from Joe Camp, creator of Benji, and Producer, Writer and Director of five Benji Movies
Like a lot of other people, I have a dream.
Over the past few decades, we’ve watched the bar of what is acceptable in general audience entertainment drop… and drop… and drop. First it was language. A few words here and there… then a few more words… then fewer clothes… and more violence. Like children testing their parents, the industry continued to push the bar downward, until out of fear that the government was about to step in, they – the industry – the Hollywood studios – formed the MPAA to rank their indecency.
This gave them the “right” to say and do whatever in the world they wanted to, by warning parents that it was there. So the bar went lower and lower.
Then came the lowering of the bar on television. The cable companies, for reasons I’ve never really fully understood, were able to slide under the rules set by the FCC because their programming did not actually go through the air, it went over cable and people were charged for the right to watch it. Which, without regard for the effect it might have on the economics and standards of the entertainment industry, the people bought.
Nobody complained. Or very few did.
But the over-the-air networks did, saying they should have the same right as the cable companies, and another rating system was designed to rank programming, depending entirely on the parents to completely control any viewing of free television in the home.
Next, in just the past few years, movies referred to as “family” movies have begun to show up with all sorts of language, potty humor, excessive violence (in the name of action ), and sexual innuendo. Stretching the limit even further.
The Studios have lectured and lectured that they do not create culture, they reflect it. To continue that cry is patently ludicrous.
A good friend once used the analogy that when you pour liquid through a colander, it won’t hold the liquid, but the colander does get wet. And if that liquid is an acid, it will eventually dissolve the colander into nothing.
My dream is to see that bar – which has been dropped to the lowest-ever common denominator – go back up. To see a choice of fun, exciting, dramatic, emotionally involving, and funny entertainment not also be full of poop jokes, sexual innuendo, gratuitous violence, and gutter language. And, remember, I’m not even talking about adult movies, I’m taking about what Hollywood as begun to send us as “family” movies.
I pray for a day when you can turn on the television and not worry about the privacy of your home being drenched in programming that promotes no values whatsoever… in fact, promotes lack of values.
Worthless dream, folks say.
Impossible dream. Can’t happen. Not today. Not when the economic bottom line of so many studios depends upon drawing a paying audience. But I say it’s not impossible. The impossible is merely harder. Takes more time and effort. The only real question is: are we up to the task? Will we, who care, who believe that God still wants us to rise above such stuff actually stand and rise to do something, or will we say, “Gee, this is the way life is today. Can’t fight the steam roller.”
Will those of us who believe there is still value in being able to express ourselves clearly without gutter language take the time and effort to do something about it??
Will those of us who believe there are many better ways to solve problems than beating, killing, and blowing things up show our kids the way?
Will those of us who believe that there is still value in having our daughters grow up to believe that they can be even more popular and successful for their what is in their brains and their hearts than how much of their body they show?
Will we turn off those TVs and stop going to those movies? (Please read The Risks of TV)
“You’re fighting a losing battle, Camp.” Over and over again I’ve been told that. Over and over again believing Christians have told me to focus where I can do some good. Stop tilting at windmills. The tidal wave is too big to stop.
And I say it’s not a losing battle, if folks will act as they believe.
Yes, there have been times when I’ve begun to think the nay-sayers are right. When the task appears insurmountable. I’ve been so low, I can’t tell you, but God always shows up, slaps me around a bit, kicks me in the rear and gets me back on track. So many times when we were trying to raise financing for Benji Off the Leash I said, “God, what’s the point? We’re talking to ourselves.” And God said, “Quit whining and get busy! There’s work to be done.”
So many times I said, “Benji can’t change the world, God. Even you are having trouble doing that. Christ changed it once, but that was a long time ago.”
“Hang on,” said God. “Keep your eyes and ears open.” And along came Mel Gibson.
Once again, Christ changed the world.
Here’s a fact. Hollywood, where the vast majority of movies and television programs are made is controlled by one single factor, and we all know what it is. The dollar.
Do you think for a moment that The Passion of the Christ, one of the most successful movies of all time, produced and distributed completely outside the Hollywood system, has gone un-noticed by the studios? Show Hollywood what you will spend your money for and what you won’t and Hollywood will listen. They have no other choice.
We spent a year, my wife Kathleen and our other producer Margaret Loesch, trying to put together a new Benji movie in Hollywood.
Why??? you might ask would we even venture into that town, given our beliefs and passions?
I’ll tell you why. Because it’s hard to raise money to finance a movie from private sources. Sources who know that in today’s climate there’s a lot of risk out there with a movie that does not stoop to that lowest common denominator. It’s a lot of work to raise money to advertise and distribute a movie from private sources who might not care as much as your do. It’s easier to say, “Here studio, pay me a bunch of money and you do the work.”
