Waco Family & Faith FF shines light on empowering storytelling + Oscar buzz for “Pray”

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 02/03/21






via BeliefNet:


The Great Waco Makeover. That’s not the title of a new reality show (yet), Rather, it pretty much just the plain reality for the city that was once unfairly tarnished by an infamous religious cult shootout in 1993 but is today a tourism hot spot much better known as the home of Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines and their blossoming Magnolia Television Network. In fact, largely thanks to the positive notoriety the couple has brought to the area, Waco is showing signs of becoming a burgeoning hub for faith and family-friendly entertainment.


A big part of that process is the second annual Waco Family & Faith Film Festival which starts tomorrow (2/4) and runs through Saturday (2/6) that counts the couple’s Magnolia Foundation among its chief sponsors. The event features an array of screenings of selected movies competing in the categories of Animation, Short Films, Student Short Films and Feature Films. It all caps off with the announcement of winners in each category on Saturday. And, oh yeah, your humble correspondent got to be one of the judges.

Another honor was getting to talk about it all with Dr. Tyrha Lindsey-Warren, the entrepreneur who teaches marketing at Baylor University and who actually founded of the Waco Family & Faith Film Festival

JWK: How challenging is it to conduct an international film festival in the time of COVID?

Tyrha M. Lindsey-Warren: We’re definitely respectful of Waco’s COVID guidelines. We are presenting a hybrid festival this year – meaning that we are presenting three-fourths of our 65 films online through our online streaming platforms. The remaining one-fourth will be presented through our pop-up drive-in movie theaters we’re creating in the parking lots of our church partners throughout Waco.

JWK: So, how did the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival come about and how do you describe its mission?

TMLW: Our mission is that we are “dedicated to empowering the creative spirit, serving with heart and celebrating all.”

That mission was created, basically, based on all of my previous work in producing international film festivals. I started out with Bishop T.D. Jakes and his international film festival from 2013 to 2017. So, I was on the producing committee for three international film festivals for him…Then, after that, my team and I were asked to produce another international film festival in Cincinnati, Ohio called the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival. Previously, it was the ReelAbilities Film Festival (of Cincinnati) which was a huge national film festival dedicated to showing narratives (about) people who are disabled. They wanted to expand that category and really include many more categories, (such as films celebrating) Identity (and) Freedom. That was a five-day film festival that my team and I produced in Cincinnati.

(Later, as a) fairly-new resident of Waco – having moved here from New York City to teach at Baylor – I was noticing that a lot of cultures just don’t really mix and come together that often. Everybody’s kinda siloed in their own section of the city. I’m just not used to that coming from the northeast – especially entertainment (where) everybody kinda gets together for festivals, movies, public events and things of that nature. So, I kinda surveyed the market and thought maybe I could do my little part and maybe this film festival could be my contribution to bringing the city of Waco and Central Texas together.



JWK: What are the criteria used for choosing the films that are accepted into the festival?

TMLW: We’re on FilmFreeway.com which is the same festival platform that everybody uses – you know, Sundance to everybody. We’re on there but we do have a criteria that we are only accepting films with themes related to family, faith, freedom (and) the military because…Waco is 45 minutes from Fort Hood, the largest Army in the United States. So, military and veterans themes are just good for our region. And then also Do-It-Yourself – DIY – themes because Waco is the home of Magnolia (whose) foundation sponsors our award.

So, those are the five themes and then, once (the films) were submitted, myself and a Sundance programmer I hired – who I actually met at Sundance last year – went through all the films. We’re looking for good production value, storytelling (and) writing. We’re also looking to see if the films exude multiculturalism, family themes and faith themes – as well as originality. There’s about ten criteria we are screening for.

JWK: Besides honoring films, you bestow awards upon individuals who are making a positive difference in the film and entertainment industry. Last year, I know, Kevin Sorbo and his wife were among the honorees. Can you tell me about that award and who is being honored with it this year?

TMLW: I’m glad you asked that. That is a mainstay of our film festival to award individuals and organizations who are exemplars of innovation and disruption in TV, film, the performing arts and the entertainment industry…So, we do have a 2021 class of champions.

(This year’s winners include) Courtney Parker (who) is a Hollywood writer (and) executive. She currently has two shows on OWN – Oprah Winfey’s Network. She’s coming in from LA. Malcolm Goodwin is known for starring on the CW show iZombie. He’s also a filmmaker (who) actually directed our feature film winner for 2020 (called) Be the Light. So, we are honoring him and his business partner Victor Hawks who’s a Broadway star-turned-TV film writer and producer because they had such a wonderful time at our first Waco Film Festival that they have moved all of their operations in LA to Waco as of last September and they are building sound stages in Waco. They start shooting their first movie in Waco this April.

