done, and done for less money that you would expect. And that’s what younger audiences want to watch.

Being selected for this award is a huge honor. I am so grateful and humbled by it. I couldn’t be prouder of the work my team did on the show. But we shouldn’t have been the best show submitted. We shouldn’t have won because there should be better creative programming than ours on Christian TV.

Will the NRB Survive?

A few days ago I attended the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. (Before I continue, let me repeat what I have said before: the public policy work that the NRB does is invaluable to Christian communicators and supporters of free speech in America. That alone is worth the membership fees.) This year’s convention was very different for me. As the serving Chair of the Church Media Committee, I was an ex-officio board member, and had to go to several extra meetings I normally did not attend. One of those was the board meeting, where I sat in a room with some of the pioneers of Christian broadcasting. As I looked around the room a couple of thoughts ran through my head. As I realized I was the youngest person in the room I wondered, “Who are the next generation of leaders in Christian communication? And why aren’t any of them here?”

Now, these people are smart and driven. And they have truly done and continue to do, eternally significant work. But the NRB, like many organizations of it’s age, is a bit of a good old boys club. And for several years it has been declining. There are several reasons for that, but the outcome is the same. The NRB is dying just like Christian TV. Two years ago I actually went to my Church Media Committee meeting to resign, and not look back.

But in that meeting I learned that the NRB was making some pretty major changes to the convention program. So, not only did I stay on, but I ended up serving as the chair of the committee. And we spent the first part of the year talking about what we would like to see changed. And were pleased to see many of our ideas were heard.

I’d love to say that every change worked, but not everything did. I’m sure we will be tweaking. I handed off the chairmanship of the committee, but will still be working on it. I hope things improve.

My fear is that the perception of NRB will continue to be that it is an association for older broadcasters who like to dress in three suits. There are a few people that dress down, or wear jeans with their sport jackets and such. I was proud to wear my name badge with the extra flags on the bottom, especially the Board of Directors one, with jeans and an untucked shirt. Not just because I had a bit of rebellion in my heart about the general dress of attendees, but because I wanted younger people to see that there are a few people on the board that are not from the same mold. The same mold is what we need to keep changing.

I have written before about the future of religious broadcasting. I strongly believe that it must change or it will die off. I believe that the NRB can and will continue to shift toward the future and continue to be an association worthy of membership. It’s a lot like turning a large ship with a small rudder. I just hope we can get on the right course before we sink.

Unintended Messages: Club 44 and the Great Wall

How aware are you about what you are communicating? I don’t mean about what you are saying, but how aware are you about everything you are communicating?

One of the reasons I dislike email so much is that you miss tone of voice and body language, which are both huge when it comes to completely understanding another person. There is a lot more to communication than just words. Sometimes people send out unintended messages.

I noticed something this week at the annual NRB convention in Nashville. It is held at the beautiful Opryland Hotel. We don’t use all of the convention space, but we do take up about 3 floors in the Delta area with a little spill over. The bottom floor is for the expo, where you can see displays that range from tech to show content to ministries (and some stuff that just doesn’t make sense… I’ll have to write about that later). The top floor holds all the break out education sessions, and the middle floor is where the general sessions and special events take place. The middle floor is where we all get together. Everyone passes through there, it is right in the heart of the convention.

For the past few years convention registration was in the foyer out there, with a little coffee shop and some places to sit. I always thought it made sense to have registration right there, smack dab in the middle of things. This year, I think a couple of things came into play: The Expo display space has been shrinking for the last few years. I’m sure part of the blame is the economy, but this year you can cover the whole floor in a couple of hours. A few years ago they introduced Club 44 which is a lounge area for casual meetings and refreshments for people who don’t need actual hospitality suites but want a nice place to meet. Oh, access to that lounge area costs over $150 on top of your registration. Personally, I didn’t care a lick about that. They can charge $1500 if someone would be dumb enough to pay it.