But there was one catch. In each of the three negotiations it came down to one singular thing. We… I… would have to give up complete and total control of the screenplay, and of the content of the movie. Give it up to the judgment of that Hollywood studio. Total control so they could change the story, change the character of Benji, change the content to whatever they felt was fit at the moment.
Has anyone here seen the type of film coming out of Hollywood nowadays under the guise of “family entertainment??” Except for the blessing of Pixar and the terrific films they do, almost without exception Hollywood’s family entertainment today is full of poop jokes (scatological humor, the critics call it), sexual innuendo, violence, in the guise of “action,” and gutter language.
Believe me I was praying a lot during those days. I was asking God hourly, it seemed: surely you can’t be saying I should take this deal. Do I trust these guys? I’m broke, are you handing me this money on a platter so my family will be okay? At the expense of all I should be doing for you?
The timing here was barely a year after the tragedy of 9-11. The stock market was still in the tank. Everybody was afraid to invest in anything. And raising money for a movie is hard in the best of times. Are you trying to tell me that we need to go back to the way we’ve always done it before?? God, times are different now. Very different. Studios are spending enormous amounts of money to promote their movies and there are more movies than ever.
Then I had a conversation with a studio executive. Young family man. Clean cut. And he told me, without the least amount of shame, “Today you have to give kids what they want. And what they want is poop jokes, and sex, and titillating language, and action (violence), and special effects. It’s all about the economic bottom line and to have that bottom line you have to give ’em what they want.”
I asked him if he had kids. He said he did, and I asked him if he gave them what they wanted, or what he felt they should have. He got angry and the meeting ended right there because for him to answer honestly would be to say, “I care about my kids, I just don’t care about yours.”
This was late November or early December of 2002. I called Margaret Loesch, our other producer, and told her that if we couldn’t conclude a deal by January 1 that maintains control in our hands, then we’re going to close the door and try to raise the money independently.
That’s often the way God deals with me. I say, “God, I don’t believe this is the way you want me to go. If it is, please show me that we can maintain my perception of the values you want me to put forth, within the studio system, by January 1st, and that’s what I’ll do. We have, after all, been trying to do this studio thing for almost a year now. So, if this isn’t working out by January 1st , I’m going to consider this a closed door and go another direction.”
And God said, in his own way, “My son you continue to be a very slow learner!”
Memory wants to say it was the next day, but it was probably days later, when I got word that no way was there going to be a deal that left control in our hands.
Margaret and I laid out a plan that would take us to five states in an effort to raise the money independently. We left for Mississippi the middle of January (where we both had graduated from college)… and we never left the state. Two weeks later the entire financing to produce the movie was raised. Two weeks! Done. Over. That was Benji Off the Leash in 2004.
“My son you continue to be a very slow learner!”
God’s hand in everything I do continues to astound me, and yet I continue to be a very slow learner.
Back when I was in college at the University of Mississippi, I thought life as I knew it was over when I was turned down for a transfer to UCLA so I could learn to make movies. That’s all I had ever wanted to do from the time I had sat in a theater in Little Rock, Arkansas, with tears streaming down my six-year-old cheeks watching the end credits roll on Song of the South. I just wanted to be able to make folks feel the way I was feeling right then, to leave them with positive and cherished memories, and when I was turned down by UCLA and had to stay at Ole Miss and study marketing and advertising I had no idea that God was working harder in my life than ever, because he was getting no help whatsoever from me. I was devastated. Life was over. Where is God when I need him. What, of course, I didn’t realize at the time is that no is an answer.
The second most devastating time in my life up to that point was, years later, when we had raised the money privately to produce the original Benji, and we had produced what I felt was a terrific movie, full of love and hope and perseverance, and we took it out to Hollywood to find a distributor, and had every studio in Hollywood turn it down for distribution. Flat. Talk about devastation.
What I had not realized in either of those situations was that back in Mississippi when I was turned down for transfer to UCLA, God was saying, no fool, you’re not going off to learn to make movies, that’s the easy part? you’re going to stay here and learn advertising and marketing so that when Hollywood turns down your movie you have the tools to distribute it yourself.
Which is exactly the way the story went, and the truth is that if both of those things hadn’t happened, if I had not been turned down for UCLA, and if Hollywood had not turned down the original Benji for distribution, you, in all probability, would’ve never heard of Benji, and I wouldn’t be writing this today. Benji is not a movie that the studio system would’ve ever made, and if a studio had taken it on for distribution, in the words of a Universal executive who actually loved the movie, “We would blow it big time. This movie is going to take someone who really cares about it to make it work.” So our next step was to raise more money, and form a distribution company.
And still God must be saying: Camp, you’re a very slow learner.
