Why is Rick Santorum Running a Movie Studio?

It might just be a savvy career move.

National Journal
Kevin Lincoln
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

At the be­gin­ning of 2013, Rick San­tor­um — former sen­at­or from Pennsylvania, 2012 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial run­ner-up, likely 2016 can­did­ate — began help­ing to raise money for Echo­Light Stu­di­os, a Chris­ti­an film pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany formerly based out of Dal­las and now loc­ated in Frank­lin, Ten­ness­ee. A few months later, he ac­cep­ted a spot on the board of the stu­dio. Then he be­came chair­man of the board. Even­tu­ally he voiced con­cerns about how Echo­Light was be­ing run. By June 2013, he was the com­pany’s CEO.

“Be care­ful what you com­plain about,” San­tor­um told me in May. When we spoke, he had just sent back notes on the eighth draft of a film script.

Try­ing to ex­plain San­tor­um’s ven­ture through the lens of polit­ic­al cal­cu­la­tion isn’t easy. If he runs again in 2016 — and most ob­serv­ers as­sume he will — he’ll need to some­how per­suade voters that he is more than just a hard-line cul­ture war­ri­or, an im­age that he says was nev­er ac­cur­ate in the first place. “The ca­ri­ca­ture of the per­son and the per­son tend nev­er to be quite the same,” he told me. “I have a long list of lead­er­ship on a vari­ety of is­sues where I had strong bi­par­tis­an sup­port. It’s easy for the me­dia to write a char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion about some­body, but I don’t know that it re­flects the to­tal­ity of the per­son or their work.”

(Richard Mia)

Helm­ing a Chris­ti­an movie stu­dio isn’t go­ing to do much to upend the ca­ri­ca­ture of San­tor­um. In that sense, it does seem like a strange move. And yet, as I learned more about his pro­ject, I star­ted to think it might not be such a bizarre way for Rick San­tor­um to be spend­ing his time. To un­der­stand why, it helps to re­move polit­ics from the equa­tion — and to take Echo­Light Stu­di­os ser­i­ously on its own terms.

ONCE A PUNCH LINE re­served for dir­ect-to-video and Sunday school, Chris­ti­an cinema has re­cently seen a re­mark­able amount of suc­cess. Ac­cord­ing to the in­dustry track­er Box Of­fice Mojo, the three highest-gross­ing Chris­ti­an films ever re­leased — ex­clud­ing the Chron­icles of Nar­nia films, which were more con­ven­tion­al block­busters, and Mel Gib­son’s Pas­sion of the Christ, a phe­nomen­on all its own — came out this year: Heav­en Is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and Son of God.

“This trend is not go­ing to stop any­time soon,” says Phil Con­trino, vice pres­id­ent and chief ana­lyst of Box­Of­fice.com. “Faith-based films are suc­ceed­ing be­cause they ap­peal to a seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion that is of­ten ser­i­ously un­der­served by nor­mal Hol­ly­wood flicks.” It all makes a lot of eco­nom­ic sense: In the hy­per-spe­cif­ic me­dia land­scape of con­tem­por­ary Amer­ica, where every­one has a cable-news chan­nel, comedi­ans, web­sites, and mu­si­cians tailored for their polit­ic­al and aes­thet­ic tastes, movies shouldn’t be any dif­fer­ent.

While Heav­en Is for Real and Son of God were ma­jor-stu­dio products, God’s Not Dead provides the blue­print for what a stu­dio like San­tor­um’s Echo­Light could be cap­able of. Pro­duced by a Chris­ti­an film com­pany called Pure Flix, it had grossed 30 times its pro­duc­tion budget after about two months of re­lease. Its secret weapon was a savvy dis­tri­bu­tion strategy. Those in­volved in the film reached out dir­ectly to pas­tors and con­greg­a­tions — im­plor­ing the faith­ful to buy tick­ets in bunches, rent out movie theat­ers, and or­der DVD pack­ages they could show to Sunday-school classes and church groups.

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Echo­Light was foun­ded in 2011; be­fore the winter 2013 re­lease of The Christ­mas Candle, Echo­Light’s first movie with San­tor­um as CEO, it had been in­volved with 10 films to vary­ing de­grees, none of which re­ceived wide the­at­ric­al re­lease. The Christ­mas Candle grossed $2 mil­lion — cer­tainly not a wild suc­cess. But to gauge Echo­Light’s po­ten­tial, con­sider that, when San­tor­um took over the com­pany, it was sit­ting on a film­mak­ing fund of about $20 mil­lion. God’s Not Dead re­portedly cost $2 mil­lion to pro­duce. That means San­tor­um and Echo­Light could af­ford to make 10 such movies. If just one does as well as God’s Not Dead, the com­pany will be in great shape.

