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Selling Movies to Religious America: An Interview with Jonathan Bock

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Hollywood understands one thing: money. And if there’s one thing religious America has, it’s money.

And if there’s one thing religious America has, it’s money.
So says Jonathan Bock, who’s put these ideas together and now makes a living helping movie studios promote their films to religious America.

Based in Santa Monica, Calif., Bock is careful to say he works not only for the studios, but for religious America as well “by helping studios see [religious audiences] as a market.” Bock added that the longer he works with the studios, the more they see the value of the religious market.

Bock compared what he does to the “First Weekend Club,” a national program that encourages attendance of “African American” movies, especially during their opening weekend.

“In Hollywood,” Bock said, “opening weekend is everything.”

Hollywood Roots
Bock, a Presbyterian, grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was the minister of music at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. He majored in religion at Connecticut College, then went back to Los Angeles to write sit-coms, where he wrote for “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.”

After that stint as a writer, he ended up in the publicity department at Warner Brothers, where he helped promote “My Dog Skip” and “The Green Mile.”

While working on those projects, he thought Warner Brothers should make a special effort to promote those films—because of their themes and stories—to religious America.

He pitched that job to the studios and hasn’t looked back. To further the cause he created Grace Hill Media, an organization “committed to helping Hollywood discover people of faith around the world.” Bock took the name from Grace Hill Street, where his mother-in-law grew up in Ireland. He liked the name and thought it had a “religious flair without being too much.”

Bock’s first movie to promote in his current capacity was “Pay It Forward,” starring Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment. The film follows a boy who tries to make the world a better place by doing a favor for someone and having them pass it on.

Bock says he jumped at the chance to promote the movie because he was “so enamored with the concept of paying forward favors to create a pyramid of goodwill.”

Since then, he’s promoted “Family Man,” “Harry Potter,” “K-PAX,” “A Walk to Remember,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Dragonfly.”

Starving for Good Movies
The films Bock promotes aren’t exactly shot on shoestring budgets, and they pack lots of star-power. Bock wouldn’t have it any other way. He prefers to work with the larger studios, not small Christian production houses, because studios have more money and “generally put out a better product.”
But making movies is a difficult business. “It’s unbelievably hard to make a good film,” he said. Plus, “if the studios knew how to do it every time, they would.”

Nevertheless, Bock said it might actually be easier for Hollywood to make films that appeal to religious audiences rather than “secular” ones. Why?
“Religious America is starved for quality entertainment,” he said. “They’re anxious and eager for anything they can support and value with their family. You have a very willing buyer. When you’re hungry, you’ll eat almost anything.”

And what might a solid film that appeals to religious America have? A good story, a good cast and the money “to make it look good.” But “you’ve got to start with a good story,” Bock said. “Intentions don’t make a good movie. A story does.”

Christian Restriction
Bock hasn’t promoted an R-rated movie to the religious community yet, but he wouldn’t mind doing it. He said he’s “not of the ilk that thinks every film a Christian sees needs to be appropriate for an eight year old.”

Pointing to the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, Bock maintained that stories involving murder and adultery, for example, have much to teach. But it’s essential that they be couched in a redemptive context.

He said he would have promoted “Schindler’s List” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” both of which were rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Would the studios believe he could promote an R-rated movie to the religious community?

“I’d have more problems with the religious world than with the studios,” he said.

Money Matters
Bock says what he does matters because religious America is an untapped market.

“Studios are about making money for films,” he said. “If they could put a test pattern on screen and audiences would pay $9 to see it, they’d do it.”

The studios live and breathe money. It’s their raison d’etre.

He cited Michael Eisner, chairman and CEO of Walt Disney, who once said: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

For example, “A Walk to Remember,” which Bock is promoting, opens nationwide Friday, Jan. 25. If the movie makes $25 million on its opening weekend, Bock said, every studio head in town will be trying to make a similar movie the following Monday. “That’s how it works,” he said.

This attitude actually comforts Bock, who at least knows the playing field.
“All they want is our money. Terrific. Let’s give it to them,” he said. “Let’s just be choosy where we do.”

Engaging Culture
It’s essential for Christians to engage culture and not run from it.

But religious America must remember that the quality of movies doesn’t “change overnight,” he said. Change takes time and “a sincere effort on religious America’s part to re-engage themselves in entertainment and to stand in the breach.”

However, “supporting these films and making them big hits will guarantee you’ll get more of the films you’ll like,” he said.

Of course, religious America won’t like every movie. Hollywood will still turn to violence and sex because those pictures will still make money. But if the movies that religious America likes make money, the studios will make more of them.

Bock also stressed that religious audience won’t like 100 percent of every movie, and that’s okay. “Nothing is perfect in life,” he said. “Your church isn’t perfect, but you still go.”

Likewise, religious America—Christians included—must continue to go to the movies, Bock said.

“It’s possible to be a Christian and to wake up in the morning and read a Christian paper, listen to Christian radio, have your kids go only to Christian Web sites,” he said. “It also has the potential to isolate us in some ways.”

For Bock, the isolation helps no one.

“Culture will go on without us,” he said. “It will keep going without us.”

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.

Visit Movie Mission at http://www.moviemission.com
Visit the official site of “The Count of Monte Cristo” at http://bventertainment.go.com/movies/montecristo/intro.htm
Visit the official site of “A Walk to Remember” at http://www2.warnerbros.com/walktoremember/main.html