Reel time initiative
Movie promoter launches project to re-engage church with the movie industry

by Lori Arnold

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Since starting his faith-based Hollywood public relations firm a dozen years ago, Jonathan Bock and his team at Grace Hill Media have often bridged the gap between the increasingly edgy movie industry and a skeptical Christian community.

“We have a tendency to stand there with our arms crossed waiting to be offended,” Bock said of the Christian community.

The marketing guru, who worked for Warner Bros. before launching Grace Hill, said he’s hoping to improve the relationship between the two communities through As1, a new campaign to re-engage Christians into the arts.

“What I love about As1 is that it sets a bold vision that also is grounded in history,” Bock said. “The goal of As1 is to restore the church to its historically traditional role as a patron of the arts.”

Bock said during the Renaissance and other significant eras the church often was a driving force behind art and culture, evidenced by the famous works of Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello “Raphael” Sanzio da Urbino, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Merisi da Caravaggio and Michelangelo, whose credits include the Sistine Chapel and the statues David and Pietà.

“The church was a real patron of the arts,” Bock said. “We need to get back to a place like that. The definition of a patron of the arts has changed pretty substantially since the Renaissance. It used to be if you were a patron of the arts you were a rich guy in tights with a coin purse. Now, the patron is the ticket-buying customer, the consumer. They wield a lot of influence— not individually (because), if I buy one ticket it makes little difference, but as a community you can have a tremendous amount of influence over the projects that are made into the future.

“This relationship worked well like this for hundreds and hundreds of years. Why would we not want to get back to a place like that where it was beneficial to the artist and beneficial for society and beneficial for the church?”

To help with that goal Bock’s As1 initiative will target specific projects that appeal to a narrow market. Those pledging to be part of the As1 movement will then work to promote those projects to make them “unequivocal hits where it can only be the Christian community that made it a hit.”

“We target Bible-based projects, things that are rooted, absolutely, in the Bible, where the only people who would make this a big, huge hit are people who are believers in the Bible,” he said.

Chasing momentum
Their first project to promote is “The American Bible Challenge,” a new game show on the GSN channel, formerly known as the Game Show Network. Bock said if Christians rally around the show and it becomes a major hit, Hollywood is more likely to produce similar shows. Its Aug. 23 debut was the largest No. 1 showing in the channel’s history and propelled it into the top five cable list for several demographic categories.

“Hollywood is a business that chases momentum,” Bock said. “They try to catch lightening in a bottle twice.”

He cited the success of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” which spawned a series of war movies. Current trends, he added, are an appetite for vampires because of the popularity of “Twilight,” themed reality shows and cooking shows, which have found homes on multiple cable outlets beyond the Food Network and Cooking channels.

“Success breeds success in Hollywood,” Bock said.

For instance, he said the strong theatrical showings by “The Passion of the Christ,” “October Baby” and Sherwood Baptist Church’s releases “Fireproof” and “Courageous” have caught the eye of industry insiders.

“All of those were hits, but all of those were made outside of the Hollywood system,” the promoter said. “Now what we are seeing is Hollywood wanting to get in on this and be part of the process.”

Many of the major studios now have faith-based divisions, and some big Hollywood names have major Christian-themed movies in the pipeline, some of them with budgets in the hundreds of millions.

Russell Crowe will star in filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” set for release in 2014. TV mega-producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, are teaming up for a 10-part series on the Bible, which will air next spring on the History Channel. Other planned projects involve Stephen Spielberg with a proposed epic on Moses, and Will Smith is considering a movie on Cain and Able.

“I think they are a lot more receptive,” Bock said of Hollywood. “In the past 12 years I have personally seen the Christian community go from near-pariah status within Hollywood to a place where we are now absolutely seen as a potential audience, as a real audience worth going after.

“That’s a terrific thing, to go from enmity to being viewed as a real, potential customer. I’ll take that, in a 10-year-time span, any day of the week. That’s a huge step in the right direction.”

Storytelling and relationships
The public relations specialist admits that artists, by the their nature, will often press the lines in storytelling, but Christians would be wise to consider the broader implications.

He cited a scene in “The Passion of the Christ” when Mary reached over to help Jesus carry the cross while she flashed back to coming to his aid when he fell as a child. The scene, Bock said, was not scriptural, yet in the broader context viewers understood the message of suffering and sacrifice that Gibson was telling.

“The gospel is going to get preached, even if it’s only pretty good, the gospel is going to get preached,” he said. “That’s a $100 million marketing campaign for our faith when they are spending lots of advertising dollars pushing people toward seeing the Bible? How is that not good for us?”

Bock said he favors using these movies as a way to initiate dialog about Christianity and build relationships with an eye toward breaking Christian stereotypes.

“We, unfortunately, are in a position where other people are creating culture and we are always put in the position to react to it,” he said. “By making these big hits, by setting ourselves up as a very bankable audience, Christians will actually be part of the creative process. We are going to put the Bible back to the front end of pop culture and hopefully keep it there for a long, long, long time.”

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Published, September 2012

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