By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS (RNS) To get to the movie section at Lifeway Christian Store in Bridgeton, Mo., customers pass by shelves of books, CDs and greeting cards. The rack of Christian DVDs isn't huge, but it's twice as big as it was a year ago and "growing all the time," said manager Francine Evans.
Some of the Christian titles these days, she said, tackle "touchy subjects" such as drugs, domestic violence or abortion.
"These are movies that deal with issues that real people deal with," Evans said. "Sometimes that's what's necessary to reach people for God. But the seals are needed. They're a good idea."
The seals Evans anticipates are part of a new system developed by the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Dove Foundation to gauge the Christian values in films that contain sex, violence and drugs.
For 20 years, the Dove Foundation has placed a blue "dove" seal on any DVD it considered family-friendly, from "Star Wars" to "Toy Story 3." A new purple "Faith-Based" seal warns of raw images or language in otherwise Christian-themed movies, and a new gold "Faith-Friendly" seal indicates a Christian-themed movie that's safe for a family audience.
The launch of the new seals is part of the International Christian Retailers Show, which is expected to draw some 7,000 people from some 1,7000 Christian bookstores and 500 publishers during its four-day (June 27-30) run here.
Book and music purchases represent a significant portion of the stores' annual $4.6 billion market. As music sales increasingly go digital, retailers are expanding their DVD offerings to recapture those sales, said Curtis Riskey, executive director of the CBA (the former Christian Booksellers Association).
In 2009, Christian retail sales of music declined by 1 percent from 2008, but Christian retail sales of videos increased by 26 percent, according to the Christian Music Trade Association and Nielsen Christian SoundScan.
By contrast, general market stores' sales of all music decreased by more than 10 percent, and video sales decreased by 23 percent. The growth of the Christian DVD market means retailers need guidance for their customers.
"A consumer looks to Christian retail to find family-friendly entertainment," Riskey said. "The ratings system helps identify for the Christian consumer the kinds of things they can expect in a movie."
To caution parents that some Christian films can also contain un-Christian behavior or situations, the Dove Foundation's new "Faith-Based" seal will carry letters indicating the offending content: "V" for violence, "D" for drugs and alcohol, "S" for sex, etc.
Many movies don't make Dove's original "Family-Approved" cut at all. The group's review of the recent comedy "MacGruber," says: "Unfortunately, despite some good acting and fighting sequences, the violence level, not to mention the strong language and sexual content, clearly prevents us from awarding this film our Dove 'Family-Approved' Seal."
"It's the retailers that really want there to be a rating system to help them serve their customers," said Bobby Downes, a Christian producer, whose latest movie, "Like Dandelion Dust," with Mira Sorvino, will be in theaters this fall.
"If a pastor walks into a Christian bookstore and wants a movie he can show to his entire church, the current rating system doesn't help him make that determination."
The Dove Foundation's new gold "Faith-Friendly" seal will alert consumers that a movie is not only family-friendly, but that it contains a Christian message. DVDs of movies such as "The Blind Side" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" will receive the foundation's gold seal on their packaging.
While the foundation's purple "Faith-Based" seal will register as a caution for parents, those in the film industry say they're not worried it will have a chilling effect on Christian writers and directors concerned about DVD sales.
Dave Austin, vice president of sales and marketing for the Bridgestone Group, which distributes Christian films, said the "Faith-Based" seal is actually "a positive step for filmmakers."
"As a distributor, if we look at a film that's not approved by Dove at all, we might ask for it to be edited slightly to get that Dove approval," he said.
Christian filmmaking has flourished since Trinity Broadcasting Network's 1999 ode to apocalyptic cheesiness, "The Omega Code." In 2004, the $371 million made by Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" opened Hollywood's eyes to the financial potential in Christian movies.
The success of Christian films inspired a new generation of Christian auteurs who have since introduced variety into the Christian film market. Fans of Christian movies can now choose between squeaky-clean evangelistic efforts like Sherwood Films' "Fireproof," about a firefighter's marriage, and "Facing the Giants," about a football coach's trust in God, and grittier fare, like this year's "To Save a Life," about teen depression, suicide and bullying; and "Preacher's Kid," about domestic violence.
The latter two films "have some rather graphic scenes in them of inappropriate sexual behavior, drug and alcohol use and violence," Rolfe said in an interview. "However, they also have very powerful stories of redemption through Christian faith."
Austin said the new rating system was "a positive step for the consumer." He and Downes were part of a team of industry experts who helped Dove come up with the system.
"With some parents, when there's not gratuitous violence or sex, they're still comfortable with their 13-year-old seeing some rough subject matter," he said. "Others aren't. If every family had identical tolerances, then a system like this wouldn't be necessary, but there's a wide range out there."
(Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.)