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Industry Q&A: Rich Peluso: Executive VP, AFFIRM Films

By February 7, 2018Interview

3 TOP 3 with Rich Peluso

Three books you’d recommend:

  1. The Spark
  2.  The Dark Tower by CS Lewis
  3. Devil In Pew Number Seven

Name three things still left on your bucket list:

  1. Paragliding
  2. Traveling to China
  3. Getting my pilot’s license

Finally, what are your three favorite records of all time?

  1. Maroon – The Webb Brothers
  2. Of the Blue Color  Of The Sky – OK Go
  3. The Legend Of Chin – Switchfoot

Have you taken the Enneagram, and what is your number?

Peluso: Wait, what? Have I taken what?

GMA: The Enneagram is an insightful tool that helps you understand yourself and others. After completing the test, you rank somewhere between one through nine and each number depicts your personality traits.

Peluso: Well, then, I’m a ten.

GMA: You’re a ten. You just won the interview. Best answer ever!

By Jess Chambers

Rich Peluso is an instrumental voice in Christian media. Since 2007, he’s served as the Executive Vice President of AFFIRM Films, a division of Sony Pictures. Under his leadership, AFFIRM just celebrated their 10th year, a half a billion dollars in theatrical revenue, and two billion dollars in overall revenue – making it the most successful faith-based film studio.

AFFIRM is known for releasing titles like, “War Room,” “All Saints,” “Heaven Is For Real,” “Risen,” “Soul Surfer,” and most recently, “The Star.”  In 2018 AFFIRM is set to release a biblical drama titled, “Paul, The Apostle Of Christ,” starring Jim Caviezel, James Faulkner, and Olivier Martinez. This latest offering from the studio explores the last days of Paul’s life under Emperor Nero in Rome.

Prior to his time at AFFIRM, Peluso spent 15 years in the Christian Music Industry as the President of EMI Christian Music Group’s Distribution team where he developed a passion for filmed entertainment. He was also President of The Safe Side Company, a children’s entertainment company founded by John Walsh (Host of America’s Most Wanted) and Julie Clark (Founder of The Baby Einstein Company).

We were able to spend some time with Peluso discussing his extensive career in Christian media, how he and his team decide what stories to tell, what defines success for a film, and who influenced him professionally and personally.

Rich with Jim Caviezel in Malta, set for “Paul, Apostle of Christ”, in theaters March 28, 2018.

Will you quickly tell about your history in the music industry and how you landed at Sony Pictures/AFFIRM Films?

Rich Peluso: In my life, there were three distinct times when God showed up the most presently and strongly — times when I couldn’t deny it was Him intersecting with me. One was a miraculous situation where my daughter was minutes away from dying. She was saved through what some would call an amazingly coincidental situation, but I knew it wasn’t. It was a miracle. The other two times were both vocational: one was joining the Christian music industry at Star Song Records, which was later acquired by EMI, and another was coming to Sony Pictures.

As the story goes, way back in 1990 I was sitting in the car waiting for my wife to get off work and I always have to be busy reading. I was rummaging around and found a newspaper wrapped over a ceramic Christmas tree, which my mother-in-law had made. The newspaper had a three-month-old “help wanted” ad for Christian music reps. I was in Washington, D.C. at the time, but I called the phone number and it rang at Star Song in Nashville. I got ahold of the sales manager, who was leaving that night to fly to D.C. to conduct interviews the next morning. I called in sick for my job the next day and showed up at the hotel. I waited all day for a slot, but they forgot about me. When they came down the elevator to leave for dinner, I recognized them only because they had on Star Song jackets. I approached them and they invited me to dinner because they felt so bad. By the end of dinner, they’d hired me.

That’s how I found myself in the music business. Growing up, I wrote and recorded music as an amateur, but I was smart enough to figure out that I wasn’t going to make it as an artist. But the idea of helping market, develop, and distribute music was really exciting.

Then after 15 years at EMI, I had developed a passion for filmed entertainment — mainly because I had four daughters who were consuming a lot of Disney Channel content. I wanted to be involved in helping create visual media, so I talked to my boss, Bill Hearn. I was under contract, but he let me out of the contract two years early because I told him my heart was to chase this dream.

