“The Chosen” is both an app and a television series. It is both the largest ever crowdfunded entertainment project, and a Christian program about the life of Jesus. It’s also flying under Hollywood’s radar. That’s quite alright by creator Dallas Jenkins, who says his team’s outsider status allows the show “to be really nimble.”
Besides developing a TV series, Jenkins and “The Chosen” team have developed an innovative delivery method with potentially groundbreaking implications for content creators, particularly faith-based ones. That’s because it circumvents Hollywood’s financing and distribution systems, as Jenkins told me in a Wednesday interview. Arriving at a time Christians feel increasingly alienated by Big Tech and the entertainment industry, “The Chosen” may have finally found the key to bypassing industry gatekeepers.
Jenkins, son of “Left Behind” co-author Jerry B. Jenkins, says the show has not been approached by any studios or networks, despite crashing past previous crowdfunding records set by “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Veronica Mars,” both of which raised around $5 million. “The Chosen” has raised more than $10 million, thanks to contributions from more than 19,000 donors. Distributed by VidAngel, the series uses a method called equity crowdfunding in its money-raising efforts.
The app is an unusually slick creation, housing the full eight-episode first season with easy access to casting technology and user-friendly opportunities to “pay it forward.” A message gives fans the first name, last initial, and location of the supporters who sponsored their individual viewing of the episode. When I open the app, a ticker at the top says the show is nearly up to seven million views.
The one-app-one-show structure is critical part of “The Chosen’s” innovation, alleviating the option paralysis so often induced by browsing big streamers. “If you want to watch this show, you don’t have to sort through a bunch of other shows on another streaming service, you can literally just get our show. And that’s what I think could be the future,” Jenkins said.
“Some people have said, ‘Oh, I can’t wait till you get picked up by a big studio, and we said, ‘We wouldn’t have developed a brand new technology and gone this whole route if we wanted to get picked up by a big studio,” Jenkins insists. “We’re not doing this to be sold, we’re doing this to create a whole new alternative for people.”
“If Christian content creators want to reach audiences directly,” he says, “they’re going to have to make a choice if they’re going to compete in the big pond with all these other big streamers that aren’t really interested in faith based content on a significant level, or if its fine to create a whole new paradigm.”
Crucially, that paradigm also allows Jenkins to avoid any problematic filtering from Hollywood. “The golden rule of business is ‘he who has the gold makes the rules,’ and for a show like this we want to make our own rules. We want to control the content and have it not be influenced by any outside forces. And I think the very fact that we are free and clear from Hollywood for most of our audience it’s actually a positive,” he contends.
Jenkins’ paradigm has advantages beyond reaching broad audiences while maintaining full creative control—it’s also brought “The Chosen” into more than 180 countries, including places the Christian message can be difficult to disseminate. According to a VidAngel spreadsheet shared exclusively with The Federalist, the show has been streamed nearly 5,000 times in China, 3,000 times in Malaysia, and 2,000 times in Saudi Arabia.
I viewed a message sent to the show’s Facebook page, purportedly from a woman in China, who said “The Chosen” has kept her family company during the coronavirus outbreak. “‘The Chosen’ came into our sight just when the government announces everyone ought to cancel any gatherings and stay home for our own safety,” she wrote.
The message continues: “It is hard to measure and discribe the encouragement The Chosen has blessed our loooong days at this difficult time, and how it lifts our spirits and draws our hearts to Jesus. I watch when my kids stare at Jesus when He brushes his teeth, washes his feet and tries to start a fire, with their mouthed wide open! The Lord’s figure has become more and more real in the hearts of my children,as they come to a closer look of His life. We are not from the corona virus hit area, but we stand with our folks there, fighting the same battle, with spritual weapons.”
Jenkins calls it “one of the most moving messages we’ve gotten.”
“We’ve heard from Saudi Arabia, we’ve heard from Iran, we’ve gone viral in the Philippines,” he says. “Every day we’re hearing from different countries.”
But Jenkins wants the show’s reach to be “deep,” instead of merely “wide.”
“Right now we’re wide, and we’re hitting primarily English speakers in every country,” he told me. “But to get deep and to really start to have some of the same kind of impact that we’re having in America, the next step is language translation, which we’re actively working on at this very moment and trying to catch up to demand, because it’s gotten way bigger than we anticipated, a lot faster.”
Asked about the future, Jenkins says he hopes to do eight seasons of “The Chosen.” “If this goes according to plan, ‘The Chosen’ will be my full-time job for the next seven or eight years,” he remarks.
“The Chosen is the first-ever-multi-season TV show about the life of Jesus. Created outside of the Hollywood system, The Chosen allows us to see Him through the eyes of those who knew him,” reads a description on VidAngel’s website. In the age of Prestige TV and marathon streaming sessions, Jenkins’ goal was to add a bingeable show about Jesus to the vast menu of viewing options.
“I think you can count on one hand, if you work really, really hard, to come up with binge-watchable shows that speak to the faith of believers,” he muses.
While not quite HBO quality, for its humble origins, “The Chosen” is of a higher caliber than many faith-based entertainment options. The show follows everyone from Jesus to Matthew to Nicodemus (played by Cecil from “Mr. Deeds”) in moments outside the stories told by scripture, depicting familiar narratives, but also filling in new ones. Jenkins concedes that decision has proven controversial, but argues it’s also a big part of the show’s success, and a “great way to enhance the emotional impact of what’s in scripture.”
“Whenever we do portray things from scripture, we don’t change it,” says Jenkins. But “adding backstory and historical and cultural context,” he continues, “has proven to be the thing that has most impacted people, that has caused people to see the Bible and Jesus in a new perspective.”
Worrying too much about the show’s detractors “would be wasting a lot of time,” Jenkins says, “because we’re not going to change their mind. So we’re really focused on making the show that we want to make. The response from the viewers who’ve seen it has been extraordinary.”
But Jenkins wants “The Chosen” to go further. “Our numbers, yes, are impressive on one hand because we’re starting from scratch,” he explains. “But we still have a long way to go to get the attention of even mainstream Christians, much less the rest of the country.”
His team is still sorting out “what is it about this that can translate to other projects and other creatives.”
“It’s tough to say that it’s proven that this is going to be replicatable to many other types of shows,” Jenkins cautions.
Even so, it’s clear “The Chosen” is pioneering a model that at least addresses the major roadblocks—funding, distribution, and secular filtering—that often prevent Christian projects from competing on the same playing field as Hollywood productions. If other creators are able to replicate Jenkins’s success, it could almost entirely cut both Hollywood and Big Tech out of the equation, while also helping higher quality Christian entertainment reach broader audiences.