Fame without Fortune – Part 5: Becoming Fearless
Many years before I had even met Amber, I was neck-deep in a terrible business deal I had foolishly gotten myself into, producing a late night comedy TV show. We shot the show on-location every week in a bar. It was a mix of stand-up comedy performances that were usually skirting the edge of broadcast decency standards and behind-the-scenes “reality” tv. As an astute producer, I had quickly learned how to drive the ratings up, and it wasn’t through quality content. The dirtier the jokes on-stage and the more risque’ and sexual the humor off-stage, the better the show did. Our special guests would routinely include musicians, dancers and bikini models, and any drunken patrons we could exploit for a storyline were fair game. The adjoining concert venue / bar provided us a regular supply of well-known guests. The week we had rapper Afro Man as a guest, we made the show’s running joke theme for the night all about smoking pot (his biggest hit was called “Because I got high”). I was about halfway through my first season commitment when it really started to bother me just what we were putting on the air every week.
I had one of those moments one morning, straight out of the movies, when I woke up after a late night of producing the show, walked into the bathroom and just stared at myself in the mirror. Looking into my own eyes, I said “What are you doing?” I couldn’t believe how low I had sunk. Just a few years prior, I was going places, making good progress, producing quality content. Now? Now I was stuck in a terrible business deal, producing terrible content, and I realized I had to get out as soon as I could.
The next week, in a production meeting where I expressed my feelings on the show to my business partner in the venture, I got brutally honest. “It’s not like we’re changing the world with this show, you know. We tell dirty jokes for an hour on TV every Sunday night. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we’re enriching anyone’s lives here.”
He was incensed. By his and the world’s standards, we were doing exactly the right thing. Because of the changes I had made to the show, the ratings were higher than they’d ever been, and we had a waiting list for show tickets every week because people wanted to be there the night we were shooting. By all worldly measures, I should have been happy, but more and more often at the end of the night, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. What once seemed like a great time where I was the hero of the party now repulsed me.
When I told him I was not renewing my contract to produce any more shows at the end of the season, he and many others with the show became furious with me. How could I break up the party? But for me, the question was more like How could I go on even one more night? My conscience just couldn’t bear it any more. Even then, the Holy Spirit was convicting me as to how much I was grieving the Lord. “It’s time for you to leave,” I heard the Lord say to me. As soon as I could complete my contractual obligations, I left the show and never looked back.
Everyone, no matter what walk of life or career they’re in, wants to feel like their work matters for something. Artists are especially vulnerable to this. I dare say that the notion of needing significance in your life and your work is what drives most artists to create as they do. Art is language, just like the spoken word. And as with the spoken word, some artists are more eloquent with that language than others, and still some can speak to one audience while another can speak more fluently to another. My experience with the comedy show was the manifestation of knowing that I was in the wrong place, with the wrong people, speaking the wrong words to the wrong people. Admittedly, the accumulation of many occurences of that exact experience over the years had been a major contributor to my walking away from film as I did. I just didn’t feel like anything I did made any difference any more.
Coming back to my first love of filmmaking wasn’t just a financial decision. Weeping on my knees in the back of a freight truck, crying out to the Lord wasn’t an appeal for a financial blessing. It was a man pouring out his heart, asking the Lord to let him try again, resolving to do things differently. Right there in that moment, I made a covenant to the Lord that I would go hungry before I would let anything dishonoring to Him come from my work, and I intended to honor that promise. It would prove to be one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, but also the most freeing. Never again will I feel shame before the Lord for something I’ve made. He is my audience of one. No one else matters.
But the challenges to this promise before God were tested early. As if there were a billboard announcing my return to active production, over the year leading up to this point I had been offered and turned down three different movies. I knew it was part of the test to see how serious I was about holding the line to only do my work for the Lord, as all three of the projects were stereotypical dark comedy indie films, not unlike my first movie years prior. I can’t lie, it was hard to say no to the last one. The first two were just stupid projects with terrible scripts, and all they really wanted me to do was find them money. But the last film offer came with the added caveat of director. At that stage in my re-emergent career, I was hungry for a project of significance again, but I prayed about it and immediately knew that it was not for me. I turned it down and continued working on those “unsexy paying jobs” that led to much-needed financial returns.
In December of 2015, I filmed what would, ironically, be the last of a series of simple on-camera testimonials to be used at our church. To me, there was nothing magical about it. It wasn’t like I felt like I was producing a masterpiece. Just a simple, single-camera interview setup, basic lighting, and no re-enactments or anything of that sort. I shot it, handed it off to them, and forgot about it. It was a man by the name of Joe Cox and his wife, Diana, talking about their individual stories of salvation, and how they came together after both being widowed years earlier.
On February 12, 2016, Joe Cox died in the line of duty as a sherriff’s deputy. The news of his death rocked the community. The next morning, I went onto the church’s television ministry Facebook page and simply re-posted Joe and Diana’s stories (it was a 3-part video series). I thought nothing of it, other than wanting people to know that Joe was a follower of Christ, and that he and his wife had shared their testimony for all of us to watch and hear, and that it was his greatest desire to share his faith with everyone around him. I made the post, then went about my work for the day.
