Visual Story Network

When Calls the Heart: A Long Day's Journey into Production

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.

The Opportunity

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.

The Meltdown

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.  

The Recovery

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.    

The Lessons

I mentioned some lessons learned, and here they are: 

  • Hold onto what is true

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. 

  • This is mission work we are doing

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.  

  • Those who are called are never "uncalled"

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.  

  • The journey is just as important as the destination

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.  

Find me at my blog or on Facebook or Twitter

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Comment by LUKYAMUZI FRANK on June 20, 2015 at 12:51pm

Thank you so much Brian Bird, I am short of what to say but all i can write here is that Thank you for bearing the huddles, carrying on and above all having faith which aspect is very important. I am praying and working hard to start up a ICAFE for UPG communities in Uganda and all the process and setup is indeed hard and stressful, I had given up some weeks ago but the encouragement and prayers i am getting from many folks are enabling me to carry on. This has really inspired me and i have made a print out for my friends at church to have faith and pray to the Lord for he never fails to create a way for us.

Thank you so much and may the Good lord bless you

Frank

 

Comment by Travis mendel on October 11, 2014 at 12:59pm

Hey Brian, these words have been so encouraging to me, as I am experiencing having everything taken away, and try to figure out, what God is up to and what my response should be.

Thanks for being such an open book.

God bless

Travis

Comment by Josh Frantz on September 25, 2014 at 7:36pm

A beautiful story, and excellent words of encouragement. Thank you Brian. We are called to pain and struggle, and learning to embrace it in faith is always immense in its difficulty and profound in its conquest. I'm sure I have much more of it to look forward to! :P

Now, for God-knows-why, I feel compelled to write the following terrible limerick in honor of these struggles we all must face. (I've read that I'll be forgiven for even my worst offenses someday, not sure if that was by all of you, or one person specifically. Could have been God. Anyway, I hope this is covered...):

Slow fades out [night]'s chapter past spoken
For a new [day] whose pages are open
So let's bring lines alive
From the script[ures] at our sides
And when focused, shots find us unbroken

Once reeled we in search of our mark
As we stumbled off-set in the dark
Now backstory erased
We again find our stage
And as light fills our steps, we embark

(Yeah...probably unforgivable.)

Comment by Paul Nethercott on July 14, 2014 at 6:35pm

Thanks very much Brian for sharing you journey with us. It means a lot. Your story is a great encouragement to me as I work on my first feature. Your tenacity, character and faith inspires me.

Comment by Joey O'Connor on July 14, 2014 at 11:54am

These are such encouraging words Brian...thank you!

"Hard is good," has been floating around my heart and mind lately. Had I known from the beginning that two feature film projects would now be six and four years in development, I don't know if I would have ever started this long uphill climb. Still, all along the way, God has provided more than "breadcrumbs" in this creative journey of faith.

You're right...the culture is not asking for our projects, but we all know a compelling movie or story when we see one. And we admire the faith and courage of those who persevere by trusting God in the process. May we be those same men and women of faith today.

Thanks again for sharing your journey and lessons learned. I'll be sure to forward it on.

Joey

Comment by Geoff Hall on July 14, 2014 at 11:00am

Comment by Geoff Hall 1 minute agoDelete Comment

Well Brian,

I'd concur with you, that it's never been easy, but sometimes the blows just come at the wrong time, don't they? I don't expect filmmaking to be anything but difficult, when you see what has to be pulled together in the name of cinematic storytelling!

If I was to give up, I don't know what I'd do. When difficulties assail me, like investors not delivering on their promises, then my resolve is to try and make sense of that. And how did I do that? I sat down at my PC or with my Notebook and pen and I write! This tells me something about the nature of my calling and God doesn't despise it.

Difficulties just provide smoke and mirrors onto our calling and I think a true sign of its nature, is the fact that we don't know how to give up, even if we wanted to!

Regards,

Geoff

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