Saturday, February 06, 2010

Open Doors, Big News

A popular metaphor emerges in the account of St. Paul’s life in the book of Acts. Time and time again the text says that, “a door opened” for Paul to share his faith or venture into a new territory. He also speaks that way about himself in his letters in passages like these:

And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me…

Sometimes it is hard to hear God’s voice or know his will. But sometimes things just happen that are obvious. Doors just open for us and we walk through them in faith – unsure of what is on the other side.

Over the last year or two a series of doors have opened up in the area of film and video production for me personally – but also for The Vineyard and our creative community. I have a hunch that some of you will want to join us as we head into this new journey – so I’d like update everyone on what has been going on.

I have already written quite a bit in this blog about the obvious open doors that led my family to Cincinnati and The Vineyard in 2007. I view this as a calling – God asking us to be obedient and follow his leading here. Nothing in the last two and a half years has happened to make me believe otherwise. I assumed that the work I was doing in Los Angeles in the entertainment industry was part of what I needed to surrender for the sake of this new calling. It was hard because I thoroughly enjoyed acting, writing and producing. But I came here having laid it on the proverbial altar.

I did have one project “half-baked” – Hitting the Nuts. I made it clear during the interview process with VCC that I would need to finish this movie at some point. I believed that it would be my last major film project…or at least my last one for a long time.

It took longer than expected, but Nuts was finally financed and filmed this past summer. Doors that were tightly shut in LA suddenly opened up in Cincinnati. So much so that my friends who came in from LA to act in the movie would joke everyday that they should move to Ohio to further their careers…

On the day my friend Bobby Rodgers wrapped Hitting the Nuts he gave an impromptu speech to the cast and crew. Bobby is an older gentleman and a true professional whom I met working in stage shows in Las Vegas. He’s been around a lot of movie sets. He told everyone that in all of his years he had never been a part of a production that felt so much like a true family. Then he bragged on me a little and grew emotional. In that moment I saw clearly that just because God opens one door doesn’t mean He necessarily closes others. God can open multiple doors at once. He can open the “pastor in Ohio” door while leaving the “film producer” door open as well. Not like this is an original theological statement or anything, but God can do whatever He wants.

At the same time I was shooting Nuts I was contacted by a Vice President of Sony Pictures to discuss “future projects.” Living and struggling everyday in Los Angeles I knew it wasn’t normal for a studio executive to reach out to a low budget indie filmmaker – especially one in Cincinnati. I reluctantly returned his call, somewhat worried that he was an imposter.

He wasn’t. He had helped Sony distribute Fireproof – a Christian movie that did exceptionally well at the box office in 2009. He was networking with other Christian filmmakers and genuinely wanted to help me figure out how to navigate the studio system. The success of Fireproof resulted in most of the major studios starting or expanding their “Faith and Family” divisions. Regardless of what you think about Hollywood, there is only one real truth – Money is everything. If something sells they will get behind it. In short, it is a good time to be making movies that appeal to people interested in faith. If Christians don’t make movies about faith over the next few years, somebody else will. He encouraged me to think beyond Nuts.

The obvious irony was that I was a pastor making a mainstream comedy movie about poker at the time. (Nuts isn't vile or anything...but it isn't a Christian movie. It's just funny.) But it was becoming clear that doors were opening for a future project should we elect to walk through them.

The “random” connection with Sony was the first of many. Since then we have been contacted by people with connections to three other major studios. The studio system isn’t the easiest place to break into. It has all just happened.

Last year I began talking with my fellow members of the Senior Leadership and the trustees at VCC about these open doors. I was only really sure of one thing – that God didn’t call me to Ohio to move back to LA to make movies. God called me to Cincinnati and that hasn’t changed. The big question was – is God calling VCC to venture into making a movie?

The Vineyard has had a history of taking risks to spread the seeds of the gospel. It has also always strived to retain a level of relevance within the culture. We have had a history of reaching out beyond us in any and every way we can. The idea of producing a film with these same values seemed mission consistent to us.

In 2009 Brad Wise began writing a screenplay called “The Balloonier.” (A side note: I’ve been looking my whole life for a true creative partner and found one in that guy. Don’t tell him though, it will go to his head.) We have been editing the script for months now. Receiving specific feedback from the folks at Sony and other industry professionals - fine-tuning the message we would want to give to the world.

Now we have a story we are excited to tell to anyone who would listen. The Balloonier is a quirky, comedic reinterpretation of the prodigal son parable. A story of hope found through forgiveness and unexpected community. It is about the idea that it is never too late for anyone to come home.

The movie will be produced this summer by Rebel Pilgrim Productions in partnership with The Vineyard. It will provide VCC the opportunity to shout the message that is close to our heart to the entire world – that there is hope – that it is never to late to change – and that God is always calling his children home.

The goal is to have The Balloonier in theaters in late 2011. We plan on producing some sort of small group/church journey curriculum that churches can lead their people through after watching the movie. The Balloonier has gospel-centered themes, but it isn’t preachy or manipulative. It will provide a starting point for spiritual discussions. For those of you familiar with the Alpha program, I would see The Balloonier as a perfect experience just before week one – something to get the brain and spirit stirring toward spiritual ideas.

It will be produced low-budget by Hollywood standards. The funds will be coming from high-worth individual investors. (Lots of SEC roles about this stuff.) The Vineyard will not be funding the project directly, but supporting with “sweat equity” – stuff like staff time, equipment usage, office space, etc.

I’m excited to announce that Brad Wise will be directing the project. A lot of the production team from Hitting the Nuts will be joining forces again – Mark Denney (DP), Isaac Stambaugh (UPM), Mark Haas (PD), Bekka Prewitt (2nd AD) and others.

My partner Jim Nyberg and I will be producing. Jim Derose, the former President/CEO of Dreamworks/PDI is graciously working as our business advisor.

I'm thrilled to announce that Christian recording artist Rebecca St. James will have a starring role as Dr. Joyce. Rebecca has been expanding into acting and recently starred in the film Sarah’s Choice. Also attached in a cameo role is Ashley Palmer, one of the stars of last year’s break out hit, Paranormal Activity. (There’s also some pastor who used to be in General Hospital who has an acting role…)

We are all excited about these open doors. Brad and I will be going to LA in March to meet with several distributors and studio executives.

Here is how you can be involved now:

Please pray for the following:

1. That God would continue to lead us (as He has already) to see our vision of telling stories that entertain while changing the face of American culture.
2. For the March 7th informational meeting in Cincinnati for potential investors. Pray that the right people will show up who share this vision and want to see it become a reality.
3. For our constantly growing contacts in the entertainment world. Not a week goes by that we aren’t speaking to someone of influence. Pray that God uses us in these personal relationships.
4. For the right distribution pathway that allows the most people to experience the story.
5. For safety and wisdom before and during actual production.
6. For those who will see the finished project. That they may be nudged toward the Kingdom through the retelling of Jesus’ story of the lost son.

Other ways to be involved:

As the time gets closer we will need Cincinnati-based volunteers to be background actors, provide meals, find locations, etc. We aren’t ready to properly systemize volunteer involvement yet, but we will let you know how to get involved as we get closer.

If you are a professional in the area of media arts, production, marketing or fund raising and would have an interest in volunteering your services at this time, contact Brad or myself.

It’s going to be a fun ride! Just another way to tell a timeless story. I’m honored to be on the storytelling team at my church. Let's all just keep looking for the open doors and trust God to do the rest.


eaglegirl said...

WOW ! This is exciting. Joe probably because you were willing to give up this area of your life God gave it back to be used here in Cincinnati.
And how great that VCC gets a chance to be part of it.
Apparently God is working on the 'big whigs' in Hollywood to make this happen.
I have the sense that this production is only the beginning of more to come.
Kudos to Brad for writing this screenplay.
I will pray about this and that all the pieces will come together to bring it to fruition. And that the Lord gives wisdom as you talk to different people from Los Angeles and shows the right studio and such to deal with.
Go get em'

amymck said...

Sweet! we are here for us whenever/however you need us!!

Jaycee said...

Hopefully, I'll be able to help you publicize the need for volunteers when that time comes...

May God continue to guide you in the right direction of your calling...

Christopher Day said...

I'm just gonna need to know what time our flight leaves for LA. I have to make sure to get off work in time and all.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Joe, this sounds pretty cool. I been an advertising photographer for the past 17 years for Fortune 500 companies and have been around quite a few productions. Besides shooting stills on productions, I have worked as crew when needed. Whatever help someone like myself can add, shoot me an email at