Let There Be Dragons
Wes Bentley stars in a scene from the 2011 movie “There Be Dragons,” which was a commercial and critical flop. CNS photo/Motive

A $40 million flop. It’s not the most charitable description for “There Be Dragons,” but it might be the most accurate. 

The 2011 film, which cost just short of $40 million to make, grossed less than $4 million at the box office. It also was almost universally panned by critics, with most reviews echoing The New York Times’ Stephen Holden, who described it as “an interminable two-hour Sunday school sermon punctuated with battlefield carnage.” 

For many Catholics — notably those responsible for backing the film financially and promoting it in Catholic circles — the failure of “There Be Dragons” was particularly disappointing. 

Their intentions, after all, had been noble: to make a first-rate film about Opus Dei founder St. Josemaría Escrivá. They’d also gone out of their way to hire a respected director, Roland Joffé, and a professional cast and crew. Once the film was made, they promoted it widely among Catholics, screening pre-release versions at Catholic conferences throughout 2010, and calling in the Catholic public relations firm, The Maximus Group, to pack theaters on opening night. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not for Hollywood, which barely noticed the film’s release. And not for Catholics: Few saw it and fewer liked it. 

The reason it wasn’t enough? Because the film didn’t tell a good story. As reviewers described it, the production value was high but the script was convoluted and the directing heavy-handed. It didn’t matter how true or Catholic the content was. The way the content was conveyed was less than compelling, so the content was as well. 

Medium and message

In that, said Brandon Vogt, author of “The Church and the New Media” (OSV, $13.95), is an important lesson for Catholics living and working in this media age. 

“If we want to reach people who are exposed on a daily basis to high quality, beautiful, evocative media in the secular sphere then our media has to be of the same quality,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

That particular lesson, of course, isn’t anything new to the Church. 

In Communio et Progressio, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral instruction on Social Communications, the Council Fathers told Catholics working in the field that they “have a duty in conscience to make themselves competent in the art of social communication in order to be effective in their work” (No. 15). 

More recently, in his World Communications Day message for 2009, Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics to not just become evangelists on the “digital continent,” but also to acquire “a profound knowledge” of the world of media and technology. 

According to Eugene Gan, professor of multimedia communications at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and author of “Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media” (Emmaus Road, $11.95), the reason for that is, in part, a question of expectations. 

“The modern, media-saturated audience is used to expertly produced media, so if Catholic media doesn’t meet or exceed those norms we risk the audience quickly clicking away to another site or channel,” he said. 

Even more problematic, however, is what sub-par Catholic media communicates to many of those who do stick around. 

“Despite the great message and intentions of its creators, media that’s not skillfully made inadvertently communicates that perhaps the message is not the best, that there are “better” truths elsewhere, and that we don’t have what it takes to make a great case for truth,” Gan said. 

Finally, there’s the duty Catholics have to do everything for God’s glory, a duty that more than implies striving for excellence in all things. 

“Flannery O’Connor once said, ‘When people tell me that because I’m Catholic I can’t be an artist, I tell them that because I’m Catholic I can’t afford to be anything less than an artist.’ That’s the same attitude we’re obliged to have about our work in the media,” said Vogt. 

Amateur efforts

The arguments seem almost self-evident. Yet all the experts interviewed for this story agreed that most (albeit not all) creators of Catholic media struggle to meet those high secular standards. 

Barbara Nicolosi
Barbara Nicolosi, screenwriter, author and professor at Pepperdine University

When it comes to Catholic cinema, said Barbara Nicolosi, screenwriter, author and professor at Pepperdine University, the first problem is “that there isn’t much out there.” 

“There is no movement of Catholics using the medium of cinema to do what Flannery O’Connor did with the short story or what Walker Percy did with the novel,” she said. “And when we do make a movie, we don’t use the medium anywhere near how it should be used.” 

More often, Nicolosi said, Catholics tend to fund outsider projects, with people who aren’t knowledgeable professionals deciding somebody ought to make a movie about a Catholic person or theme. They then raise the money and set up shop. 

The results of such efforts are, in Nicolosi’s words, “predictably amateur,” lacking either professional polish or, as in case of “There Be Dragons,” the basics of good storytelling. 

Much the same thing can be seen of television, where there is little to no Catholic presence in prime time, and where cable television networks, such as EWTN, enjoy minimal viewership among both young Catholics and non-Catholics. 

When it comes to the Web and the world of social media, both Vogt and Nicolosi agree that Catholics fare somewhat better. 

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give us an 8 for interest but 3 for execution,” Vogt said. “As a Church we’ve stepped on to the ‘digital continent,’ but most of us don’t understand what we’re doing there.” 

“If you put together a list of the 100 coolest Internet sites in terms of design, interactivity, and their ability to make the audience feel like they have to come back, there aren’t going to be any Catholic sites on that list,” added Nicolosi. “In terms of content, it’s a different story. There are some Catholic sites with first-class content, but the presentation still isn’t there.” 

Basic misunderstandings

As for why it’s not there, well, that’s anybody’s guess. 

