182: Conversation With Stephen Simon, Pioneer of the Spiritual Cinema Circle

“In exploring spirituality,
we’re in a very new place right now. We’re looking for a new way to reach people and form communities. And we know the old ways don’t work. We’re not really sure what the new way is but I hope the Spiritual Cinema Circle is part of that answer.”

    Stephen Simon, longtime movie producer and director

merican media is changing so dramatically that it’s difficult to keep up with our changing culture, anymore — especially if our lives are strongly shaped by our faith. At ReadTheSpirit, we’re part of that cutting-edge effort to make new spiritual connections.
    In today’s Conversation With Stephen Simon, you’ll meet another longtime media professional who now is pioneering a new way to form spiritual community. In April 2004, he launched a monthly movies-on-DVD club that delivers a collection of uplifting (and sometimes spiritually challenging) films to the mailboxes of tens of thousands of subscribers in all 50 states and more than 70 countries around the world. His service now costs between $26 and $29 a month, depending on where you live.
    Recently, he signed Mariel Hemingway, the actress and author of a 2002 book about yoga and a 2006 book about physical and spiritual fitness, to appear as his co-host in scenes that introduce the movies each month. They appear in clips on the monthly DVDs before the movies start, then they return after each movie to help spark discussion.
    They’re picking some great titles! Next month, Simon and Hemingway are featuring a film that we’ve already strongly recommended to our readers, called “ONE,” produced by Ward and Diane Powers.

    Here are highlights of our conversation …

    DAVID: You’re a famous guy in the movie industry. You’ve produced films with Robin Williams (“What Dreams May Come”), Christopher Reeve (“Somewhere in Time”), Tom Cruise (“All the right Moves”) and others. You’ve been around this business a long time. So, you could welcome your viewers to the Cinema Circle each month in a fancy sound stage — or maybe a Malibu mansion. You could show up in expensive designer fashions. You easily could blow us away as you appear on the DVDs each month.
    But your distinctive style is to show up in an ordinary living room, wearing casual pants and a sweater -– like a buddy from next door who stopped by to watch a movie with us.
    That’s got to be a conscious part of what you’re doing in the Cinema Circle. Why did you choose this style?
    STEPHEN: I don’t know if I’d call myself “famous.” But, you know, I’ve done hundreds of interviews and I’ve never been asked that question before. And, you’re right: Yes, this was a very, very conscious decision. And I’ll tell you what inspired it.
    When we decided to start the Circle, we wanted it to be very personal. When I was a child, every
Sunday night I would watch Walt Disney introduce “The Wonderful World of Disney” — and like every other kid I felt that I knew Uncle Walt. Here was the guy behind Disneyland and all these other incredible places and movies, and yet here was Uncle Walt in my living room every Sunday night introducing all these wonderful shows to me.
    That stuck in my mind. That’s what we want to accomplish with the Circle: to welcome people in their homes. If you’ve been watching the Circle films for a while (he laughs) — I think you’ve probably seen me wear every sweater that I own!
    I want people to feel comfortable inviting us into their homes every month -– their living rooms and, in many cases, their bedrooms. This can get pretty humorous! (more laughter) You know, I’ll go somewhere and meet this total stranger and they’ll say: “Hey, I know you! You’re in my bedroom every month!”

    DAVID: I think your whole approach to hospitality is brilliant. I know that, as a longtime subscriber to the Circle myself, I like having you as my friend on TV who helps me see the rationale behind all these films you’ve chosen to send me -– some of which have specifically religious messages and some of which are just great comedies or dramas that leave you feeling better about the human spirit afterward.
    You’ve become our movie buddy.
    But, recently, you added another buddy -– Mariel Hemingway. She’s been on the DVDs with you for a few months now, talking about the movies with you in the living room. Will she be around for quite a while?
    STEPHEN: Yes, we hope permanently. She’s involved in yoga and the kinds of lifestyles that matter to so many of our subscribers. She’s an actress. She knows movies. I did this on my own for quite some time and we thought it would be good to have someone for me to discuss the movies with each month. And we also wanted a woman’s point of view.
    DAVID: Another thing that I think is really smart in the way you promote the Circle is that you actively encourage people to use your films in small groups. We do this a lot at ReadTheSpirit, as well — recommend books and movies to people for their small groups.
    There’s a huge network of small groups coast to coast. Enormous. For example, there’s one suburban church in southeast Michigan with 700 small groups that meet regularly. That’s a big church, of course, but it’s just one church. There are thousands upon thousands of small groups nationwide –- and not all of them are affiliated with religious groups.
    Reaching out to those groups –- as you do very consciously in your Cinema Circle –- is a smart way to build community.
    STEPHEN: I agree and that’s really insightful. Interviewers usually don’t ask me about that. They don’t get it. They’re thinking of the Cinema Circle as a typical Hollywood business story. But, we’re very consciously outside the mainstream of Hollywood here. We don’t want to be painted with the Hollywood brush here.
    You’re right. We really encourage people to subscribe to the Circle in small groups. This provides them a number of advantages. Depending on how many people you do this with, it can wind up costing you just a few dollars a month. And 80 or 90 percent of our movies in a typical year are movies you can’t see anywhere else. Then, when you get the movies, they’re good for watching with other people –- your family or friends getting together in a living room.
    Some of the movies do bring up very sensitive subject matter –- and that leads to good discussions afterward. People like to talk about what they’ve just seen.
    A lot of people collect these movies and they may not even watch all of them when the DVDs arrive each month. But, over time, we’re exploring a whole lot of spiritual issues in these films. What’s good about that is, if you’ve been a member of the Circle for a while, then when you or your family or your friends wind up going through some tough issue in your lives -– you’re likely to have films on your shelf from the Circle that have something helpful to say about those issues.
    DAVID: That’s also the idea behind the “NOOMA” films that have been so successful for Rob Bell and Zondervan. But, the “NOOMA” films are single short films, about a dozen minutes in length. Your DVDs come loaded. They’ve got a main feature-length film -– some of them with fairly big stars in them. You’ve just had Michael Caine, Maggie Smith and James Spader in the movie, “Curtain Call.” Plus, you usually give us several short films as well.
    Rob Bell produces his own “NOOMA” films –- but you’re actually, month after month, collecting and releasing movies made by all sorts of filmmakers here in the U.S. and around the world. How do you find so many films that haven’t already been released in some other way?

