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Neal Harmon grew up on a farm in Idaho and remembers how the film stimulated his and his three brothers' imaginations. "I remember watching the Robinson family in Switzerland and then building tree houses in the trees behind our house," he said. "After seeing Star Wars, we jumped into the canals during a big snowstorm and pretended to be attacked by the empire. Entertainment has shaped the way we saw the world."

Harmon and his brothers are now co-founders of VidAngel, Provo, Utah, one of the many faith-based streaming video-on-demand companies that have multiplied in the entertainment industry.

In 2018, U.S. audiences spent more money on digital in-home entertainment than cinemas for the first time, and dollars have shifted more since most cinemas closed this spring during the COVID 19 crisis to have. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney +, and other billion dollar heavyweights are trying, while two other major platforms from HBO and NBCUniversal hit the market in early 2020.

Christian parents say that the competing content requires tech-savvy wisdom to navigate. "You have to be more diligent as a parent today," said Julie Foust, a part-time teacher and mother of four in Albany, Illinois. "We have to be aware that the world we live in contains so much evil, even if we want to enjoy watching shows with our children."

More than 140 different services currently offer film and TV streaming – including some players who have made a name for themselves with Christian families in the past ten years: Pure Flix, VidAngel, Christian Cinema and Minno.

"The mainstream streamers all offer perfect family content, but mixed with things that are definitely only for adults," said Kate O’Hare, who works for Family Theater Productions in Los Angeles. “Faith-based services provide certainty that the content is not overtly sexual, free of charge violent, or contains messages that run counter to Christian moral beliefs. It is a safe bet. "

The main belief-based streaming services may look similar – especially given the importance VeggieTales plays in their catalogs – but their strategies differ in scale. Erick Goss, former Amazon e-book and print-on-demand manager, leads Minno in Nashville. He summarizes the suggestion that each streaming group wants to fulfill: "We want to offer Christian families an uncompromising, carefree environment." Christian parents may use Amazon Prime and Disney +, he added, but they are still frustrated with these services when it comes to beliefs and values.

L.In November, the Walt Disney Company gathered all the resources – fan conventions, the ABC network, theme parks, and more – to start streaming. The subscriber base for Disney +, which numbers and grows tens of millions, quickly darkened not only niche faith and family services, but also larger secular companies such as HBO, an exclusive partner in Sesame Street. Given Disney's dominance in home entertainment since the 1980s and the growing number of popular brands from Mickey Mouse to Toy Story, it's no wonder why families signed up. Disney + offers the entire library of Pixar films, live action films such as Mary Poppins, current Marvel and Star Wars films as well as endless animated TV episodes. The original content was sparse, with the Big Budget series The Mandalorian (from which the "Baby Yoda" memes emerged) being a notable exception.

"I tend to hesitate about what we let into our house," said Foust. "If I could get away with it, we wouldn't have a TV! But (my husband) Michael and I loved Disney + (because) there wasn't a great way to show our kids all the classic quality films that we saw earlier."

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Even as early Disney + subscribers, the fousts say that home service isn't free for everyone. Michael Foust, who reviews the entertainment for Crosswalk.com, noted "dramatic differences" between modern Disney shows and his family's values. "There are general settings in which kids hear" Doofus "and" Shut up "on a Disney show," he said. "But there are also social agendas." Romantic same-sex relationships, for example, appear in the storylines of the Disney Channel show Austin & Ally and a recently released high school musical restart series on Disney +, both of which are aimed at teenagers.

While your four-year-old loves PBS edutainment dishes like Daniel Tiger's neighborhood, the fousts also check out Minno (formerly known as JellyTelly). It spans over 2,300 episodes and includes a few dozen animated shows that tell The Torchlighters and tell Bible stories. These are adjusted episodes about Christian martyrs and heroes. the inventive 90s series McGee and Me !; and other character-building entries. "Minno is just right for our eight-year-old twins," said Foust.