I helped start a small children’s entertainment film company and we sold that to Sony. Because of this relationship with Sony, they ultimately hired me to launch their faith based film division, AFFIRM. That was in 2007. We had very little resources: only me and two other people. And now, we’re celebrating our ten-year anniversary this year! Since our start, we’ve garnered half a billion dollars in theatrical revenue and billions more in overall revenue. Now we have five people, and we’ve had an incredible run so far — but when I started working for Sony, I didn’t know much about the film business.

Believe it or not, during my first month with Sony Pictures, I looked for the textbooks, curriculum, and materials that film students study at UCLA and other such schools. I bought those, started reading them, and learned about story and character development, scripting, screenwriting, and production. Then with each project we did, I attached myself to the lead producer so I could observe, ask questions, and listen. Over these ten years, I’ve graduated from my own street film school.

Rich with production crew in Malta, set for “Paul, Apostle of Christ”, in theaters March 28, 2018.

How much of your drive to know, learn, and understand is indicative of how you’ve grown in your career? Is that curiosity an innate part of how you’re wired and how has that served you well?

Peluso: It’s about being naturally curious. I drive my family nuts because if we’re having a conversation and run into a dead end because someone doesn’t know some trivial fact, I’ve got to find the answer. I can’t not know!

I was also inspired to focus on increasing my knowledge by working for Bill Hearn at EMI. My 10 years of working for Bill included countless business trips and meetings, and I learned three very simple secrets of success from observing him:

  1. Return every phone call, because you never know what you’re going to stumble into.
  2. Take notes at every meeting and follow through.
  3. Always do what you say you’re going to do.

These may sound average, but if you do those three things, you’ll be ahead of 90% of other people. I took those principles and brought them to a new industry in the film business, and it’s been a great experience.

How do you choose what stories you want to tell?

Peluso: Like any business, we’ve discovered what works for us over time through trial and error. What really connects for AFFIRM Films are true contemporary stories with broad family appeal — well-known stories in the faith community about real people who are alive to talk about it. Those are the guideposts, so to speak, of what I’m looking for. When a story meets those criteria, it fits in our wheelhouse. If they meet some of those points, but not all, the story is not necessarily off the table for us, but we have to think very carefully about how to approach it.

This must mean each day looks different for you?

Peluso: This means I’m reading a screenplay every day, five days a week. A development director who reports to me reads a screenplay every single day. In the last 10 years, I’ve read over 3000 screenplays, and I also read a book or two a week and watch human-interest news programming. We are always looking for compelling stories that we believe have an element of theatricality to it. Not every great story is a movie. Sometimes a great story is just a YouTube clip, sometimes a song — other times, a great story is a book. Rarely is a great story a movie.

How do you balance the creative aspect of writing and developing a film when the source material is based on Scripture?

Peluso: Over the years, the inspiration for me has been listening to my pastors. For example, say a pastor is teaching on Romans 8 or they’re preaching on King David. The pastor is not going to read Scripture verbatim, then smile, wave, and walk off stage. That pastor is going to draw you into the story. He’s going to paint the picture of the sights and smells — the thoughts that must have been going through David’s mind when he was being sought after by Saul in the wilderness, or what he may have said to Bathsheba when he was wooing her. As teachers, pastors use this kind of creative license to bring the story to life. That’s how I view film. When we look at our biblical features like “Risen” from a couple years ago and “Paul” that we’re working on now, it really is a marriage of biblical content and historical fiction, which has to be harmonious with Scripture. After we develop a story into a screenplay, we bring that screenplay to a small group of trusted pastors, leaders, rabbis, and priests. We have them read, critique, and offer their thoughts on what they liked and didn’t like. If they spot something they believe is theologically off the rails or which leans a little too heavily in that direction, then we’ll make an informed decision on how to address that.

What are your hopes in how AFFIRM tells these stories and how they ultimately have an influence on faith?

