Q&A: Director has success with Christian films
January 18, 2019
A pre-term baby condemned to death by abortion – but somehow surviving and years later telling the tale. An abusive father’s spiritual transformation and a son’s forgiveness.
The powerful stories told in the recent films “October Baby” and “I Can Only Imagine” highlight the work of independent filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin – films with Christian themes that surprised the film industry with their box office success.
Jon Erwin has big plans for making more films with stories of redemption and hope, and helping other Christian filmmakers with similar goals through a new film company.
Erwin will share his story as keynote speaker at the 23rd annual GLOW (Giving Life Through Our Works) dinner, Jan. 27 at Embassy Suites in La Vista, sponsored by Essential Pregnancy Services (EPS) in Omaha and Bellevue.
He began his film career in his teens, producing local cable access programs in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala. A last-minute call from an ESPN camera operator for whom he had apprenticed led to an opportunity to fill in for an ill camera operator at a University of Alabama football game, and a career was born.
Erwin soon became a freelance camera operator for ESPN, and with his brother began producing industrial, corporate and music videos, and eventually feature films.
“October Baby,” the Erwins’ 2011 film is based loosely on the story of Gianna Jessen, a survivor of a botched abortion who was left with a debilitating condition as a result but who lives a full life and shares her story with groups worldwide.
The film was a surprise box office success, and 10 percent of profits go to support Every Life is Beautiful, a fund helping pregnancy resource centers, adoption agencies and agencies that care for orphans.
Another hit, “I Can Only Imagine,” based on the song of the same name by the band MercyMe, is the story of lead singer Bart Millard, composer of the breakthrough song that became the best-selling Christian single of all time. The 2017 film grossed more than $80 million.
To supply a steady stream of faith-based films to the marketplace, the Erwins and their production partner Kevin Downes formed a Christian production company called Kingdom. They will announce their first slate of films at the National Religious Broadcasters meeting in March.
Erwin spoke with the Catholic Voice about his film career, his Christian faith and his mission to bring uplifting films to the movie-going public.
Q. How did you and your brother become involved in the film industry?
We got involved in the film business really by complete accident. My hometown is Birmingham, Ala., and of course there's a lot of football around the southeast. I was 15 years old when a cameraman for ESPN got sick at a University of Alabama game three hours before the kickoff, and I had been the apprentice of a cameraman for about a year, and he was on the game. He called me and said, “John, get over here right now, don't tell anybody how old you are, and that you've never done this before, but they're desperate.”
My dad drove me over to the stadium, dropped me off four blocks away, because I didn't want anyone to know I couldn't drive. I went up and ran this camera for ESPN, and just fell in love. I had the time of my life, and never looked back after that. I became a freelance camera operator for ESPN, and then other sports networks. Then my dad helped me buy a camera when I was 16, my brother and I, and told us to dream bold, dream big, dream the impossible, and we've been trying to live up to that ever since.
Perhaps our greatest motivator in the entertainment industry is we don't really know how to do anything else. This is all we've ever done since we were teenagers. But sports television led quickly to all kinds of things – videos for nonprofits and ministries, industrial videos, corporate videos and music videos, and we worked in Nashville for many years, doing that. Then, into the film business after that. It was a very long process. I've heard it said, “Success is long obedience in the same direction,” and it was a long journey, but it's really been worth it.
Q. How did you begin working on films with faith-based topics, such as “The Cross and The Tower,” “October Baby,” and “I Can Only Imagine”?
“The Cross and The Tower” was actually the first long-form documentary we ever did, and a very humbling and incredible project to work on. I directed second unit on a film called “Courageous,” a faith film. I was brought in to do the action scenes and the stunt work. A church made that movie in Georgia.
They made a film called “Facing the Giants,” and “Fireproof,” and this was their third film, “Courageous,” and they made films with volunteers. Alex (Kendrick, the film’s director), asked me a very profound question, which was sort of the final tipping point for us to get involved. He asked me, “John, what's your purpose, and the purpose of your work?” which I think is a question everyone should ask themselves. I couldn't answer it, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.
