Christian Indie Film Production

Steve Corona (Rio Rancho, New Mexico, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

A graduate of Bethany Lutheran College, Steve Corona is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and has worked as an actor and dialect coach for over a decade in the film industry with Helen Mirren, Gerard Butler, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Bryan Cranston, Jeremy Irons, Tina Fey and others. Steve recently coached Australian actor Joel Smallbone of the Christian band "For King & Country" in the film "Priceless."
Imagine going on tour with a Grammy-winning band. You have a VIP pass to concerts, you sleep on the tour bus, you hang out with the band. Although this is definitely not how films usually start, this was exactly how my experience started in the summer of 2015 when I was the dialect coach on the Christian Indie film, Priceless.

I was one of the first crew hired, and as such I got to witness most of the filmmaking process. The lead actor Joel Smallbone, from Christian band For King & Country, needed to play a character from Houston, TX — but he has a very obvious Australian accent. So they brought me on a month before shooting to coach Joel on his accent and acting. I went on the road with For King & Country for five days. In between concerts, Joel & I developed his character. I walked him through the process of sounding "American" and he was able to disguise himself very well.

As we got into production, it was clear from the prayer before we began each day and conversations with the director and producers that this would be a film made by Christians, but the message was applicable to a much wider audience. And so it became difficult to categorize the film. Yes, it was made by Christians. And certainly Christian audiences would appreciate it. But references to God, prayer, salvation, etc. were mostly portrayed in general or indirect terms. Characters wear cross necklaces and have cross tattoos, but unfortunately that symbol isn't always exclusive to Christians. God is mentioned a few times, but words of encouragement are usually phrased in such a way as to not turn off non-Christians and still convey a similar message. And while some may say that this subtlety makes a film "less Christian" than others which may be more direct in expressing Biblical messages, I understand and agree with the filmmakers' approach to not alienate non-Christian audiences with too much "God talk".

To argue my case for Priceless being an effective "Christian Indie film," I'll refer to Tom Kuster's 2016 GOWM presentation "How Christian Was That Movie." Tom lists certain criteria that qualify a movie as "Christian."

First, according to Kuster, it is necessary for "Christian" films to be good. In other words the production value, acting, and script must be a high enough level that a non-Christian audience would still enjoy watching the film. I agree that sub-standard films can be counterproductive and cause potential audience members to lose interest or — even worse — criticize the Christian message of the film or even the Christian faith altogether. In my opinion, all three of these elements in Priceless are above average and therefore good enough to reach a secular audience. However, I find it helpful to get a second opinion.

Variety's review of Priceless, the reviewer writes this about the production quality:

Priceless achieves greater impact through understatement and implication than many other similarly plotted movies do with R-rated explicitness.

That same review says this about the story:

The film's target audience. . . are more likely to appreciate the overall restraint of this slickly produced indie drama, and embrace its underlying theme of redemption through selfless action.

I'm going to risk sounding a little arrogant here and go as far as to say that I am an expert on acting (with a Master's Degree in Acting and over 11 years experience both as an actor and a coach in film, TV, theatre, and voice acting). That being said, I always try as hard as I can to step back and take an unbiased, objective view of productions I work on. In my opinion (and you're certainly entitled to yours), the acting in Priceless is at least as good as, if not better than many "non-Christian" or "secular" films currently available. And again, here's another outsider's thoughts (from the Variety review) on the acting to support my opinion:

Joel Smallbone makes good on the promise he evinced as an actor in Like a Country Song (2014), another faith-based movie... (At the risk of sounding blasphemous: He seems ready for a role in a more secular picture.) Santos and Midthunder are suitably sympathetic, while Parrack is most chilling... But Koechner is the true revelation here. Normally cast in comic roles, he comes across here as credibly and creditably serious and sincere.

Tom Kuster goes on to say that really good production quality in movies does not require massive amounts of money anymore, or even a studio backing it. That's absolutely true. A "low-budget" movie is defined by SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild) as any film produced on a budget of $5 million or less. It is possible to produce a good quality film on a low budget, but it's definitely more challenging. Priceless had a budget of $1 million and every dollar was stretched thin. To those who don't know — even ONE million sounds like a lot of money. But when you consider all the departments needed to make a movie — the crew, the actors, food to feed everyone, props, location permits, post-production editing, and more — it's not as much as it sounds. Especially if you want a quality product at the end of it.

