168 Project is filmmaking by faith in a pressure cooker

To draw an analogy to the entertainment world, what if you only had one week to put together a film? Many movie fans who see the Hollywood blockbusters are accustomed to hearing about months–even year–of production time.

Yet the one-week time frame–and nothing like what you would ordinarily see on screen at the local mall–are the realities of the Christian-based 168 Film Project.

The concept is fairly simple.

A theme is chosen for the year and stones are laid out in the pattern of a cross. On the bottom of each stone is a Bible verse that pertains to the theme. Producers and their crews then have a week–168 hours–to shoot, edit, and submit an 11-minute short film based on the verse.

“It can be pretty terrifying for some people,” explained John David Ware, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based project. “We’ve had people want to trade verses, all kinds of things.

“You’re not allowed to write anything (for the film) until you get the Bible verse, and that is part of the pressure cooker. When you mix the verse, ambition and the deadline, what comes out for a lot of people is a crucible. You can see on screen halfway through the films who honored God and who didn’t. You really find who you are under pressure.”

The project does allow 10 days of pre-production once the verse is picked, but the rest of the work must take place in that tight one-week period, Ware said. The project also helps by holding cattle calls for actors, but the bulk of the work is up to the filmmakers and their faith.

“After you pick the stone, you brainstorm with your team and God does the work from there with the people on the team,” Ware said.

Ware initiated the contest in 2003 with 13 projects as an evolution of his leadership in the entertainment fellowship at L.A.’s Bel Air Presbyterian Church. That has expanded to 83 entries this year under the expansive theme of “Family Business.” While most of the crews are based in Southern California, entries have been received from across the country and internationally.

“At the time we started, the 48-hour film project was pretty popular,” said Ware, who holds a film production degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “What we wanted to do is integrate faith and the artistry that goes into making films like this.

“There is a part of Christianity that rejects the media and rejects Hollywood, and with good reason, but I see this as a mission field. For any significant revival to take place, media and film are going to have to be a significant part of it.”

To be successful, filmmakers are suggested to be working on pre-production aspects year-round, not just in the narrow window prior to filming. What can’t happen, Ware emphasized, is for the planning to get so pigeonholed into a specific idea that there’s no flexibility once the verse is selected.

The creativity the contest seeks to engender is captured in part by entertainment professionals associated with the project. Those people include Ralph Winter (producer of “X-Men” films, “Planet of the Apes,” and “Fantastic Four”), Bill Ewing (producer of “End of the Spear,” a film about missionaries in Ecuador), and Mark Clayman (executive producer of the acclaimed rags-to-riches “The Pursuit of Happyness” starring Will Smith).

“We have had a huge variety of people involved over the years,” Ware said. “I think most are Christians who want to express their faith through their work. People around the world are interested in spiritual themes. They can be Martians for all we care.

“You have to follow the rules–no gratuitous sex, violence, or blasphemy. Most people are really interested in exploring their faith and treat it with respect.”

Ware recognizes that short films are an entirely different genre and may appeal to a different audience than Christian-made hits like “Fireproof.” The success and growth of the festival suggests there’s room for both in the entertainment marketplace.

“Every film that’s made is not going to necessarily play in the Bible Belt, and that’s OK,” he said. “There is a place where it fits in.”

This year’s festival begins Apr. 3 with screenings at United Community Church in Glendale, Calif. Further screenings and awards will conclude the festival on Apr. 4 at the Alex Theatre, also in Glendale.


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