Despite those fleeting conversations, I’m somewhat lacking in a point of comparison as my own studies in this area only really began around 1999 and by then the internet revolution was certainly well under way. I recall using a site I’d heard a little bit about called Amazon* to get hold of, what I then considered obscure, old Jesus films like King of Kings (1961)
Indeed one of the main ways that the internet has changed study of film and theology is that it has made a far greater range of films readily available. I would have been fortunate to ever have happened upon King of Kings in a shop (though it did happen two years later), but here I could order it at a click of a button. As things have progressed far more films have become available on Amazon and importing films from other countries through Amazon has become far simpler.
This convenience has led to more people wanting such films creating more demand, which has, in turn, allowed a greater number of film releases to be viable. Better communications and infrastructure have radically improved the numbers of titles those studying in the field can access. Furthermore, film-collectors have been able to exchange unreleased movies and many films are available on sites such as YouTube*.
A further development from this is that now filmmakers are also able to sell to their audience directly, with no need to work through studios, distributors and other historic channels. Releasing straight to DVD and selling them direct through a website has become evermore popular. Indeed a more recent development is crowdfunding where filmmakers try and get a broad base of low value investors to invest before films are made, and whilst not many films have made it through to the final stage of this, churches and religious organisations have certainly been a popular target market for “grassroots” marketing campaigns run primarily through the web.
Even more mainstream films now use the web to build awareness, well in advance, of their product’s release. This has meant that discussion about a film has begun well in advance, with news about casting, directors’ and writers’ previous work, filming locations and even (in some cases) parts of the script, all being dissected months before the opening night. Scholars have been able to look for likely patterns and themes that a filmmaker might continue to explore in the new movie.
In part this has been possible due to other new internet initiatives such as the Internet Movie Database* (IMDb for short). Prior to the emergence of the web, viewers would have to rely on their memories combined with trawling through written lists of cast and crew from a diverse and disparate range of sources. Now the IMDb makes all this possible at a click of a button. It’s easy to look up, say, a director’s previous work and identify patterns, or interests. It also provides a variety of other information about a film, again in fashion that is extremely simple to access. Other also provide more detailed information on how popular a film is with the paying public (such as sites Box Office Mojo*) or with critics (Rotten Tomatoes*) providing a vital resource for those interested in reception studies.
There’s one other area which has been significant in the blossoming in the study of film and religion and that’s online discussion. Discussion fora and blogs have democratised the discussion allowing anyone to have their say. Whilst the comments in threads on YouTube highlight the significant downsides of this new democracy, more formal, and well-moderated discussion forums have provided a fruitful source of discussion. These have been particularly beneficial in interdisciplinary areas such as film and religion as they allow experts from either field to cross-pollinate sharing their expertise and learning from the insights of others. Film studies experts, who may have a passing interest in religion due to their own faith, can fly the flag for some of the great directors and highlight how certain films relate to others. Previously, few people in a theology department had much of a knowledge of the neo-realist movement that so informed Pier Paolo Pasolini for example. Conversely, biblical scholars with a bit of a fondness for the cinema could bring their theological expertise to the table. Not many film students had a sufficiently deep grounding in Gnosticism to appreciate its expression in The Matrix.
Films discussion fora such as Arts and Faith* have enabled this rubbing shoulders and cross-pollination of ideas to proliferate, introducing new cinematic movements and theological ideas to those who were previously unfamiliar with them. It’s resulted in a great deal of growth on both sides of the divide - indeed it has ceased to be a divide.
To a lesser extent, this has also happened with weblogs, particularly with scholars able to respond to one another in a longer more considered form than in off-the-cuff comments, but far swifter than by publishing papers in journals or delivering them at conferences. Blogs have also enabled scholars to plough their very specific furrows, being able to find a wider audience for their specific niche than was ever possible prior to the popularisation of the internet. Furthermore self-publishing on a blog has enabled scholars to either make their ideas available to the public for free (in contrast with paid for journals - a significant barrier to those outside of academia), or even, as scholars such as Bart Ehrman* have shown, to generate a small income for their toil. Whilst there is a still, in some circles, a strange dedication to words written on dead tree, in many circles ideas are now assessed based on their own merit, rather than on the format in which it has been published, or the qualifications of the writer. Proper formal training and peer review still bring significant benefits, of course, but this new context has enabled more voices and their work and ideas to be judged on merit.
The result of these changes - a wider, more available, range of films; more efficient resources for studying both the Bible and cinema; an inter-disciplinary, and less-exclusive sharing of ideas - has transformed the study of religion and film seeing a proliferation of books published on the subject, conference papers, blogs, journal articles, podcasts, university courses and so on. But hopefully it’s not just about output. Hopefully the explosion in this field has also enabled us to understand the human condition with far greater depth and appreciation for who we are.
*Other websites attempting to do the same thing are available, although those quoted are considered to be the leader in their field.