This interview with Phil Cooke is reprinted from the archives of the now defunct Infuze Magazine. I did this interview in December of 2007.
While he may not look as old as some major Hollywood Executives, Phil Cooke has been at the forefront of the media industry for years. Whether working on his own or partnering with other entertainment industry greats or one of the many schools and programs he teaches for, Phil has no problem expressing himself on the state of media in the world, the Christian’s place in that world and how to properly effect change. He is a television and film director and producer with numerous feature length videos, documentaries and commercials to his credit, including the recent Thou Shalt Laugh videos. He is also the author of three books, the most recent of which, Branding Faith, he expects to redefine how Christians take hold of the power of the media in the today’s world.
Paul Rose, Jr: Well, let’s start by paying the bills. How did you get involved with directing Thou Shalt Laugh 2?
Phil Cooke: Jonathan Bock at Grace Hill Media and I talked about doing the original Thou Shalt Laugh stand up comedy DVD special a couple of years ago. And we realized there was a huge need for – not necessarily a Christian comedy video – but a comedy video that anyone in the family could enjoy. We didn’t want church humor that only Christians would relate to, we wanted stuff that everyone would find funny. So we started by auditioning about 100 comedians to find seven that were really, really funny. And so we did the first show, with Jon producing and me directing and our production company, Cooke Pictures, did the production work, crewed it and did all the shooting for it. It was hugely successful – I’ve been told it’s the biggest selling Christian comedy video of all time. And so we decided to come back and do the deuce. And this time, we decided to throw our lot in together and become owners of the project. So we teamed up, Grace Hill Media, Cooke Pictures, are joint producers of the project, along with Hunt Lowry’s company, Roserock Films, it’s all shot on high definition video – it looks really nice. And the second one seems to be doing well too, and hopefully we’ll be on television at some point in the future.
Now you own two different media-oriented companies, is that correct?
I have two companies, one is Cooke Pictures, which is primarily involved with working with Christian churches and media organizations, trying to help them improve the quality and effectiveness of what they do in the media. There’s some really scary stuff out there on religious television! So we consult and do a lot of strategic planning related to how they produce and use the media. If they have a television program, we help them improve that and make it more effective. We’re also involved in digital media, branding, and identity. We do a lot of re-branding. With Joyce Meyer, for instance, we went in a number of years ago and completely rebranded her ministry and her media outreach, and it’s proven to be very effective. We were part of the team that helped create Joel Osteen’s television program. We’ve worked with people from Robert Schuller Jr., to Ed Young in Dallas, to a number of ministries, and now we’re working with some even larger organizations, like the American Bible Society, to re-brand them, and focus them where they need to go in media. We’re also working in the digital media world with a number of emerging leaders.
And then my other company, TWC Films, is actually a TV commercial production company. I’m partners in that company with Ralph Winter, the producer of the X-Men films and Fantastic Four, and also commercial producer Mark Thomas, and we’ve created a company that creates mostly comedy TV spots. We really enjoy doing comedy, and we represent about 10 directors, literally from around the world – including Bangkok, Thailand, all the way to Zurich, Switzerland, and we do comedy spots for all kinds of major companies across the country and around the world.
You mentioned “Branding.” I think a lot of people don’t know what branding is; could you explain that some more?
Well, actually, my new book is coming out in March 2008, called Branding Faith: Why some churches and ministries impact culture and others don’t, from Regal Books, and essentially it’s a book on branding churches, ministries and other non-profits. Branding is essentially, “what do people think of when they think of you”? It’s the story that surrounds a person, a product, or an organization. You can check out the book at Amazon or at BrandingFaith.com.
In the book I show that companies like Nike have very clearly designed brands. Their brand statement for instance, is “the spirit of the athlete,” and everything they do reflects that. With Starbucks, their brand statement is a “great coffee experience.” Everything they do reflects that and impacts that story. Not only the coffee they sell, but the design of the store, the menu items, the outfit the baristas wear. So branding is essentially the story that surrounds you or your organization, and just in the way Nike and Apple and other companies need effective brands, I think churches and ministries need a brand because today, we live in a media-driven culture. We’re being overrun by media messages on a daily basis. And in a media-driven culture, it’s all about choice.
