Paul L. Caron

Sunday, November 28, 2021

WSJ: Fans Pour Funding—And Faith—Into 'The Chosen': A Hit Drama About Jesus

In July, I blogged The Chosen: Christian America’s Must-See TV Show and shared that I love the show so much that my wife and I were going to host weekly watch parties of Season 1 with lunch on Fridays in the fall semester at Pepperdine Caruso Law School. I am thrilled to report that it was such a success that we will be showing Season 2 in the spring semester. The weekend Wall Street Journal has a fascinating report on the show: Fans Pour Funding—and Faith—Into a Hit Drama About Jesus:

The Chosen 2Crowdfunding has raised millions for ‘The Chosen,’ an ambitious series exploring characters from the New Testament. Fans have already chipped in enough for three seasons—and are driving ticket sales for a Christmas special coming to movie theaters.

Dallas Jenkins, the filmmaker who created “The Chosen,” says the show’s style is modeled more on “Friday Night Lights” than other Christian TV shows and movies. Mary Magdalene relapses into vice. The apostle Matthew is on the autism spectrum. Jesus’ miracles get back stories.

By fleshing out biblical characters across multiple seasons, the show has inspired fan discussion, debate and squabbling on a level more typical of the Marvel or Star Wars series. Except that for “Chosen” fans, the dynamic is fueled by religious faith. ...

The success of the series is a powerful reminder to Hollywood that faith-focused projects can sometimes become breakthrough hits. But what makes “The Chosen” even more of an outlier is the way it is supercharging the crowdfunding model to sustain production through multiple seasons. Though “The Chosen” is free to watch, viewers have poured $40 million and counting into its production budget, enough to pay for three out of a planned seven seasons. The costs of building the new production facilities, on a 1,200-acre camp owned by the Salvation Army, are being covered by a smaller group of the show’s fans.

Producers say viewership was sluggish when the first season premiered for a fee in 2019. But the audience spiked when they made the series free on a “Chosen” app, now the show’s main distribution hub, and viewers continued to multiply during the pandemic’s lockdown months. The show has been translated into 50 languages, and is licensed to video services from Amazon to Peacock. Producers estimate that its 16 episodes have been viewed 312 million times. Now the “Chosen” audience is set to converge in person in movie theaters.

Starting Dec. 1, about 1,700 theaters will feature screenings of a “Chosen” Christmas special, including musical performances and a new episode in which Mother Mary (a series character played by Vanessa Benavente) flashes back to her son’s birth. Distributor Fathom Events, known for one- or two- day releases of classic movies, live opera and other specialty fare, expanded the “Chosen” event to 10 days. Ticket sales are approaching $6 million so far, putting “Christmas with ‘The Chosen’” on track to be Fathom’s bestseller ever, according to chief executive Ray Nutt.

Crowdfunded colossus
Other movie and TV producers have tapped die-hard fans to cover their budgets, but those projects were small and fleeting by comparison. The record for crowdfunded entertainment was once held by the cult comedy TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which raised about $6 million on Kickstarter for one revival season. Season 3 of “The Chosen” is set to start shooting in March with a budget of $18 million, up from $12 million for season 2. ...

Mr. Jenkins says he draws on secular sources, too. Binge-watching the kaleidoscopic HBO crime drama “The Wire” convinced him to delve into the sociopolitical worlds of Romans and Pharisees. He borrowed the idea of delaying Jesus’ entrance in the series from “The West Wing,” in which the president doesn’t show up until the end of the first episode. ...

Mr. Jenkins, who has four children, the two eldest in college, moved with his family last summer to a home near the camp. He envisions the emerging site here as a self-sufficient outpost in the entertainment world. As a potential follow-up to “The Chosen,” he’s considering a series based on the Book of Acts, and a multiseason adaptation of his father’s “Left Behind” stories.

“We’re planting a stake here for not just these five seasons, but potentially more,” Mr. Jenkins says. “This is home, so let’s make this permanent.”

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