God had given us a gift, and a trade, and the biggest gift we had was the ability to refine our skills over a long period of time as teenagers, but there was really no master plan, and I didn't have a purpose behind my work, but my faith has always been an essential part of my life, and something that I want the world to know about. Christianity is something I think will change your life. That was sort of my career-to-calling moment, and I began to understand that mass entertainment is a very powerful weapon for change. If you could tell a great story that changes the way someone feels, they're a lot more likely to change the way they think and believe, and the decisions they make. We set out into the deep water telling stories that we cared about instead of just being a service provider, and that led to the film “October Baby,” which was our first theatrical feature film.
It's incredible how powerful the medium of mass entertainment is, especially with this generation. We tell stories that are entertaining, because that's why I go to the movies. We want to tell stories that will really entertain you, that are emotionally relatable no matter what you believe, but that really, just by the virtue of the story that we chose to tell, have the power to change your life if you let them, that really draw you to what's true. That uplift you, and showcase the faith that has changed our lives so much, we want to share it, and we'll share it through stories.
Q. You mentioned “October Baby,” and as I understand, that's based on the story of Gianna Jessen, who is a survivor of a botched abortion, and who actually is going to be in Omaha on Jan. 25 at another dinner.
It's inspired by Gianna's true life story. I'm a storyteller, so the way we chose stories is simply things that deeply move us, that we can't stop thinking about. I remember hearing Gianna speak, and she's such a beautiful soul, and such a vibrant person, but carrying the long-term physical effects of a failed abortion. When I experienced her and heard her story, and her amazing personality, and contrast that with the ongoing disabilities that she so bravely deals with, because her life was attempted to be ended, and you think, man, imagine if this incredible life never existed, if that abortion was successful.
It just shed light on the issue, for me – made it a very human issue. This complex political issue suddenly had a face, and that moved me deeply. I probably wouldn't advise a first-time filmmaker, or the industry would not have advised us at the time, and rightly so, to set out and make your first movie sort of an abortion drama. But, the story just so deeply moved me that, that's exactly what we did, and it was incredible to see it work, and it was incredible to see the pro-life community rally around it the way they did, and to see the movie open in the top 10 movies of America, and on just 390 screens, I mean, it was just a fraction, it was a real Cinderella story.
I hope that it makes people think. The first time that I encountered someone that said, “I went and literally paid for an abortion, scheduled it for a couple days later, went and saw ‘October Baby,’ and not knowing what it was, and I chose to keep my child.” That was such an amazing moment for me, and it's happened many times since. I think that's the power of a story. It just came from just being inspired by Gianna, such an incredible person.
Q. What is your own faith tradition? How does faith influence your work on a day-to-day basis?
I was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., which is sort of the heart of the Bible belt. I grew up in church all my life at an independent church called Shades Mountain Independent in Birmingham. I was baptized when I was five years old, and I'm a believer in Jesus Christ. I just believe the best definition of the Gospel that I can give anyone is that right at the origin of Christianity, when an angel appeared to the shepherds and said, Jesus was born in Bethlehem and said, “I'm bringing you good news of great joy for all people,” I think that's what the Gospel is, its good news that will bring incredible joy to your life and it's meant for everybody.
I think that the principles of Christianity and of faith when correctly presented are just universally appealing. That's one of the things that I love about a movie, and I loved about “October Baby.” It was one of those joint efforts between Evangelicals, and Catholics, and Mormons, and all kinds of peoples of faith championing common values. We might worship in different places throughout the week, but we can join arms, together, with cultural initiatives where we share common beliefs, and I think it's important to do that.
It's amazing to see the power of unity in the faith community, whether it's with a movie, or just before “October Baby” came out I attended my first March for Life in D.C., and it's just incredible to see just the power of people coming together in common values. One of the things that we say is, “We only make products that we fully believe in,” and so I'm compelled to share the things that I think will change your life, and the things that I think are true, and that tell stories to share those things. My faith is one of those things. It's very real, and very meaningful, and very powerful to me, and I think very beneficial to my life, and so we're compelled to tell stories that share that fact with others, so they can experience the same thing.
