Forget Netflix and Chill. Try Pure Flix and Pray. So wrote New York Times journalist Katherine Rosman in an April 22 article featuring Pure Flix Entertainment co-founder David A. R. White. Tongue-in-cheek jokes aside, Rosman uncovers some key points about PureFlix.com, including the fact that the 2-year-old streaming service boasts nearly 250,000 subscribers and at the time, received over 700,000 unique visitors each month. A November 27 Vice article puts the company’s unique monthly visitors at 1.6 million, a huge increase since the New York Times write-up from earlier this year.
“We’ve been blessed with really strong growth,” Pure Flix Digital CEO Greg Gudorf told Rosman.
Behind that strong growth is a company looking to fill a growing need in the streaming market. According to Gudorf, who joined Pure Flix in 2014 to help oversee the company’s streaming service, PureFlix.com is after more than just subscribers. For Gudorf, PureFlix.com is about “how we’re trying to impact our world through media—video, audio, art—in a way that’s positive for Jesus Christ.”
Gudorf explained that White, a former Hollywood actor, joined forces with two friends, Michael Scott and Russell Wolfe just over a decade ago. The trio soon embarked on a mission to create and film Christian and family-friendly content. In 2014, their company, Pure Flix Entertainment, found its break-out hit: God’s Not Dead. Starring former Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo, the film was well-received amongst its key audience, but routinely shot down by critics. God’s Not Dead currently has a 15 percent average critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but an average audience score of 76 percent.
From Gudorf’s perspective, this kind of mismatch is not just common now but expected.
In an exclusive interview, Gudorf provided us with a holistic view of PureFlix.com, including where the company has been, how it functions now as a streaming service, and what Pure Flix users can look forward to in the future.
Sam: Do you believe Christians and Christian content is marginalized in Hollywood?
Greg: The history of Hollywood is interesting. There was a time throughout the late 20s and early 1930s until the 60s when the Church was very involved in Hollywood. The Church helped Hollywood shape the Christian message. The Church started to back away in the 60s. In Hollywood, you can track it graphically. Hollywood studios started [putting in] more sex and violence in an effort to outdo one another.
At first, that worked really well. What’s happened is that even though the mindset is sex and violence, customers are going to see less of that and more of the PG and G content more and more. Hollywood hasn’t yet realized what to do about that. They’ve developed a culture of sex, language, and violence, but the audience is saying ‘we really like the wholesome stuff too.’ When they try to serve that market for Christians, it’s very hard to do. Imagine one day trying to produce a slasher movie, and then the next day a movie like God’s Not Dead.
You’re seeing more and more people outside of Hollywood and a few inside of Hollywood waking up to serve what people want. More and more it’s people wanting good, clean content.
For Gudorf and Pure Flix, that means no explicit language, sex, or violent surprises.
Gudorf’s perspective can be seen in how Hollywood has tried and failed to make Christian-themed content that succeeds with Christian audiences. The disconnect also extends to mainstream movie critics, who have tended toward giving low scores to films produced outside of Hollywood and targeted to Christian audiences.
The 2014 Paramount Pictures film Noah starring Russell Crowe is a good example of what Gudorf means when it comes to Hollywood’s tunnel vision. Although the film did well with critics, scoring a 76 percent “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it bombed with its key audience. They gave it an abysmal 41 percent.
The crowd-favorite Passion of the Christ is another example of Hollywood’s apparent tone-deafness to the Christian audience. Mel Gibson had to produce the film independently, with his own money, and completely outside of Hollywood. Critics roundly panned the film, ironically calling it “too violent,” and in some instances charging it with spurring anti-semitism. The film went on to gross over $600 million and currently has an 80 percent audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
These examples highlight Gudorf’s point and help explain why Pure Flix Entertainment and now the PureFlix.com streaming service exist.
Sam: Some might question the need for or long-term viability of a niche streaming service targeting Christians. What does the market demand look like for you?
Greg: There are 90 million households in the U.S. that self-profess as Christian households. In the U.S. alone you have between 30 to 40 million households that are strong churchgoers of Christian faith that have expressed some desire to feed their minds and their family’s minds with Christian content.
Gudorf also explained that the company’s approach to streaming is far more broad-reaching than just faith-based content. PureFlix.com is quickly becoming a family-friendly streaming service with a content library that offers streaming content for anyone looking for non-offensive TV shows and movies.
Sam: Is Pure Flix based on any specific denominational beliefs?
Greg: Our focus is Judeo-Christian values. From the movie studio perspective, it’s easy to think about that as the evangelical market, but on the Pure Flix streaming side, we’re much broader than that. Our content is about 60 percent faith-forward. The other 35 percent is just good, clean family programming. Whether it’s an old TV show like Dick Van Dyke or I Love Lucy, it’s just good clean family content. The largest [subscriber] segment is Protestant. There’s also a big slice of Catholic. We even have some Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist subscribers. The Great Commission was not to go out and speak to those who believe but to speak to the world. We have to reach all people, not just one particular denomination.
Not all types of non-offensive content exist on the platform, however. In asking whether content such as non-offensive Japanese anime might make it to the service, Gudorf explained that “there’s certainly a market niche for anime.” While he said he personally hadn’t seen any examples of Christian-themed anime, he did explain that it’s “all about storytelling.” For Gudorf, as long as the content possesses Judeo-Christian values, Pure Flix is open to putting it on the platform, so long as it maintains the family-friendly approach.
