Russ Doughten has been involved in creating evangelistic films since the 1950’s. Their most popular film series, “A Thief in the Night”, has been seen by over 300 million people worldwide. It was a ground breaking film series that influenced future filmmakers. Russ Doughten continues to produce movies and currently has twenty four films available in their catalog.
First, briefly introduce yourself and your work at Russ Doughten Films.
Hi, I am Thom Rachford, Vice President of Russ Doughten Films. I have worked in film ministry since 1972 as an actor, film production manager, designer, advertiser, marketer, distributor, convention representative, presenter of the “Share Your Faith” seminar training, post film showing counselor and what ever else is needed.
How did you first get involved with Russ Doughten Films?
I was working in the office for Heartland Cinema theater company. I met Don Thompson as he came to write an evangelism film story with Russ. As Don got to know me during his daily work sessions he ask me if I had ever done any acting. I had minored in theater in college and had major roles in community theater productions. Later Don said, he thought there might be a part for me in the script he and Russ were working on. The script was “A Thief in the Night” and I got the role. (God orchestrated my being in the office, meeting Don and the subsequent film role and all that has grown out of it.)
What was it like being a part of “A Thief in the Night” cast?
Working on “Thief” was great fun. We made the film on a shoestring and it was like a family experience. I knew it could be an important evangelism movie, but did not know the Holy Spirit would use it so mightily and for so long. After 40 years, It is still effective. At a January 2013 showing at a small church in Tennessee, 34 people saw “Thief” and sequel “A Distant Thunder”; after the showings 5 people received Christ as savior. That’s almost 15% of the viewers – an unheard of level of response. Estimated millions have received Christ after seeing “Thief” or the three sequels. In February 2013, we received an email from a family that said they had just discovered the “Thief” series. They don’t just use them for evangelism, but also for encouraging their two preteen daughters in the faith – the youngest daughter has begun telling her unsaved friends about Jesus and end times.
What led to your switch from actor to Vice President of the company?
I worked in different areas of the ministry as an actor and /or production manager in others Russ Doughten produced films. That experience led to working on advertising and marketing of the films, followed by training as an after film showing counselor. That experience led to training to present the “Share Your Faith Seminar” – training the average Christian, sitting in a pew, to lead a seeker to Christ. I then began taking further responsibilities in every aspect of the company responsibilities. Each step has been a natural progression.
Tell us a little about those early days in Christian filmmaking.
Wide spread Christian movie distribution was fairly limited. We self distributed through Christian film libraries. We developed a church contact process to encourage churches to rent the films from the libraries. We were the first to put films on VHS to Christian bookstores for rental and then sales. The biggest challenge was to be great stewards of the limited finances. Stretch the dollar and keep track of every penny, that part has not changed. Every film idea began with prayer and was continually in prayer. We understood, not only must the film grow out of what the Lord is telling you to do, the marketing and distribution must also follow what the Lord tells you. We never forgot, the message of salvation in Jesus alone, because of his sacrifice on the cross, must be central to the script. Upon that core rest the best story and most engaging characters that are able to bring the viewer along to receive the message. Then the goal is to produce the film with the best production value available.
How has Christian filmmaking changed over the years?
The budgets have grown bigger for some productions. The market has expanded with TV cable, satellite, streaming and other new media. The commercial success of a few Christian movies has moved many to enter the field. Technology has made film making available to anyone who wants to do it. Unfortunately, with the emphasis on technology, Hollywood style, and an audience that many believe is “different” than all previous audiences causes the message to be watered down, hidden or left out to increase the popularity/salability of the films. Many have chosen to keep the name of Jesus out of the film because “it may turn people off.” The reality is, everyone starts out turned off to Jesus until they are introduced to Him in a way that enables them to be turned on to Him. This frequently makes the message, no longer one of salvation, but one of nice people doing nice things. Often the major desire in modern Christian films is to show Hollywood we can make movies as good as them. To be “as good as Hollywood”, you have to use Hollywood’s measuring of what is good. Hollywood’s idea of good does not measure the number of men, women and children who are saved from the wages of their sin and therefore enter eternal life.
What advice do you have for Christian filmmakers just getting started?
Pray. Study scripture. Focus on this – what is the only thing a Christian filmmaker can do that a great Hollywood filmmaker cannot do. Answer- tell a story that draws people to Jesus the Savior. Only those who know Him, are called to be His witnesses, can clearly share His salvation to the entire world. A film like that will make a difference to the person’s existence a hundred years from now. Any other kind of film will mean nothing to them in a hundred years. Make sure you a giving the message the Lord wants you to give. Many great film makers can tell an exciting, compelling popular move, but only a believer called by Jesus can present a movie that can change a person’s eternity. If as a believer, God has called you to be a filmmaker, make the film that only a believer can make, one that clearly lifts up Jesus so the viewer can come to Him.
Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?
The 5th film in the “A Thief in the Night” series, “Heartbeat” –a dramatic story of how God changes a person’s heart, a 3-episode script for children, and others.
What are your plans for the future of Russ Doughten Films?
Right now we are cooperating with Mustard Seed International, our, licensed distributor and language translator, in a 40th world premier anniversary of “A Thief in the Night” with evangelism based showings in the Des Moines area in Sept. of this year. They plan to have many venues, with church and non-church showings available. Guests at some of the showings will be some of the people from “Thief”. Not for profit, Mustard Seed International will also present fund raising events for their participation in a new end time’s movie.