Raising the Bar – Reflections from NRB and More – Guest Blog by Sean O’Bryan Smith

So this week I spent a few days walking around the NRB International Christian Media Convention in Nashville. For those not aware of this convention, it is a wonderful chance for the worlds of television, radio, and film to unite in the faith based market. It is a wide array of manufacturers, television and film companies, filmmakers, actors, guest speakers, and yes…..even the random Jesus look-a-like. For me it was an extremely rare opportunity to visit with all of my directors I work with in the genre in one location and get a chance to see what’s going on in the industry from a much different perspective than my four studio walls. I quickly discovered that being a fly on the wall was my best move this year as I listened to all the wealth and woes of the current state. What I heard both inspired and concerned me in the same breath.

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First off, let me make something clear for folks. Yes, I am a strong believer and yes, I am a dedicated member of the faith based film community. The other part is yes, I have a very successful career in the secular music and film industries and yes, I will continue to keep that presence. I say that as a precursor to my concerns for the faith based industry, especially in film and television. I’ll start with the good news. I was pleasantly surprised and inspired to hear that the majority of faith based media outlets worldwide are starving for quality content. This means quality music, quality films and quality television programming. Believers are watching and listening and believers want something up to par with what they are used to from Hollywood and other secular media providers. Now, what was the one word you saw repeatedly in that?…..QUALITY.

This is where I’m going to get on my soap box and where what I heard just from being a fly on the wall has me deeply concerned for my colleagues in the faith based indindustry. The media companies, consumers and viewing/listening public don’t want subpar anymore. This, quite frankly, has always been an issue with the faith based media but there’s always been a level of acceptance. Recently, though, filmmakers in particular have stepped up their game significantly to provide a level that the public can connect to. Remember, you can’t spread your message and the gospel if you can’t engage them. Otherwise, you’ve not made a way to minister. You’ve made a vanity project that no one will see or hear. I’m saying this so that what I’m going to say next will have a bit more impact and make more sense.

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Where all this applies to my particular realm of expertise is obviously in music and this is where I made a point to address this with all the filmmakers I’ve either worked with or are thinking about working with. In your overall push to raise the level of your project you have to do two things. You have to EDUCATE YOURSELF and you have to BE CAREFUL. Most filmmakers are already savvy to dealing with who’s SAG, who’s not, did I hire the right color guy, is the cast right, etc. Where I get concerned is that I repeatedly heard where corners were being cut and especially in the area of music. More importantly, filmmakers in the faith based industry were frighteningly unaware and uneducated in the legalities of music in film and what they needed to do to prepare.

Before I dig deep, let me enlighten the film industry on the current state of the music industry. It is the most aggressive battlefield in the entertainment industry right now. Here’s why. The music industry model has completely bled out due to streaming music, illegal downloads, failing record labels, concert attendance, and a grocery list of other reasons. That being said, the music industry has an eagle eye now on the areas they are due income and rightfully so. I bring this up to address one of my major concerns, and I wanted to pass it on as an FYI. Be EXTREMELY careful using stock and “royalty free” music for your film and television projects. A number of these pieces of music can be, and are, illegally downloaded from the composer or artist. I’ve lost track at how much of my music alone is out there illegally in the world, and other composers are in the same battle. This is food out of our mouths, remember, so don’t be surprised when a composer comes after you on a project. You have to realize that music in film is typically licensed. You DO NOT own that material. THEY do. What’s most important for you is that the majority of film budgets in the faith based genre are small. I’ll tell you now that one lawsuit for one illegally used song can exceed what you’re using for your entire film project very quickly. So make sure you’re doing your homework, and if you have ANY spare budget, hire a music supervisor so that they can help protect you and your investment. It is their job.

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Now, let me address stock music as a whole. I don’t want to discredit it by any means.  I compose for some of these companies, and I will not bite the hand that feeds me. Here comes the but…..BUT, if you want to raise the bar for your film you need to not cut corners and hire an actual composer for your project or songwriter. Yes, you may find some royalty free music that can help yo,u and it works great for the scene, but it is still something you have to manipulate to work, and savvy listeners can, and will, hear the difference in the finished product when your music all sounds different or it doesn’t flow right or the edits were faded oddly, etc. Give the public some credit. A lot of them are very in tuned to high quality, and phoning it in is a contributing factor as to why your project may not be as successful. You can never replace the level of quality of having music composed for a scene, title sequence, transition, etc.

On the topic of composers and other audio related matters, I kept hearing the same thing from folks….I can’t afford it. I’m sorry but that is no excuse. You found the budget to make your film in the first place, to enhance your ministry. GOD provided you a way and you cut a corner with the convenient answer of “I can’t afford it”. I ask “did you even try?”. Here’s why I ask that. I can name right now no less than two dozen composers like me that are believers and can serve your projects while still keeping you on a realistic budget. These aren’t just hobbyists either. These are established musicians with years of experience in the industry and that are able to enhance your projects. A lot of them may even donate to your project if they believe in your message. For example, I’ve done EXTREMELY discounted rates and even free film scores for faith based filmmakers if I believed in their message and it gave them a way to raise the level of the overall production quality in the process. I’m not saying this as a commercial for myself or composers either. This is all just items that need to be addressed so that you can put out the highest quality project you can so that you can engage the public on a level they expect and you can ultimately spread the gospel and get your message across.

I know this has been a bit of a rant and I can easily keep going, but I’m genuinely worried but excited for the future of faith based entertainment. NRB showcased so many outlets and products to provide for a new generation of faith based content providers, but the talent level and end product absolutely has to be on par with today’s public. This doesn’t mean you have to have a $4 million dollar budget to do your project, but it does mean you have to approach it like you’re shooting one of that quality level. Find the best team you possibly can. Get on social media, check websites, get on IMDb, whatever it takes. There are countless believers out there that are seasoned industry professionals that can help you. Do not cut corners. The public can see the difference and these distributors will not touch your project. I hope this helps and gets everyone thinking.

sean

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