    STEPHEN: Well, a few of our films have been released before –- they’ve been in theaters briefly or they’ve been available on DVD before. But for 80 or 90 percent of our films –- you can only get them through the Circle.
    But the question you’re asking is very important. Here’s a shattering statistic, I think –- a statistic that’s very sobering about what’s going on in film today. A study was recently done of all of the independent — not studio — movies. Here’s what that means: The studios now have these quote-independent divisions. But that’s a joke. They’re not producing independent films. They’re financed by the studios and it’s silly to call them independent.
    The problem is that it’s very, very difficult to be a really independent filmmaker anymore. This statistic is for the year 2006. What I found is that only one half of one percent of the independent films found their way into movie theaters, which means that 99.5 percent never saw a theater — which means they disappeared completely or some of them got a direct-to-video deal. This issue is much larger than this conversation we’re having today, but the era of the movie theater is drawing to a an end for all films except the big studio movies.
    “Indiana Jones” and “Iron Man” and those big studio extravaganzas like them are gong to continue coming to movie theaters for the indefinite future. However, smaller, more intimate, story-driven films are really disappearing from movie screens and that trend is going to continue. There’s a ton of reasons for it, but not the least of which is that people just don’t go to the movies the way they used to. Young people, as a group, keep going because the movies are made for them.

    DAVID: I can tell you that’s accurate. I visit movie theaters at least once a week, sometimes a couple of times a week — and what you’re describing is exactly what I find there.
    STEPHEN: Up until 10 or 15 years ago, there had been an era that lasted more than 50 years in which American adults went to the movies as a weekly habit. That’s what they did on Friday or Saturday night — and a lot of adults had a movie night during the week. Each week, you’d pick the best movie out there and go see it. Well, about 10 or 15 years ago, the studios for a lot of reasons, stopped making movies for the Baby Boom generation and older. The movies they do produce for that age range all get packed into the end of the year, so they’re around for Academy Award consideration — but that means that the regular weekly habit of going to the movies is dying among older Americans.
    There are a lot of reasons for this happening. There’s so much competition now for the entertainment dollar — video games and DVDs and the Internet and direct-to-television broadcasting. But it’s painful for me to see the culture of going to the movie theater on a regular basis fading for millions of Americans.
    We need a new way of connecting people with the movies they really want to see — movies they’re not getting anywhere else. That’s what we’re working on in the Circle.

    DAVID: You do another thing that I really applaud. We do this at ReadTheSpirit, as well. In our case, that’s recommending books and movies that give people a clearer view of the larger world. That clear window on the world is so hard to find these days. TV networks have closed most of their foreign news bureaus. At the very moment that we desperately need to know a whole lot more about this big, confusing array of global cultures out there — we have fewer and fewer chances to really see that world clearly.
    I was just in Asia in January for several weeks with the East-West Center and there are such vibrant cultures there — new forms of media are exploding over there. Filmmakers in most countries around the world don’t have the budgets to produce the huge Hollywood-style blockbusters, but they’re producing some very exciting movies — which Americans never get to see.
    You regularly bring your viewers at least a sampling of global cinema and I applaud that.
    STEPHEN: Do you know that what we as Americans like to call “foreign films” — that strange phrase? In the rest of the world, people don’t talk like that. There’s just “film.”
    In the rest of the world, there are some very vibrant film industries. India now has a larger, healthier film industry than the United States. They make more movies each year in India than we do here in the U.S. People in India have a thriving habit of movie going.
    Since we started, we’ve had films from, I think, more than 30 countries around the world. Some of our subscribers don’t like subtitles and we respect that. So, we keep a balance. But a lot of our subscribers really find these films interesting.
    DAVID: It must be a challenge to hit that balance.
    STEPHEN: Well, you’ve subscribed for a long time yourself. There are months when individual subscribers roll their eyes and say: Why did they choose this? There will be some things our subscribers know they’re not going to like — but we try to help people see that the very month they may be rolling their eyes — well, that may be the month when other subscribers are saying: Wow, this is the best selection of films they’ve ever sent!
    Not everything is for everyone — but people remain in the Circle knowing that they’re part of this bigger community.

