The prolific producer talks about cleaning up Christian broadcasting and improving films of faith
By Warren Cole Smith
WNS)–Phil Cooke has worked for some of the biggest TV preachers in the industry, including Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. He’s produced a wide selection of TV offerings, from the video “Starting Over” for a Billy Graham TV special to Super Bowl commercials. In recent years, he has become a vocal critic of the prosperity gospel and many of the heavy-handed fundraising techniques he sees on religious television. He is a board member of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), the Hollywood Prayer Network, and The Influence Lab. I talked to him in Burbank, Calif., about his involvement in the TV preaching and entertainment industries.
Tell me about your involvement in NRB. National Religious Broadcasters is an organization originally designed to [lobby] to keep a pathway open for Christian broadcasting in America. There have been a number of assaults on that over the years from Washington, D.C., and from other places, and so it primarily is focused on how we keep our faith alive on the airwaves. It’s also evolved into a professional organization with training. That’s where I’m more involved, teaching classes and things like that there. … Anytime Christians are intentionally using the media more effectively, I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
There are a lot of ministries that have learned to use media more effectively. As they grow, they seem to make a lot of money and get into trouble. I’m thinking of Trinity Broadcasting Network, with some of the problems that it had, and the so-called “Grassley Six,”—the six Christian ministries that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, investigated several years ago. Is it possible to become big in TV ministry without ending up unfit for ministry at all? It is, but I have to say, it’s very, very difficult. We are all fallen human beings, and the truth is the temptations are huge. Billy Graham, I think, is a great example of someone who built about a $300 million ministry airing four primetime specials every year. Then he had a national radio ministry. He’s probably the ultimate symbol of integrity that there is out there. There are others. Some of them have stumbled on the way. It’s really interesting to see how some have responded well. Some have responded not so well. It’s a very difficult row to hoe.
Here’s the other thing that I think is important: In the Billy Graham days and in the Oral Roberts days, there were three channels. It was easy to raise money. Roberts never asked for money at all. Money just came in. In those days it was pretty easy, because the audiences were so huge.
Today, the average cable system in America is 180 channels. My DirectTV satellite has 500 channels, and so the competition is enormous. I think that leaves a lot of ministries to try a little too hard to get people to respond. As a result, they step over the line. They do some screwy things. It’s embarrassing.
If you were called to counsel one of these ministries, what would you tell them to do? Perception is so incredible. I don’t care how anointed your message is. I don’t care how great your program is. If people’s perception of you is that you’re a con-artist, you’ve failed because that’s going to hold people back from hearing what you have to say. I think perception is really important. You know what? I’m the guy that has to talk tough. I have to speak some very difficult things into people’s lives sometimes. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they don’t, but the bottom line is we’ve got to clean up our act.
My fear is if we don’t clean these things up, if we don’t do things correctly, the tax exemption will be gone. They’re going to hurt everybody. They’re going to hurt local churches. … I think big media ministries in particular have a real responsibility to do it right, do it by the book, be an example for everybody else because it does have an impact.
Are you hopeful? Are we going to clean up our act? I actually think so, and I’ll tell you why: Pressure from local churches. One of the reasons we got in trouble for so long is that it wasn’t producers, it wasn’t executives, it wasn’t those kind of creative people that started Christian television. It was pastors. Pastors had the vision for it. They were great at preaching the gospel, but they didn’t know about how to package the message into a TV show. They didn’t know how to run a media organization. … I think a lot of people fell into a lot of mistakes early on simply because they were pastors with a vision for sharing the gospel. They didn’t know anything about how to actually make this organization work, and so they allowed a lot of mistakes. Now I’m seeing more and more organizations … bring in the expertise they need, and that’s a real hopeful sign.
You’ve written a lot of books, produced documentary and promotional films, and created a robust social media presence. Have you thought about making more dramatic feature films? Most Christian movies are terrible and for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is we’re so quick to take a little tiny budget and try to make a dramatic feature when that same budget would make a remarkable documentary. We’ve done a number of documentaries. We did one a few years ago for public broadcasting called The Better Hour on William Wilberforce, who [fought to] abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. It was so successful, it aired nationwide. It was shown in the White House. That film would have made a terrible dramatic movie just because of the budget we had. It was a few hundred thousand dollars, but for a documentary, it turned out really, really well, and we’re very proud of it. … I would like to do more dramatic features, but I want to do it at the right time at the right place, and I really want to do it right.
Is it just money that is keeping Christians from making great movies? Chariots of Fire won the Academy Award for best picture in 1981, which was almost two generations ago. You can almost count on one hand the amount of decent Christian movies that have come out since then. It can’t just be money. I think one of the big issues is Christians have an overriding feeling that we have to be very explicit. We have to tell the story. … It was not explicit in Chariots of Fire. That’s what made it so powerful. It’s not explicit in Chronicles of Narnia and other films like that.
One of the things that we’re trying to train filmmakers to do out here … is understand the power of movies. I think it was Barna that reported that after The Passion of the Christ, … less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the people who saw it accepted Christ. That tells me movies don’t lead people to Christ, but … they start people on a journey. They start people thinking about things in a new way.
I think with movies for Christians, let’s think less about getting people to accept Christ as a result of this movie and think more about planting a seed that starts to shift their thinking in a much more positive direction.
Are there others in Hollywood who share your vision, who are beginning to understand how Christians should practice their vocation in art in Hollywood and in filmmaking? I can give you some great examples. People would be fascinated to know how highly placed some Christians are in the industry. DeVon Franklin is a good example. He’s a senior vice president of production at Columbia Pictures. He preaches on the weekend. A great, great guy.
You know Ralph Winter, who has been producing Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, X-Men, Wolverine. For years, [he’s been] just a tremendous filmmaker in Hollywood, a very dedicated Christian. Dean Batali, who wrote That ’70s Show, … started his career working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a writer. People criticized him for that, and he said, “Can you imagine where that show would have gone had I not been in that writer’s room?” There are Christians that are in different places in the industry exerting an influence in different levels.
If nothing else comes out of our conversation today, I would urge listeners to think of Hollywood more as a mission field and less as the enemy. If we’re going to reach Hollywood, if we’re going to change Hollywood and create the kind of films that we believe we can do, more of the Chariots of Fire-type of films, I would love to see an army of people across this country praying for Hollywood. That’s the way we’re going to change the industry. Encourage young Christians to come out, to be great at their craft, whether it’s writing or directing or acting or whatever. Be really, really good at your craft because the competition level here is enormous. If we could do that, I think we’d start to see a real significant shift in the industry.