Empty Seats

Where are all the great Catholic films?

If Christmas is the time for great family films, 2015 marks yet another year where Catholics are absent from the box office.  In this second of a two-part series, REGINA continues our roundtable discussion about this with Catholic film-makers in Australia, France, Italy and the UK. Our first question is: Some observers point out the lack of great scripts. Do you think there any truly Catholic stories that can be made into films out there?

(Photo Credits: Fr Jeffrey Keyes, Beverly Stevens & Marcus Siske)

LOIC LAWIN LAWIN/FRANCE: There are so many stories that could be approached from a Catholic perspective. I think that the real question is not why people from the film industry are no longer writing those Catholic stories but why Catholics themselves do not write those stories anymore. Catholics have abandoned many artistic fields. We need Catholic artists, we need Catholics who master their crafts, we need young Catholics to go to film school.

STEFANO MAZZEO/UK: I disagree with that, the only problem is Catholic screenwriters need to think out-side the box sometimes. It is possible to write exciting movie scripts and champion traditional Catholic themes and place them in any situation, because God placed man in the world. So anywhere that Catholics could find themselves can be used, be it a Western, a War film, Romantic Comedy or Action Adventure, almost any genre. I would only really find science fiction difficult and of course if the narrative went against Catholic moral theology, it would be impossible.

TOM DUNN/USA: The challenge is getting a writer who can truly tell a good story cinematically, to write the content that they know is not going to be of much interest to a studio to pick up. There is a lot of material out there that has been pitched to the school, with the hope of getting a good Catholic film made by Catholic filmmakers, that is just not cinematic.  Just because you can write a script does not mean the script will work on screen.

JIM MORLINO/USA: In the last several years, I’ve only seen a few scripts that I thought had serious potential.  But this issue absolutely vital.  We must raise up a new generation of storytellers who can represent the Beauty and Truth of the One True Faith in exquisitely appealing ways.  It can be done.  It must be done. But it need not be didactic or “preachy” – in fact, that is a recipe for disaster.  Subtlety, cleverness, nuance, wit, wisdom, virtue, honesty, truth… this is what is needed in Catholic writers – artists who view the human condition through the razor sharp focus of Holy Mother Church.  It is Christ and Christ alone who know us, loves us, and has the answer to our every longing and need, and it is His Church who brings Him to us.

LIAM FIRMAGER/AUSTRALIA: A great question – and again I feel this relates to our lack of solid Catholic identity. I’m certain there are some wonderful Catholic writers out there, chomping at the bit to invest their passion and time into a Catholic themed story with real substance, but they aren’t receiving the support from the Catholic world to do so. We all have to pay the mortgage, so Catholic based stories tend to take a back seat. Some networking and investment wouldn’t go astray!

DANIEL RABOURDIN/USA & FRANCE: Of course but I have one more hope: the homeschoolers. We need a big pool of writers to get a few excellent ones. We also need people who feel and see the world in a Catholic way, who grew up in this. People who do not mostly live their faith in a theoretical and liturgical way. Religion must become spirituality, spirituality shapes the senses, the formed senses allow to express the faith with beauty.  I am almost certain that those domestic churches that are the homeschoolers will provide people who grew feeling and seeing the world in a Christian way. When they will become talented writers and producers, they will express some naturally occurring (not contrived) Christian messages.

JOHN SOARES/USA: The idea that there is a lack of Catholic stories that could be made into movies seems silly to me. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about our history that doesn’t immediately strike me as having the potential to be the most dramatic cinematic experience I’ve ever seen. The miracle of the Sun? Pope Gregory’s accounts of the life and miracles of Saint Benedict? The story of Saint Patrick’s confrontation with and ultimate evangelization and Catechesis of the Druids? Those are only three examples off the top of my head that I would love to see as good film adaptations. They would be harrowing, suspenseful, uplifting, challenging — everything that a good story ought to be. The 20th century produced more martyrs than every preceding century of the Church’s history combined. And these are all great stories. Xavier Beauvois‘s OF GODS AND MEN jumps to mind immediately as one of the best film adaptations of a story of modern Catholic martyrs that I’ve ever seen in my life.

