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Phil Cooke: Reaching Digital ‘Countries’

Hollywood producer Phil Cooke sits in his Burbank, Calif., office talking about the digital future and excitedly reminds anyone who will listen that Facebook has 1 billion users. Based on population, Facebook would be the third largest country in the world.

“My question whenever I speak at conferences or at workshops is, ‘Who is sending missionaries to that country? Who’s planting churches in that country?’ ” Phil says.

“I think we need to change our thinking about missions from just being about geographic boundaries and start thinking about missions in terms of digital boundaries. [Those are] the digital countries of the future where I think we need to go reach.”

One of the few producers in Hollywood with a doctorate in theology, Phil helps some of the largest and best–known Christian organizations and nonprofits better engage the culture through his company, Cooke Pictures.

Phil’s firm has worked with a long list of impressive clients, including Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, YouVersion Bible, American Bible Society, Jesus Film Project, Mercy Ships, Back to the Bible Ministries, Campus Crusade for Christ, and some of the largest churches in the country.

“Generally speaking, I’m the guy that really helps Christians engage the culture more effectively through media,” Phil says.
He worked with The Salvation Army’s USA Western Territory to help develop The Salvation Army Vision Network, or SAVN. (See sidebar.)

“I think the fact that The Salvation Army is such a large organization, has such a large footprint around the world, uniquely positions it to make an incredible impact on the culture.”

“We live in a media–driven culture, and I think if the church cannot be effective in the way it engages culture through media, we’re going to lose a generation. So I’m very passionate about social media, broadcast media, short films, videos, all those tools, because this digital generation really feeds off those and that’s the way to make an impact.”

Just as the church initially fought the printing press, Phil says some Christians are opposing the digital revolution despite the fact that more people now get their news digitally than from a newspaper.

Accepting the future

“The history of the church has been a history of being slow to embrace change,” he says. “I think that’s a real key factor here.

“Our job is to help the church and Christians understand those media. The culture is not determined these days by politics; it’s not determined by government; it’s determined by popular culture. The way we engage technology and communication tools to reach this generation is absolutely critical. That’s what I’m so passionate about: how we can engage this culture with a message of hope.”

Phil says what motivates him is something he has seen since childhood; Christians mean well, “but very often we shoot ourselves in the foot with the way we share our faith.”

“I’ve always been driven by a desire to help Christians tell their story better,” he says. “The truth is we’re telling the greatest story ever told, but we don’t always tell the story very well.

“Our job is to help Christians understand that in order to change the culture, we’ve got to engage it well. We’ve got to earn their trust. We’ve got to earn the right to be heard. We’ve got to become one of them. That’s one of the big driving forces behind what I do.”

Bolt of lightning moment

Phil grew up a long way from the glamour and glitz of Hollywood in North Carolina, where he was a preacher’s kid and admits he has a “boring testimony.”

“I never knew anything else but church,” he says. “I wasn’t a drug addict or an alcoholic or gang member.”

In high school, Phil and a group of friends made several 8mm films, which he packed and took with him when he left for Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., to be a piano major.

The films fell out of his suitcase when he arrived; a friend who was taking a film class suggested they edit them together. A film professor thought they were good enough to show in his class. Phil’s life changed forever when he noticed people talking about his films afterward.

“This idea occurred to me that hit me like a bolt of lightning,” Phil says. “I’ve never had such a crystal clear moment before or since that if I could do something with a camera that makes people talk, this is what I’m supposed to do with my life. That day I changed my major to film and television and I’ve never looked back.”

Filming in the bush

Phil worked on the student crew that produced Oral Roberts’ television show and also worked there after graduation before opening Cooke Pictures in 1991.

“We took off from there,” he says.

He has produced media in some 50 countries, often in harrowing circumstances, such as when he nearly fell out of a helicopter while filming a crusade in Jamaica.

“Filming for nonprofits, you don’t go to London and Paris and Rome,” Phil says. “You tend to go to Third World countries, the desert, the jungle. I’ve lived with the Bedouins in the Middle East. I’ve been through two military coups in Uganda and Nigeria.

“Just by the nature of what we do, as we try to help nonprofit organizations tell their story more effectively, we go and film the work they do. Sometimes that’s in pretty remote and often scary places.”

Phil says he earned a doctorate in theology because his company works with so many ministries and he is fascinated by theology. He also says the number of Christians in Hollywood, long considered anti–Christian, would surprise many people.

Lead with your talent

“Hollywood is not as anti–Christian or as anti–family as people might suppose,” he says. “There are people in Hollywood who worship rocks and hug trees, so being a Christian is not that weird. The important thing is that you lead with your talent and your gift and not with your faith. That’s what opens doors for you to share your faith.”

Phil says he finds that people respond if he shows up on the set and is an effective producer, director, and writer.

Cooke Pictures has prepared trailers for such movies as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Blindside,” “Book of Eli,” “Act of Valor” and many more. His latest book, Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media, lays out his vision.

“If I prove my ability first, they’ll listen to whatever I say,” Phil says. “I think the mistake Christians make in places like Hollywood is we show up with our testimony first, and they’re not interested in that.”

But Phil doesn’t hide his testimony.

“I’ve been very open about my faith and sharing my faith, and the truth is there are hundreds and hundreds of very serious Christians working in the industry at a number of different levels. We’re seeing some real change happen from the inside, which is fascinating.”

Phil used to attend Jack Hayford’s The Church On the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., but he and his wife Kathleen now go to the LA–based Bel Air Presbyterian Church, which features a huge outreach to the entertainment industry.

Influence Lab

Phil also recently launched a nonprofit called The Influence Lab, which is busy “developing a global strategy for training a new generation of Christian media professionals,” according to the website www.influencelab.com.

A Christian radio station executive from Thailand recently told him, “I don’t need more preachers, but if I could have a web developer for two weeks, it would transform our ministry.”

Noting that there will soon be more mobile devices in the world than people, Phil says Christians have to understand that the country known as Facebook—or whatever online entity becomes cool and hip in the future—is the new mission field.

“We’ve got to understand it’s not about digging ditches so much anymore, although that’s great,” Phil says. “It’s not about building homes anymore, although that’s great. Really, we need to train mission organizations globally on media and technology.

“If I could send them a video camera guy; if I could send them a social media expert; if I could send them video editors, it would have a huge impact on missions organizations.”

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