Director’s Panel – Ask the Pros Q & A
Everything you wanted to know from some of the top Christian film producers, directors, and distributors.
- John Grooters – Grooters Productions, Writer, Director, Editor
- Donald Leow – StoneTable Films
- Jared Geesey – Christian Cinema
- Rich Peluso – Executive with Sony’s Affirm Films
- Dallas Jenkins – Producer/Director, The Chosen, TV series about the life of Christ
- Stephen Kendrick – Producer, Kendrick Brothers’ Films
Stephen Kendrick moderated the panel of highly-respected Christian film professionals in the midday general session where he took pre-written questions from the audience.
Out of the gate: how does your faith influence your work?
All of them answered that it’s central to every project and even in the internal operation of their companies. Kendrick reiterated Peluso’s answer and framed it, “Did y’all just hear an executive from Sony just say, ‘my faith informs everything I do so the content will change people’s lives and glorify Jesus’?” The audience responded with rousing applause.
But Jenkins noted he realized how his faith wasn’t just about the final product viewed on the screen on his very first film 20 years ago when he got a call at 2 AM that one of my actor’s had been arrested for shoplifting. Through the process of speaking with him and helping him work through that personal failure, he realized his faith would be necessary in every part of filmmaking. He could witness to and influence everyone on the set as well as through the film itself.
Geesey pointed out that though he’s not a filmmaker, he “build platforms for filmmakers to stand on so the world can see it.”
Kendrick followed-up using Acts 17:28 as the guide, “In Him, we live, move, and have our being…We were created for His pleasure. He’s not just part of our story, He IS the story. He’s more important than anything else we can do in this life.”
Another question asked if the panelists could go back 20 years, what would be the best advice they’d give to themselves?
Jenkins said his big life change happened a couple years ago after his biggest disappointment in my career, “I learned it’s not my job to the feed the five thousand, only to provide 5 loaves and 2 fish. That was life altering to me, so life-altering that where I am today is as different from where I was two years ago as it was different from where I was 20 years ago.”
Peluso went for the practical, “Work for free. Every good job I had in my life I did for free (for as long as it took)…I learned more behind the scenes…than I did in film school or in college.”
Leow joined in, “Get wise counselors. Get to know wise people and listen to them. Because when you’re young, you think you can change the world.”
“Don’t despise the basic, small beginnings…letting the Lord connect you with the relationships and projects He has for you. But it’s okay to start small,” Geesey suggested.
Peluso offered these great tips: 1) Take notes in every meeting. 2) Follow-up with the people you met using those notes. 3) Always do what you say you’re going to do. 4) Always return every phone call. 5) Understand that there is so much to be gained by being curious about everything you encounter.
Kendrick added, “Make a decision and commitment that you are not going to allow any bitterness to live in your heart. All of us are sinners, and we’re constantly surrounded by sinners. Sinners, sin….forgiving perpetually…when you stop forgiving, you poison everything.”
When asked what makes a movie bad, Grooters revealed he’s afraid of making a bad movie. “The thing about film is there’s no room for a weak link. There is no weak link that we can slide by the audience…If any part of your film is weak, you can’t hide it…It’s a sin to bore people, in my opinion…If we’re going to ask them for 2 hours of their time, then I want them on the edge of their seat — make it worth it.”
Jenkins believes there’s two types of audiences in the faith-based filmmaking world. There is an audience that will forgive production quality failures because of the message, and the other audience writes them off automatically. He contends, if you learn the language of cinema and work hard to get good shot and sound, etc., you can not only appeal to the more forgiving crowd, but even those who do care about those things.
Then the focus of the questions shifted to trying to count the costs of filmmaking by asking the panelists to talk the audience of filmmakers out of the going into the industry. The panelists offered some interesting answers.
Peluso came at it strictly using numbers. Affirm Films releases one to two films a year. He reads a script a day or a book a week, and altogether their company reads over 4,000 screenplays and over 400 books a year. Yet, they’ve only made a total of 42 movies.
Leow advised aspiring filmmakers, “just don’t do it. Not easy. You’ll have rejection. It’s very, very tough.”
“One thing that’s difficult for me is getting funding. I hate sales. They can block your number. They won’t pick up the phone. That’s why I change my phone number every week,” as the audience erupted in laughter.
Grooters added, “Jesus said if they hate me, they’re going to hate you, too. Don’t do this to be liked There’s not any money in this field and long days.”
Being very vulnerable, Jenkins shared how while he’s experiencing his greatest success if his career with The Chosen, right now, in his personal life, he’s encountering unusual spiritual, physical, and financial attacks, “I’ve been on my knees weeping more in the last 1 ½ than I have been my whole life…On a personal level extraordinarily difficult, but spiritually, closer to my heavenly father than ever before.”
Then Kendrick emphasized how resilience is fundamental in this industry quoting Proverbs 24:16 that says, “for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.”
Peluso quipped, “I’ve gotten to point now where I celebrate failure. I don’t want to know what’s right, I want to know what’s wrong so I can fix it. Resilience has become hard wired. I don’t wake up discouraged, just thinking I’m never going to do that again.”
Grooters explained, “There’s a lot of nervousness on the front end of your careers. I used to say, ‘we can worry about this all night long or pray about it and go to sleep’.”
Then the conversation went back to practical tips. They all agreed, the best way to get hired or in front of the right people is to get better. They’re all searching for good people. If you’re good, they’ll find you. If you’re not getting hired, you might consider that you’re just not good enough yet. So focus on getting better, and do whatever it takes to get there along the way. For actors, do theater, for filmmakers, make a film, even if it’s just 4 minutes long. Gain experience and that’s the key to making yourself more attractive to top pros.
Written by Terri Hall