With the Academy Awards upon us—the event will be televised Sunday on ABC (7/6c)—everybody's talking about the best movies of the year. So why not talk to somebody who really knows movies, somebody right in the middle of it all?

Ralph Winter has been producing movies for almost three decades, starting with 1984's Star Trek: The Search for Spock. A devout Christian who once considered going to seminary and becoming a pastor, Winter has more recently overseen such projects as the X-Men and Fantastic 4 movies, plus a handful of independent films geared more toward a faith audience (including The Least of These, Thr3e, House, The Visitation).

Ralph Winter

Ralph Winter

Ralph Winter

In a Sunday school class many of us would gladly pay to attend—at Montrose Church in Montrose, California—Winter teaches about how movies connect with our everyday lives, exploring the theological and sociological themes of film. Paul Shrier, a practical theology professor at Azusa Pacific University, recently interviewed Winter about the class, how others might replicate it in their own churches, and, of course, about the upcoming Oscars.

What's the significance of the Oscars?

We get to honor the best of the best. As an Academy member, we get to highlight what we think is the best achievement in various categories of our storytelling artistry, and what we think inspires others to do great work and achievement. For producers, the Oscar goes to the producers of the Best Picture; it is our highest award, the last one of the show, and frankly what we all aspire to someday.

What stands out about this year's nominees?

The Oscar nominees are a reflection of what's swirling around in the minds and hearts of filmmakers and storytellers. Some of the top nominees are reflecting back on silent films, the era of filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s. I think they're also looking for clues as to how we move forward, recalibrate if you will, for the future of storytelling in a rapidly changing cultural landscape.

The Artist, for instance, not only celebrates silent and black-and-white filmmaking, but might actually have something "to say" (pun intended) in a world that is consumed with 3D and lots of talking, with social media, etc. Hugo also goes back in time to Georges Melies, the first filmmaker to express dreams and storytelling in the filmed era, attempting to use film as a vehicle to inspire us to greater stories.

Midnight in Paris takes a different approach, warning us that while we ought to celebrate the past in art, music, and literature, our creative opportunities lie in the present. I see each of these movies as the current thinking of our leading filmmakers and storytellers attempting to question, challenge, and inspire us to do great things today. These questions and challenges are revealed in gripping stories that are brilliantly executed—they entertain us, and along the way, inspire us.

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Steven Spielberg, arguably our greatest living filmmaker, does this with War Horse. How did this young man and his horse survive the changing landscape, the new technologies and the age-old forces of war, and then thrive to help build a better world? The human and the animal inspire us to keep on striving. That's why we go to the movies.

What's the Christian's role in all of this?

If we don't engage with movies, television, and social media storytelling, I think we as Christians fail to engage our culture and community. Oscar season is a great opportunity to do that. We should be looking at the stories and movies that our culture honors, and dialogue about whether we can embrace them, learn from them, and what we find true or beautiful about them. It's a way for us to reflect on our own journey and find out if and how it matches up with the stories, and then dialogue about why it does or doesn't.

A scene from 'War Horse'

A scene from 'War Horse'

A scene from 'War Horse'

Tell us about the class at your church.

I thought it would be interesting to examine the Best Picture nominees, and see how those stories match up with what we understand as Christians. This year I selected four nominees—Midnight in Paris, War Horse, Hugo, and The Artist, in that order. Each week we discuss one of the films and how they relate to our Christian faith. I tried to find movies that had some connection to each other, and I think all of these are about what we can learn from the past, and how we can recalibrate for the future. I also find it interesting that all of these films are set in a similar time period in the 20th century, and are all specifically related to filmmaking in Paris or are made by French filmmakers.

I assume everyone does their homework?

Yes! Who else can say that? I mean, what's not to like about watching an Oscar nominated film for church? And the class is always full. People want to connect what they like—what they do in their daily lives—with what we learn on Sunday.

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How do you develop your discussions?

As a producer, the questions I ask are those I'll use to decide if a story needs to be told—if it will make a good movie, one that people will want to watch, that they leave feeling satisfied.

I believe that most people don't know how to watch a movie critically. I think there is some DNA—a hidden road map—to understanding the power of movies and storytelling. And if you can unlock or discover that, you can begin to see the deeper meaning and power of why some movies work and others don't. Don't get me wrong, the audience is very smart. They know intuitively if a movie is good or not; they just aren't able to always articulate why. So the class is first about understanding and learning how to "read" a movie. Then we can thoughtfully analyze each one.

Every story has a hero, a protagonist, the main person we are drawn to identify with or cheer for. For a story to be good, the hero has to go through a journey, and we want to experience that journey with him or her. We don't just want to observe the journey; we want to make an emotional connection with it. So the first step is figuring out if there is a hero we can identify with. Most movies fail right here.

A scene from 'Hugo'

A scene from 'Hugo'

A scene from 'Hugo'

What makes a good hero and a good journey?

I am a fan of Joseph Campbell and the Hero's Journey, so the words and "grid" I use are directly borrowed from his thinking. The first component is a need: every hero has a need. For example, in Episode 4 of Star Wars, the film that sets the stage for all the future movies, we meet Luke Skywalker, a whiny teenager. He wants to get off the farm and to control his own future, his droids, and his robots for his own self-centered purposes. He wants adventure, and doesn't care about anyone else. All he seems to want is adventure.

That need seems pretty superficial.

Maybe. I recently heard Brad Pitt, when speaking as a producer of his movie Moneyball, said that every movie is ultimately about morality. He's right. In our best movies, that need or lack is a moral need. Luke Skywalker is not someone you care about in the beginning, nor does he care about anyone else but himself.