In 2001, We searched in shelters all over the country for the new Benji and just when I was certain it wasn’t going to happen, that we were going to have to settle for something less than the perfect Benji, guess who shows up in a shelter in my adopted home state of Mississippi, not four miles from where we lived for several years after Carolyn’s stroke.
The perfect Benji.
And even though the script that we expected to do was already written, the questions about Benji’s past and how long she was on the streets, and why, caused me to finally give in and toss out the old script and, with my new wife Kathleen’s help, write a completely new story. Benji’s own story. A story that came so much from God that 97% of audiences across all age brackets loved the film and promised to recommend it to family and friends. An unheard of percentage in this business. And certainly not something that Joe Camp is capable of doing.
And since the story was about a Mississippi dog, I set the screenplay in Mississippi, and tried desperately to shoot it in Mississippi because that was the emotional thing to do, right? The dog is from Mississippi, the financing came from Mississippi, I went to school in Mississippi. God wants me to shoot it here.
I left the state kicking and screaming when it was made unquestionably clear that the only place we could shoot it for the money we had was in Utah – definitely not an easy place to shoot a movie set in Mississippi.
In Utah, we were introduced to Duane Stephens, who we cast in the movie, who literally stole the human lead and became the human star of the movie, and who fulfilled another dream of mine of having a period jazz version of It Had to Be You sung over the ending credits, which we never could’ve afforded without Duane; and having Duane introduce me to the most incredible music composer I’ve ever met who has given us truly an Academy Award quality score that we could have never afforded through traditional sources. That’s why we had to go to Utah.
And on and on. Camp you are a very slow learner.
And now, in late 2017, as I write this we are awaiting the announcement of the release date for yet another Benji movie that my son Brandon wrote, produced, and directed. Through a Hollywood studio! And both the studio and the distributor are very excited to have this opportunity with Benji.
So see… the power of the individual is just amazing.
So what I’m asking of you is: use that power to affect the economic bottom line and use it every day of your life, and if you do, Hollywood will listen. They will have no choice.
At our house, Kathleen and our three kids (my step kids), Dylan, Allegra and David, watched no television for ten years.
We did watch carefully selected movies, maybe two or three a week and certain historically based mini-series on video like Roots and Winds of War, but zero television. None of the content and none of the commercials eek their way into our household. None.
Oh my, aren’t the kids completely out of it with their friends? Aren’t they embarrassed because they don’t know the latest whatever? How do you keep up with news?
The reality is:
The kids reached a point very early on when they stood up and said to their friends: no, we don’t watch at our house. We do all sorts of other things, including eating together every night of the week. What a concept!
The kids, now out of college, played musical instruments, and read voraciously, and all were honor roll students consistently. Which is one reason the twins both were accepted into top-50 universities.
We had no problems with clothes, no Brittany Spears trash-wear, all bellies are always covered, no gang wear.
We have never missed a big news event, but we haven’t felt compelled to have every pundit in the country tell us what he or she thinks about it all for weeks afterward.
And we now wonder where in the world the time came from to watch in the first place.
We choose movies in the theaters the same way. If we don’t know it’s okay, and properly spirited, we don’t go.
Are we perfect? Of course not. Not even close. But we are out there trying and making some of the hard decisions that come from our belief that, with God’s help, we can make a difference. We can keep the acid from flowing through the colander of our kids’ lives.
And we don’t do it in a vacuum. We always discussed with the kids the why’s of these decisions, and we lived within an environment that promoted the fact that morals and standards and values and basics of behavior are good and have meaning, that when you believe in and trust in God, you practice what you preach. You cannot divide your life into segments and say ok, over here I’ll go with God, but over here, He’ll understand that this is the way the world is today and there’s nothing I can do about it. (Please read The Logic of Christianity)
So… there is something you can do about it.
You can turn off that television. You can not let your kids talk you into going to some basically stupid, rank movie just because a Hollywood studio is spending thirty million dollars to convince you and your kids to do so. You can tell your daughter that showing her belly and wearing low-rider pants down to virtually her thighs is advertising to every sexually-active male on the planet that she’s available. You can toss away the notion that this is the way that it is and there’s nothing you can do about it.
You can spend the time to research and check out the movies that are good pieces of entertainment, that don’t stoop to the lowest common denominator, that have gone on the line to raise the bar and get entertainment out of the gutter. And you can support those movies. Like Guardians of the Galaxie, Jungle Book, and, yes, the new Benji movie. And you can create entertainment within your family. Like simply eating together every night, and listening. Going fishing. Riding horses. Whatever.
The power of the individual has been proven. Please pass this message along to others who share a concern for positively influencing the next generation with positive character-building values. Send this link to your friends. And make some hard choices.
You will make this planet a better place for doing so.
Thank you for reading this.