Q. You've spoken in the past about your movies possessing a redemptive quality, what do you mean by that?
Redemption, I think is a core theme in our movies. As I understand it, the definition of redemption is to simply buy something back, to take something that you've perceived great value in, and purchase it back. I think many of us feel, and carry a guilt, or a shame that, "If you knew me, you couldn't love me," or "Faith is for other people, but I've done too many things, that I'm beyond redemption." That's why I loved the story in I Can Only Imagine, we all know and love the song, and so many millions of people have a story with that song.
When I was talking to Bart, and heard him say that the inspiration of the song, “I Can Only Imagine,” was that he watched his dad change. I remember so vividly in an interview, the moment I knew I wanted to make the film was when Bart said, “I know God is real, because of the change I saw in my dad,” he said, “I watched a monster transform into my best friend, and to the man that I wanted to become,” and for him, his perspective was that if there was anyone that God could not change, that was beyond redemption, “It was my dad,” and that's who God changed. I think that's what Christianity does. It transforms people. I think that is the proof of Christianity, is that it transforms people.
What I love about Christianity, is that just by its nature, and by its design, it offers something to people that society would say are beyond redemption, or people that have done things, or people that are trapped in guilt and shame, it can change any life, and there's always hope for that person. I just think that many of us live and die under this lie that we're beyond redemption, or that we've done something that's unforgivable, and that's not true, at least according to Jesus Christ. That's a message I think people really need.
I think, never before, or at least in my lifetime, has there been such a cultural craving for hope, and for optimism, and for a chance of redemption. It was amazing to see after “I Can Only Imagine,” just thousands of people and stories of people in the theater saying, “I need what happened to Bart's dad, I need that to happen in my life. I need the same redemption in my life.” Or someone saying, “You know what? There's someone that I need to help redeem. There's someone I need to forgive. I need to forgive my mom. I need to forgive my dad.”
That's special to see an entertaining movie, to see people have a great time at a theater for two hours. Laugh and cry and just escape, which is wonderful, but to see the idea that entertainment can happen on purpose. Entertainment can have great value long after you leave the theater, if you tell the right story. That's what we seek to do. I think that's why I'm just fascinated with the idea, especially when you contrast religions worldwide, that Christianity offers something to the broken, and to the stained, and to people that we don't have to be with some of our mistakes. I think, that's really amazing. Again, that's one of the things we want to share.
Q. Does the success of the film you mentioned, I Can Only Imagine, tell us anything about the public's appetite for films with a Christian message.
Yeah. I think, that “I Can Only Imagine” of course shocked the industry. It's the number one independent film of 2018. It opened as the number one DVD in America when it came out on home video. It's the number one film for Lions Gate, are partner studio for 2018. On a fraction of the budget, it shocked the system. A $7 million film to make, and they made over $18 million in box office, and is now playing all over the world. It was expected to open at $2 to $4 million opening weekend, and opened at $17 million.
I think what that shows is that the faith and values audience is enormous. It's not a minority. It's actually a majority. When the faith audience unifies around things, and when we flex our collective muscle, culture takes notice. Mass media takes notice, and people come out of curiosity that would never have experienced this worldview any other way. It is amazing to see our collective might, and the March 16th, 2018, was one of those moments. It was just an amazing thing to witness and experience.
Once again, the entertainment industry has been reinvigorated to create content for the faith audience, but it's not only for the faith audience, because I think that the tenets of Christianity are universally appealing, they're written in our hearts. Like I said, I think culturally, with the world that we live in today, I have never experienced such an appetite for hope in entertainment, and whether it's the incredible success of “I Can Only Imagine,” or the Mister Rogers documentary, or The Greatest Showman, or another Lionsgate film, “Wonder,” that came out the year before, an incredible film, there is just an appetite for goodness, for truth, for hope, for redemption no matter what you believe. I think that, that was a big part of it.