Peluso: What has really made an impact is the fact that Jesus is the creator of the universe. And instead of sitting people down and preaching at them all day long, He told stories to make a point. In fact, when He was approached by a couple of His disciples and asked, “Why do you tell stories? Why do you use stories?” What He said was, “You’re blessed in that you have discernment from the Holy Spirit. You understand these things, but a lot of people don’t. These stories make the kingdom accessible to them.” If Jesus chose storytelling as His device to communicate to the world, why wouldn’t we want to model that behavior?

That’s one of the reasons I love the music business and the artists who are passionate about telling stories in songs. In my view, the only difference between what I’m doing now what I was doing in the music industry, is that I was restricted to three minutes. Now I have 90.

Beyond financial numbers and box office stats, how do you define success for a film that you’ve created?

Peluso: First, there’s the financial level, which is very cut and dry. In one column, there’s what we spend to create the film, the physical production of the film, the distribution, and the cost of marketing and promotion. In the other column, we have revenue.

AFFIRM Films is fortunate to be a major studio. We are wholly-owned and part of Sony Pictures, which means we have access to Sony Pictures’ global distribution network. We released one of our latest movies, “All Saints,” on December 12th, and that same day I was flying to Dallas and saw “All Saints” as one of the American Airlines movie selections. It’s also on every cruise ship in the world and was released digitally in 100 countries. We have this global distribution system through Sony, which gives us an advantage in the marketplace because we’re able to spread that cost over a wide stream of revenue channels.

On the missional side, we really look to see unsolicited feedback on the story’s impact. We release the movie, and if it’s really connecting with people, they will find us and tell us how it impacted them. When we released “Fireproof,” thousands of people said their marriage was impacted or saved because of that movie. “All Saints” connected with people nationally and internationally, as it emphasized the importance of not worrying about what people are your neighbors, but that they are your neighbors — and that we should reach out, welcome them, and love them. It’s a very hot topic in our society today.

Ultimately, I ask from a missional perspective: are lives and hearts and minds impacted by these stories? The only way for us to tell is to see the unsolicited consumer feedback or the leader feedback. We always have our antennas up for that.

Rich with first grandchild, wife, and four daughters

Professionally and personally, who has had the greatest influence on you?

Peluso: In addition to Bill Hearn, two people who had a considerable impression on me were Bill and Julie Clark, the founders of Baby Einstein. They, along with John Walsh, were the ones who hired me away from EMI when we started a children’s company together. What I loved about Julie and Bill is their entrepreneurial mind and their creative thinking in terms of how to combine a business with social impact. We gave away ten percent of the revenue that we generated to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The way they brought me under their wings and introduced me to the Missing Center and the reality of what’s going on in the world, made a lasting impact on me. It affected how I parented and viewed my children.

On the personal side, the people who have made the biggest impact on me in a non-spiritual way are the Beatles. I discovered the Beatles because I had a children’s record player, which had a yellow vinyl version of the song, “Yellow Submarine.” It was a kid’s version, but I convinced myself I was a Beatles fan. At seven years old, I got my allowance and asked my parents if I could buy a Beatles record. They said, “Look, this is not what you think it is.” I assumed it was going to be a bunch of kids singing like my “Yellow Submarine” was. I bought a .99 cent cut-out bin Beatles record at Sears and Roebuck and I wore that thing out. It gave me a passion for music and songwriting.

We’ve talked a little bit about being a dad … how has having four daughters influenced you in your career?

Peluso: My children have influenced me to push creatively in different directions. When I was in the music business, they were listening to music different than we were focused on at work. It made an impact on me and I brought that to work and was a big advocate, along with Peter York and Bill Hearn, to chase groups like Jump5 and to acquire Tooth & Nail. This was when we had typically more adult MOR and worship music. But I saw what my kids were responding to everyday and I wanted to chase that, not only to be relevant to my own kids, but to stay relevant to the next generation of music consumers.

The same has been true on the film side, as they’ve challenged me to find interesting content. In faith based films, we all know what works with 50-year-old people, but how do you engage a 16-year-old? That’s a challenge. Having kids and observing what they respond to is like having my own four-person focus group. They have made a significant impact.