JWK: So, Waco is on the verge of becoming kind of a film hub.

TMLW: I think Chip and Joanna have already started that…Because I’m on the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau board, I’ve been learning a lot about this. Film and TV production has been up in Waco over the past three or four years because of Chip and Joanna.


JWK: It seems to me that Chip and Joanna Gaines have almost single-handedly transformed the image of Waco. Before they came along, I think most people when they thought of Waco thought of the Branch Davidian Church.

TMLW: Of course! I mean I did when I was interviewing with Baylor! And they said “Dear, we don’t talk about that anymore. We talk about Chip and Joanna.” I said “Oh, okay!”

JWK: It reminds of the eighties when the TV show Dallas came along. Before that when people thought of Dallas they thought of the Kennedy assassination. After the show, that dark image was replaced with a much more glamorous one.

TMLW: So true. So, we’re just trying to leverage momentum Chip and Joanna have brought to Waco and build upon that. Definitely, I’m trying to do that with the film festival and then Malcolm and Victor are definitely going to be doing that with the sound stages that they will open I think toward like Q4 of this year.

And then our final Champions Award is (to) Eric Shepard (as) we always honor someone locally as well. He’s the executive director of Waco Civic Theatre, our main theater company here in Waco.


JWK: So, you, of course, mentioned that the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival seeks to feature films that deal themes of family, faith and freedom – but a lot of movies deal in those themes. What makes a movie stand out and pop for you personally?

TMLW: Oooh, I’ve never been asked that. Well, I guess it depends on the genre, number one. You probably don’t know this buy my PhD is in marketing…My dissertation was on empowered storytelling. So, I’ve actually researched storytelling, So, to answer your question, that particular empowered storytelling construct is rooted in this consumer behavior theory called narrative transportation theory which is the theory where a story can grossly involve the receiver of the story in that narrative. So, given that context, what makes a movie pop is how the movie draws me into its world. It’s really able to take me away, get me emotionally involved with its characters (and) its message…I do like to be empowered because I’ve studied emotional empowerment. So, if it can positively change me in some way, I love that.


JWK: Same here. So, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you would like to mention?

TMLW: We also are debuting our Waco Family & Faith Theater Festival inside the film festival this year. To commemorate Black History Month we are presenting, in association with and collaboration with Waco Civic Theatre, this off-Broadway play called An Adam Experiment (based on) the life of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. He was a congressman from the State of New York. We’re really excited about that. Again, being in accordance with the city’s guidelines, we’re gonna have socially-distant audiences (and we’ll be) simultaneously streaming the play. That’s fantastic because my family’s in Ohio and New York so they can get a chance to see the play.

JWK: And when can people see it?

TMLW: We open An Adam Experiment on February 4th and then we go throughout the whole weekend up until February 7th. So, we’re debuting the theater festival this month but in April the theater festival will have its own weekend that we’ll be showing plays and things.

JWK: Sounds good. Finally, on the Waco Family & Film International Festival website you feature a video for The Blessing Project (below). Can you tell me about that?

TMLW: Sure. We launched that last summer as we were launching the second season of the film festival. I was trying to think of a creative way not only to launch the second season but also to give back to our community. Because that’s what we are. We’re a community festival. We’re leveraging the power of storytelling to open hearts and minds for the everyday person. We’re not necessarily just for filmmakers and industry types. We hope we’re for the normal person (especially) given what’s going on with COVID.

I’m a professional jazz singer. I have a strong performing arts background. I’m actually in that video. I kinda just wanted to be creative, innovative and authentic in sharing the talents of those who are part of the film festival whether they’re volunteers or whatever the case may be…You know, so many cities were doing this – singing The Blessing Song – all around the world. So, (the video) was our way of sharing our blessing and our hope for the city of Waco and the Central Texas region.


JWK: Well, again, I was honored to be asked to be one of the judges in the festival. I was happy to do it – especially given your stated mission of “empowering the creative spirit, serving with heart and celebrating all.” I certainly think we can use more movies – and media in general – that empowers people while bringing us all together with stories that we can all watch. In my opinion, too much of what is put out on the world via the media fosters anger over empathy, kindness and empowerment.

TMLW: Yeah, you’re so right…In my research, (I found) there are (about) 200-million consumers that make up the positive family-friendly faith-based market to the tune of like one-trillion dollars or something like that. So, there are people – not only domestically but internationally – that just want some positive storytelling in their lives. But (it has to be) a good story.