San­tor­um and Echo­Light Pres­id­ent Jeff Sheets are hop­ing to use con­greg­a­tions as a test­ing ground to premi­er their films, lit­er­ally turn­ing churches in­to theat­ers where they can gauge im­pact and en­thu­si­asm. “If they don’t res­on­ate well with the church, then it isn’t real­ist­ic to think that they’re go­ing to res­on­ate well in theat­ers,” says Sheets (who tells me that he works with San­tor­um “lit­er­ally daily”). If the films “do res­on­ate well in the church, and there’s a grow­ing groundswell of sup­port, then it will over­flow in­to the theat­ers and it will have a much broad­er im­pact on so­ci­ety.” It also means that a film has to prove it­self be­fore Echo­Light takes “the much more ex­pens­ive ap­proach of put­ting it in theat­ers.”

Some of those movies may be long shots to garner a mass audi­ence — but all of them are prob­ably surer bets than a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

It seems en­tirely pos­sible that San­tor­um’s fame could help to bring at­ten­tion to some of these movies; cer­tainly, the na­tion­al at­ten­tion The Christ­mas Candle re­ceived, both pos­it­ive and neg­at­ive, would nev­er have come without San­tor­um’s in­volve­ment. “I looked at it as, in the last elec­tion, I was giv­en a gift. Be­fore the elec­tion, a few people knew who I was, but after run­ning for pres­id­ent, you have a lot more name re­cog­ni­tion,” San­tor­um told me. “I think pro­mot­ing the im­port­ance of faith as an ele­ment of people’s lives and how it can im­pact people’s lives, telling true stor­ies and in­spir­a­tion­al stor­ies about that — it’s a pretty good way to shape the fu­ture. I felt like that was a good way to take the no­tori­ety that I have and turn it in­to something pos­it­ive.”

Des­pite its niche nature, Echo­Light seems de­term­ined to have some main­stream cred­ib­il­ity. Sheets told me about an up­com­ing doc­u­ment­ary the stu­dio is put­ting to­geth­er on the sec­u­lar­iz­a­tion of Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety, which went to great lengths to in­clude voices from the oth­er side — such as Amer­ic­ans United for Sep­ar­a­tion of Church and State Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Barry Lynn and Prin­ceton pro­fess­or Peter Sing­er. “We want to be able to rep­res­ent your voice well on screen,” Sheets says he told the lead­ers of the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter in a suc­cess­ful bid to get them to par­ti­cip­ate. “We’re not go­ing to ma­nip­u­late what you say. We’re not go­ing to edit it to make you look silly.”

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SAN­TOR­UM’S TEN­URE AT Echo­Light has not been without tur­bu­lence: Three months after his el­ev­a­tion to CEO, Echo­Light fired the com­pany’s two cofounders. Moreover, ex­cept for The Christ­mas Candle, none of Echo­Light’s ma­jor San­tor­um-era pro­jects has been in a theat­er yet — so it re­mains to be seen wheth­er the com­pany can cre­ate hits out of such pro­jects as Find­ing Faith (“Be­fore mov­ing away forever, a de­term­ined young boy starts a kid-powered move­ment to spark last­ing change in his ho­met­own — but his BIGGEST chal­lenge is to bring his wid­owed fath­er back to faith — and to love”); a Korean War movie tent­at­ively titled War Shep­herd (“In a city rav­aged by war, an orphan boy meets his sa­vior, a mil­it­ary chap­lain who must find strength in his faith in or­der to save one thou­sand orphans from an im­pend­ing en­emy at­tack”); or, per­haps most prom­isingly, a movie based on the Left Be­hind books, a wildly pop­u­lar series of Chris­ti­an nov­els.

Some of those movies may be long shots to garner a mass audi­ence — but all of them are prob­ably surer bets than a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. San­tor­um would nev­er say this, of course, but run­ning for pres­id­ent is al­ways go­ing to mean tough odds, for him or any­one else. In an era when the Chris­ti­an film in­dustry is com­ing in­to its own, run­ning Echo­Light Stu­di­os might be one of the sav­vi­er back-up plans any politi­cian has come up with in a long time. “I see the work that I’m do­ing at Echo­Light as a con­tinu­ation in try­ing to shape Amer­ica or ex­pose Amer­ica to val­ues that I think are im­port­ant for a strong and healthy coun­try,” San­tor­um told me when I asked how his new film ca­reer dove­tailed with his polit­ic­al ca­reer, in­clud­ing a pos­sible 2016 run. “I think cul­ture is up­stream from polit­ics, and maybe it’s im­port­ant to get in­volved in the up­stream and see what the im­pact can be to the coun­try gen­er­ally as a res­ult.”

Kev­in Lin­coln is a writer liv­ing in Los Angeles.

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