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Preparing Your Audience for a Short Film

Way back in 1999, a Salon.com article titled “Short Attention Span Theater” predicted the Internet’s evolution as the perfect breeding ground for short films. In 2008, a blog post titled “Online Videos – and Our Attention Spans – Get Longer” was published on the New York Times’ Web site. While the first article was correct in predicting the rise of short-form content, the Times post noted the popularity of streaming TV shows and feature films through sites such as Hulu.com. Once again, technology has surprised the mere mortals who create it. And now that the Internet delivers entertainment content that more closely resembles its advertising-driven antecedents, the box office and broadcast TV, the Church may just be the final resting place of the short film.

If you can ignore the brief detour the Internet provided for shorter content as we waited for connection speeds and video compression to improve, you must keep in mind that every American has been part of an enormous classical conditioning experiment. We have learned how to view, appreciate, and enjoy watching TV and movies much more than shorter content. I’m not talking about the types of programs we watch, but rather the way they are delivered to us. Whether we know it or not, we expect a television show to be 30-60 minutes in duration, with commercial breaks. We expect a feature film to be somewhere between one and a half and three hours in length. Keep this learned behavior in mind when you create content for people in American culture. To some extent, the medium is the message. And please don’t fool yourself into thinking your media-saturated congregation can immediately create context when you fade to black and roll a video immediately following the announcements. They have no clue what they are watching unless you tell them. Most important, no one knows when the video will end.

A few years ago, when I was on staff at a church, I would observe the congregation as they watched the videos I produced. It typically took them 15-30 seconds to get into a video, and it took just as long for them accept it was longer than a television commercial. It dawned on me that the audience had no idea what kind of content they were watching. Of course, they knew they weren’t watching something as long as a movie or TV show, but beyond that, they were at a loss. It was then that I began to encourage the pastors to clearly communicate to the congregation exactly what they were about to see and, after the video played, to follow-up with some direct application. For some reason, everyone I tried to convince of this approach seemed averse to holding the congregation’s hand through a viewing experience. I suppose their thinking was that the congregation was made up of people who consume great quantities of media and were therefore equipped to figure out what was happening onscreen. But I don’t believe that’s the case. To use a cooking metaphor, your congregation has been marinated in motion pictures and television programming for the past 60 years. Only recently have people been basted with a light Internet sauce, which cooks off rather quickly once heat is applied.

Several studies have revealed that multi-tasking and short attention spans aren’t helping productivity, so living in a fast-paced modern world is not a good enough excuse, in and of itself, to use short films in church. I believe when people come to church, they’re in search of an opportunity to slow down and unplug from iPhones, Facebook, and all things tweetable. Technological connectivity has created the “Global Village” Marshall McLuhan predicted, but in the process, we have lost the experience of the council fire.

For example, it is much easier for my wife and me to watch back-to-back episodes of The Office than to take the time to relate deeply to one another. I find myself looking forward to my time with Jim and Pam, yet romance with my wife is muddled with bills, babies, and the balancing act between work and home. Come bedtime, I just want the credits to roll. The people on the screen aren’t real, but I respond to them. Emotion that is delivered to me in a way that doesn’t require as much work on my part. I have to instigate conversations with other people, but screenwriters are willing to do the work for me. They create an experience that allows me to respond emotionally. Responding to a flesh and blood human and all their emotional baggage, takes much more effort. Whether we like it or not, it’s hard to open up, but good cinema can inspire us toward that end. From the Greek word kinesis, meaning motion, cinema can move the human heart to a place of feeling very quickly.

The Deidox film series (www.deidox.com) is one high quality option church leaders can use to emotionally connect with their congregations on powerful topics. “For our Deidox films, the ideal situation is when one of our short films is paired with pastoral teaching,” says director Brent Gudgel. “This allows the congregation to be moved emotionally by a short film and then guided by the knowledge and perspective that a pastor best provides. Short films should be looked at as tools to help the pastor communicate to his congregation. When a pastor’s sermon is paired with an effective short film, it takes what the pastor is teaching and helps the congregation apply it to their own lives, hopefully outside of the church walls.”

Cinema has the power to move your congregation into an emotional place where they may respond on a deeper level to your message. Great content is readily available, and the library of redemptive media continues to grow. That’s why I encourage you to show short films at your church. And when you do, let me suggest five tactics for getting the most out of those films:

1. Pray that viewing the short film benefits you and your congregation.

2. Tell the congregation how long the video is, and let them know how you plan to proceed when the video ends.

3. Explain to your congregation what they are about to see (you could even put a description in your bulletin). Remember, they didn’t choose this short film; you chose it for them.

4. After the video plays, allow 30 seconds for them to think about the video and read a Scripture passage related to the video.

5. Explain what you just watched. Consider asking the audience for feedback or questions.

Think of short films as more than just programming or content for your service: They’re a cultural vehicle waiting to be driven. Tom Rice is the filmmaker behind Soul Refinery (formerly eight20eight) and the church media resource site www.evangelize.com. His work in Hollywood ranges from writing on reality shows such as American Idol and Survivor to directing and producing feature films with Oscar-winning actors. I asked him for his thoughts on using short films in church, and he reminded me of Christianity’s deep history as a leader in the arts. “Throughout history, the church has used and commissioned various forms of art to inspire and impact the masses,” Rice says. “From the cathedral architecture in France and England to the Renaissance artists in Italy, visual images have been used to show and tell. A well-made video with the right message can quickly penetrate a person’s mind, stay there for quite a while, and cause both believers and non-believers to reflect, think, discuss, and grow stronger in Christ.”

Centuries ago, cathedral builders regularly used stained glass as a way to visually and emotionally connect the congregations of those ancient churches with the stories of the Bible. Today, short films present us with a similar opportunity. Let’s make the most of it.

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Stewart H. Redwine is a Video Producer for Christ in Youth as well as Producer and Director of Photography for onetimeblind’s hit mini-movies and Youth Specialties’ 36 Parables DVD series. He enjoys writing, tending his garden, and slalom skiing in the gorgeous Ozark Mountain Country of Southwest Missouri where he lives with his wife and two children. You can read more of what he has to say about faith, culture, and the arts at StewartHRedwine.com.