Another criterion many people use to measure the success of a movie is how it does at the box office. Keep in mind that many movies flop and never recoup the money spent on producing them. You can never predict exactly how a movie will sell, but a movie that at least makes its money back can be considered a success. Based on that criterion, Priceless is a success (albeit a small one). According to IMDb, as of Dec. 18, 2016 Priceless has made back the money spent making the movie and a small profit on top of that.

So, based on the above criteria met by Priceless, I argue that it was in fact an effective Christian Indie film. Although some may find value in ranking just "how Christian" certain films are compared to others, it's my belief that any film that communicates a Christian message or moral, and/or demonstrates Christian behavior modeled by its characters qualifies as "Christian" — or at least "faith-based." And to my mind, what makes a film an "Indie" production is any film not originally backed by a large studio (that is, mainly independently funded). Therefore, a film that combines these is by my definition a "Christian Indie film." That may help someone looking for that specific genre of film. But I hope that, more importantly, "Christian" or "faith-based" films reach the hearts of their audiences and prompt them to live in accordance to the Christian faith prescribed and demonstrated by Jesus Christ.

I hope you get a chance to see Priceless and form your own opinion. (Here is the official Priceless trailer.) Do you think it's an effective "Christian Indie Film"? Why or why not? And what other films do you think fit into this category? Are they effective, or not? I look forward to the discussion.

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Brian Klebig (Michigan State University) 2017-10-23 7:59:16pm
Well, I think I will definitely give Priceless a viewing. If I were an atheist who watched the movie what do you suppose my overall takeaway would be? If I bought the film entirely, which perceptions or valuations of mine might change?
Steve Corona 2017-10-24 1:21:10am
Brian, I'm glad you're interested in viewing the film. You pose an excellent question.

First of all - I've met atheists ranging from people who actively seek to disprove Christians and make them doubt their faith to people who disagree with Christianity, but are open to a good-spirited debate with intelligent Christians who are able to present their arguments well.

So within that wide-ranging group, I would say that most atheists would probably scoff at the Christian tone of the film (and the fact that it was produced largely by a Christian band) and question any references to God or prayer. However, even someone looking for a "hidden Christian agenda" in PRICELESS (if they actually gave the film a chance and viewed it in its entirety) would most likely still be moved by the horrors of human trafficking (which is not exclusive to any religion, race, nation, or border of any kind) and would hopefully at least raise awareness of this very real crime. And hopefully the film would prompt the viewer (atheist or not) to reach out to organizations that help rescue people caught in human trafficking. Most human beings with any kind of sympathy in their hearts would be moved by the message in this film.

I'm not sure how to answer your second question. If you bought the film, I would assume that would mean that you felt strongly enough about it that you either:
1) Appreciated the artistic qualities of the film (production value, acting, writing, etc.) and wanted to see it again based on the aesthetic that appealed to you,
2) Agreed with the message enough that you wanted to watch it again as a reminder and/or wanted to share it with someone else to prompt discussion

Either way - I think if you owned the film and watched it more than once you would appreciate how well made it is as entertainment and be reignited each time you saw it with a renewed desire to do something to help end these atrocities.

Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2017-10-27 2:42:29pm
Anything new on the horizon, perhaps from the producers of Priceless, or something in the same spirit, that you are aware of?
Alec Cullen (Bethany Lutheran college) 2017-10-30 8:57:26pm
I think this is a very well written article. It makes a case not only for the film itself, but also for the genre in which the film is categorized. As an actor and Christian, the author is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject, but also uniquely biased. He does an amazing job stepping back and taking a look at the project and subject from an outsider's perspective. He gives specific reasons for his opinions, backing them up with facts and figures. overall, this is a well written and extremely effective article.
Steve Corona 2017-11-12 11:14:25pm
Thank you very much for reading my article and for your comments. I'm glad my efforts to present this in a subjective light was successful.
David (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 1:09:00pm
Mr. Corona,

I liked your insights on the struggles both to produce Indie films with such a small budget. All the costs you mentioned for a small movie with only 1 million dollar budget is certainly small compared to other films.
Your position on how much is at stake when making a christian movie is very astute. Your reasoning that if a christian movie is released with poor quality could be hindering to the message was very insightful.
You also mentioned how that the christian message or elements were more subtle than what they could be. Do you think that a Christian movies would inherently have more success in getting its Christian messages out in an Indie film environment than with a conventional studio?
Thank you for your contribution to the conference!
Steve Corona 2017-11-12 11:20:42pm

Thank you for your question.