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On a wing and a prayer. With a little help from above – and the passion of its social media supporters (#PrayforPRAY), a very Catholic-friendly film is seen as actually have a shot at garnering a couple of Oscar nominations – in the Best Documentary and Best Original Score categories. Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton tells the story of Father Patrick Peyton, the famous Hollywood Rosary priest who was dedicated to inspiring millions of families to pray together. He’s the guy who actually coined the famous phrase “The family that prays together stays together.”

You can listen to the score by Grant Fonda here. The Los Angeles-based composer has been hailed by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, as a “Composer to Watch.” You can view the Pray trailer below our conversation.


JWK: You’ve been hailed by the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers as a “Composer to Watch” for your work on such films as The Dating Project and Down the Fence. What attracted you to Pray?

Grant Fonda: Getting the chance to reunite with director Jonathan Cipiti and producer Megan Harrington again was the first draw for me. We worked together on The Dating Project and so, in many ways, our creative language was already established. Even though stories will change, whenever a creative team gets back together for a new project, it’s always exciting because there’s so much to draw from previous experience that makes the next venture all the better and more creative.

The story of PRAY: The Story of Patrick Peyton was amazing to me as soon as I heard the pitch: a true story about a poor Irishman who came to America in hopes of becoming a millionaire but ended up devoting his life to the priesthood after a miraculous healing. That’s not something you hear every day! The reach of Patrick Peyton’s life and legacy was vast, so it seemed like an amazing story to tell with lots of cinematic musical opportunity.

JWK: What are you trying to convey through your score – particularly in terms of contributing to the tone and story of the film?

GF: There were four main elements that we really wanted to reach for in the score: the immensity and timelessness of Peyton’s life and legacy, his “always Irish” roots, his persistence, and the more traditional or liturgical component of his mission. The last element was one of the most challenging to figure out how to implement because it seemed the most obvious, so I knew that we needed to figure out a way to incorporate historical and liturgical colors like hymnody and the organ into the fabric of the score in a way that felt fresh. Nothing about Patrick Peyton’s life or mission was ordinary, so I wanted to create a score that felt accessible but also fresh in the way that all of the elements came together.

JWK: There’s some talk of a possible Oscar nomination for you. What’s that like and what it would mean to you?

GF: Any talk of an Oscar nomination for any creative is unbelievably thrilling, but getting tapped for a nomination would be so fitting for this film more than any other I’ve scored. Patrick Peyton always approached his life and ministry in a way that was unexpected, unconventional, but always in tune with the times, and the results were always extraordinary. It would be amazing and yet somehow not surprising if the score was tapped for the shortlist and a nomination because of the story that it’s telling. To be included among nominees would really be an incredible honor. I’ve always dreamed of being able to contribute something meaningful to the legacy of musical giants who have come before me, and I’d be very proud if my work for Pray were that contribution.


JWK: How long have you been composing music for films – and what other films have you been involved with?

GF: I’ve been writing for film since 2006, and I’ve scored more shorts, features, and commercials than I can count! I took a small detour from working as a lead composer on my own projects to work for other composers as an arranger and orchestrator for a while, which was an amazing experience. I was able to work for the late James Horner in preparing James Cameron’s Titanic for the concert tour of Titanic: Live, and being able to serve in music departments for films like Spectre, Minions, Finding Dory and a version of The World of Color (Disneyland) was a terrific and growing experience. I made the jump back to scoring my own projects full-time in 2015 and it’s been an amazing ride. Aside from Pray, there’s been some really fun films and wonderful collaborations through the years, but there’s two that are particularly memorable: Down the Fence (dir. MJ Isakson) an award-winning documentary, and Maybe: Josh (dir. Jonah Feingold), a short romantic comedy made entirely for the iPhone.

JWK: What makes for a great movie soundtrack? Do you have an all-time favorite?

GF: I believe that a great score is one that works perfectly in tandem with the story that it’s telling while also being able to stand alone musically apart from the picture. It’s hard to achieve both! There are a lot of scores that hit in all the right places, but there are four that I go back to often: Homeward Bound (Broughton), Schindler’s List (Williams), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Romer), and Phantom Thread (Greenwood).

JWK: What’s ahead? Any films or TV shows bearing your work that we can look forward to?”

GF: There’s a lot, actually! The House That Rob Built (dir. Jon Cipiti/Megan Harrington) is a stunning sports doc that releases February 23. The Man from Nowhere, a family drama starring Nick Searcy (Justified) directed by Matt Green, releases February 9. Birthgap: The Prequel (dir. Stephen Shaw) explores the problem of population decline and is currently thriving in the festival circuit, and, we’re anticipating the release of the recently completed Dating and New York (dir. Jonah Feingold), a brilliant romantic comedy starring comedians Jaboukie Young-White, Francesca Reale, Brian Mueller, Catherine Cohen, and Jerry Ferrara.

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