Drawing “A Line in the Sand” for 20 Years: The Dove Foundation

Written by Deb Marcusee on . Posted in Local

people watching235* Republished from our February 2011 edition

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing -Edmund Burke

GRAND RAPIDS - Dick Rolfe is an understated West Michigan native whose influence far exceeds this geographical area. In fact, like most prophets, he has more honor outside his own 'country.' The legendary Steve Allen, very first host of The Tonight Show, once told him: "Dick, you're a household name in Hollywood, but no one in Grand Rapids knows who you are."

This is partly true. The Dove Foundation which Rolfe began in 1991 has a small office tucked away near a Wyoming abwe2intersection. The Foundation hosts fewer public events these days than when it was first making a name for itself. WMCN briefly introduced you to the Dove Foundation in October of 2010. Now, on the occasion of the ministry's 20th anniversary, we take a closer look. Sitting down with Dick Rolfe teaches us quite a lot about the movie industry and even more about remaining faithful to God's calling.

A TCM watcher himself, Rolfe says his favorite movie is Rear Window, made by the great Alfred Hitchcock. But events in his life have led him to become extremely familiar not only with thousands of movies but with the people who make them and market them.

Dick has been a member of Grand Rapids First Assembly in Wyoming for 27 years. Married for 35 years, with 3 kids who have given him 4 grandchildren so far, he began his business life in marketing departments for local radio and television channels. He was the general manager for TV54, the first Christian TV channel in this area. He later got into serving non-profits, offering them publicity by creating events such as parenting symposia.

He was pretty familiar with all the parenting-support organizations around Michigan by 1990 when some parents approached him for his advice about what movies he'd recommend for his own teenagers. Video stores were just taking off then, and as they all too often were former porn shops that plastered "family" over part of their names, the selection of videos just as often were less than "safe" for the typical family. "How do we protect our kids?" was the cry.

Rolfe's own list of "approved videos" was at first circulated just among friends, but after an AP reporter ran a story about the list in 165 newspapers, he began receiving thousands of calls from all over the country. Parents were eager for such guidance. Rolfe gathered together a local board and formed a non-profit. The group sought God and was inspired to make it their goal to do what they could to protect children from popular culture, to "draw a line in the sand," as Dick calls it. Volunteers went through over 12000 movie titles and chose about 600 acceptable to families.

"The Holy Spirit gave me a vision of ways to promote the Foundation's work," says Dick, and some of those became award-winning public displays that were shown around the country at industry trade fairs. Some local fund-granting enterprises came aboard in a big way, and the Dove Foundation really started to make a difference.

In those early days, Rolfe says, they knew they did not have the clout to influence the movie producers, so they aimed for "the middle of the food chain," as he calls it. They contacted the national video store association in order to promote the Dove brand, and encouraged the stores to have "Dove Sections." At a time when Blockbuster had about 2000 locations, Dove had 1700 stores carrying products with the Dove "Family Approved" seal.

Dove then began efforts to publicize the Dove concept and to promote films acceptable to their base by liaising with smaller independent producers. When bigger movie studios saw that Dove was becoming as big a "brand" as Blockbuster, they got interested in talking with Rolfe. He developed "trust relationships" with many senior executives at major Hollywood studios and, eventually, with over 600 independent producers and distributors. Rolfe explained to WMCN that while directors go for "artistic expression" (and that's often the standard movie critics also emphasize), the studios themselves have financial gain in mind. It helps that much of the big money that studios use to make films comes from things like retirement funds, whose guardians are more interested in the bottom line of their returns than in popular culture approved "artistry."

Dove has sponsored a number of studies over the years to prove concretely that family-themed movies are better money-earning ventures than more "artistic" films (which usually push the acceptable line in various directions). One such study hit those who produce movies. "We commissioned an industry-wide study in 2005 that revealed the fact that over the last 15 years, Hollywood produced 12 times more R rated movies than G. And yet, during that same period of time the average G rated film was 11 times more profitable than its R rated counterpart." By sending this "Film Profitability Study" to every major studio exec in Hollywood, Rolfe proved to the money people that their interests were best served by backing family friendly fare.

Another study had an effect on how movies are marketed. "We compared our regularly identified 'Dove Section' in some stores with sales of the same titles in stores without any special Dove section. We proved that renters and buyers go specifically to the 'Dove Section' if it's available." The Dove "Family Approved" seal sells movies. Dove continues to brand movies, and people continue to utilize both the brand and the movie reviews that Dove assigns to every release.

"Parents appreciate that these are film reviews, by other parents and not by film critics," says Rolfe. It's a completely practical and objective process. Films are rated using six criteria: Sex, Language, Violence, Drug and alcohol use, Nudity, and Other (which includes such things as occult themes). The detailed reviews, based on such objective criteria, help parents decide for themselves where to draw the line for their own families. (You can go to www.dove.org to access such reviews for any theatrical release.)

Dove plans to make the reviews available to an even wider audience with the inclusion of a "Media Monitor" tool on the Free Resources page of www.imom.com. Moms can quickly check out movies before their kids buy tickets.

Rolfe believes that the service Dove Foundation offers is at the heart of the ministry. "We are advocates for parents." Obviously parents continue to approve. "We get 50,000 unique viewers each week on our website," Rolfe says today. That's a lot of users.

He particularly sees the "PG-13" rating as untrustworthy. Many movies that thematically should be rated "R" have producers who milk each "guideline" to the max to allow a lower rating, so that their film can be marketed to the lucrative teen audience. Dove's ratings are one way parents can be sure their kids are not seeing objectionable material. Rolfe grins as he says they get criticism from both ends of the cultural spectrum so he figures they must be doing it "about right."