From my experience - yes, I think (unless you're someone like Mel Gibson with your own deep pockets and studio connections) - it would be easier to share a Christian message via indie films vs a studio. It seems to me that most studios don't want to touch "Christian" films UNLESS they are allowed the freedom to "Hollywood-ize" the Christian faith right out of the script to the point that it's barely even recognizable as a Christian film anymore. Plus, I've seen an increased interest in Faith-based films in the indie film world.
Hannah Brohn (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 1:54:58pm
Mr. Corona,
First of all, thank you for your incredibly knowledgeable and interesting article! This post is a fantastic contribution to the conference.
I suppose this presentation was particularly intriguing to me because I’ve always seen Christian movies as cheesy or poorly executed. Your work on Priceless certainly seems to defy that perception. It seems like Christian indie films are an excellent way to spread Christian messages and interest. The high standards you present for Christian films reflects the expectations viewers have for movies of all types but in particular Christian ones.
Has anyone tried/looked into using other genres to further the Christian message? Also, where will we be able to find Priceless?
Thanks again for this excellent presentation!
Steve Corona 2017-11-12 11:29:29pm

Thank you so much for your kind words. You can find PRICELESS in most Redbox locations and Wal-Mart's as well as on - here's the direct link:

Your question is particularly interesting to me because I've written a film with a very Christian message of redemption, forgiveness, and transformation from hypocrisy to living a life modeled after Jesus. The script is still under revision, but will hopefully be produced soon. Now here's the interesting part - it's a comedy. My writing partner and I have somewhat disguised the Christian message in what appears to be an uplifting comedy. We like this approach because in a way it's almost like hiding the dog's heart pill in the hotdog. We're giving the audience a dose of biblical teaching within a fun entertainment. I hope it succeeds.
Anna Barkholtz (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 3:50:30pm

Dear Mr. Corona,

I am first of all intrigued by your choice of career (incredibly interesting), and secondly in the topic of your article. As a kid, my mom was always bringing home movies from the Christian Family Bookstore. I hated these movies, claiming they were too cheesy or unrealistic to spark my interest. Your commentary on the making of Priceless has given me some hope for the direction these films are going in. Thank you so much for this contribution!
I especially love your comment on how Christian films can be effective. You said, “Although some may find value in ranking just "how Christian" certain films are compared to others, it's my belief that any film that communicates a Christian message or moral, and/or demonstrates Christian behavior modeled by its characters qualifies as "Christian" — or at least "faith-based." - and I have to agree that I’ve matured enough from my younger years to really appreciate this fact.

How do you feel about generic faith-based movies that have elements that disagree with our specific denomination? Would you still consider those helpful, or harmful? I have my own opinion on this topic, but I’d be very interested to hear what you have to say!

Thank you so much for all of your hard work!
Steve Corona 2017-11-12 11:40:43pm

First - thanks for attending the conference and reading my article. It means a lot to me. I had a similar early introduction to Christian films. Compared to everything else I saw - unfortunately the "Christian" films were very amateurish and felt very much like someone was trying to force a religious agenda with total disregard for the audience. In my opinion - that kind of filmmaking is totally counterproductive and only serves to perpetuate the stereotypes that Christian films are just propaganda and have no place in a wider market.

As to your question - it's a bit of a tricky thing to answer. Personally, I have my own artistic standards with which I judge all movies and if a faith-based film falls short of that it's really hard for me to go much beyond that. However, there may be films that are enjoyable to watch and have "faith elements" which may differ from the Lutheran church and (i may get in trouble for this, but I'll be honest) - I think that as long as the message of the film can still be considered in alignment with the Bible (that is there's nothing blatantly opposing scripture) then it CAN be an effective film for steering people toward God & wanting to learn more & grow in their faith.
Abby Enstad (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 6:53:00pm
Mr. Corona,
The perspective you bring from being inside the movie making process is very unique and I enjoyed reading your article. I especially found it thought-provoking when you said, “I understand and agree with the filmmakers' approach to not alienate non-Christian audiences with too much "God talk".” It would be easy for people such as myself to watch a “Christian movie” and wonder why God is not mentioned more. Not every Christian movie has “God’s Not Dead” as the bold title, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold Christian truths.