A few hours later, I took a break from my editing and looked at my phone. The Facebook notifications were numerous, to say the least. As the admin for the video, I got notified of every single like, comment and share it received. I swiped my phone and opened up Facebook to clear out the notifications.
Since I had originally posted the videos in late December, they had gotten maybe a hundred views combined between the three parts of the video. But today, in just the few hours since I had re-postedJoe & Diana’s story, it had garnered over 2,500 views, dozens of shares, hundreds of likes, and it didn’t show any signs of slowing down. Amber and I both stared in disbelief as we looked at the numbers. Over the next week, we watched Joe and Diana’s story – sharing their testimonies of faith in Christ – climb to a combined total of over 50,000 views (as of this writing, they have a combined viewership of over 62K views). In all of my life, I had never seen anything like it before. Amber and I started to feel convicted.
We had discussed over many months leading up this this point how we wanted to use our filmmaking skills and resources to reach people for Christ, but hesitated as to how to implement it. That prior year, we had started producing a series of life stories of people who had come through the local rescue mission and found the hope and the help they needed to move on with their lives. We talked many times about how, if we just took that format and expanded it, without the financial and scheduling limitations of a client and broadcast television’s time restraints – it could be an amazingly powerful tool for reaching people with the gospel. But, we had been on the fence about it for months. Who in the world would watch it, and would our business suffer for telling stories of faith in Christ and staking so much of our reputation on it?
We couldn’t ignore it any more. What we saw happening before our very eyes with Joe & Diana’s testimonies was simply mind-blowing. In all of my decades of filmmaking, producing films that won Sundance awards, went on to be released by major studios, films that starred Oscar nominees and Golden Globe winners, tv projects too numerous to count with the huge names in comedy and up and coming musicians that went on to have massive careers – in all of that mess of a career-to-date, I had never seen anything I produced have even remotely the impact that Joe & Diana’s story did. Joe’s testimony, in fact, had such a profound impact on people that over 21,000 people watched the live video stream of his funeral a week and a half later on Facebook. People even gave their lives to Christ just as a result of watching Joe’s funeral and hearing his story. Amber and I sat and watched in tears as people proclaimed new faith in Jesus over the livestream on Facebook. We couldn’t wait any longer. Even at his own funeral, Joe was leading people to Christ! We had no excuse. We knew that it was time for us to act.
But taking a stand for Christ is not a popular notion these days, especially in the world of filmmaking. As we searched online for other ministries similar to what we were contemplating, what we found was that there are a lot of church-specific testimonials, and a lot of rich and famous testimonials, but many of them seem to miss the mark when it comes to what exactly they are confessing. Over and over, we would watch video testimonials that looked nice and sounded nice and had famous and pretty people and people with tragic stories in them, but we would listen to what they were saying and noticed the one word that always seemed absent: Jesus.
People love to talk about “God”. People love to talk about “Faith”. People love to talk about how God loves us and how their faith got them through this or that, but conspicously absent over and over is the name of Jesus. Take a stand for anything else. Talk about anything else. Celebrate anyone else. But don’t you dare say that name: Jesus. Why?
Believe it or not, even in Hollywood it’s easy to talk about God. People will excuse you for it and just label you as a “good, religious person”. It’s easy to talk about faith there, too. I mean, it’s Hollywood, people have faith in all sorts of things. It’s trendy to talk about the word, but nobody takes it any further. Faith in what? Faith in who? Yourself?
Amber and I knew that if we took a stand and told real stories of faith in Christ, putting all of our combined filmmaking and marketing skills together and not being afraid to put our names on it – to own it – it would have a detrimental effect on our business. In fact, we were sure of it. God has become a nebulous term in our culture, so has Faith. You can say those words in pretty much any crowd and find acceptance somewhere. But not so with Jesus, because his very name reminds us that we are sinners, and we can’t accept one part of Jesus without accepting the rest of him. You can’t claim that He died for your sins and then disavow what He said about your sin. And let’s face it, we love our sin. The world has convinced itself that you can have God and Jesus and Faith and remain unrepentant, dare I say defiant, in your sin. Jesus himself said otherwise.
I’ve produced plenty of controversial stories over the years, but nothing in this world is so divisive, so offensive and so powerful as the gospel of Jesus Christ, what it means that he died on a cross for our sins, and our desperate need for his grace to save us. It’s offensive and divisive because it confronts us to our very soul, and we must either acknowledge our absolute, desperate need for Him or reject Him completely. There is no in-between. And in business and filmmaking especially, controversial material is uncomfortable, and you never want to make your audience or your client uncomfortable. You want them to have fun, relax, feel like it’s okay, like they can identify with characters who do those same things they do at home and at work and make a joke about it. You want them to stay, laugh, and buy popcorn. You just don’t remind them that they’re lost without Jesus. That’s just an uncomfortable conversation, isn’t it? We like to be comfortable.
And so, together, Amber and I started to pray. We knew it would not be popular by the world’s standards. We knew it would probably not garner us new clients. And, we knew it would take all of our resources to start it up and to keep it going. But, we also knew that the Lord was calling us to tell the most powerful, life-changing stories in the world. Stories not about the nebulus versions of “God” and “Faith” and “Church”, but stories about Jesus Christ, and what He can do in people’s lives.
It was time for us to believe in miracles. It was time for us to become Fearless.