LEONARDO DEFILLIPIS/USA: Writing is always the hardest part of film-making.  But I’m actually very encouraged by the talent that I see springing up among young Catholic artists.  I think we’re about to see a renaissance of excellent Catholic writing. As the times get tough for Catholics, we’ll see a new creativity springing from adversity. That’s the way the arts always prosper and influence the culture – by pushing against ugliness and lies with beauty and truth.

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REGINA: Films need funding, and mainstream films generally use limited partnerships for this. Is this happening in the Catholic film-making world?  (Photo Credit: Marcus Siske)

STEFANO MAZZEO: Perhaps this is because of the reasons we have discussed here already, Catholic themes are not attractive (at the moment) to a wider audience and it may be difficult to form limited partnerships. My films have always been funded by co-producers who are charities. I do think however if we are to achieve the production values needed to compete with Hollywood we need to go down this route. However, it is important not to compromise Catholic values.I was very pleased that EWTN commissioned me to make, In Search of Christendom – The Chartres Pilgrimage, which well received by Traditionalists who saw it. This is available on DVD so I am hoping that Traditional Catholics will rally around and support this film, buy the DVD so that we can make further Latin Mass based documentaries.

DANIEL RABOURDIN: With my limited vision of this field, I would say I do not see it but wish to discover it.

LIAM FIRMAGER: Again it’s a question of unity of vision. The Catholic world is fractured, with many unwilling to encourage or invest if it doesn’t fit into their agenda. Technology has now pushed the bar very high in terms of production value and audience expectation – so even an independent film needs to have a production value and budget to meet those audience expectations.

JOHN SOARES: The biggest personal project that I’ve ever done, my web series, THE DANGER ELEMENT, was financed both out of pocket and by its audience. Ultimately, we were able to raise one third of the budget through crowd sourcing methods. My next film project will likely be financed in a more traditional way, but I haven’t gotten that far. I will also likely have a lot more support from people who understand that sort of thing than I have had in the past. I couldn’t tell you how other films that are being made by Catholics are being financed right now. Most of my experience comes from having to make some pretty serious sacrifices, financially and in other areas of my life, in order to make my work happen. 

JIM MORLINO: I do not know.  But I really don’t think the money is the primary issue.  No amount of money is going to make a bad Catholic movie, good.  Great writing will attract investors.

LOIC LAWIN: Every country has its own channels to fund a film project but we can see everywhere that they are less and less accessible for small companies or small projects. I let you imagine what it can be for a « Catholic film ». We must avoid to cut ourselves from the main industry but alternative funding are of course something that we have to consider. Crowdfunding has become very common and offers a possibility to Catholics to support Catholic projects. I think that more substantial ways to fund films have to be studied too. There are economic models already existing that we could apply for bigger projects. What is certain is that nothing will be possible without the involvement of Catholics themselves.

REGINA:  Have you seen any web-based film distribution ventures which interest you as possible models? 

JOHN SOARES: This question is tricky for me because I am in the middle of trying to figure out exactly where things are headed in terms of the future of distribution. Everything I have ever done has been distributed through the internet. My own work is all available online so far and I am also an editor for a Dreamworks television show that is distributed exclusively through Netflix. So the internet seems to be a top to bottom distribution method for just about everyone at this point. I’ve been to Youtube headquarters and learned how to supposedly reach and build audiences and have collaborated with a lot of the inside minds of the new media revolution. The most important thing that I’ve learned is that you still face a lot of the same problems as you would with traditional distribution. You still have to make something really good, which is really the biggest challenge, and you still have to get the word out about it. In my experience, simply having something on the internet does not guarantee that anyone is going to want to watch it. Even Netflix, which a lot of indy kids today are really keen to have their films distributed through, doesn’t really guarantee that people are going to be watching your movie. But I will say that, yes, if you can solve those problems, then the internet definitely obviates the problem of distribution. 