This year though, they set things up a bit differently. Registration was moved downstairs to the entrance to the Expo floor. And Club 44 was set up in the foyer right outside the main gathering room.

The new arrangement encompasses all the chairs on this level. If you want to sit outside the main hall, you either pay your money or you sit on the floor. There is a huge wall dividing those who have the means to gain access to Club 44 and the rest of us. The Club is by the edge of the landing so they get the benefit of the natural light in the great hotel, but the tall wall puts the rest of us in the shadow.

I know it wasn’t intentional, but I got the message that the NRB considers making a place for people who will pay quite a bit more to meet with others more important than making me feel welcome. If I want to kick back with other conference attendees, I’m going to have to hike to another part of the massive hotel or cough up the cash. I know that having the registration downstairs helps to fill a shrinking show, and that having the Club 44 out on the landing probably saves having to rent another room, but it sends a definite divisive message to an organization that already has some divergent demographics. And I think it’s one that wasn’t meant to be sent.

I know it was unintended, but every time I walk by the wall, I shake my head.

Then I wonder how many messages I send, or that my church sends that we really didn’t mean to send? And that is much more important that whether I get to snag a couch seat close to the ballroom.

Spreading the Word

In just a couple of days I am off to the annual NRB convention, where I will learn about communication techniques using modern technology to reach the masses.

But the other day our staff talked with people from Wycliffe Bible Institute. They are located near us, and we are going to partner with them to finish a Bible translation for one of the 2100+ languages in the world that do not have the Word of God in their language.

I can access multiple Bible translations and study helps on my phone while thousands of people in the world that do not even have the possibility to read it in their language. Imagine living your whole life and suddenly being able to read about Jesus for the first time? Suddenly life-changing word are available for you to read. The guys from Wycliffe told us about one village that had seven days of dancing after the Bible in their language was delivered.

We take access to scripture for granted. When was the last time we actually celebrated the Bible? This is God breathed communication with us. I love the fact that we can use print to impact one people, and modern technology to impact another.

“Tweetup” & NRB

So, at a convention that is primarily about traditional media, I attended my very first “Tweetup”. Conference goers who were using the hashtag #nrb2010 while posting about the convention were invited to a suite rented by one of the exhibitors for a gathering, complete with food. With some amount of trepidation I approached, not knowing what to expect. I am a geek, but even I have limits. This had the potential to be the “geekiest” thing I’d ever done.

Turns out it was just other media professionals hanging out. I met some very nice people, from all kinds of companies and backgrounds. I spoke in person with people I had communicated with via twitter earlier in the day.

The convention has had a lot of conversation about social media, and how traditional media entities can/should be using it to reach the world with the Gospel. So much so that even on twitter someone posted, asking why people were focusing on social media so much at a broadcasting convention. But people are realizing that this highly interactive new media has huge possibilities. As facebook grows, with over 350 million members, it is the 4th largest country in the world. Who is reach those people?

One presenter, Matt Heerema from Desiring God, said that social media is a reality check. We cannot be focused on the medium we use, that it’s isn’t the point. The point of what we do is the message. We must use any and every means available. That is a reality check for people who have devoted their lives to one traditional media. We must branch out, and move beyond traditional media.

A Fairness Doctrine by any Other Name… Still Stinks.

There has been a general surge in news stories about the Fairness Doctrine.

It seems that the latest tactics are to bury regulations that accomplish the same kinds of things as the fairness doctrine in rules regarding localism and neutrality. If you listen to some reports the only outlets that will be affected are conservative or religious radio stations. The focus seems to be less on TV, at this time anyway.

For me, it’s not that I don’t want more left-leaning shows on the air. It’s that I don’t want the government trying to decide what would be “fair” in broadcasting. If a liberal radio station can thrive in the free market, more power to them. Let the public decide what they want to listen to. If the station’s audience allows them to sell enough ads to stay afloat, great.

If the government decides what is “fair” then the party in power limits free speech every time they exercise their control.