For instance, when my grandmother went to the grocery store in the 1920’s and 30’s in the Southern United States, she only found one brand of flour, one brand of salt, or one brand of sugar. But today, a typical grocery store stocks as many as 30,000 different items. In fact, I understand there are 8 or 10 different kinds of Oreo cookies alone in a typical grocery store. So the question becomes, how do you stand out in that incredible range of choices? That’s what branding is all about – helping people distinguish your message from the swirl of media clutter out there. In the religious world, what makes your message worth hearing? What makes your church different from another church down the road? What makes your organization different from all the others? It’s not necessarily about being better, it’s about being distinctive.
In a media-driven culture, researchers indicate we’re bombarded with as many as 3,000 advertising messages a day. So how does your message stand out? That’s why my vision and my goal working with churches, ministries, and non-profits is helping them get noticed. Helping them express their story – especially in the media – more effectively. We’re telling the greatest story ever told, but if no one is listening, we’ve failed.
In light of that, what do you think the world sees as far as the “Brand” associated with Christianity?
The perception of Christianity is in really bad shape right now. In fact, if you check my blog at PhilCooke.com, I recently wrote about the fact that the perception of Christianity may be at an all time low. Short of the Roman occupation during the early church or the rise of Nazism in Germany, we’re in a pretty sorry state. Largely because of issues that range from behavior of major pastors – like those getting divorced and not missing a day in the pulpit, plus a lot of sexual scandal and financial allegations, misappropriations of funds, things like that. (And that doesn’t count crazy hair or gold furniture on Christian TV.) I think we just live in a time right now where the public looks at Christians and think, man, those guys don’t experience any more meaningful lives than I do, so why would I want to become one of them?
And so one of the big issues in the work that we do as far as branding and identity with churches and ministries is perception. Perception is incredibly important in today’s culture. How you’re perceived is just as important as who you are. That’s why I believe if you don’t try to impact your perception, you’ll spend the rest of your life at the mercy of other people who will. So from a Christian point of view, there’s no question, I think we need to clean our act up. In fact David Kinnaman’s book that just came out called UnChristian deals with this issue, and his research results are frankly pretty sad.
Is there some possibility we could turn that trend around within our generation? How would you go about doing that?
Absolutely we can turn it around. No question. But it won’t be easy. I think there are three or four areas in David’s book that were particularly sensitive – for instance that Christians are only concerned about money. We get much of that from the world of Christian television – it’s all about money, money, money, prosperity teaching and that stuff. And another issue is that many unbelievers think Christianity is all about political power. And we certainly understand that – the last generation of Christian leaders were very vocal in their efforts at achieving political power. And that’s backfired in many ways. Sure, we should be active in politics, sure we should vote, and the Christian faith needs to be heard in the public square, but we can’t be perceived as a group that pushes people around to get our political agenda taken care of. Those kind of things hurt us when it comes to evangelism and getting our message heard.
Rick Warren has said that we’ve come to an era where it’s not so much about creeds, as about deeds, and I think we need to show the public that Christianity is about service. A great example is the incredible outpouring of help after Hurricane Katrina. You know when the government got backed up and made mistakes getting the necessary supplies there, it was hundreds of churches from across this country that poured into New Orleans with food and water and shelter and health services and that made a huge impression. One blogger said, “When you look at what happened after Hurricane Katrina, you didn’t see a lot of secular humanism around there.” It was all about God and the church making a difference. It’s actually very possible to turn this thing around. But it starts with changing our perception in the eyes of the culture.
Is Hollywood a vast wasteland, as many in the church want to keep telling us?
