Serving the underserved

By Ronald E. Keener

Film producer connects churches that make quality faith-based movies with the best distributors in the industry.

Chris Bueno and his wife, Denise, believe that an inspiring, redemptive film can have the power to transform a person’s life and worldview. In 2009 they founded Ocean Avenue Entertainment in Carmel, CA, a venture primarily focused on the distribution side of the business.

“As a producer, I realized years ago that mainstream distribution channels through major studios like Sony, Fox and others were, for the most part, closed to faith-based productions. The main reason for this is that none of the major distributors thought that a Christian movie could make any money,” says Bueno.

“When The Passion of the Christ exceeded $600 million in theaters worldwide, the studios took notice,” Bueno adds. “Providentially, just before Mel Gibson’s blockbuster was released, I had just started to initiate meetings with major studios in the hopes of establishing key mainstream distribution relationships.”

At the time, there was really nothing else in the production pipeline that was targeted to this underserved audience, according to Bueno. He says this was when he found a little movie produced by Sherwood Baptist Church titled Facing the Giants.
Bueno says that all he saw were a few scenes on Alex Kendrick’s laptop. Kendrick is one-half of the brother-team that directed the film.

“We helped the church by actively working with them on each subsequent rough-cut, getting the film to the point where we could present it to the studios for possible distribution,” says Bueno. After a number of months, Bueno says they finally found the best distributor, in this case Sony and Provident Films. They then negotiated with the studio to get the best possible deal for the producers. After the success of Facing the Giants, Bueno negotiated with Sony/Provident for the release of Sherwood’s subsequent two films, Fireproof and Courageous.

More recently, Ocean Avenue expanded its role to include overseeing the marketing efforts for the films the company represents. Last year, Ocean Avenue released Mighty Macs in theaters and again worked with Sony/Provident in a collaborative way to release the DVD this February.

Telling redemptive stories
When asked what a “redemptive” film means to him and his wife, Bueno says they want their lives and faith to reflect God’s kingdom. He uses the example of working with director David Cunningham. “Our company recently finished the director’s cut of To End All Wars, that stars Kiefer Sutherland. A counselor assigned by the courts in Los Angeles to work with gang members has used this stirring film for the last number of years. She said this movie has been one of the single greatest tools she has used to literally change the cycle of revenge in the hearts of these gang members, showing them the real courage it takes to forgive. When a movie can accomplish that, it is bringing the kingdom of God into our culture and world.”

According to Ocean Avenue’s website, the company’s purpose is to “tell engaging, entertaining and redemptive stories in which truth and hope prevail.”

“We’ve gone to many movies that kept us entertained and engaged but there was nothing redemptive or hopeful about the story. With movies like these you feel like you’ve wasted a couple hours that you can’t get back. At the same time, we’ve watched way too many redemptive films, but because of either poor storytelling or faulty execution, they failed to entertain or engage. For this reason, the most successful films are those that are entertaining in an engaging way and at the same time present a story of redemption that leaves us with hope,” he says.

There have been seismic shifts in the entertainment industry in general in the last few years, Bueno says. “Movies and TV shows streaming via Netflix and Hulu were non-existent 10 years ago and this, among many other things, are dramatically altering the entertainment landscape. As it relates to faith-based productions, we don’t believe we have an underserved audience any longer. Consequently the bar has been raised and people have higher expectations for films that do target this audience.”

Collaboration and prayer
For churches that might have a desire to get into film production, Bueno says, “It’s not as easy as it might look to the outside observer for a megachurch to produce a movie. Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who are pastors on staff at Sherwood Baptist Church, are uniquely gifted at telling engaging stories that really minister. And I don’t believe they could have ever accomplished their objectives without the generous support of Michael Catt, the senior pastor, and Jim McBride, the executive pastor.

“It was also through the members of their church that they literally secured the production funding and cast their movies. Sherwood is also a church that values the power of prayer. Before we negotiated the deal with Sony/Provident for Facing the Giants, every time we went to a studio to pitch the film, there were dozens of people at their church praying for our meeting.”

There are churches working in film, Bueno says, adding that he and Denise are co-producers of a recently completed film titled Not Today, produced by Yorba Linda Friends Church in Yorba Linda, CA. Bueno and his wife were introduced to this project through Brent Martz (writer/producer), the pastor of creative events, and Jon Van Dyke (writer/director), the technical director on staff.

Matthew Cork, their lead pastor, has a passion for abolishing the slave trade among the 250 million Dalits in India. Their church is at the forefront of the fight to abolish slavery and has committed millions of dollars to build schools and provide a Bible-based education for these Dalit children. Given these objectives and to help raise awareness of this issue, Cork commissioned the production of a film that addressed this subject.

“That’s when the church came to us, in the hopes of helping them shepherd the project from concept to completion to distribution,” says Bueno. “We have an innovative plan to platform this film in theaters this fall.”

Marketing to congregations
Some films are especially useful to congregations to educate, inform and inspire their audiences, Bueno says. “Movies like Courageous and Fireproof have proven to be uniquely suited for use in churches, given their strong ministry application. Churches are able to utilize them, for example, to help strengthen marriages or encourage men to become godly fathers to their children. Even though the marketing effort for these films is still extensive, because Sherwood Pictures is now an established brand, they have a tremendous advantage over practically any new faith-based movie targeted to the church.

“In the last 10 years, the major studios have gone to great lengths to try and tap this churchgoing audience. In our opinion, many of these studio films have not been appropriate for a church audience, but that has not stopped them from marketing some of these films in the hopes of boosting the box office results.

“Because of some of these misguided marketing approaches, many pastors have become wary of the marketing efforts for many of these movies. Then there are some films that may be appropriate from a content perspective, but do not entertain and engage as well as they should,” Bueno says. As a result, attempts to market to the church have become more difficult and costly, he adds. “At the very least any marketing effort must incorporate an opportunity for decision makers within the church to view the entire movie.

Ocean Avenue understands these challenges. This is why we believe it is so important to release the best faith-based films. Our objective is to build trust with churches by better serving the needs of their congregation.”

Bueno notes there is a certain amount of criticism of faith-based films that needs to be understood. “One of the knocks we hear quite often is that many of these faith-based movies only preach to the choir – that we should be producing movies that are not so targeted to the church.”

“While I applaud movies like Blindside that are successful in the general market and are also embraced by a church audience, it doesn’t negate the need for movies to also inspire and encourage the church,” says Bueno. “The choir needs preaching and teaching as much as the congregation.”


Targeting churchgoers

Chris and Denise Bueno also founded WingCinema, a company that provides licensing and resources to show inspiring movies and documentaries in churches. The Buenos plan to premier their first film this fall.

Says Chris Bueno: “There continues to be a genuine need for good quality movies that appeal to a churchgoing audience that are released in theaters. This may not be an underserved audience any longer, but the plethora of these recent faith-based films is still lacking.”

Ocean Avenue, his other company, is developing a slate of high quality faith-based movies that the church family can watch together in their local multiplex. They have a novel way of presenting these movies in theaters, which circumvents the need to advertise to the general market and primarily focuses on the target audience, the church family. “This slate of films will inspire and strengthen the church, and can be a great outreach to the local community,” he says.


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