Goss, father of three daughters, said they also watch Disney films. "It's difficult to get involved in the media and not to consume Disney content because they tell many of the stories that drive culture," said Goss. "(Yes) the story that we often find there – that it is only about you and what you can achieve – contradicts the biblical story. Life is really about what God does in the world and what he offers, to take part in it with him. "

VeggieTales is still the top brand for Christian children. This became clear when three different Christian streamers claimed the largest library of VeggieTales episodes at the end of last year. The Yippee service recently launched by TBN appears to be the winner as it also produces new episodes. The show's co-creator, Phil Vischer, who recently returned as a writer and executive producer, complains that his show still seems to be the most popular. "If something better happened, it would mean that there is a living industry," he said. “Today, many parents will be satisfied with their children's non-violent messages. . . to the point that they don't even notice that God is completely absent in all of these imaginary worlds. "

Faith-driven programming goes beyond spotless storytelling for all ages.

Well, not entirely absent. Some major streaming services at least nod to their religious audience. Disney + offers Christian classics like The Sound of Music and the Chronicles of Narnia trilogy, co-produced by Walden Media. Netflix includes a rotating list of faith-based titles, as well as documentaries such as The Pharmacist and Undefeated, which contain underlying beliefs. The Amazon Prime library contains some Christian children's series as well as hard-to-find jewels such as the 1975 film The Hiding Place about Corrie ten Boom.

Christian Cinema, a 20-year-old online entertainment service near San Antonio, found major studios, including Universal, Lionsgate, and Warner Bros., open to collaborate. With a library almost the size of Disney +, Christian Cinema offers individual titles to rent or buy because the subscription model proved to be too expensive.

"We have needed since 2010 to start talking to the studios," said Bobby Downes, CEO and founder of Christian Cinema. "They said," We don't know where the dust from the streaming will settle. "I said," See, we're going to be an important player, just count on it. "By the end of 2018, big Hollywood, the studios allowed us to curate titles to a certain extent."

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Still, on-screen storytelling tends to move away from beliefs. The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple TV + banned an image of a crucifix from one of its shows, along with overtly religious themes from its original productions.

"Everyone shies away from believing why we want to push it forward," said David A. R. White, co-founder of Pure Flix. "We have a lot of family titles and Hallmark films in our service, but we're more interested in investing on the faith side with our originals because nobody else does."

Pure Flix, headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, has more than 250,000 subscribers and highlights its own films, documentaries and series, such as The Encounter, a Hallmark Channel series in which Bruce Marchiano appears as Christ in current situations. Despite the pitfalls of Disney's vision of making a good living, Christian critics have also taken up issues that Pure Flix releases have in common. White starred in Pure Flix & # 39; hit trilogy "God & # 39; s Not Dead", which criticized Christianity Today's former film critic Alissa Wilkinson for reinforcing a persecution complex among evangelicals. "Despite their titles, the films weren't really arguments for the existence of God," wrote Wilkinson. "(The series) deals with threats to which Christian characters are exposed to people, who are hostile to Christians and who talk about God in public places."

B.But not every Christian streaming company has set itself the task of making films with "Christians who speak about God". Since 2015 Harmon's company VidAngel has been trying to make mainstream films friendlier to religious viewers. His company focused on filtering explicit scenes from mainstream films and then streaming the filtered version to subscribers (or like Netflix sent in earlier days).

"With VidAngel, families can view content on their own terms," ​​said Harmon. "Disney has a famous saying:" Be our guest. "We like to say:" We are your guest. "Disney creates incredible experiences as long as you are ready to experience them on their terms. We believe that the family has the final say when it comes to private households."

Picture: Ran Zheng

Despite his love for Disney films, Harmon experienced a dark side of the Magic Kingdom. In 2016, Disney and two other Hollywood studios sued VidAngel for copyright infringement over its filter technology.

"The Disney group has taken on a life of its own since Walt Disney's death," said Harmon. "It is clear today that the problem Disney has with VidAngel technology is to question the monopoly on family content."

In June last year, a California jury decided that VidAngel violated the copyright law and asked the company to pay the major studios $ 62 million in damages. On March 5, VidAngel announced a preliminary plan to gradually repay this amount and emerge from the bankruptcy. While court battles cloud the future for his filter model, VidAngel has turned to producing original shows.

