On the weekend of February 25, the battle for the future of the American culture will be highlighted by two filmmaker award ceremonies going back to back with each other—the Hollywood Oscars and the San Antonio Jubilees. The one represents the dark and evolutionary worldview of Hollywood, replete with its detestation for the biblical family. The other represents the bright hope of the influence of Christianity on families and this nation. And while the heavily entrenched Goliath of Hollywood continues to dominate the horizon of American culture, the sling of an up-and-coming David — proven through record-breaking box office receipts, DVD sales and exciting production values and storylines of a new generation of filmmakers — stands ready to topple the giant.
The Oscar and the Jubilee
by Geoffrey Botkin, Faculty for the Christian Filmmakers Academy and Judge for the 2012 SAICFF
It was my first Oscar Night, and the first thing that surprised me was how early in the afternoon it started. Shortly after lunch, in fact. The reason, I was told, was, “Eastern Standard, man. So that little guys can get their little Oscars early, making time for the pretty people to get theirs live. Prime time on the East Coast.” Little Oscars were for stuff like droid noises and storm trooper costume design. The big Oscars, of course, were Best Picture and Best Director.
But there was another reason for the early start. Hollywood is a celebrity culture, a ruling class culture, and the nobility have certain obligations to the public (or so they must believe). There was only one red-carpet entrance to the auditorium, and the arriving limos were careful not to pull up too fast or too early. There appeared to be etiquette, timing, and style to driving a limo to the Oscars. A limo wouldn’t deposit a passenger until the previous limo passenger had minced her way slowly and deliberately up the red carpet.
The California sun was hot and high when the first celebrants arrived. These were not the A-List stars of the evening, but attendees who had to get in the building somehow, and there was only one way in physically, and one way in socially.
Here is the conventional method for entering buildings in Hollywood: like royalty. I was surprised that so many of the women, both very young and very old, arrived alone. I also found it curious that either they, or their fashion designers, had all conformed to the politically-correct or socially-correct style of the hour. Evening gowns were near identical, and not becoming. Also similar was the way the ladies related so intimately with the press cameras. They were sophisticated. All the ladies understood how slowly one walks on the red carpet, playing to the cameras on one side, then playing to cameras on the other. All of them had a polished ability to communicate dozens of subtle messages to the camera. “I’m not posing,” they sparkled, “I’m simply walking into a building.”
But were they? The sound of a hundred shutters and motor drives is the sound of fame. It drew the celebrity-class toward the cameras like a magnet. The sound seemed to excite that amazing aptitude that allows a subject to make friendly contact with every single lens, including mine. I had press credentials for the big occasion, and good cameras, and I was free to go into any area I could penetrate (or so I believed). The red carpet was soon a snarl of competing smiles. I slipped backstage.
The Door of Fame
I wanted to know what the Hollywood elite are like when out of the limelight, and I can tell you in two words: uncomfortably self-conscious. The most fascinating show of the evening was the unscripted, backstage conduct of stars, their agents, the handlers, the paparazzi, the winners, the groupies, the bankers and, of course, the losers.
It was a busy night. There were two backstage areas because there were two stages. One connected to the ceremony out front, and the other connected to a swirling shark-pool of press photographers in the back. After receiving their Oscars, all the winners were led through a small door, which I called “The Door of Fame,” which opened onto what the press called the “white” stage. At the other end of the stage was a door leading them back to their seats in the auditorium. The winner had the white stage all to herself or himself for almost as long as she or he wanted to walk back and forth with Mr. Oscar, displaying that remarkable talent of connecting his or her personality with camera lenses.
It was a big night. Lots of press had showed up for the 50th Anniversary Academy Awards. Yes, that was way back in the day when celebrity security was not as tight as Queen Elizabeth’s, when George Lucas was a relative unknown, Kodak was not bankrupt, and cameras still shot 35mm film. In front of that white stage, the sound of fame was a mighty mechanical roar of shutters, flashes, and film zipping through cameras.
Among the more bizarre occurrences of the evening were the sudden and unexpected appearances of has-been celebrities who couldn’t stay away from the sound of fame. They found the Door of Fame quite by accident, and hurried through (in graceful, extra-slow-motion). “Oops,” they sparkled, “Wrong door. Silly me. I’m not posing, of course, I’m just trying to get to my seat.” One aging male actor made the mistake four times, each time with a different aspiring starlet on his arm. But for his effort, he heard the exhilarating sound of fame four times, and he introduced four young disciples to its intoxicating powers. “Let me show you, darling, how to pretend to shield your eyes from the intrusive brilliance of the camera flash. Alas, it’s just one more painful inconvenience of being part of the celebrity elite.”
