Movie lovers who are tired of the sex, blood, and gore of mainstream cinema and want something more uplifting may finally have an alternative, thanks to the Spiritual Cinema Circle.
Billing itself as a cross between the Book-of-the-Month Club and Netflix, the Spiritual Cinema Circle (SCC) is a subscription-based movie club that distributes a monthly DVD featuring 3-5 spiritually themed movies for $25.95 per volume, including shipping.
According to SCC co-founder Stephen Simon, films must meet several criteria to be considered Circle-worthy. "We look for movies that ask who we are and why we're here, AND leave you feeling at least a little bit better about being a human being after you're finished watching it," he said.
By those criteria, Simon explains, Whale Rider, The Matrix, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are examples of major releases that would qualify; American Beauty most definitely would not. Neither would The Passion of the Christ, which would be too dogmatic and too violent according to SCC standards.
Indeed, the Spiritual Cinema Circle is aptly named; it features films that are spiritual, though not necessarily Christian, in their worldview. One glance at the SCC's website indicates its multi-faith, open-armed philosophy; the image at the top of its homepage prominently features the Chinese yin-yang symbol and a woman in a yoga-like meditative pose.
Christian or otherwise, films with spiritual themes don't always find mainstream distributors, which is why Simon left Hollywood—after working on production of such movies as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Smokey and the Bandit, and finally, What Dreams May Come—to form the SCC.
No theological agenda
Simon does not have a subversive spiritual or theological agenda, just a clear cinematic one: to help filmmakers and moviegoers by providing an outlet for spiritually uplifting films with high-quality production values.
Simon is quick to emphasize that he is not trying to supplant mainstream Hollywood. "I have great admiration for people in Hollywood. We don't want to replace what they're doing or put it down," he said. "All we want is to have our own niche, to complement what's out there. I think entertainment is evolving into niche programming."
Simon must be onto something. Although the Spiritual Cinema Circle is less than six months old, it already boasts over 9,000 members in 60 countries, with no advertising except word of mouth and a few magazine articles. Many of those members meet together in groups—sort of like book clubs—for "Cinema Circle Nights" to view and discuss the films. The largest and most active groups are in Santa Monica, California; Sydney, Australia; Denver, Colorado; Atlanta, Georgia; and Austin, Texas. And for those who can't (or won't) meet in a local gathering, there's always the online option; members meet and discuss the films in forums at Powerful Intentions.
Each monthly volume generally includes one or two feature films, along with two or more short films. The DVD is accompanied by liner notes that provide brief summaries of each film, along with supplemental material such as interviews, viewing tips, and even recipes for healthy snacks. Simon also appears on each DVD and introduces each movie, asks for feedback and includes warnings about potentially offensive language or mature themes.
Broad range of themes
A viewing of a representative Circle offering clearly demonstrates a broad range of themes and styles. The Circle's Volume Three disc, issued in July 2004, included one feature film, two short films and a documentary. Each film featured excellent production quality—no Blair Witch Project-type camera work here—and many included big-name movie stars.
Mother Ghost, the 85-minute feature, tells the story of Keith Bennett (Mark Thompson of the nationally syndicated "Mark and Brian in the Morning" radio show), who is having a very bad day. In addition to marriage problems and a strained relationship with his father, Keith is now experiencing strange phenomena which make him wonder if he's losing his mind. Keith eventually turns to a radio talk show psychiatrist (Kevin Pollak: The Usual Suspects, A Few Good Men) for help. Built around the universal theme of forgiveness and bolstered by a stellar performance by Pollak as the radio shrink, Mother Ghost deserves mass distribution by a major studio.
In Waiting for Ronald, a developmentally disabled man leaves the institution where he has lived for years to join his friend Andy, who is also developmentally disabled, in the outside world. The short story is a touching look at the struggles and fears each man must overcome to connect with the other. Also of note: Ronald is played by Jody Clark, a developmentally disabled actor in his debut, while Andy is played by autistic actor Patrick Cooper.
The Visits, another of the short films, offers a look at one man's grief and efforts to let go after loved ones have passed on. The most disappointing of this particular volume, it is cliché d and somewhat confusing; director Geno Andrews would have been wise to remember the screenwriting axiom, "Show, don't tell."
The final selection of the July DVD was The Yogis of Tibet, a feature-length documentary about the history and rituals of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Yogis. It is a fascinating inside glimpse inside their world, and is presented sans Michael Moore-esque tone or agenda.
A hunger for spiritual movies
When Simon and his co-founders conceived the Spiritual Cinema Circle, they were confident their new service would tap a huge and hungry audience. Based on the club's explosive growth, their hunches were correct.
Mamie Potter, an SCC member in Raleigh, North Carolina, agrees wholeheartedly. "[The Circle] is just such a great idea, I don't know why anybody didn't think of this before," she said. "I think people are hungry for spiritual literature and spiritual movies. I am really excited about it."
While Potter has not yet met any other Circle members in her area, she is so excited about the concept that she has asked several local churches and bookstores to host viewing parties or discussion groups.
"The movies are excellent fodder for discussion," said Potter, who leads a religion and ethics discussion group and learned about the Circle from a brief article in a magazine. "People just want to talk about their life and spirituality without denominational interference."
Over the next few months, Simon is focusing on expanding the Circle's awareness and subscriber base. The service's co-founders are also working to deepen their relationships with film festivals, which are the source of most Circle selections. In addition, the Circle encourages filmmakers to submit "feature, short, and documentary films that have terrific production value, are entertaining, and most importantly, have a redeeming message that is in some way uplifting to the viewer."
Future plans include a Spiritual Cinema Film Festival, tentatively scheduled as a cruise in the Spring of 2005. Simon also hopes the Circle will one day become its own theatrical distribution company.
While the Spiritual Cinema Circle does not attempt to present only movies with a pro-Christian worldview, neither are its selections deliberately anti-Christian. The discerning viewer will enjoy the production quality, universal truths, and discussion potential of each film, while recognizing the need to examine all media in light of biblical truths.
For more information on the SCC, click here.
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