Excellent question. My experience is that Hollywood is not anti-Christian, and Hollywood is not anti-family. Hollywood is simply a business. It’s just like a business of being a lawyer, or being in the oil and gas industry, or being in the insurance business. And like many executives, they would sell their grandmother to make a buck. So they’re not out to destroy Christians, they just don’t get what we do and what we’re about. They don’t understand what Christianity is. By and large most executives and influencers in the entertainment industry aren’t people of deep religious faith, but the fact is, probably most top executives in the insurance business don’t have deep religious faith. Most attorneys probably don’t have deep religious faith. So it’s not that different from other industries in America. That’s why I think the way to change Hollywood is first of all, to stop protesting and boycotting.
It’s interesting that when missionaries go to a Third World country, they don’t surround the village and boycott the tribe. They don’t hold up signs and call them names and criticize them. What do they do? They develop a relationship of trust. They get to know them, they become one of them, they develop that kind of trust relationship. That’s what we need to do with Hollywood. We’re not going to get Hollywood to change by criticizing them, and complaining and boycotting. We’re going to get Hollywood to change by developing a trust relationship, having them understand who we are, sharing our faith with them, and that’s how we’re going to make an impact. There’s a number of great Christian organizations out there doing that right now. And, the key is developing that trust. That’s where we’re going to make a real difference.
What I generally do – I can give you a great example from The Da Vinci Code. When that movie came out, a lot of Christian leaders wanted to boycott and protest the movie. And I started saying, “Let’s engage.” Quit criticizing and boycotting it. Sure, it’s got a lot of flawed theology, it’s heretical, it’s got a lot of wacky stuff in it, but let’s use it as a platform to share our faith.” Back in those days, I’d tell people, “You get on an airplane with a copy of The Da Vinci Code in your lap, and somebody’s going to start a conversation with you.” And what a better way to share the truth than through a conversation like that. Boycotts can backfire. Sadly, there have actually been a couple of movies that Christians boycotted, which became box office successes because of the attention the boycott brought them.
In fact, one similar movie came out about 20 years ago and Christian leaders got real upset about it. And all the critics said, “Look, this is not a good movie, forget about the theology, it’s just not a good movie, and it’ll disappear tomorrow.” But the Christians decided to boycott it and they actually made it a box office success. In another example, a few years ago, a major Christian group decided to boycott Disney. Well, during the boycott, Disney sales actually went up. In fact, not long ago, a major leader from that group called me and said, “Any ideas for how we can gracefully get out of this boycott? It’s making us really look stupid.”
Boycotting is a nuclear option only. There are times to use it, but I’ve rarely ever supported boycotts because they can so easily backfire. It needs to be very strategically handled. But when it comes to criticism, I certainly think we should create resources to help believers understand something like The Golden Compass, and it’s message. The His Dark Materials novel series – (the movie was based on) – where does it go, what does it do, should we be cautious of it? No question about it. We should educate believers about what those things are about. However, I also say, let’s use it as a jumping off point for starting a conversation with a friend who’s not a believer. Maybe you even take a friend to the movie and then afterwards to a coffee shop and talk about it, talk about what it means and what the implications are. So there are so many ways we can actually turn those projects on their head and use them as a way to reach people with Truth.
Now on another note, it seems like some of the best, most well-developed, faith-based characters we see in the entertainment industry are written or created by atheists and agnostics, people like Joe Straczynski and Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon. Do you have any thoughts on why that may be?
Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic, made a brilliant statement at the Biola Media Conference last year. He said that when he watched The Lion King on Broadway, and when Mufasa, the lion king died, he was more moved than when Aslan died in The Chronicles of Narnia. He said, it’s as if the writers of the Narnia film knew we would understand what that lion represented. They knew we’d buy into that so they didn’t have to really make us understand the implications, or move us emotionally, because we knew who it was. But in The Lion King, nobody knew who that lion represented. Nobody knew what it meant. So they had to write a compelling scene, so that when Mufasa died, you were moved to tears. And part of it is Christians who write characters thinking, okay, the audience will know who that guy is, and are going to be moved. We’re going to know he’s a Christian and we’ll be moved emotionally, so we cheat. We don’t do as good a job professionally writing that character, directing him, or creating that character’s world. In fact, so many Christian films have a character who’s specifically “The Christian Guy.” That’s his job, to be the Christian guy in that movie. You can pretty much pick it out.