But Dove's mission goes beyond commentary; it also influences the actual making of movies. Since Dove's inception, Disney has returned to focusing on family films, after flirting with making more 'adult' movies in the 80's. Studios regularly run early cuts of films past Dove and listen to their feedback. Some change specific content in order to receive the Dove Seal. One film that Dove influenced was Martian Child, starring John Cusack. Unacceptable language in the original film release was removed by the studio for the post-theatre version, allowing Dove to give the DVD its stamp of approval.

Rolfe sees a couple of trends in the movie industry, one good and one not so. He allows that the family audience is more respected nowadays. Studios now want the Dove Seal. They respect Dove's influence on the industry because Dove has been around for twenty years now.

But there is another more troubling trend in the industry. As societal mores have changed (for the worse), we see more objectionable material in a film of the same rating than you would have 10 or 20 years ago. The MPAA itself has admitted to a definite "ratings creep." Hollywood may set out to reflect society, but also ends up influencing it.

Dick Rolfe has run into many famous people in his years of contacting movie makers. He once stepped on Dean Jones' toes on the way into a crowded church in Los Angeles, later during the service found himself in the same small prayer group with the famous actor, and has been fast friends with Jones ever since. This has been fun since Jones was one of Dick's idols as a boy.

Many well known names have served on Dove's advisory board, which includes Jones, Pat Boone, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Another notable, on the Board until his unexpected death in 2000, was Steve Allen. He and Rolfe became good friends after a case of mistaken identity (Allen was associated with some promotional company with "Dove" in the title) brought him onto a filmed panel discussion about ratings and standards in the industry. Rolfe says, "The Lord has graciously brought individual after influential individual into our sphere."

What does Dove see as its ongoing mission? There is a pilot TV show in the works tentatively called "Dove Spotlight." Rolfe calls it "sort of ET meets At The Movies from a family perspective." It will review movies, capture interviews, and bring other interesting content to its audience. Look for this toward the end of 2011. There are also ongoing talks with a certain network of cable providers to create a whole channel filled with Dove films. At one time 35 major children's hospitals carried a "Dove-approved-only" channel patients' TVs. Via newer technologies, that would be great to offer to hospitals once again.

Rolfe is a techno-phile (loves those gadgets) and he sees several promising new technologies coming along. Dove is also exploring the launch of a for-profit arm to market all the intellectual properties of the current non-profit. In a challenging economy, any route to support the ongoing vision must be explored.

But on a very fundamental level, Dick Rolfe sees the need today to challenge young people to 1) realize the great and growing chasm between good and evil today. He believes this chasm is more defined than previously (in his mind it looms like the walls of the Red Sea after Moses parted it, with good on one side and evil on the other) and that young people especially need to see the difference clearly; and 2) fight the good fight. Just standing and doing nothing is no longer an option. Edmund Burke's famous quote about the triumph of evil was never more true than today. Rolfe believes evil is not just a stationary wall but an active force, and to simply maintain, great counterforce must be exerted.

Rolfe has felt the weight of battle many times. We don't fight the enemy without feeling his darts. He tells of times when money shortages caused staff reductions. But the difficulties have helped him think creatively to solve the problems. Dove now functions with two staff and several contract workers. He himself has donated his time for much of the past six years, taking other consulting jobs to bring in an income. He's learned through his own lifetime that "the greatest job in the world is the one you do for nothing." But he conscientiously has chosen to "leave my children a legacy, since it's unlikely I'll leave them much of an inheritance."

Whenever the going gets rough and he may be tempted to fold up shop, he thinks of James Dobson's words: "If the Lord ever tells me my ministry is done and He doesn't need me, I'll lock the door and thank Him for allowing me to serve all the years that I have. Until then, we're open for business."

Rolfe says that the support of his wonderful board has gotten him through many tough times.

But it's really the Lord who's gotten him through. His testimony is, "I never felt worthy to do the Lord's work. But I am completely blessed to be painted in this picture." He says some words of a song ("More Than Wonderful") by Sandy Patti and Larnell Harris touch his heart every time he hears them:

I stand amazed just to think that this King of Glory

Would come to live within the heart of man,

And I marvel just to think He really loves me

When I think of who He is and who I am.

What can you do to help the Dove Foundation maintain this "line in the sand"? First pray. Check out the website for prayer points. You can also receive regular informational mailings. You can also go to the support page where a short video clip will give you more information on how to be involved, both monetarily and in other ways.

The Dove Foundation: another well-kept Grand Rapids secret, and a successful locally-begun ministry entering its third decade. With God's help, Dove Foundation aims to keep doing what God called it to do: encourage Hollywood to make clean movies and empower families to make wise choices.

Editorial update:

Since the original release of this story in 2011, Rolfe has been busily evaluating the impact of a transition from physical goods (DVD/Blu-ray) to the world of digital media (Movie Streaming and Video-on-Demand). To respond to this trend, The Dove Foundation, along with technology partner Cinedigm Corp., launched DoveChannel.com, an online subscription service with nearly 3,600 movies and programs, all of which have been screened and approved by Dove. Rolfe sees this technology dominating the entertainment landscape, and he believes that parents are hungry for up-to-date information to assist them in making wise entertainment choices. Dove is well-known as a reliable source with a Christ-centered worldview. Rolfe summarized, "Only the platforms we apply our standards to have changed over the past 25 years. But our standards like our God, 'change not.'"
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