I have not seen Priceless yet, but I have seen the trailer multiple times. It seems like an action-packed and dramatic movie that many people, Christian and non-Christian are interested in seeing. The subtle Christianity of the movie allows the secular world to feel comfortable with it. However, I am curious as to what your idea of the purpose of a movie such as this is. (Aside from the wonderful entertainment I’m sure it provides.) I am wondering if such a movie can be used as evangelism, to lead people to God’s Word. Or do you view it more as an encouragement of how to act for believers?

Thank you for contributing to the conference, it was a joy to read.
Steve Corona 2017-11-12 11:47:30pm

Thank you for your question. I'm glad you've seen the trailer and I would love for you to actually see the film as I think you'll get a fuller idea of the message of the film. As I mentioned above, you can rent it on Redbox or get it on Amazon or Wal-Mart. (I'm sure there are other ways to see it as well).

It is indeed action-packed and intentionally appeals to a secular audience. The main theme of the movie is that human trafficking is much more common and closer to home than most people realize and that we all need to be aware of the horrors involved and it encourages people to get involved with organizations that are taking action to help people involved. Also, the central characters of the film demonstrate broken, imperfect human followers of Christ and they demonstrate God's will in their lives as they attempt to help others not only escape the physical threats of the human trafficking world, but also to escape the devil's lies and his hold on their lives.
Becca Figueroa (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 7:01:56pm
Mr. Corona,

I would like to start off by saying that, as someone who is interested in theater and film, I am incredibly impressed with the work you have done with your career. I was also excited to read your presentation when I saw the mention of “For King and Country”. I’ve seen them, and various other contemporary Christian artists, play live at a summer Christian music festival called “Joyful Noise” annually put on near my house. So, it was really awesome to read that you got to work with Joel.

I was wondering about your statement, “I understand and agree with the filmmakers' approach to not alienate non-Christian audiences with too much "God talk".” I liked reading this because I can effectively see both sides to this statement. We don’t want to push away non-Christians, but there is something special in being a Christian and having a movie that you can relate to on a religious level.
What I did want to ask about your statement, though, was do you think that Christians who make films should do more of the same thing that this movie did? Should there be more “Christian” movies that are more “faith-based” than exclusively Christian? Why or why not?

Again, I was really interested in what you had to say. Thank you for your presentation!
Steve Corona 2017-11-12 11:57:58pm

Thank you so much for your comments. Yes, working with Joel & For King & Country as amazing. They're all such wonderfully talented, humble people.

As for your question - I personally like the approach taken with PRICELESS to use a subject like human trafficking to relate to a wider audience and then use God's Word & Jesus' model he set with his life to steer the audience in the right direction. I'm also not opposed to Christians being bold with their faith in the film industry. (Through sharing my faith on a movie set, a former Satanist was converted and now leads worship at a Christian church). I just caution these types of filmmakers in the current realities. If someone is able to tell a compelling, entertaining story that also prominently features the Christian faith as a tool to convert souls - so be it! I just see that as attracting a much smaller audience (who are already believers) - it's a bit like preaching to the choir. I feel like we should be meeting people where they are and slowly reeling them in so as not to push them away.
Elena Mueller (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 10:58:07pm
Mr. Corona,

I was intrigued by your unique perspective on the topic of Christian Indie films and appreciated the “behind-the-scenes” access you gave to the production of Priceless in your presentation. I have not yet had the opportunity to see the film, but your positive comments have heightened my enthusiasm for watching it. Additionally, I appreciate how you conducted an analysis of the movie and deemed it to be “an effective Christian Indie film.” I’ve seen many of the Christian films out there and am often disappointed at their doctrinal incongruencies or their lack of professionalism; this one, as you have pointed out, seems to rank at a higher standard.

According to your presentation, since the movie intended to address all audiences, both Christian and non-Christian, it stayed away from doctrinal specificity. You mentioned that the film Priceless, though it contained prevalent Christian themes, that “references to God, prayer, salvation, etc. were mostly portrayed in general or indirect terms.” This raised a question in my mind: in regards to this doctrinal ambiguity, can/should we use movies like Priceless as an outreach tool? What are some of the positives and negatives of using a film like this one to minister to people of weak or no faith, and, comparatively, to those of a stronger faith and religious background?