LEONARDO DEFILLIPIS: Independent films are so inexpensive to produce, and through multi-channel distribution, the public is much easier to reach.  This gives talented, financially-strapped film-makers the freedom to produce great works at a fraction of the cost of previous projects.  Audiences also are more willing to look at truly innovative low-budget work, through the advent of Youtube. 

DANIEL RABOURDIN: I am afraid not. I do not claim to know much but I have been trying for three years and I am barely making it. I know a young couple who produces food web video spots. They are great. But they only get $100 in Nestle advertisements for spots that cost them $1000 to produce…But on the positive side, what works in this industry is humor, charm, quirkiness, brevity, passion.

STEFANO MAZZEO: Again I would say that EWTN have the most advanced internet viewing systems in place. EWTN has a viewer reach of 250 million homes in 140 countries, before internet viewer systems are taken into account this is very close to the reach of the BBC, on a fraction of the budget.

JIM MORLINO: I think theatrical distribution is going to be around for a while yet.  Nothing replaces the communal experience of watching a film in a big, dark room with a lot of other humans.  There’s nothing like it.  Watching a film on my phone has never appealed to me.  And as good as our home theater systems have become, there’s nothing like watching a first-run, popcorn film on the big screen.


TOM DUNN: To a certain extent the internet softens the challenge of distribution for independent films, but it also creates others.  The success of distributing on the web relies no longer on the relationship the filmmaker has with a distribution company, but now on the relationship that has been established directly with an audience. With this new model there is now a need to establish a rich and trusting platform or tribe prior to a release, otherwise you have no audience interested in watching your film.  What I have seen are filmmakers creating their material, putting it on the web, and then trying to build an audience interested in viewing it, which is very similar to how the traditional film distribution model works: create content and hope an audience shows up.  On the web, successful models build the audience first and then they deliver content to them.  It’s a different way of thinking and requires more up front time and a longer commitment.  I think that once we have a few success stories for younger Catholic filmmakers to model, there will be a flood of great material available.  

LIAM FIRMAGER: Distribution potential is still much in its infancy, and many if not all major studios still struggle to exploit/understand it. The days of independent films making a healthy return via classic revenue streams ( VHS rentals, Catholic media networks, Cable TV etc..) are long gone as all platform providers tighten the purse strings to survive. Yes, there are plenty of avenues to screen a film  – but very few that are profitable. Many film makers would be lucky to recoup the cost of production, let alone turn a profit to enable them to create another film. Getting one’s film seen by the wider Catholic world on a grassroots/viral campaign is KEY. I think the future in Catholic film lies in strong Networking, like minded filmmakers and willing investors with a clear vision and strength of unity to work together and take up the challenge.

LOIC LAWIN: The technology to make films is more and more accessible. There are of course downsides to this, but great projects that would have never been possible before are made today. Internet offers an alternative way to show films. More and more people are watching films or TV on their computers. Distribution on the internet will definitely play a more significant role in the coming years. We also have to preserve the importance of movie theaters. Cinema is a wonderful Art and cannot be dissociated from movie theaters. As one of my teachers used to say : « you must always think for the big screen ». The big screen should always be a goal for Catholic filmmakers.

REGINA: Have you made use of the network of US Catholic parishes which screen films?

LEONARDO DEFILLIPIS: Yes, when our feature film Thérèse was released in 2004, its surprising success was the result of a grassroots effort among lay people across the U.S. who brought their parishes to the theaters in droves.  I also traveled to parishes all over the country, showing the trailer and promoting the film. 

JIM MORLINO: I have only done this in a very limited way with our last film, The War of the Vendee.  A couple years ago, I toured the country going from one parish to another with screenings hosted primarily by The Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, and the Fraternity of St. Peter.  It was very successful.  Parishes like those I felt were our target audience, although I still think our films would appeal to a wider Catholic audience.

JOHN SOARES: I am still in the process of finishing my first feature length film, so I haven’t gotten as far as finding places to screen it. I am personally not very familiar with this network. It sounds interesting, though. 

DANIEL RABOURDIN: Actually, I did not even know an organized network existed if it is what you mean. Can they bring half a million dollars in tickets sales to a high quality documentary? I think they can. And they could do as well with small budget movies.

TOM DUNN: If there is such a network, I’m not sure it is well known. It seems like a daunting task trying to connect with such a diverse group of locations.  Any time I have been involved with projects trying to coordinate any type of media related event in conjunctions with multiple parishes, it has been a logistics nightmare.  And I wouldn’t want a film of mine to be shown in any of the parish halls I have visited.  They are just not set up for cinema viewing which needs a high output, properly calibrated projector and the correct sound system.  Not to mention the acoustics of the room.  

LIAM FIRMAGER: I recently accepted an invitation to screen my film in progress ‘The Life and times of Gabriel Garcia Moreno’ at the Holy Innocents parish in NY – A very satisfying and successful evening which certainly highlighted that Catholic communities are desperate for more Catholic based films.

REGINA: What are the greatest signs of hope for Catholic films?

LOIC LAWIN: I think that we are witnessing a revival among Catholics, especially young Catholics. La Manif pour tous in France had a great impact and new initiatives saw the day. It is very encouraging and I have good hope that this will spread to artistic fields and especially film making. 

LEONARDO DEFILLIPIS: Young people, who don’t carry the burdens of transition from Vatican I to Vatican II, and who never lived in a world where to be Catholic meant to be mainstream, are our greatest hope.  I see this in my own children.  They may not be representative of the majority of young people, but it doesn’t take a majority to make a difference.  Young Catholics, graduates of really orthodox Catholic colleges, or coming out of strong Newman Center programs, are ready for the battle, and they have no illusions about it being easily won. 

LIAM FIRMAGER: There is a massive audience out there, still willing to take a chance and buy a ticket or purchase a DVD that inspires, provokes, challenges and enlightens people about the faith. And even more so – there’s a plethora of talented and enthusiastic Catholic film makers out there who have the passion to do it. I cannot stress how important networking is within the Catholic community. There is the talent, there is the capital available via private investments/consortiums – we just need a little more unity and vision.

STEFANO MAZZEO: I think that there so many good Catholic directors, producers, presenters and scriptwriters the future looks good. We have always had great Catholic actors all we need is better funding and good scripts to give these good Catholic actors Catholic roles. So in the midterm future internet based videos will push orthodox Catholic values forward. The burgeoning  Catholic film festival circuit are also a good platforms to reach out to new audiences, The Crusades recently won the Grand Prix of the Niepokalanow International Film Festival in Poland. With the result that the Polish Public broadcaster is interested in broadcasting the series. It has already been show on Slovak national TV as was Wales the Golden Thread of Faith which was a co-production with Lux and the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales.

JOHN SOARES: The greatest sign of hope for Catholic films that I can see is that those of us who are Catholic know that the Church is always going to be here. At the best and the worst of times, the Church will exist. So that means we will always have stories to tell and we will always have reasons to tell them. And, in the right hands, they are the greatest stories. 

DANIEL RABOURDIN:  I may be shocking here. To me the great signs are not in what Catholics do but in what “Hollywood” does. Why because many (not all) create movies with moral values. The only problem to me is that they stain the 80% of their good values with 20% of bad values made of cynicism, bad life styles, language and nudity. I just watched a film called The Hunter with William Dafoe. There were great values in there such as paternal love, care for the widow and the orphan, humility, life in the wild, love of beauty in nature etc. It recharged my moral inspiration. And then there was some 20% of Nihilism and class warfare which were dark values. But that movie was not far from being a moral success in my eyes. We could imagine that the 20% mentioned could be replaced with, for example a spirit of common good and of Hope.So in my opinion, hope is also in Catholics working in Hollywood and learning the ropes of the craft from true artists. I am getting to know some young ones who do so. Then, with seniority they will be able to put together true movies.

JIM MORLINO: The growing popularity of the TLM. That Mass (as my Spiritual Director has been saying for the last 20 years) will be the salvation of Western Civilization.  And the fact that I see a growing number of artists falling in love with that Mass fills me with a tremendous amount of Hope.

TOM DUNN:  I feel the greatest hope is the awareness by young Catholic filmmakers about the lack of good content available.  Many of our students have a strong desire to work as narrative story tellers, but not necessarily with feature length material.  Shorts, episodics and webisodes are what many of them are spending their time watching.  And for free on the web.  The desire to drop ten to twelve dollars on a movie at the theater is not as strong a draw for them as it was for me at their age.  But I had no other options if I wanted to see a good story. 

Today’s young filmmakers want to do things differently.  They don’t want to spend 20-30 years working their way up the ladder at a big production company or studio when then can produce their own material and post it on YouTube tonight.  But they do have a strong urge to create good, compelling and meaningful content that is truthful to the message of the Gospel. 

REGINA: What are you currently working on?

LEONARDO DEFILLIPIS: I’m currently producing a live drama on the life of Father Augustus Tolton, the first African-American priest. I’m very excited by this project, because I see that our country is fractured more than ever by racial tension. Father Tolton, who died in 1897 at the age of 43, has the answer, and that answer is Jesus Christ. A former slave, he knew oppression and prejudice intimately, yet he never gave up on souls. What a perfect example of the new evangelization in action.

LOIC LAWIN: After almost a year of shooting, my first documentary film is currently in post-prodcuction. I will be in Rome in October to make a documentary film about the Populus Summorum Pilgrimage. As a Catholic attached to the Traditional Latin Mass, I am really excited about taking part in this event. Even though I am already working on new documentary projects, fiction and the big screen remains at the back of my mind. 

LIAM FIRMAGER:  “I’m presently working on a feature film documentary on the rock singer ‘Suzi Quatro’. A fascinating life indeed. She is a Detroit native from a big Catholic family – who went on to become a huge star in the 70’s… sold 55 million records, but still remains relatively unknown in the US. Not exactly a Catholic themed project, but good intentions don’t pay my mortgage J I would love to sink my teeth into a strong, well backed Catholic film —any story, any subject so long as it’s compelling!”

“I am trying to finish this docudama The Hidden Rebellion. It’s about the people’s rebellion against the French Revolution, a sort of Les Miserables in massive proportion. Those farmers went into a vendetta against Paris with a massive network of around 70 000 peasants in arms. Several revolutionary armies were defeated by them before they were eventually deeply crushed. And then, up to 200 000 people were shot, beheaded, skinned, industrially drowned in sinking boats on the Loire River. To the historians and the 300 reenactors playing out battles and villages I have added a little love story in the chaos of war in this coastal region of France.  Many historians say that when Napoleon signed a treaty giving Christians back some of their liberty, it may have been because of this resistance.” DANIEL RABOURDIN

“I am currently working on the follow up to The Crusades docudrama – The Inquisition, which we have just finished filming. My next project will be called the Message of Fatima again for EWTN. And after that I have a mini-series on The Reformation lined up so we will have completed a ‘Black Legend’ bashing trilogy The Crusades (2014), The Inquisition 2015/16 and The Reformation 2017. I hope one day to make a Traditional Catholic feature film, I have some of the script in place and I am very excited about it.”  — STEFANO MAZZEO (left)

“I am currently working on building out a multi-camera television studio here at JP Catholic.  The first years of our school have focused on narrative storytelling.  With multi-camera capabilities, both the students and the school will be able to create more web-centric programming that is tailored to the critical audience of 20-40 year olds.“  – TOM DUNN

“As a film maker, I am a Roman Catholic first, of course, but I grew up being absolutely thrilled by action and adventure. Right now I am working to finish the web series as well as my first feature film, which are both really part of the same project. All but the final episode of my web series, THE DANGER ELEMENT are available on Youtube. The final episode will be released this year. “ – JOHN SOARES

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