A growing trend of people seeking out meaning in movies
It’s a Tuesday night in September, and more than 700 people are jamming the hallways of the Boulder Theater to see a limited release movie. Many are Buddhist, some monks in maroon robes. The show starts at 7, but at 6:35 only five tickets remain. When the director enters the theater, a thunderous applause greets him despite the fact that many have clasped their hands together in a silent bow to the lama/director, Neten Chokling Rinpoche.
Steve DeGennaro, of Boulder, is there to see the film, “Milarepa,” because it’s hard to find movies with meaning.
“A couple of hours,” he said, shrugging. “I feel like it’s a waste if it doesn’t have meaning.”
Two nights later, a similar crowd gathers at Unity of Boulder, where 650 seats sold out weeks prior for a sneak preview making the rounds at many other U.S. churches Â— “Conversations with God: the Movie.”
People squeeze into the pews, tighter and tighter. The aisles fill with folding chairs, then the back of the sanctuary until it’s standing room only, and people are still streaming through the doors.
Donna Sutton is in one of the pews with her niece.
“With more movies like this, we can see more similarities in religion rather than divisions,” she said. “Lord knows we need it!”
The 2004 film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?,” a part documentary, part fictional look at life’s big questions through a mix of science and religion, was not expected to be a box office smash.
But at the Denver Film Society’s Starz Filmcenter, moviegoers repeatedly filled the theaters to see it. The runaway success of “What the Bleep?” left many at the film society scratching their heads, said Keith Garcia, program coordinator.
“People seem hungry for these types of films,” he said.
For Stephen Simon, the director of “Conversations with God” and a founder of the Spiritual Cinema Circle, there is no doubt that many people are turned off by Hollywood.
“In the audiences we’ve shown the film to, the audience feels better about being human,” Simon said. “That sounds simplistic, and it is.”
Simon’s Spiritual Cinema Circle sends subscribers a DVD with four movies each month for $21 plus shipping. Members own the movies, so unlike Netflix, they keep the DVDs. The circle’s Web site calls its films “a mixture of shorts, features and documentaries, all hand-picked for their quality and content.” Although it is only two years old, the circle has members in every state and 70 countries.
The circle has been a success, Simon said, because people wanted to see movies about love and compassion, not fear and violence.
Neale Donald Walsch, author of the “Conversations with God” books, also believes many people crave positive stories they’re not getting from Hollywood.
“Stop already with the exploding cars!” he said.
This is why Simon, a man who grew up in Hollywood, the son of a producer and director of Abbott and Costello movies, made “Conversations” independently.
“There is a real deep desire to see this kind of material, and fortunately, we had the creative means,” Simon said. “Subscribers to the Spiritual Cinema Circle are the financiers of the film.”
“Milarepa” was also independently made by people with positive intentions.
“It’s hard to change people,” said Chokling, the film’s director. “But at least we can try to influence them in a good way.”
The story of Milarepa has been told countless times over the centuries, but the story can reach new audiences through a movie, Chokling said.
“It’s difficult to make a movie, but if you can, it can be much more powerful than a book,” he said.
Simon and Walsch also expect their movie to reach a new audience and believe in the power of film.
“Spiritual Cinema is the 21st century version of shamanic storytelling,” Simon said.
In fact, the “Conversations with God” books don’t lend themselves to a movie, Simon said. But the story of Walsch’s life Â— a car accident plunged him from prosperity to the street before he began his now-famous conversation Â— is a great metaphor for anyone who has had what Walsch and Simon both call “a dark night of the soul.”
Ultimately, Simon wants these kinds of films to form more than a loose collection.
“It’s the passion of my professional life to have spiritual cinema defined as its own genre,” he said, and gain recognition for movies that ask the big questions: Who are we, and why are we here?
ON THE WEB:
Movies sent out to Spiritual Cinema Circle members so far this year included:
“Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” a documentary about a homeless musician and his relationship with a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco.
“Dysenchanted,” a short that brings female fairy-tale characters to a therapist’s couch to share their neuroses.
“Travelers and Magicians,” a film by Tibetan Rinpoche Khyentse Norbu that pairs a modern journey with a monk’s storytelling to make a point about finding your way right where you started.
For more information, go to www.spiritualcinemacircle.com or call (888) 447-5494.