Yesterday’s edition of USA Today featured an article on Sherwood Baptist Church, an Albany, Ga. ministry that is producing its fourth feature-length film. You might remember their movie Fireproof, which made a bit of a stir in 2008 and was promoted in Chic-Fil-A franchises.

In particular, one quote from the article caught my attention:

“Movies are the stained-glass windows of the 21st century, the place to tell the Gospel story to people who may not read a Bible,” says Michael Catt, senior pastor of Sherwood in Albany, Ga.

Which would sound like so much marketing gloss except that, apparently, evangelical Christians are flocking to this sort of movie. Fireproof didn’t exactly give The Dark Knight a run for its money, but then, Fireproof was a much, much smaller film, with a much softer marketing push behind it.

The reason that quote struck me is that it touches on a problem that’s been obsessing film writers for some time: the gradual death of the box office. Of course, movies are making more money than ever, but that’s due in part to inflation and rising ticket costs. There was, we’re told, a golden age of movie attendance that has now passed.

The standard answer for what happened is that the advent of cheaper, more accessible ways of consuming moving images began to erode movie-going’s market share – first television, then video, and now the internet. But the fact that evangelicals are willing to storm the theaters to see movies like Fireproof and The Blind Side may suggest a ritual element that more secular-minded critics are overlooking.

It might also provide the basis for an alternative explanation for why recycled properties – sequels, adaptations, remakes – have come to be so much more popular, either with producers or audiences, than original works. Why are the Transformers movies, which very few people would defend on artistic grounds, such huge box office draws? Sure, they promise non-stop action, computer generated spectacle, and a bendable/poseable Megan Fox. But they also exploit their audience’s nostalgia, and in ways not wholly unlike the annual November-to-December advertising exploitation of people’s nostalgia for the perfect Christmas of their childhood.

Why does that matter? Because nostalgia is one of a handful of sentiments that we almost instinctively respond to with ritual. It’s a longing for something remembered, and we recover the thing remembered by repeating it, or by creating a context in which it can be more ideally remembered. That ritual connection makes nostalgia a close companion of organized religion. There is, you might say, an entire class of religious practitioners for whom the draw of their continuing ties to their tradition, be it Jewish, Catholic or something else, is largely nostalgic. Even Richard Dawkins enjoys a good Christmas carol every now and then.

So there is, perhaps, an analogy to be made between those “cultural Christians” and a certain breed of contemporary movie-goers. The actions of both may be explicable in terms of recapturing a feeling that becomes, as time passes, more and more elusive. To some extent, the “cultural movie-goers” are chasing after movie nostalgia – the feeling of being a child sitting in a cool, dark and magical room; the experience of seeing something new and miraculous projected onto a giant screen – but if my suggestion about why so many modern blockbusters are derivatives of other properties is correct, then they’re also chasing after a much broader kind of nostalgia. After all, the most successful move at the box office in 2008 was The Dark Knight, the reboot of a franchise adapted from a comic book which itself owed a great many debts to earlier work, like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Mask of Zorro. Arguably, it performed so well because it managed to encompass so many of the ritual reasons that people go to the movies.

Rituals of nostalgia aren’t the only sort of rituals available to modern cinema, of course. There isn’t much in Inception, for example, to hang that argument on, and some are wondering whether or not it might represent the (ahem) salvation of traditional movie-going. I’d say that Inception has thus far been successful precisely because it appeals to our ritual nature. It’s subject matter is oneiric, which, yes, has a cinematic meaning, but also a prior religious meaning. Cobb and company are essentially science-fiction shamans or oneiromancers. And maybe more importantly, Inception functioned as a kind of mystery cult. We attended in droves because we wanted to know the meaning at the center of its labyrinths, even before we knew that labyrinths were a significant motif in the film itself. Its advertising cleverly played up that fact, and part of its effectiveness as a builder of ritual attendance may well be due to the fact that the mystery itself is not easily spoiled. M. Knight Shyamalan’s now waning success may be attributable to the way in which The Sixth Sense established him as a premiere builder of cultic mystery, but a mere twist is an easy thing to spoil. There’s a kind of twist in Inception, but to even make sense of it you have to go through the initiation of the rest of the movie. I suspect that a more focused and streamlined Lost could have made for a tidy profit at the box office as a 4 or 5 movie franchise, had they been so inclined.

What Sherwood Pictures is doing may be a bit different. It’s still ritual, but I’m not convinced that it’s a ritual of nostalgia, nor one of cultic mystery. Rather, I suspect that the appeal for the Christian audiences attending those movies at the box office is much like the appeal felt by movie-goers in the golden age of cinema. They’re going not to recall a feeling that has grown more and more elusive, but rather to see projected a world constructed of the ideas and values that excite them in the present.

In other words, whatever you might think of movies like The Blind Side or Fireproof, they may be living cinema in a way that most contemporary Hollywood product simply is not.

If the golden age of movie-going (which may or may not run parallel to the golden age of cinema) is over, it may be because the movies no longer perform a church-like function. On the one hand, that’s a matter of how you configure space. While doing so might not save the box office, I suspect that ticket sales would benefit a great deal if exhibitors built movie theaters to look more like the movie palaces of old, rather than like compacted skating rinks. Location is another facet of that, and in the long run I wonder if maybe exhibitors haven’t shot themselves in the foot by entrenching themselves in malls and 24-screen multiplexes that are only accessible from the highway.

But as the Roman Catholic Church learned after Vatican II, once the church is built, it’s the ritual that brings people in.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.