The shark-pool of photographers shot close-up photos of all this, snickering scornfully. As a group, they were generally cynical, bored, disgusted, impatient, rude, scruffy, pessimistic, derisive and, above all, professionally intrusive. And the stars absolutely loved them. It was photographers, after all, who generated a sound more powerful than the sound of applause. Photographers also generated the images that would freeze fame in history forever. But to what end? Is it really fame if no one remembers it?
The Heart, Soul, and Doctrine of Hollywood
Was this to be an historic night? Some had predicted it to be Star Wars night. Threepio was a presenter. The main host, Bob Hope, had first hosted the awards in 1940, the year Gone With the Wind took eight Oscars. Bob seemed to know everyone and everything about Hollywood personalities, politics, and political correctness. That night was dominated by a new Hollywood culture, but some of the old blood was there on stage with Bob: Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas, Greer Garson, and Gregory Peck. Nominees included Soviet sympathizers Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine, and a defector who knew Soviet ways from the inside, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Spielberg was there, and was snubbed, as usual, but Lucas took home several technical awards for Star Wars . Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave gave a short, confused sermon about “Zionist hoodlums,” and someone told me later the predominant Jewish contingent in the audience gasped and booed. Later, a presenter reminded Redgrave that winning her Oscar was “not a pivotal moment in history.”
And yet every movie and movie event is important to history because of what it teaches an attentive public. That particular evening was the 50th Anniversary of an event that defined merit and excellence. It could have been a special year, a Jubilee year, set apart to truly honor great national achievements in the motion picture arts and sciences. The eyes of the nation were on the event, and especially on the award for The Big Oscars, those for Best Picture and Best Director. With these awards, the Academy sends a loud trumpet-blast of a signal. Filmmakers and film-goers alike learn what the Academy considers good, important, meritorious, and worthy of honor by the motion picture industry.
The award ceremony is even designed to build dramatic anticipation for the announcement of the Academy’s decision. Who would be most esteemed on the 50th Anniversary of the Oscars? Behind the scenes that night, there were sweaty palms, nervous glances, and fidgeting.
How Oscars Are Won
Oscars are awards of merit given by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There is a hierarchy at the Academy. A board of governors and associates nominate the movies they like with purpose. They judge these films carefully. Then the thousands of the tightly-controlled membership of the Academy — the Hollywood elite — vote for the nominated films they like best. They vote for what they value. They vote for what they love. They vote for what they believe best represents the worldview of the Hollywood ruling class.
For the 50th celebration, Star Wars came out on top for some awards in Motion Picture Sciences: set decoration, sound, editing, visual effects. But Motion Picture Arts are a special matter to the Academy. Art is an interpretation of culture. Culture is the external religion, the preferred external religion of a people, revealed in their values, seen in popular fashion, music, literature, ethical belief, standards of right and wrong, conversation, education, cases of law and the stories in feature films. For the Academy, the winning film must be good art: a good representation of the preferred beliefs of a culture. The Academy holds strong opinions about the preferred beliefs and reinforces a consistent opinion through the films they nominate. The Academy members vote for the cultural content they have learned to value and to love. They vote for the movies that reinforce everything about their way of faith and life.
So to whom did the Academy award the Big Oscars on their 50th Anniversary? The winner that year, for Best Picture, was — get ready to celebrate — a twisted little film about relationships and the pseudoscience of psychotherapy, by Woody Allen. The co-stars were neurotic serial fornicators who played neurotic serial fornicators in the movie. The story attempted to explain why real relationships are impossible and don’t really matter anyway. The director of that largely forgotten film received double honor that night: He was given the Oscar for Best Director. He is not a good director. The film was not a good film. But it was “Best Picture” according to the preferred theology of The Academy. The Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was sending out a very clear trumpet-blast to every filmmaker: This is what we esteem and value above every other professional effort. This is what we believe our worldwide audience needs to be learning.