The family-friendly approach Pure Flix takes with its content reaches beyond just entertainment. In response to customer feedback, Pure Flix started offering a supplementary educational programming targeted to homeschool families. Given its largely Christian faith-based user base, Pure Flix also maintains a large number of customers who homeschool. The service now provides a growing selection of history and science documentaries with homeschoolers in mind.
Sam: How extensive is the homeschool curriculum, and what draw might there be for homeschool families to sign up and use it over, say, free videos on YouTube and Abeka content?
Greg: As we launched the service, we started to talk to our customers and hear from them about what wanted. We heard early on that people liked and appreciated documentaries and educational pieces. When we probed into that what it was, in particular, they liked about that, they told us that it made a perfect complement to their homeschool efforts. We thought that was a good opportunity to be a service to these people. We’re not a homeschool curriculum, but we’re a great complement.
We have various materials that we’ve written about how to use [educational content ] on our site. And we support the homeschooling industry by attending 8-10 homeschool shows across the country each year.
Beyond reaching a diverse crowd, Gudorf expressed the ways the company is expanding beyond the U.S. He also expanded on the realities that exist with growing a streaming service, particularly regarding troublesome roadblocks from content licensing agreements.
Sam: Can consumers outside the U.S. access the Pure Flix streaming service?
Greg: Right after Christmas last year we launched the service in Canada. We have a nice growing customer base in Canada, although the library isn’t as large as in the U.S. We also have more Spanish-language content. Other English speaking countries would be a natural expansion. The issue in video right now is licensing rights. If you have a TV show, for instance, you license it for different channels, for different periods of time, by country. So you might sell the rights to your movie to Netflix in the U.S. and in Canada you might sell it to Amazon. When you go international, the biggest challenge is aggregating. People will ask us sometimes why God’s Not Dead the first movie is not on our platform, but God’s Not Dead 2 is. God’s Not Dead 1 is licensed.
Gudorf’s point about licensing agreements is likely a sore point for most streaming services. For its part, Netflix has increasingly abandoned content licenses, instead favoring its own original content. The company is planning to spend $8 billion in 2018 on original content, shifting money away from licensing agreements. As a company policy, Netflix now sees more value in original content than in content licensing.
PureFlix.com has 67 original titles produced just for the platform. Meanwhile, Netflix has over 1,000 hours of original content across more than 150 titles. According to Variety, Netflix executives want 50 percent of all content on the streaming site to be original.
Does Pure Flix plan to try to keep up with Netflix on that end? Not quite.
Greg: If you took the Netflix approach, Netflix has a lot of TV shows where they pay more than $1 million per episode. Some of their episodes they spend as much as $4 to $6 million per episode. We can’t do that. Our challenge is to focus on the heart of the matter and show that we have a good story that’s told in a way that we believe the Christian market will respond to it. That we’ve learned to do pretty well.
One of my favorites is The Encounter series, one of the first we released on PureFlix.com. The Encounter series is a series of day-to-day events, depicting people in real life situations. Somewhere in the show, a character will appear who turns out to be Jesus Christ himself who shows up at just the right time. That touches people’s hearts because it’s real life that people can relate to. It’s highly identifiable and recognizable for them. That works well, and you don’t have to spend $3 million to make one of those episodes.
Gudorf admitted that The Encounter series is his favorite. “I binge watch it,” he said. According to IMDb, the show doesn’t need big spending to win with its key audience. The Pure Flix original series has an 8.9/10 on IMDb, with an estimated budget of only $150,000 per episode. Meanwhile, top-rated Netflix show Stranger Things (IMDb score of 9.0/10), had its season two budget bumped up to $8 million per episode, from $6 million during Season 1 filming.
So Pure Flix won’t be spending like Netflix anytime in the future. It’s clear the company is fully capable of wooing its audience with quality content even with a much lower budget. Nevertheless, Gudorf explained that Pure Flix does have titles with Hollywood-level production quality in the pipeline, even if the budgets are still much smaller than what Netflix typically spends on original content.
Sam: Do you think that Pure Flix can incorporate writing, cinematography, directing, and imagery that can be compelling to a non-Christian audience while maintaining a Christian message?
Greg: That’s something we’re always working to do. If you take a look at a movie from Pure Flix Studio, A Case for Christ, there’s a movie that’s obviously Christian in approach, but [Lee Strobel’s] own story was to look at Christ from the perspective of a journalist. Will we do a Game of Thrones and spend the kind of money they do, setting aside the language and sex issues? We may do something of that visual quality, but certainly not that subject matter. Take a look at our upcoming Samson movie. The trailer gives a hint at the level of cinematography.
A quick look at the aforementioned Samson movie trailer shows Gudorf wasn’t exaggerating. The cinematography in the trailer is every bit as deep and impacting as one might find from a big-budget Hollywood film.
Assuming a wide theatrical release and quality acting, the Samson movie may put Pure Flix, and by extension, it’s streaming service, on the map for non-Christian audiences.
Gudorf believes the future is bright for streaming services in general, especially PureFlix.com. “As an industry, it’s quite exciting,” he said. “Streaming is going to continue to grow.”
With a quickly-expanding customer base and audience-approved content, it would seem PureFlix.com is properly set up to become a streaming powerhouse in its own right.