Over the years, I have compared notes with hundreds of visual story-tellers and heard their heartache and frustrations with the long, slow slog of the media business. Whatever our context, we all are painfully aware of the seemingly impossible nature of the mission we've been called to. Although I have been privileged with some successes in Hollywood during my 30 years doing this work (and am humbled and grateful for every open door and opportunity), I also know the soul-numbing grind it can be. The endless search for funds and champions to believe in us and our projects. The absolute quagmire of paperwork and business affairs we have to trudge through. The devastating near-misses and back-to-the-drawing-board crossroads we come to all-too frequently.
Here's the truth... no matter how ambitious your project, you are not alone in this battle, and I want to share with you a long-story-short that I hope will encourage you. Someday I'll write the long-story-long about this project in an unvarnished, tell-all book that I'm pretty sure will curl toes and provide a cautionary tale/spiritual growth lesson to anybody daring enough to follow a call into the film and TV business. But for now here's as much of an appetizer as I can fit into a post, and please know that you are among only a handful of people have heard this story.
It begins in 2007 with the best-selling novel When Calls the Heart by Janette Oke. My business partner, Michael Landon Jr., had created a successful series of film adaptations of Janette's earlier, beloved series of Love Comes Softly novels. Together we had formed Believe Pictures and had already made another series of films based on other best-selling faith-based fiction including The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers and Saving Sarah Cain by Beverly Lewis.
We were then approached by a major production company to make a film of When Calls the Heart, a prairie romance about a wealthy young school teacher from Toronto who follows her calling to the western frontier to teach children in a small town and finds herself falling in love with a handsome Mountie. The novel was full of faith and woven through with the great virtues of western civilization. The money and players were real, but the opportunity turned out, literally, to be too good to be true. But not before September of 2008 when we were in Calgary, Alberta, 16 days into a 27-day production on a $4.8 million budget. Without going into too many details (I need to save the really good stuff for the book and also make sure I'm fully lawyered-up), the project began melting down when Lehman Brothers and A.I.G. melted down and left the U.S. economy in shell-shock.
I realize this will seem very much a "first-world problem" to some, but there is absolutely no bigger horror story in the film business than when a project melts down mid-production. The financing fell apart in the U.S. and as the producing entity we were left holding a giant bag of unmet expectations from cast, crew, distributors and industry peers. In case you haven't been through a production meltdown, a half-finished film is basically nothing. Sixteen days of beautiful production value is nothing more than a dust-receptacle on somebody's shelf. The glass is always half-empty because short of finishing production, there's nothing an incomplete film produces but lots of heartache, self-doubt and a sense of failure.
For the next three years, we struggled to find a solution. We learned a great deal about ourselves and God during that time which I will expand on below. We cleaned up as many obligations and chain of title issues as we could. We had to make deep personal sacrifices. We had one near-miss after another until we found a receptive audience in the Hallmark Channel. They loved our 16 days of production value. They committed to helping us finish the movie, and we traveled to Romania where we were able to match production elements on a budget. But that was just the beginning.
When Hallmark tested the completed movie, they discovered there was something bigger here than we all had realized. This was more than a movie, and they decided to roll it out as a "backdoor pilot" for a TV series and asked us to begin preparing six, one-hour episodes. And when the two-hour movie premiered in October, 2013, it was seen by an estimated 3.2 million unduplicated viewers, and Hallmark expanded the series order to 12 episodes. (You can find the movie trailer here).
We filmed those episodes in Vancouver, B.C., and they began airing January 11, 2014, and finished their run March 29. (You can find the series trailer here).
And we discovered the truth of the Field of Dreams principle, "If you build it, they will come." The audience found the show and began growing and building week after week. They formed a 16,000-strong fan club and begin calling themselves "Hearties" (a la Star Trek's "Trekkies"). They begin to Tweet and post on Facebook and Instagram and spread their viral love for the show, which we all realized was filling a deeply underserved need for faith-and-family-friendly programming that is nearly extinct in today's TV's landscape. By the last two episodes of the season, #WhenCallsTheHeart trended nationally on Twitter, and the #Hearties have pledged to add a zero to their ranks going forward.
That explosion of support soon resulted in Hallmark ordering Season 2 of When Calls the Heart. We have no idea how big this could grow or how long we will run. I worked as a writer and producer previously on Touched By An Angel. which ran nine seasons and 213 episodes. Michael Landon Jr.'s famous father created nine seasons and 208 episodes of Little House on the Prairie. We could not be any more full of shock and awe at what God is now doing with this little project that could, or humbly grateful at the mystery of His grace.
I mentioned some lessons learned, and here they are:
After the shutdown in September, 2008, when I returned to Southern California with my tail between my legs, I was convinced my filmmaking career was finished. I had always been a good problem solver, but this dilemma was above my pay-grade. However, I was surrounded by family and friends who encouraged me that I needed to hold onto what what true. They advised me to take 30 days to get some perspective. Lies and deceit were swirling all around me and I needed to remember what God has promised in scripture, and I needed to remember that nothing had changed about my talents and gifts or the love of my family.
Then my own pastor took me to the woodshed. He asked me this question: "What made you think it was going to be easy?" I was a little taken aback because my work has never been easy. I just didn't think it would be this hard. He replied that there is no difference between faith-filled media projects and what missionaries do when they try to open a church or health clinic and tribal warfare burns it to the ground or government corruption robs it blind. He said the culture is not asking for these media projects, but it deeply needs them. They are like medicine to a culture that is malnourished and ill. In essence, he was telling me to pick up my cross and get back to work.
My pastor also reminded me that there is no such thing as being "uncalled." That's not a bell you can un-ring. As happened to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, when they found the brook had dried up in one place, they had to move on. I could sit down on the ground and rue the lack of water, or I could go look for a new brook.
When we started this journey seven years ago, we could never have anticipated the struggle or the resulting blessing it has become. We started out making a movie. When Calls the Heart is now a television series and a franchise with tremendous potential for a long life. But I've realized that God doesn't care as much about the earthly franchise as he does about how our experiences can stir up cravings in other people's hearts for Him. Testimony always trumps trials.
I look forward to your feedback, and I hope you will share what you've learned from your struggles because a rising tide floats all boats.