When it comes to film, Dominic Iocco, provost of John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, Calif., a school that focuses almost exclusively on communication arts, suggests many Catholics simply don’t understand the medium. 

“They want every film to be ‘The Passion [of the Christ]’ and expect people to walk out of the theater converted,” Iocco told OSV. “But we’ve already had ‘The Passion’ and the whole world hasn’t converted. Nor are they going to because of a film. That’s not what films do. A film is successful if it gets people to ask a question they might not have asked before.” 

Likewise, when it comes to the Internet and social media, Nicolosi believes too many Catholics see and use it as a tool for catechesis rather than evangelization. 

“It’s lots of inside baseball,” she said. “If you’re already in the program, it’s good stuff. But most people aren’t in the program. Right now 90 percent of what we do is geared toward catechesis and 10 percent to evangelization. It needs to be the other way around.” 

That attitude in turn, Vogt explained, affects the quality of the presentation, with media makers not feeling that they have to work as hard to attract and keep their audiences’ attention. 

“When people are hungry for what you have, you know they’re more willing to give you a pass on quality,” he said. 

Then, there’s the money piece. High quality media generally requires lots of it, and directing money toward Catholic media has not been a high priority for much of the Church. Nor do Catholics always understand why it should be. 

“A lot of times I see people spending what they think a project should cost or what they could raise, not what it actually costs,” said Nicolosi. 

To make the budget work, she went on to explain, they hire people without the experience or the training to do the job — a move that Nicolosi characterizes as “simply crazy.” 

“You would never attempt to build a $20 million building and hire an architect who had never built a building. You would never go in for brain surgery and let someone operate on you who’d never performed surgery. But people think they can do that with movies,” she said. 

The list of reasons why Catholic media rarely measures up goes on. There’s the reticence on the part of responsible Christians to make the risky investments that art requires. There’s the shortage of first rate film and communications programs at Catholic universities, the decades of Catholic internecine squabbling which has kept much of the Church’s energies directed inward rather than outward, the distrust of Hollywood and tools of social media, as well as what Vogt and Gan characterize as “false humility” on the part of Catholics. 

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the Christian message is powerful and compelling enough to stand on its own, that we don’t have to worry about how we present it,” Vogt said. 

“The beauty and power of what we have to say can blind us to the importance of the medium,” seconded Gan. 

Reversing course

Overcoming those impediments and producing high-quality Catholic media that can compete with the best the secular world has to offer isn’t the work of a day, a year, or even a decade. But, it starts, said Iocco with getting more faithful Catholics the training they need to work as professionals in the industry. 

making media
Shutterstock photo

It was for that the reason that John Paul the Great Catholic University opened its doors in 2006. Focusing almost exclusively on communication arts and offering concentrations in fields such as screenwriting, producing, social media evangelization, animation, and gaming, the school is the first of its kind in the world of Catholic higher education. 

“Our mission is to impact the culture for Christ,” Iocco said. “And the media is the most influential player in the culture right now. So, if you want to influence the culture, you need to go where the culture is.” 

Sending highly skilled Christians into Hollywood was also the goal behind the Act One Program (www.actoneprogram.com), which Nicolosi founded in 1999. Over the last 12 years, more than 1,000 people have gone through the program, which gives practical training in both screenwriting and producing to aspiring filmmakers.  

More than 300 Act One graduates are working in Hollywood now, with many more working in the business around the country. 

“We’re very craft oriented,” Nicolosi said of the program. “We stress talent and mastery of the craft. Talent can be a dirty word in the Church today. In our churches, we’ll let anybody sing. But that doesn’t fly in the business. There’s no place for schlock and mediocrity.” 

Nicolosi also believes that if Catholics want to give an effective witness through the media, they need to let go of the idea that every film or endeavor has to be catechetical. 

“First, we need to bring back the beautiful — that which has wholeness, harmony and radiance,” she said. “We also need to give back classical storytelling. We are a people of the book, the parable, and we can teach Hollywood to tell a good yarn. That’s something much of Hollywood has forgotten how to do. 

“Then, once we’ve mastered doing those two things, the icing on the cake is to tell sacred stories, stories about our stuff, our Scripture, our journey to the transcendent,” Nicolosi continued, adding that “right now, we’re doing it backward, always trying to do sacred story telling but doing it in a banal way with no subtext, no symbolism or imagery, bad acting, and over the top direction.” 

Giving Catholics the skills they need to make high-quality media and underwriting the use of those skills, again however, both require dollars. That is why Vogt stressed that an effective evangelical presence, through both film and the digital arts, requires Catholics to put their money where their mouth is. 

“We need to realize that this is a priority worth committing money to,” Vogt told OSV. “Until more people within the Church understand that this is a main mission field, we’re not going to make much headway.” 

And making headway does matter, Nicolosi said. 

“This is our culture, too. We belong to this time. We have got to put our arms around the culture and have our say,” Nicolosi stressed. “If that means getting martyred on the front lines of the culture singing our song to this desperately needy world, then that’s what we need to do.  

“But we’re not doing it. We’re not getting martyred on the front lines. We’re committing suicide.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

See also: "Helping people encounter God through beauty"