I think the film went far wider into culture than we could have ever imagined, and I just think it says something about the times in which we live. What I love is that everyone should know that the entertainment industry is consumer driven, not agenda driven. There are people in Hollywood with agendas, of course. I'm one of them. I want to share my faith with the world through entertainment, but the industry itself is consumer driven. What this means is your movie ticket is your vote. When we all collectively vote for something, more of that type of thing is made. That's just how the industry works.
Now, there's incredible opportunity. Andy and I are stewards of a lot of that opportunity right now, that there's just enormous opportunity and a freeway has opened for faith in Hollywood in a way that hasn't really happened since “The Passion of the Christ.” It's incredible to be in LA, in this moment, and to see people of faith that have been sort of hiding in the industry become more bold about their faith, and about its values. I think the future is very, very bright, because all voted. If there's anything that I ask for are peoples votes.
When you go see the film, my goal is to entertain you, and I'm very humbled by the fact that you're coming to my movie. A ticket for my movie is the same price as the ticket for “Star Wars,” but when you come to my movie and when millions of your friends join you, you know you're guaranteeing that more of those films are going to be made, and they're going to be made bigger and bigger, and better and better, and they're going to go to the world.
Entertainment is America's second largest export, behind agriculture, and we're sort of the microphone to the world when it comes to entertainment, music, and television, and film, and all these things. Over 100 countries are paying for “I Can Only Imagine,” now, including China. The worldview is going much further than America, because America voted. That is my observation, and I'm just deeply humbled, and incredibly grateful for all the people that went and saw “I Can Only Imagine.” It was a breakthrough success for us, and has given us enormous opportunity in the entertainment industry, and we hope to steward it well in the coming years.
Q. Where are your films available, either in DVD or streaming form? How would people access them?
The films that we've made are available wherever you purchase entertainment. iTunes, Amazon, Walmart, and they're intermittently available on platforms like Netflix, and Amazon, and Hulu. Forgive me, I don't quite know where the cycle of each of those films are right now, but they'll be intermittently available on the platforms like Netflix and they're always available wherever films are sold.
Q. Your biography mentions that you were homeschooled, and that you credit that fact with influencing your career. Can you explain that?
I had to do kindergarten, twice, because I was an ADHD disturbance to the class, and so I think it wasn't my grades it was just thinking of everyone else's, and so to all the parents out there that have wild and unruly children, sometimes those qualities have values later on in life. My mom had been a teacher before I was born, and so she decided to take me, homeschool me, and because I was homeschooled I just had a flexibility, a schedule that I was able to say “yes” to opportunities that public school would have prevented me from saying “yes” to, and I think I was able to learn my own way, at my own pace. I don't think I would have flourished in a normal school environment.
It made a great deal of difference in my life, because even before I worked for ESPN at age 15 I was working at a local cable station from about age 12 on, so we would go in every night, and get paid $10 to direct some of the local cable access shows. I was a 13-year-old kid whose voice had not changed, and was directing these sports shows and things. I was just having so much fun, and then I was able to say “yes” to ESPN at age 15. Then, from age 15 on pretty much every Friday, Saturday I was working for ESPN. It just gave me great flexibility and a great opportunity to learn my craft.
I don't consider the film business an art form, I consider it a craft to be mastered over the course of your life. It certainly involves many art forms, but it's a craft in my opinion. A craft is something that you learn incrementally over a long period of time. Sometimes entertainment can be a lot more like the NFL than business, it's an industry of a high performers, and so the earlier you can start in learning and mastering that craft, the better. Homeschooling gave me the opportunity to start at a much earlier age than many people.
