Storytellers To The World: A Conversation With Jon Erwin
“It’s not about pastors getting passionate about what I’m doing. It’s that I’m passionate about what they’re doing.” Jon Erwin wants the movie, I Can Only Imagine, to come alongside the local church to help them reach their communities.
“I don’t think a movie can do the work of the church, but [it] can aid the work of the church — amplify the work of the church,” says Erwin. “How do you get people to stop in the busiest culture ever? How do you get people to listen to a story about forgiveness?” Erwin is convinced that film is one of the most powerful platforms to grab attention.
In 2016, audiences between the ages of 18 and 24 attended more movies than any other age group. More than two-thirds of the U.S.and Canadian population – or 246 million people – went to the cinema at least once in 2016. (1)
Maybe those stats aren’t surprising, but what provokes “I Can Only Imagine” co-director, Jon Erwin, is the fact that those same people aren’t filling pews on Sunday morning.
What better way to reach them with the gospel than to speak their language? And that’s exactly what Erwin has set out to do with films like I Can Only Imagine and Woodlawn. But his aspirations travel beyond North America alone.
In 2016, China built, on average, 27 new cinema screens a day. (2) Other growing entertainment markets around the world include India, Brazil, and Germany. (3) According to sources for the Christian Broadcast Network, entertainment is the second largest U.S. export. Need more proof for just how powerful the influence of U.S. entertainment is? The U.S. media and entertainment market represents a third of the global industry.(4)
In Erwin’s mind, why not use the entertainment industry’s international clout to advance Christ’s message of hope? “You can’t stop American entertainment,” says Erwin. “We’re the storytellers to the world.”
Saudi Arabia, largely Muslim, paid the Brothers to translate and play the movie Woodlawn due to its popularity stateside. Remarkably, Erwin heard of a Muslim man in Saudi Arabia who professed his faith in Christ after watching Woodlawn.
“If you can get to their hearts, 80 percent will want to change the way they think and believe to match the way they feel,” says Erwin. “Stories change people and make them want to confront their belief systems.” Film is proving the most powerful, global way to help tell those stories. “The craft I’m trying to master isn’t filmmaking; the higher art is storytelling,” says Erwin.
Film: The most powerful, global way to tell gospel-driven stories.
The song, “I Can Only Imagine,” became the inspiration that’s brought hope to millions of people. Moving to the big screen, the song morphs into another art form as Bart Millard’s story of abuse, redemption, and forgiveness, can inspire audiences in a new, more concrete way. The lead singer of MercyMe and songwriter of the Billboard-topping hit, Bart sums up the success of the song with one word, “hope” and Erwin wants that feeling replicated in film.
“With this movie, we want people to feel hope. You can’t out-screw-up God,” says Erwin. Like Bart’s father, played by Dennis Quaid in the movie, God can redeem and transform any life and broken relationship. Bart has said that he watched the gospel transform his dad from a monster into a man he wanted to be like.
For this life-giving story of hope to take off globally, American churches have to rally around the film. “The movie has to get over a certain threshold of success in the U.S. before it can go global,” says Erwin. “Think bigger than how we’ve used Christian films this far. Think of them as a tool of engagement.” While a movie is the track of the 21st century, faith-based films still rely on churches, youth pastors, moms, and dads to catch the vision of getting this good news to people in their lives.
1. Theatrical Market Statistics 2016. Motion Picture Association of America.
2. Graham, Luke. “There will soon be more movie theatres in China than in the US.” CNBC.com. November 11, 2016
3. 2016 Top Markets Report: Media and Entertainment. October 2016
4. Media Entertainment Spotlight. Select USA.
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