After the secret was out of the envelope, the Hollywood elite relaxed a little, and their interactions were not unlike those of the winner’s co-stars: selfishly neurotic. Many of the attendees had spent the year competing viciously with one another for places on the lists of players. The forced cordiality ended, and the rest of the evening consisted not in celebration, but in desperate renewed efforts to be like the people in the winning film — to act like them, think like them, quarrel like them, and believe the same meaningless beliefs. This was the faith of Hollywood culture that year, and all who wanted to share in movie-making history, or movie-making fame, worked very hard to learn this faith and live by it.
When I use the term theology, I mean a systematic set of beliefs based on the will of a god. There is true theology, and a corrupt, deformed version that is the precise opposite. True theology is nothing less than the word of Almighty God. His will and His righteousness are perfectly consistent and unchanging. Hollywood theology, on the other hand, is the word of man, who is elevated to the position of highest authority, and always changing. One main message of Hollywood theology is that man can be and must be his own god, deciding for himself what is right and wrong, building his own theology on his own terms. This is why filmmakers who break away from true theology and exalt Hollywood theology are treated as gods in Hollywood. This is especially true of directors, but it is also true of others in the elite. It is considered an achievement worthy of honor and recognition to turn biblical theology on its head. In Hollywood, Woody Allen is a god. He knows Hollywood Theology, and he honors it with style.
Heaven and Hell Cannot Be Defined by Hollywood
Some filmmakers want Oscars more than they want character, integrity, and truth. Others want fame. They know the rules: conform theologically or forget being included as one of the glitterati. The rules are little different from those of the early Soviet film industry: conform to Soviet theology and the party line and help us mould the ideal unthinking Soviet man, or your film is not good art, and it will never see an audience. Many talented Soviet filmmakers took the easy road and betrayed reality, integrity, and truth in order to be part of the Soviet propaganda unit Goskino. They received rubles, honors, and awards for erasing Christian traditions all across the empire. They were treated as gods, like the filmmakers who will join Hollywood’s firmament of deities at the next Academy Awards ceremony on February 26th. On that Sunday night, Oscar Night, a fawning public will tune in again to get a glimpse into Hollywood Heaven.
I have a message for the American TV audience. You’ll not only get a glimpse; Oscar Night will showcase the entire scope of Hollywood Heaven. You’ll see all there is to see. There is nothing transcendent in the pageant or the people or the films. There’s an ordinary stage, a glitzy pulpit, bright lights, and the self-appointed gods and goddesses of a make-believe world. You’ll see self-aggrandizement, self-congratulation, and self-deception. Hollywood Heaven is a fraudulent alternative to reality. It is held together by morally timid professionals who might love to be free from it but are afraid to break out. They continue to go along with a game many of them know is corrupt.
A few years ago, a young man came to me for help with a script he was submitting to the Hollywood elite. He wanted in. He wanted to be a recognized, well-funded, history-changing filmmaker. But he was a professing Christian, and told me his biggest goal was not to win an Oscar but rather to “send Hollywood a message.” He believed that Hollywood was moving the nation and the world in a negative direction, and he thought his film’s Christian message would show Hollywood a thing or two about writing and producing movies.
I started to read his script, and here’s what I discovered.
He had chosen a great and truly biblical theme for his film: “Forcing oneself into worldly conformity will not bring happiness.” Then he padded it out with a number of other ideas he thought were necessary to make his film a Hollywood film. He added Hollywood theology:
- Businessmen are evil.
- Small country towns are depraved because they are so traditional.
- Work is to be avoided.
- Sex makes the world go ‘round.
- Men are stupid.
- Dads are dopey.
- Fornication is inevitable after the “Hollywood kiss.”
- License (libertinism) is virtuous. Man can be his own god unless he’s a clergyman.
- Rebellion is inherently cool.
- Selfish hedonism is a path to fulfillment and happiness.
- Sin is an outdated concept.
- Homosexuality is genetic.
- “Gays” should be celebrated fixtures of society.
- The State has a duty to provide a risk-free existence to its people.
- Characters who curse are necessary as a mark of honest reality in a script.
All these theological elements were added before the end of Act II, where I stopped reading. To be yet more graphic, the script included specific jokes that seemed to go out of their way to prove the writer’s familiarity with Hollywood’s idea of aesthetic humor, including potty jokes, the newest sex slang, comparisons of Reagan to Hitler, racial minorities dealing out violent arrogance to white Anglo-Saxon males, and the mocking of a famous Christian businessman.
