‘I didn’t want to do Christian movies’ says Dallas Jenkins, creator of record-breaking Jesus series 'The Chosen'
Dallas Jenkins is the writer and director of The Chosen, the first-ever multi-season series about the life of Jesus Christ. But he hasn’t always been a fan of Christian films.
“When I first moved to Los Angeles and was working in Hollywood and developing projects, I was very passionate that I didn’t want to do Christian movies,” Jenkins told Eternity via Zoom.
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“I wanted to include my faith in the stories, of course, but I didn’t like Christian movies. My wife and I – we were almost embarrassed by the idea of being called a Christian filmmaker.”
“We were almost embarrassed by the idea of being called a Christian filmmaker.”
“I remember I was mowing the lawn, cutting my grass – it was probably back in 2006 or so 2007 – and I was just thinking and praying a little bit, and I felt like God, just like a thunderbolt, was like, ‘I want you to make movies for my people. I want you to stop apologising for making a Christian movie’.”
Jenkins’ response to God’s direction was, in his words, “kind of rebellious”.
“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘No. Christian movies are so bad.’ And I felt like he was saying, ‘So make them good. My people deserve good movies, too’.”
Jenkins went inside and told his wife Amanda, “I feel like I’m being called to, to just unashamedly do Christian movies and just go for it and stop trying to ‘beat around the bush’, as we say, or trying to be cautious and hide the message a little bit, or trying to appeal to mainstream secular audiences.”
Jenkins’ wife, Amanda, was not impressed.
“She was like, ‘Oh, man!’” he says. “She just did not like that. But there was that moment where I thought, ‘Okay, I need to just not be trying to please any one group, and I just need to tell the stories that God wants me to tell.’”
Jenkins accepted God’s call and has been making Christian films ever since. His first explicitly Christian film, What if?, was his best movie up to that point in his career, and performed well.
Fast-forward to now, and The Chosen – which is not only an overtly Christian TV series but one about Christ himself – is an unequivocal success.
But between his early success with What If? and The Chosen Jenkins had to face a significant career failure.
Five loaves and two fish
“What’s really interesting about The Chosen is that this project was actually born out of one of the biggest professional disappointments of my life,” Jenkins has shared in interviews such as this.
“I was stuck at home on Friday with my wife at pretty much the lowest point in my career, crying and praying and trying to make sense of it all and trying to figure out what was next,” he says, referring to the time his film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone flopped at the box office.
Their disappointment was exacerbated by how much Jenkins and Amanda had felt God’s hand on the film right up to the moment – in Jenkins’s words – “it bombed”. The film had brought together unlikely partners, including a company that produced horror films, a successful wrestling company, Universal Studios, and Walden Media. And despite it being a Christian film with non-Christian investors, Jenkins and the Chicago church where he was working retained complete control of the content.
More films had been planned. Jenkins’ future as a Hollywood director had looked bright. Yet in just two hours, as low box office numbers came in, Jenkins career prospects plummeted.
“In two hours, I went from being a director with a very bright future who’d finally made it in Hollywood, to a director with no future,” Jenkins explains. “I remember being so hurt and confused.”
As the couple cried, prayed and tried to process the failure, Amanda felt God impress upon her heart two things. The first was the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. The second, the phrase “I do impossible math”.
“In two hours, I went from being a director with a very bright future who’d finally made it in Hollywood, to a director with no future.”
Together, they read again the biblical account of one of Jesus’ most famous miracles. Despite having read it probably hundreds of times, they noticed for the first time how Jesus was responsible not only for the miracle itself but also for creating a need for the miracle.
“He knew they were exhausted and tired. In fact, the disciples came to him and said, ‘we need to get these people food, we need to send them home”, and Jesus said, “Oh, they’re so hungry that if we send them home, they’ll faint along the way. He knew it. In fact, it was his fault. He was the one who had been talking so long that he’d gotten them that hungry. He’d gotten them to the place where the only thing left was a miracle,” Jenkins says.
He notes that Jesus could have caused food to appear in every person in the crowd’s laps miraculously, but he didn’t.
“He had them go find five loaves and two fishes. Then when he multiplied it, he had them go and distribute it. He had them do everything they didn’t need him for.”
Together they wondered if God was going to miraculously change the box office numbers as the hours passed. Was this the “impossible math”?
But no, the film’s box office numbers only got worse.
Jenkins stayed awake that night, writing a ten-page memo analysing the film’s failure that identified every possible mistake he and others had made.
At 4am, a message popped up on his Facebook. It was from a friend – someone he only knew online and who he rarely spoke to. It read, “Remember, your job is not to feed the 500. It’s only to provide the loaves and the fish.”
Shocked, Jenkins wondered whether his computer had been recording his conversations that day. He asked the person why they had sent him that message – and at 4am. They told him they were in Romania and had just felt God directing them to send the message.
“I can define my life as before that moment and after that moment,” says Jenkins.
“Because I knew at that moment that, as someone who was in control of a lot of things and who had vision – good vision – for a lot of things, it wasn’t my job [to get] the results. My job was to get those five loaves and the two fishes and to make them as healthy and good as they can be, and everything after that was up to him.”
Jenkins says at that time, for the first time in his life, was genuinely fine with never making another film.
“I was perfectly fine if God didn’t have for me what I thought I wanted. I was joyful,” he says – explaining it the difference between joy, which one feels regardless of circumstances, and happiness, which is temporary. “I was willing to not do another film.”
In the following weeks, Jenkins poured himself into making a short film for his church’s Christmas Eve service – a film about the birth of Christ from the perspective of the shepherds.
“Just this small loaf and fish for my church,” he says. Yet while he was filming, a new idea for a TV series about the life of Jesus began to stir in him.
To cut a long story short, the short film Jenkins made for his church ended up in the hands of a distribution company that contacted Jenkins. He told them about his idea for a TV series. They said they wanted to support him and wanted to crowdfund for the cost.
Jenkins was not optimistic “because crowdfunding rarely works and it’s usually for very small projects.”
The crowdfunding record at the time was $US5.7 million, and that was for a project that was already famous. The top five crowdfunds were all for media projects about famous shows or movies that already had large fanbases.
“We had nothing, and I was coming off a big bomb,” he says. “[But] I was in that loaves and fishes moment, and that’s why I was open to it.”
Jenkins says he was okay with whatever happened and honestly thought they’d raise $US800.
What happened next not only blew Jenkins’ mind but broke all the records around crowdfunding media projects.
Showcasing the short film Jenkins had made for his church, the crowdfunding was an outrageous success. It became the largest and most lucrative crowd-funded media project of all time, with 19,000 people contributing their finances to raise more than $US10 million.
Sitting in front of Jenkins’ computer watching the crowdfund website hit the ten million mark – which was enough money to make the entire first season of The Chosen – a thought suddenly hit his wife, “like a lightning bolt.”
“She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I do impossible math!'” Jenkins says. “That’s what that meant.”
Now, with two seasons released and the third already written, crowdfunding for Season Three is underway. So far, the funds needed for episodes 1-5 have been raised, and episode 6 has begun.
Already, The Chosen has captivated viewers across the world and has been translated into more than 50 languages – with more to come.
It is completely free to watch on The Chosen app, available for iPhones and Androids. It connects directly to streaming devices with no fee or subscription necessary, generating income for future seasons when viewers choose to “pay it forward” after viewing. And for those who would rather skip the technical side of apps and streaming, there’s great news with The Chosen being released on DVD in Australia this week.