The Chosen, produced by Dallas Jenkins, son of Left Behind author Jerry B. Jenkins, is an adaptation of the narrative of Christ's earthly work in a coarse-grained show spanning several seasons. The series broke a crowdfunding record in 2019 and raised over $ 10 million from retail investors. The first season, which premiered last November, has had four million views worldwide, most of it via a free app developed by VidAngel. A second season is in pre-production.

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Oddly enough, some episodes of The Chosen were classified as TV-14 due to their mature theme, which shows how faith-driven programs move beyond squeaky-tale storytelling for all ages. "Our first episode is not for children – there is demonic possession and physical violence," Jenkins told CT last year.

"There is little on the surface of the Gospels that is bright, happy, clean, fun, and family-friendly," he added. “The environment in which Jesus came was a very depressed and depressing time. What makes the gospel redemption so powerful is the depth of what it redeems what this show will represent. "

"When I look at the landscape, we cannot avoid anger and darkness, but we can make the light shine brighter."

VidAngel has now examined some evangelical viewers for his connections to Mormonism. The Chosen is produced by Protestant Protestants, but most of the other original productions come heavily from the Utah-based Mormon film industry (which has its own little world of streaming services). "I personally am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," said Harmon. “Our employees are Protestant, atheistic, Catholic and have different beliefs. Instead of being associated with a particular belief, we see VidAngel as a platform that serves an underserved audience and the family. "

Pure Flix says that it also goes beyond belief lines. "We have a large number of different religious segments," said White. "Evangelical Christians are the largest, but we have a strong Catholic group and some Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu users who watch."

E.In the tight-knit world of faith-based filmmakers, those responsible still differ in how they see values ​​and entertainment mixed.

Christian cinema, for example, has recently released some cursed films, such as the Bennett War military drama. Downes says his audience welcomed it as an obligation to reflect realism.

"It's been quite a change from the past when people complained about just one swear word," Downes said. "Traditional cultural values ​​are not as much contained in cement as we would like to think. In the past it was wrong for (male) Christians to have long hair; now many male worship leaders have long hair. Although Christian culture may change, it means not that it does the teaching. "

Mainstream services for many Christian families are likely to remain in play in the upcoming releases. Amazon has started producing a prequel series for The Lord of the Rings, while Netflix is ​​reinterpreting the chronicles of Narnia at the factories. "Families want content that is safe, but also convincing and well produced," said O & # 39; Hare from Family Theater Productions. "If parents want edgier or higher quality options for themselves, the budget will be tight to keep both."

Pure Flix may not remain the dominant player in the belief-based market. In 2018, the small studio seemed to be booming with five theatrical releases. In December of this year, Pure Flix fired 25 employees. In 2019, the controversial Pro-Life BiopicUnplanned was the only movie release, and none is planned for this year.

"It was just a shift," White said of the layoffs just before Christmas. “Since we did less theater and home entertainment decreased, we needed fewer people. But we also put more into the streaming platform and hired more people for it. "

Goss from Minno returns for alternative streaming options. "Stories inspire imagination," he said. "God appears in these stories and we hope that children will imagine what it means to communicate with him for the rest of their lives. As someone who worked at Amazon, I can tell you: this won't be a priority on these other platforms. "

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The fousts believe that the early appetite for good storytelling can put children on the road to success as they grow. For years they have had a family movie night on Fridays – a time to laugh, cry, and discuss what they saw – to see things like Breakthrough last year, Andy Griffith Show marathons, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider -Vers.

"You don't let Hollywood raise your kids," said Julie Foust. "We try to teach them to recognize that we ultimately want to please Jesus with the things we observe. When they turn something off, they are happy to say, "Okay, that'll get through to them". "

By producing and curating entertainment that explores and does not avoid faith, Christian creatives hope to get their message across. Downes recalls how, when his family lived near Six Flags Fiesta Texas, fireworks exploded at 9 p.m. every night. "It would have been more convenient if the fireworks had started if our children hadn't tried to get to bed like noon," he said. "But then nobody would see her."

He takes it as a metaphor for the work of creating culture. "Fireworks are best seen against a dark background – just like our faith and the God we worship," he said. "When I look at the landscape, we cannot avoid anger and darkness, but we can make the light shine brighter."

Josh M. Shepherd is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, belief and public order. He and his wife live with their son in the Washington, DC area.

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