The need then develops into a desire; for Luke, that became his desire to be a fighter pilot. Along the way, he meets Obi-Wan and others wanting to fight for the rebellion. Then comes the opponent, which in great stories stands directly in the path of desire. He doesn't want Luke to get to that goal. Would you be interested in a movie where the hero pursues a need or desire unchallenged? No. That conflict is the drama of the story.

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So, what's that discussion look like in class?

First I ask, "Who's the hero?" In Midnight in Paris, it's Gil, a scriptwriter who is trying to write a novel. Then I ask, "What is the hero's need?" For Gil, it's to be creative, to develop his talents in a way that brings him satisfaction and that other people appreciate. Then, "What is the hero's desire?" It's the concrete expression of his need; Gil's desire is to write a novel, but it's a struggle.

Who's the opponent in Midnight in Paris?

This is what's interesting about these discussions. They aren't always clear-cut and we have to consider them together. In our class we decided that Gil's primary opponent is his fiancée, Inez. She likes Gil's current job and the money it brings in, but she doesn't like his novel. She's always belittling Gil's desire to write a novel. We also decided that Inez's whole family, particularly her father, are the opponents. And there's the know-it-all friend Paul; Inez and Paul gang up on Gil. They all oppose Gil's novel and his desire to be a significant artist.

A scene from 'The Artist'

A scene from 'The Artist'

A scene from 'The Artist'

What's next?

Next we need to see the hero's plan. In The Artist, the George Valentin is our hero. He's a silent film star who finds his career derailed when the studios decide to transition to "talkies." George needs to be a film star—for his ego and to make a living. He desires to keep making silent pictures because he believes they're artistically better. His opponents are the studios. George's plan is to make a blockbuster silent movie to compete with the talkies, but his movie's a bust—just as the stock market crash of 1929 hits. So his first plan fails. There's more to the plot than that, but I won't spoil it. I think it'll win Best Picture.

What's great about this process, when we talk about it as a group, we often come up with different ways of understanding these elements. I always learn new things from the insights of other people. When we ask the right questions, a lot of people can be great film critics.

When the hero has a plan, where do we go from here?

We would call it Act 2 if we look at movies as three-act act stories. We move through act two with a series of battles, culminating with a final battle. In all great movies, the battle gets down to a very small place; it moves into a one-on-one finale. And when that battle's over, the hero has a self-revelation and is transformed. There's a new equilibrium. So the last questions are, "What is the hero's self-revelation?" and "What is the new equilibrium for the hero?" The new equilibrium incorporates the self-revelation and gives the hero a new source of power. At the climax of the first Star Wars movie, when Luke is flying in to destroy the Death Star at its only weak point, what does Luke have to do to hit it? He turns off his navigating equipment and uses the Force.

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So Luke has to risk everything, turn off the technology, and allow "the Force" to guide him. Earlier in the story, he had resisted Obi-Wan's attempts to teach him about the Force, but when he uses it to destroy the Death Star, his moment of self-revelation is that the Force is his true source of power.

A scene from 'Midnight in Paris'

A scene from 'Midnight in Paris'

A scene from 'Midnight in Paris'

In Midnight in Paris, Gil's moment of self-revelation occurs when he visits the Belle Epoque because another character believes it's the greatest moment in Paris's cultural history. But Gil had believed that Paris was at its best in the 1920s. Through this conversation he has the revelation that he's been pining for the past when the present can be his era of greatest creativity.

What about the new equilibrium?

That varies depending on the movie, but in most cases it comes with new power and knowledge. The old battle is won and there's a sense that the hero is moving on, that she or he has become a different person.

What makes all this a worthwhile Christian learning experience?

The process is similar to our own journeys: We have to find meaning with our "battles," to learn something about ourselves we didn't know before. When we find those things, particularly in relationship or in community, it can unleash real power—power to understand the meaning of our journey and what new power we can access to move forward.

We should ask ourselves, "What are the key questions the story is raising? How do we respond to these questions? What theological reflections relate to these questions? How do our responses connect with the movie story's responses?" Asking good questions is a great way to get people into dialogue with the movies. The grid or the criteria matters less than getting the "audience" to engage with you, and flesh out these issues.

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Interested in leading your own discussion group about the movies? In addition to the above interview, the following "template" can also help:

  1. How many weeks will the study last? For an Oscars class, four weeks is about right. If it isn't Oscars season, pick another theme—sports movies, musicals, action films, a certain director's films, or even CT's Most Redeeming list.
  2. Hold an "orientation" session to explain your weekly format, hitting highlights from the interview above, especially Joseph Campbell and the Hero's Journey. Give handouts so members can consider the questions as they watch the movie.
  3. Set up a schedule, so everyone has a movie to watch before each session.
  4. Determine how much time you want to discuss each element, including whether you'll save the theological discussions for the end. For example, you might want to discuss the hero's desire and how it relates to our desires. Then, you might want to consider if the Scriptures, your tradition, or your Christian experience have anything to say about that desire.

Sample Questions

About the movie: Who is the hero? What is the hero's desire? His/her need? Who is the opponent? What is the hero's plan? What are the conflicts and the finale? What insight does the hero gain? What is the new equilibrium?

About the Bible or theology: What key questions does this movie raise? How do we think about these questions? What do Scripture, theology, and church tradition say about these questions? What Bible stories or passages say something similar to what the movie is saying? How are the two stories similar, and how different? What Bible narratives tell stories that disagree with the film, its worldview, or its outcomes?