Thank you for your contribution to this conference and your consideration of my questions!
Steve Corona 2017-11-13 12:10:13am

Thank you for your comments and for joining us on this conference. I hope you see PRICELESS soon.

To your question- I think it depends on your specific goals. If you want to specifically reach people and bring them into membership of the WELS, ELS, or any other specific denomination - then maybe you would need more obvious references within the film to make it clear which "brand" of Christianity is doing the outreach (i know that comment may get some negative reaction, but hear me out...) It's my personal belief that it's exactly because of the doctrinal ambiguity that this type of film CAN be an effective outreach tool. (at least as a stepping stone in the direction of your possibly more specific goals). I think it's great to make films by Christians for Christians that strengthens faith that's already present and reaffirms what we believe. But I think it's more important to reach out beyond our walls and comfort zones into the rest of the world (Great Commission?) and just present Biblical teachings - plain and simple without layering on any specific denominational doctrine. Things like: God is love, forgiveness is freely given even though it is undeserved, etc. can be presented without scaring away people new to the faith.

Phil Waldschmidt (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-02 11:46:56am
Thanks for your insight in this article! I am intrigued both in the film and in your line of work. I appreciate that you brought up this point, that "the production value, acting, and script must be a high enough level that a non-Christian audience would still enjoy watching the film. I agree that sub-standard films can be counterproductive and cause potential audience members to lose interest or — even worse — criticize the Christian message of the film or even the Christian faith altogether." Too often with Christian productions, both in film and music, the budget just isn't high enough to create content that competes with the industry around it, so it gets left in the dust, but I'm glad to see that the content in Priceless still holds up. Looking at the pictures and trailer you included, Priceless is a drama/thriller. This is sort of a bizarre thought, but how do you think a movie with Christian themes would play out if it were a different genre, say, a comedy? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2017-11-03 12:58:04am
Yes, good question - can you imagine a "Christian comedy" film? But don't stop there: what about Romantic Comedy? Western? Science Fiction? even Horror? Any or all of these possible?
Steve Corona 2017-11-13 12:13:19am

It's kind of funny you mention this. I commented above that I'm in the process of revising (and hopefully soon producing) a "Christian comedy" film. I can't say too much about the film, but I'm definitely already on that path.
Fallon Yates (Bethany Luthern College) 2017-11-06 6:22:01pm
After reading this I want to find this movie and watch it together with my friends. I think it is cool that you got to spend a month with the lead actor before shooting to dive into his character and make his character as much of a genuine Texan guy with the American southern accent.
Emily Boyd, Ellyn Mortell, Riley Olson (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-10 11:23:02am
What an interesting article! We are glad that you shared your experience and what it took to make this movie. We liked that this film is targeted to all people and not only Christians because this is another way that God's message can be shared.
Emily Reitz, Thomas Reitz, Kenny Dryden (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-12 1:27:19pm
Priceless looks intriguing and especially relevant in a time when human trafficking is being discussed in the public arena more than ever before! Along with the criteria above which qualify a movie as "Christian" at what point do you believe that Christian Indie films, or Christian films in general, become ineffective and/or pandering to secular audiences?
Steve Corona 2017-11-13 12:20:23am
I agree with your comment that this film is very timely and relevant.

Unfortunately, very often when a studio (or even powerful producer) gets a hold of a film - it can end up very different from how the writer originally intended it (across all genres). This is why Indie production can be beneficial in maintaining the "purity" or integrity of a film. What happens is this: The writer writes the script, producers buy the rights to the script from the writer (and now the writer has given up control of the film), the producers often bring in Script Doctors or revision writers to change the script to their personal liking, the film is shot, in post-production the producers are instrumental in the editing process (so they get what they want, but not necessarily what's best for the film), and now it's a totally different animal than when it began.
Kenny Dryden (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-14 12:06:20am
I think that a strict religious film is lost on everyone but someone that believes in God. Portraying a Christian message can come more subtlety, and its more effective in spreading the message than forcing religion on someone. I completely agree with the approach you are talking about, and I have seen the trailer for the movie and it looks like a normal movie. It doesn't shout religion that would probably turn off non-Christians. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie!