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“Message First” Writer-Producer Kevan Otto Talks Faith & Family Films

“Message First” Writer-Producer Kevan Otto Talks Faith & Family Films
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A branch of Green Apple Entertainment, Atonement Pictures is a faith-based distribution company, specializing in Faith and Family movies. Producer Kevan Otto runs the arm and has writing credits including Forgiven, Grace of God, In the Name of God, and What Would Jesus Do? He spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about his new film Fearless Faith and how interested screenwriters can get a foothold in this lucrative and under-appreciated genre.

On the distribution side, we recognize that there’s a different client base looking for our films. ‘Faith and Family’ is painted with a broad stroke. There’s a difference between a message-driven film like Fireproof (Kirk Cameron), and then something that is inspiration with hints at the faith message, but gives a broader look at it.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Kevan Otto

At Atonement Pictures, the goal is to market each title with specific marketing towards a Faith and Family audience. “If a film is very spiritually-based and message driven, we  focused on themes of salvation in our marketing plan in place. A nice story about a girl with a horse and a touchy-feeling story, that caters to a broader audience which means a more family-oriented marketing plan.

Family-Friendly Films

I think a lot of times, folks are not always looking for a message-driven movie, but they want something safe to watch with the family instead. They know there’s nothing in there that will come out of left field or be difficult. We want people to know movies from Atonement are spiritual, wholesome, and meant for families.”

The Passion of the Christ is perhaps the most well known Faith Film, but movies like God Is Not Dead or War Room are also quite popular. “God is Not Dead had a production budget of half a million dollars. I think it did 70 million in business. One could almost argue God Is Not Dead did better than Passion in terms of  ROI when you look at the budget compared to what it made.

“After Fireproof came out from Sony, everybody said, ‘Wow, there’s a big audience out there.’ The market started to get flooded with Faith Films and you started to see a lot of product. Everybody was creating Faith Films, so lower-budget movies were flooding the market and there were also DVDs flooding the market as physical discs.

Within the Christian Market, these movies were being sold at Wal-Mart, but also at Family Christian Stores like Lifeway or Hobby Lobby. “What I like to compare the movie industry to – especially the Faith based world – we’re kind of experience what the music industry went through 10-15 years ago.

Otto compared the current market to Napster. When the Faith movies went digital, people no longer wanted to pay $20 for a physical movie when they could rent a movie or find it for free. “Approximately 60-70 percent of consumers watch content on their iPad or iPhone, so now we’re asking, ‘How do we shoot a $10 million-dollar movie when people will only pay $0.50 for it?’”

Making Marketplace Adjustments

As everyone makes adjustments to the marketplace, many companies are also going online. Two years ago, Family Christian Stores cut 1,200 brick-and-mortar stores to focus on online sales. Lifeway will be the next to close down their retail shops. “We’re just transitioning into a much more digital world, so were trying to stay ahead of it.”

In addition to streaming networks, the company also focuses on AVOD, which is the ad-based side of Video-on-Demand. “Consumers are getting back to the basics, where they will watch an ad if they can get the film for free. This happens on Facebook and YouTube, so that’s where the consumer is going. We’re back to where we started years ago with ads driving revenue.”

The consumer never changes. The folks that want to watch Faith-based films are still the same folks. How you deliver and how they want to watch it has changed,” said Otto. 

According to the writer-producer, the balance between message movies and entertainment is where a lot of studios make mistakes. “Some studios make the mistake of less message, more entertainment. We always talk about ‘watering it down,’ but the Kendrick (Fireproof) folks are proving you don’t have to do that.”

“There’s an underserved audience there for the message,” he added. “If you’re going to the theater and paying $14 for a movie, and you only want to be entertained, you’re not going to see a Christian movie. You’re going to go watch Batman. But there’s an audience there for the same reason they go to church on Sunday. They want to receive the message.”

The audience should leave with the same elevated feeling they have when they walk out of church on Sunday. They need something personal out of it and you have to stay true to that. You can’t water it down and make it for everyone. You have to be true. If you made a movie about skateboarding, you wouldn’t add bicycles and rodeo. You would just lose the audience.”

Folks will pay $14 and they’re more concerned about message and content than production value or entertainment. That’s where studios make the mistake in my opinion.” Like any genre, it’s vital to give the consumers what they’re paying to see.

As a producer, Otto still thinks of himself as a writer-director first. “My passion is to deliver a Christian message. That’s why we created Atonement Pictures. I get a lot of opportunities to do stuff outside the Faith world, but I won’t do a horror film or anything that involves Satanic or Cult stuff. Personally, I don’t want to dabble in that, but at Green Apple, we do have some of those titles.”

In order to keep their deals in place, Green Apple has to deliver a wide variety of genres to the market. “We need to offer everything to keep in good graces, but Atonement Pictures is open to distributing anything as long as it’s not contradictive. But I also don’t know if I would have the expertise to help someone shoot a Buddhist movie or something like that. I just don’t have that experience.

In the past, Otto has found screenplays from various online resources, but getting a Faith-based movie is similarly complex as making any other film. “I’ve come across filmmakers and screenwriters at festivals. Just trying to get out there and sending out queries is really important. You never know who you’re going to bump into.”

Casting Lines

In today’s world, it’s so competitive and there’s so much out there. I guarantee you that 25 years ago, not as many people sat down to write scripts. There’s free software versus a typewriter. More people are putting pen to paper. There’s a lot out there and you have to figure out how to market yourself.

Cast as many lines in the water as you can. It’s a numbers game and quite frankly, it’s a game of luck. Maybe you can get your foot in the door or work as a PA to start relationships. For me, I’ve had some success and made a lot of titles, but I get 2-3 scripts a week, so it’s challenging to read them all. But I have had people send me something that drove me to take another look.

When Otto reads a script, he’s looking for a message-driven movie geared towards a specific audience. Then, the screenplay simply needs to stay on that path and avoid studio changes when those changes are meant to water it down. “Jaws, Rocky, and Star Warswere all turned down. You have to have that drive to push your message. That’s what the Kendrick brothers have done.”

Some studios are trying to bring in bigger movie stars and water down the message to try and appeal to a larger audience, but it rarely, if ever, works. “Message is first. The audience respects that. If I had to summarize it, I would tell anyone making a Faith-based movie to stay true to that. It’s more important than budget or anything.”

Otto said message is more important than production value, but it is different for the craft of writing. “I would say the craft of writing is creating something that will attract an audience. There are a million examples where experts turned down movies that audiences loved. That’s the craft. You are the person between the content and the audience. It’s all about story.”

Faith movies are made with smaller budgets. Generally speaking, the screenwriters are also producing and directing. “To get the message across, I reverse engineer it. If I write a movie and I want to use the backdrop of an arcade to deliver my message, I may adapt it to a miniature golf course that’s available for free. So I will reverse engineers the script, but I won’t let that defer from the message.”

Fearless Faith

Otto’s latest film Fearless Faith is about how God allows tragedies to happen after the Sheriff’s deputy loses his partner.

In this industry, there are also one-night-only church screenings and special events to highlight the film. “That movie came about when the filmmaker reached out to me. He was a Sheriff in Louisiana and felt a calling to leave his job and become a filmmaker to make movies like this.

With some help from his father, writer-director Kevin Rushing set up financing and then contacted Kevin Otto. “What they didn’t know was that I was a police officer in California for years, so there was an instant connection and I understood what they wanted to do. They also had this opportunity to use his former Sheriff’s department, so they could shoot it for little money.”

Rushing went out and bought a computer and Final Draft to write the script. “There were formatting issues, but the story was in there. Those things you will learn over time. He was a police man telling a story based on his own experiences, so I came on to help with formatting, arc, and so on.”

By using what they had available and the additional support from law enforcement, the production value increased immediately. “It’s the type of film with a Faith message in it. From there, we developed it. He had never even been on a set before he directed his first movie. I helped him get his vision into the can.”

Finding the Message

Personally, Otto likes to focus on films where the message hits him personally, which is why the movie about a Christian Sheriff made sense to pursue. “Years ago, we made a movie called Lukewarm, which was based on a Sermon I heard in church about being ‘lukewarm Christians.’”

Otto said the Sermon reminded him of a line from Jimmy Buffett that said, “There’s a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning,” which reminded him of the Sermon. “There’s a lot of folks who need to know that going to church on Sundays isn’t enough. What are you doing in between? Are you applying the principles taught to you through the week?”

I’m a Preacher’s kid, but we all have lukewarmness,” he confessed. “I found a script that wasn’t even a faith movie, but the screenwriter was open to changing it into that script. It was an idea and I found a vessel to use. As a Christian, I try to stay true to my walk so my kids stay true to that. I believe things happen because that’s the way the Lord wants it to happen. It gives you a roadmap if you stay true to that.”

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