An interview with Rich Peluso, Senior Vice President of Sony’s AFFIRM Films
Who would think faith-based films count in Hollywood? Surprisingly enough, they do. Are you convinced Hollywood is entirely non-religious? You are wrong. “There are actually many Christians in Hollywood. I meet them. There are Bible study groups, churches, the Hollywood prayer network,” says Rich Peluso, who met Pope Francis while in Rome in the first week of February for the Vatican screening of the movie Risen. Rich Peluso heads AFFIRM Films, a Sony Pictures Entertainment company that released the film on February 19 in the US. The Biblical epic, directed by Kevin Reynolds, stars Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton and Maria Botto.
How would you describe meeting Pope Francis?
Rich Peluso: It was wonderful. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It meant a lot because I think of whom he represents: a very significant Christian population around the world, who look to him as a leader of the Catholic Church, to encourage and direct them in their discipleship. Well, I am not Catholic, but half of my family is, so I have a great appreciation and great respect for the Catholic faith.
Are you religious?
Peluso: Yes, I am a Christian, an evangelical Protestant. Faith is very important in my life and my family’s life.
You are in Rome for the screening of the film Risen. What feedback are you getting from the Vatican and Catholic journalists in town?
Peluso: We had one screening in the Vatican and another one for mainly the Vatican press corps and European and international media. And the film was incredibly well received. We had Q&A afterwards and there were lots of questions. There were several comments from people who were emotionally impacted in a positive way by the film. One gentleman couldn’t complete his question because he was in tears. Another woman expressed a similar response. It’s been very positive.
It is very surprising that in Hollywood, Sony has opted for a religious story. What motivated the decision?
Peluso: Well, in 2006 Sony Pictures acquired the rights to a small faith-based film that they thought would only do a small amount of business, but it proved to be a very successful surprise. It did several million dollars of box office and sold millions of DVDs. It convinced Sony to dedicate resources to acquire, produce and develop faith-based films… It’s a business. But as a team at AFFIRM Films, we also have a missional aspect to our work: it’s important to us personally and to our faith. Sony started AFFIRM Films, which I run, eight years ago, and we have had great success.
Recently you said, “The faith-based film landscape has changed radically, both in quality and quantity.” What do we owe this shift to?
Peluso: There is an old saying: “Success begets success.” So what happened was, as we worked early on with very inexperienced filmmakers and very small films, and we started to see success, we began to attract other filmmakers, producers and talent, because people love being part of success.
In your filmography I found movies about angels, grace, the guardian force. Would you share with us that inner journey you are on regarding faith?
Peluso: Yes. I was raised in a Christian home. So while, like many people around the world, we can claim that we are Christian because of our heritage, my faith, my understanding of Scripture is that there is more required than just being part of your family’s culture. There needs to be a recognition of our shortcoming, of our sin and of our reliance on Jesus Christ, as our Savior. That happened young in my life, as a teenager, at a Christian camp with a bunch of friends, and I have been on a faith journey since then and have been seeking a kind of direction for my place in this world: what am I going to contribute?
I learned early on that I loved arts, I was a musician… then I realized that I really wasn’t good enough to have that as my occupation, but I loved it enough that I was passionate and I could help people get better at that occupation. So I started getting into music marketing and development, and then went into film — and this is where vocationally I feel like I am supposed to be, where God called me to be, which is to help visionary writers, directors to bring out their story, refine their story in a way that will connect with an audience and put it on a world stage through Sony Pictures. Whereas my mission personally is about loving my wife and four daughters; I find great fulfillment in my family.
How did this Biblical story told in the movie impact the people involved?
Peluso: There have been many stories from the production, from our director, Kevin Reynolds, to our producers, Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon and several others, Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton, the characters in the movie who were attracted to the story because it was a unique take on Christ’s life and his resurrection. When they encountered the story, they came out of it changed for the better. Each of them is saying that working with the material, the story and the characters and with each other was a very special kind of spiritual experience for them.
Now there is a huge discussion on “Oscar So White.” What do you think about a phrase like “Hollywood So Non-Religious?”
Peluso: (laughs) I want to lay a fact out for you. If you look at all of the major population centers in the Unites States, the one that has the most Christians in it is Los Angeles. There are actually many Christians in Hollywood. I meet them. There are Bible study groups, churches, the Hollywood prayer network. There is an organization called Mastermedia, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It is all about praying for leaders within the Hollywood business. They pick one leader every month and they pray for him or her. And I have lots of discussions with writers, actors and agents who tell me they are Christians… So Hollywood is not nearly as godless as people would think.
This is the Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church. In what way can we connect the film to this initiative of Pope Francis?
Peluso: Risen in many ways is about mercy. The character Clavius is a Roman military tribune; he is of a significant rank. His job is to quell the insurrection and shut down the rebels. He, as a Roman soldier, is in the business of death and killing. But in the movie we see in his character that there is something different inside of his heart, there is something about him, he is seeking some sort of peace in his life and he allows that when he starts to interact with those who claim that Jesus rose… We see that he could act a lot crueler than he does and he starts showing mercy that then grows in his heart as to how he treats those around him.
Finally, why should people go to see this movie? How does it stand out from the big, historical Bible movies?
Peluso: In a couple of different ways. One big way is that most films, not all of them, about the life of Christ end at the crucifixion, and Risen begins at the crucifixion. Another big difference is that most films about the life of Jesus are told through a Gospel- or disciple-centric point of view. So it is an exact telling of the Scripture, or through the character of John or Peter, but what Risen does is that it pulls back and we watch the story through Clavius’ eyes, a skeptic and unbeliever. It is a very different and unique view.
What do I want people to take from it? I want those who are believers or Christians, who know the story inside and out, to be refreshed and excited by the new perspective, told in a way they have never heard before. For people who are skeptics or not believers, or atheists, I want them to have a great experience, to be entertained and touched and curious who this Jesus could be after they finish watching.