But these other guys, Josh and J.J. (Abrams) and these other guys who are creating faith-driven characters in secular material, they’re putting their heart and soul into this thing. They’re creating a real live, compelling character. So there are no shortcuts, there are no buy-ins, he’s not assuming the audience is going to get it, so he makes us get it, and makes us feel that character. It’s not a terribly articulate answer, but I think that’s the heart of why secular writers sometimes write more compelling Christian characters than Christians do.
Now I know you’ve taught at some of the Biola Media Conferences. What is your affiliation with Biola?
Ralph Winter and I are co-chairmen of the Studio Task Force, which is essentially an organization of about 100 Christian media professionals who have come alongside Biola’s radio and TV and film department and help them with fundraising, mentoring, with teaching, those kind of things. Yeah, we’re very involved with Biola, because I think few things are as important as training the next generation of Christian media professionals. In fact, this year, Biola is building a multi-million dollar production facility on the campus. Brand new television and film studio complex that’s going to be pretty impressive.
Are you working with Barbara Nicolosi and Act One or the 168-Hour Film Festival?
I am on the Advisory Board for the Act One Executive Program, and do a lot of teaching there. And I have taught at the 168-Hour Film Festival two or three times. I have great respect for both Barbara Nicolosi at Act One and John Ware at 168. I think it’s really important work that they’re doing.
If someone were to come to you and say, “Hey, I feel like I’m called to be a Christian out in Hollywood. Where do I start?” What would you tell them?
Run! Sell insurance for your father in law! No, actually, first thing I would say is go to Hollywood Connect. HollywoodConnect.com is a website designed for people just like you who feel called to go to Hollywood. It has resources for: “Do I need acting lessons?”
“Do I need a headshot?” “Where should I live?” “What kind of classes do I need to consider?” “What kind of lifestyle is it?” “Where can I go to church?” It is a huge resource for believers who feel called to come here, and I wish it had been here back when I started. So, first of all, I would start there. The next thing they can do at Hollywood Connect, is give you a list of ministries in Hollywood that can help you. The key thing to survival, I always tell people in Hollywood, is networking. Talent simply isn’t enough. Developing relationships with people helps. It’s a natural thing that you want to work with people you know. So the best way to work your way up the ladder in Hollywood is to get to know people. And through organizations like Hollywood Connect, the Hollywood Prayer Network, InterMission, the National Media Prayer Breakfast, those kind of activities, you start elbowing with people who are pretty highly placed in the industry. And they can really make a difference, give you good advice, help you make the kind of connection that you need to make. So I think that’s really important. And I always tell people, start with Hollywood Connect. Michelle Wood runs it and has done a brilliant job creating a resource for Christians who want to move out here and get involved in the entertainment industry.
What’s coming up next for you?
A couple exciting things. We just finished a one-hour feature documentary on William Wilberforce. You probably saw the movie, Amazing Grace, which was the dramatic version of his life story. The British Parliamentarian who in the 1700’s outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire. We’re doing a one-hour documentary, it looks like it’s going to debut nationwide in the Spring on Public Television across the country, so we’re really excited about that. It’s a high definition documentary. It was a featured selection at the Heartland Film Festival a few months ago, and it’s already been shown by request at the White House. So we were real pumped about that, and it’ll make its debut on Public Television in the Spring, so that’s kind of cool.
Probably the most exciting thing right now is my book that’s coming out in March, Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Non-Profits Impact the Culture and Others Don’t. It’s really the first book of its kind that starts a new conversation about how branding and identity relates to churches, ministries, and non-profits. I think it’s going to change the conversation when it comes to marketing and promoting churches, ministries and faith out there in the culture. In fact, the implications of these ideas spill over from religious media into non-profit and cause-related marketing. And my next goal is to help great causes use the media to tell their stories more effectively. I’m hoping it will have a huge ripple effect.