Making Movies Matter

The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Imagination rules the world.”

A surprising credo to have come from the mind of a military man, but its provenance only reinforces the weight of its message. Even one of Europe’s great military masterminds knew that the ability to influence the human psyche is the ultimate form of power.

Hollywood is in the business of influencing. How people think, and what they think about, are conscious or unconscious components of any film. A docudrama that looks behind the scenes of the financial crisis, such as HBO’s “Too Big to Fail,” can be eye-opening and incendiary. A lifetime of watching romantic comedies can shape ideas about love.

It is a matter of debate as to whether Hollywood should be more deliberate with its power. After all, when hundreds of millions of people are forming ideas through subjects explored in the movies, shouldn’t moviemakers heed Napoleon’s words and consider their impact?

Filmmaker Marc Erlbaum, 41, a relative newcomer to the movie business, thinks so. But his belief in so-called message pictures goes even further, to advocate “positive, values-based films that can entertain and simultaneously uplift.” To that end he established Nationlight Productions (a play on “light unto the nations”) in 2009, a Philadelphia-based production company focused on creating inspiring and meaningful content for mainstream audiences.

A Philadelphia native, Erlbaum started his career in the family business, the national retail chain David’s Bridal, after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1992. But his heart wandered toward writing. After returning from a yearlong sabbatical in Israel and France, he had an epiphany.

“I went to the movies one Saturday night, and I couldn’t find a parking space — at midnight — and it occurred to me at that moment, that if you want to communicate with people, [film] is the medium,” Erlbaum said.

As he was developing his artistic palette, Erlbaum was also becoming more religious. He grew up Conservative, became involved with Chabad as a college student and now identifies as a ba’al teshuvah. “As I became more involved with Judaism and truly internalized ‘light unto the nations’ and tikkun olam, really having a duty to try and change the world, it became more and more clear to me that [making movies] was the best mechanism for doing that.”

Erlbaum wrote and sold his first screenplay after attending a graduate writing program at Temple University. After that, he began producing small, local fare and premiered the feature mockumentary “Head Space” at the Philadelphia Film Festival. But it was reading conservative commentator Michael Medved’s inflammatory book, “Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values,” that fueled his earlier revelation about the power of film.

Medved’s polarizing screed took aim at Hollywood, accusing the industry of becoming a “poison factory” that assaults family values and glamorizes sex, violence and immorality. He argued that there was this huge, underserved audience in [middle] America that wanted more wholesome content,” Erlbaum recalled. For the aspiring filmmaker, the book was a rallying cry; more “positive messaging” carried a subtext that was widely interpreted to mean the incorporation of religious values.

Others consider the book an embarrassing disgrace. In a review for New York Magazine, New Yorker film critic David Denby famously wrote, “This is the stupidest book about popular culture I have ever read through to its conclusion.”

But Erlbaum saw potential. “All these Christian production companies started popping up around that time,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Well, why shouldn’t we have a Jewish production company?’ ”

Apparently the canard that Hollywood already is one giant Jewish production company didn’t cut it for Erlbaum. So he teamed up with local cinephiles and turned to wealthy Jewish philanthropists such as David Magerman, a venture capitalist with a doctorate in computer science, to finance his production company — for what he calls “filmanthropy.” Nationlight launched at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival with a Shabbat dinner for more than 100 guests, and their Facebook page currently counts nearly 56,000 followers. Last month, the company released its first feature film, “Everything Must Go,” starring Will Ferrell, to 220 theaters in 50 cities nationwide. (The film had a 76 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the online review site, and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott called it “sober,” “sad and satisfying.”) This weekend, their second feature, “Café,” starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, and written and directed by Erlbaum, opens at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

Watching “Café” at a William Morris Endeavor screening earlier this year, the Jewish content was not immediately clear, though the film seemed, somehow, viscerally Jewish.

“Café” has a lot of talk about “the creator” and moralizes about “meaning,” and thematically addresses favorite religious tropes like the triumph of good over evil. The danger with this type of fare, especially among mainstream audiences, is that it can come off drippy, preachy and sanctimonious.

“I try to express [these ideas] metaphorically and allegorically so they don’t come across heavy-handed or didactic,” Erlbaum said. “Our goal was never to make Jewish films but to imbue films with Jewish values, concepts and philosophy,” he said.

For models, he looks to billionaire investor Philip Anschutz’s film production and publishing company Walden Media, which promotes children’s material with moral messages (“The Chronicles of Narnia”), as well as former eBay president-turned-social entrepreneur Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, which focuses on social action films (“The Help,” “Waiting for Superman”).

“I think there has been a reluctance in Hollywood to be agenda-driven in your content,” Erlbaum said. “That’s sort of like a long-standing bias, that Hollywood is not about messaging, it’s about entertaining.”

“But as you’re entertaining, is there a way to incorporate a social agenda? Are we looking to escape reality or looking to benefit reality?”

Erlbaum is trying to do his part. He is also the founder of the Jewish Relief Agency, a 10-year-old food assistance organization that provides for the Jewish poor in Greater Philadelphia.

“If I weren’t religious, I wouldn’t be pushing so hard for this,” he said. “I think it’s my faith that makes me so ambitious to make this work.”