I just had a consistent seven-, eight-year head start, and I'm very grateful for that, and very grateful to my parents for bringing me home, and letting me learn to spell, and do arithmetic while hanging from a chandelier, or whatever, because I was a rambunctious child. Now, my daughter, who's seven, she's in public school right now, we've homeschooled, we sort of go back and forth based on my filming schedule, and she certainly has all the gifts. She's a firebrand, and a force of nature, willpower, and she's a hot head like me, and so she's got all the gifts, and so now I'm sort of paying for my DNA, I guess, but I love her to death.
Q. Tell us about your plans for your new production company, which I know you described as a Christian Pixar.
I certainly revere Pixar and Marvel, and other companies. I just love the Pixar building. There will never be another Pixar, but I'm deeply inspired by some of these large entertainment companies. I began to think, after the success of “I Can Only Imagine,” wow, why can't we do that? First of all, if the goal is to really reinfuse a generation with truth, and recapture their imagination, and I'm not talking about just young people, I'm talking about everybody today.
Then, one content creator really can't make a difference. You can't physically make enough movies, or TV series, or whatever to really get to a critical mass of re-engaging a generation. We began to realize that it would have to be something bigger than us, and we would have to be sort of the beacon to attract and mentor other talent under a banner brand, and see more films made, and the films that we could make ourselves. That was always the dream. Sometimes in the industry one groundbreaking success can fuel a dream like that, whether it's “Star Wars,” a Lucas film, or “Toy Story” from Pixar. “I Can Only Imagine” was successful enough to get the attention of several movie studios for this larger dream.
We really had discussions with many, but Lionsgate is really a great partner. I love that studio, we've had great success with them, they're very entrepreneurial in their mindset, and they caught the vision for what we were doing. That's the goal. That's the dream, to model the practices of some of these larger entertainment companies like Pixar, or Marvel, or Legendary; there's many. To say that really had a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs would say, and let's go for it, and let's see what happens. Lionsgate has given us the ability to do that, and we're going to launch the company at the National (Christian) Broadcasters Convention this spring. It's going to be a live-streamed event, and we're going to unveil the plan, and strategy of the films that we're working on, and the filmmakers that we're working with, which is what I'm most excited about.
The reality is we just don't have that many people of faith in the entertainment industry, and there's not a clear path for people of faith, young people, to really survive and thrive in the entertainment industry, and that's one of the main things we want to change. We want to create a place where new talent can be incubated, and mentored, and matched to existing A players and we can do something beyond ourselves. We really want to create something that is bigger than we are that will outlive us, and Lionsgate is giving the chance to test that theory.
I just hope and pray that the audience comes with us over the next couple years, because it's an enormous opportunity, and we'll go from one film every other year, probably to two films a year, here in 2020, and beyond. It's exciting times. It's an enormous opportunity to steward, and we hope to steward it well. It's called Kingdom, because I just love that word. Many, many, many people of faith over the centuries have said, “Thy kingdom come,” and we don't want to build our own name, we want to build the kingdom. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is near.” We want to bring it closer by telling these stories to the world. It's exciting. It's an exciting time, and I'm grateful for the opportunity, and it's good to be able to dream beyond ourselves.
Q. What will you be sharing with attendees at the Essential Pregnancy Services Annual Dinner on January 27th?
Well, I think what I'm most excited about sharing that night is really just the power of telling stories. Jesus, the greatest storyteller of all time, and we all have our own stories, and stories can change lives. Stories can save lives. Ultimately, filmmaking is sort of a method, but the craft that we pursue, and love is storytelling. I think I'm just going to be talking a lot about certainly our story, but also the power of story in general, because we all have a story that we can tell, and we all have a story that is being written. That stories can change lives. I'm looking forward to being there and locking arms.
Of course, any time I can celebrate the sanctity of every single life, that's time well spent. I'm honored to be with them, and to share the evening, and looking forward to a lot of fun. Hopefully, in addition that I hope it's inspiring that when I was 16 my dad said, “Dream bold, dream big, dream the impossible,” and I think life is too short for small dreams, and so I'll be talking about that as well, that if you set high goals and are patient enough, you can achieve them, so I look forward to talking about that as well. That needs to be fun, and I can't wait to be there.