Ryan Smith, son of Christian music superstar Michael W. Smith, says his father never pressured him—a wannabe cartoon animator—to enter the music business. If anything, Ryan wanted nothing to do with it.

The elder Smith was fine with that, because he saw film aptitude in Ryan from the start.

"He's got so much talent and an eye for the camera," Michael says, noting that he saw it in Ryan's home videos and how he enjoyed French films and "artsy kind of stuff. His senior year in high school, I thought, This guy's got it."

Michael W. Smith flanked by Mark Cowart (L) and son Ryan Smith

Michael W. Smith flanked by Mark Cowart (L) and son Ryan Smith

Ryan worked on his father's music video sets regularly, but after he and Mark Cowart worked together on several other projects, they were ready to pursue their film dreams. In 2005, Michael and the two young men founded Seabourne Pictures with the intention of making thought-provoking feature films—not "Christian" films, but films told from a Christian worldview.

Michael says that Ryan and Cowart want to help shape culture.

"It's unbelievable what's at the theater and to make something that combats that," says Michael. "These guys want not only to be believers in the marketplace, but also to be in the mainstream making films that will win."

Today, the younger men make Seabourne's day-to-day decisions while Michael serves as the executive producer of the company, based in Franklin, Tennessee. "He's entrusted us with a lot on the artistic side of things but he's definitely there as an advisor," Ryan said.

Michael sees himself more as a network or connection for the younger men. He signs off on financial decisions, but wants Ryan and Cowart to secure their own investors. Most days Michael makes contact with Seabourne offering advice, attending meetings, making connections, and approving decisions.

No stranger to the film industry himself, Michael starred in the 2006 film The Second Chance. More recently, Michael wrote the score for Billy: The Early Years. And he says he's not finished with the big screen himself, wanting to produce one or two more films and looking forward to the day when his son directs him as an actor.

Critical thinking skills

Seabourne has partnered with Randall House for a series of short-film projects and curriculum, C2: Giving Movies a Second Look, designed to be used in small groups to encourage Christians to develop critical thinking skills when watching movies.

Ryan Smith (left) and Cowart working on 'Relapse'

Ryan Smith (left) and Cowart working on 'Relapse'

Michael calls it groundbreaking: "Nearly everyone goes to the movies, but how often do we stop to evaluate and filter what we just watched? C2 really raises the bar by providing quality short films supplemented with small group curriculum to guide discussion."

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Each C2 package includes a 20-minute original short film with bonus features, a personal introduction from Michael, director's comments, and more. Small group leaders have access to study guides for three separate lessons relating to the movie. The curriculum helps participants learn how to recognize, evaluate and process what they view.

The first two films are Love at First Sight, is a romantic comedy dealing with themes of love, judging others, and accepting different opinions, and Relapse, a drama dealing with themes of addiction, grief and bioethics.

"As Christians we believe that everything has meaning," says Ryan. "We tried to make films that weren't blatantly Christian films, but if you dig into it and really examine the worldview, you'll find something of value that suggests."

Cowart says part of C2's task is to help Christians better engage what's coming out of Tinseltown. "You have your extremists who curse Hollywood and then you have the other side who are definitely trying to get involved to make a difference. This is something that can unite these groups."

Cowart says he's frustrated by people who just "consume" entertainment without filtering it through a Christian worldview. And Ryan says Americans are lazy when it comes to engaging the arts to the point that "it's difficult for us to find truth in a story where it's not wearing it on its sleeve. I think that's a tragedy."

Both young men note that thousands of decisions go into a typical Hollywood blockbuster, by everyone from the writer to the director to the actors to the hundreds of people behind the scenes. Many of those decisions are motivated by a worldview.

Cowart and actors on the set of 'Love at First Sight'

Cowart and actors on the set of 'Love at First Sight'

So, as Christians, says Cowart, "We go and watch this entertainment and are not aware that a message or worldview was formed in that [movie] right before our eyes."

Ryan says that applies to every single details of making a film. "We worship a God who is crazy detail-oriented and the greatest artist on the earth. He's created the standard by which we try to create things, so to say those things don't matter is absurd."

Telling great stories

Seabourne's next project is Devil's Shoestring, a short film written and directed by Ryan. In the film, due to release in early 2009, a woman stumbles upon a mystical root that is said to bring luck to the wearer. The style is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone or horror films like The Omen.

And again, it's not a "Christian" film, but one with themes that will resonate with believers. Christian movies usually have an obvious message, but Seabourne sets out to depict a theme in the context of story—and let the viewer decide if there's a "message."

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"A lot of times Christians approach it backwards," says Ryan. "They start with a message and sculpt everything around that and so in the end it generally doesn't work as a story. We're more interested in telling great stories. If there's a message, we prefer to let it come up organically."

Learn more about Seabourne and C2 at seabournepictures.com.

Jewel Graham is a reporter and producer for The 700 Club in Nashville.