    DAVID: I’ve got to ask you the Spirituality question. We talk about this all the time at ReadTheSpirit and when I travel and talk to groups, this question always comes up: What’s “Spirituality”?
    I figure you must have answered that one about as many times as I have. How do you approach the question?
    STEPHEN: Spirituality for me is a prism through which we look at the world and experience life and everybody has their own definition of that. It’s unique and it’s different for each person. I try to define it by distinguishing it from traditional religion. Religion usually pertains to an organization that tells us a particular set of rules and rituals we must follow in order to experience God — God usually being defined by the organization as a male who’s outside the experience of humanity.
    Spirituality is an individual journey that really has no rules and regulations in the ways you’ll experience God, or Goddess, or Life, Spirit, Universe. There are so many different names for how we experience divinity that we can’t limit it to a single name. Spirituality exalts individual responsibility — that we are responsible for our lives and our actions and for everything that goes on around us.
    DAVID: That’s remarkable to hear you describe it that way. We use similar terms here. Huston Smith would use similar terms, saying that religion is “revelation to be accepted,” while spirituality is quest to be pursued. Very similar to what you’re saying.
    And, when people press us to describe this further, we say: The three big spiritual questions are — Why should I get out of bed in the morning? How will I make it through another stressful day? And, at the end of the day, did anything I do really matter?

    STEPHEN: Exactly! Yes, that’s a great way of putting it, too.
    Then, when we try to build community, we make a point of not consciously exalting one particular religious tradition over another. We would not include a film in one of our DVDs that explicitly exalts one religious tradition above others — because that idea of trying to show that one religion is better than others — that’s what leads to resentment and anger and conflict and violence.
    We have had films in which priests and rabbis and gurus appear in the films — but not to promote one religion over others.
    DAVID: You’ve got the movie “ONE” coming up this summer and there are a number of religious leaders in specific traditions talking to viewers in that film. But, again, that’s about spiritual pilgrimage, not about one of the religious voices coming out on top at the end of the movie.
    STEPHEN: Yes, we’ll often deal with very challenging, very difficult subject matter. We had a film a few years ago about three brothers, all of whom were sexually abused when they were children. The film looked at how they tried to heal from that experience, as adults. Very tough subject matter.
    We’ve had a lot of controversy on our message boards on our Web site. If you subscribe to our Circle, then you have access to our message boards — and some films will cause wild controversy among our subscribers. Some of our members will react in a negative way; others in a positive way.
    But we don’t want to repel people. We’re a community. We want to stay together and, this is remarkable to me. Think about this: We’ve got about 3,000 people who started with us from our first year and they’ve stayed with us until today. Now, that’s community.
    And, it’s so difficult to find that today.

    DAVID: As you say, we’re not likely to see that sort of community on the big screen in our movie theaters these days. I was just talking with Fred Brussat in New York, who does his own Web site on spiritual media with his wife Mary Ann. And he was talking about this same issue — the conflict, the duality that he sees in so many Hollywood films. Everyone’s either a good guy or a bad guy — and they’ve got to fight it out until someone wins.
    STEPHEN: If you look at most movies out there today, if you look at dramas in particular, they are so dark now. So dark. Look at the films that were nominated for the Academy Awards this year –- 4 out of the 5 nominated for Best Picture were dark. The film that won, “No Country for Old Men,” is one of the darkest and most vile movies ever produced by a major studio. I was enraged that won and I’m a member of the Academy myself.
    Look at many of the blogging web sites on the Internet and they’re so dark and so rough and so ugly in the way they look at humanity. Now, I don’t say they’re entirely wrong. There is greed, violence, hatred and cruelty in our world — all part of human chemistry.
    But there’s another part of us that’s so beautiful!
    We are a species that consciously loves and consciously forgives and there are millions of people on this planet trying to treat other people the way they would like to be treated –- with kindness and love and compassion –- but we don’t see much of that side of the human spirit in movies these days.
    At the Spiritual Cinema Circle, we’re trying to show that this kind of beauty is a part of our humanity, as well.

AND SO ENDS our Conversation With Stephen Simon.

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