Here is an interesting point about theology. The writer was a graduate of Bible school. The theme of this film is Biblical. Yet every doctrinal element in the film is faithful to a rival theology of a rival god. The Christian writer was glorifying man and honoring Hollywood theology. He did not realize this theology is antithetical to Christian culture. It is the key to building and sustaining an anti-Christian culture.
So what message was this writer sending Hollywood? I want to be as cool as you are and be a part of your world. Please call me a filmmaker and don’t count it against me if I pretend to be a Christian. See what great, cool Hollywood movies I can make in the name of Hollywood? Please give me a seat at your table.
This is a treasonous message of surrender. If I had to summarize Hollywood theology in a phrase, I would say it is a very attractive lie. It glorifies man as the highest moral agent, with all authority to be his own god, determining for himself any ethical rules he wants. He can call ugliness beauty, evil good, or falsehood truth. It teaches that irresponsible filmmaking is no big deal — certainly not a theological thing — it’s just entertainment.
So many filmmakers have grown up with this theology they don’t realize it is theology. They think it is simply the way the world is. Well, it is the way the world is now, thanks to the influence of movies, but this is not the culture that anyone should reinforce through cinematic example. This theology is deformed, twisted, and corrupt, but there is a cinematic alternative.
A Prelude to Greatness
About the Hollywood elite, Director Frank Capra once observed, “We learn about life from each other’s pictures.” It has been a long time since the movies have shown us a picture of true heroism. Movies have taught us it is normal to be moral cowards. Movies have discipled us into a common faith. A great library of darkness has despoiled a once-great people, starting with the Hollywood elite. Americans now find the murky world of cinema to be more real than God.
Here are some important questions Americans should be asking during Oscar weekend in 2012: What might happen if a group of heroic filmmakers resolved to break away from bankrupt Hollywood theology to build a library of films that could inspire a nation to honesty, virtue, courage, humility, and the honor of God instead the honor of men?
What if a new library of films began to repair America’s broken understanding of true theology? What if honest filmmakers began learning about real life from each others’ creative endeavors? What if their films replaced pop doctrine with the genuine article?
Answer: The spell of Hollywood Theology would be broken, and cinema could go back to artistic honesty and creativity. Cinema could be brought back under the legitimate authority of the true Sovereign of the universe, Jesus Christ. And there would be something to celebrate in cinema.
The Night Before the Oscars: A Jubilee Celebration
On the night of February 25th — the night before Oscar Night — a revolutionary group of filmmakers will be gathering 1,300 miles from Hollywood to celebrate a reality that is the opposite of Hollywood’s carnival of deception. These filmmakers will be celebrating the courage of their professional peers in creating a library of independent films that frame the direct antithesis to dishonest filmmaking.
Visionary Doug Phillips has organized a professional Film Festival that has thrown open the door to a new era of cinematic history. The San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival is pointing the way to cinematic reformation by being bluntly honest about the arts and sciences of filmmaking. From the beginning of its history, the SAICFF was boldly truthful about the messages that should be communicated in cinema, as well as in cinematic awards of merit.
The SAICFF rests its policies on the one fixed standard of merit which is based squarely on the unchanging systematic theology of the Bible. Many filmmakers see this standard and say, “Why did no one ever show us this before?” Filmmakers know, deep down, that every film teaches theology, and now they know how important it is to get one’s theology right. Now they know which system of theology can give their films a foundation of honesty, integrity, and real freedom of creativity. It is the SAICFF that has set filmmakers free from the straightjacket of Hollywood Theology and introduces them to real creative freedom. It is fitting that Doug Phillips calls the highest award for merit “The Jubilee Award.” Every acknowledgment of a winner is a trumpet-blast, proclaiming liberty to an industry long held hostage by moral confusion.
The SAICFF receives hundreds of film submissions to each year’s festival. Most of the works demonstrate the long-misplaced reality that there is a transcendent theology of right and wrong, courage and cowardice, pride and humility. Filmmakers are learning, little-by-little, that there is a stark distinction between the pop doctrines of Hollywood theology and the freedom-giving standard represented clearly in the Bible. It is for this reason that winners of Jubilee Awards are as different as their films. They are not trying to be gods, and they are not expecting to be treated as gods. They are honored to be recognized as responsible communicators and cultural ambassadors of the great Creator Himself.
Geoff Botkin is a writer, producer, director and faculty member for the Christian Filmmakers Academy who has trained thousands of independent filmmakers. He serves as a Jubilee judge for the SAICFF and is the founder and president of the Western Conservatory of the Arts and Sciences.