THE GREAT­EST STORY EVER TOLD AGAIN AND AGAIN

Au­di­ences flock to faith-based films. By David Wal­ters

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David A.R. White was raised in a Men­non­ite house­hold out­side Dodge City, Kan., and went to the movies only one time in his first 18 years. “I was at a friend’s house, and he took me to Grease. I was 8 years old. I didn’t know what we were do­ing,” the 45-year-old film­maker says, laugh­ing. “And then Olivia New­ton-john showed up in her black leather pants, and I thought for sure I was go­ing to hell.”

In the years that fol­lowed—af­ter play­ing Kurt von Trapp in a school pro­duc­tion of The Sound of Mu­sic— White be­came fas­ci­nated with the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. At 19, he moved to Los An­ge­les and found his niche in act­ing, first in the Burt Reynolds sit­com Evening Shade and even­tu­ally in in­de­pen­dent Chris­tian pro­duc­tions. In 2005 he co-founded Pure Flix En­ter­tain­ment, what he calls a “Christ- cen­tered” pro­duc­tion-distri­bu­tion com­pany; he spent close to a decade churn­ing out films that were pop­u­lar with the Chris­tian book­store mar­ket but failed to score at the mul­ti­plex.

Ev­ery­thing changed two years ago. In 2014, White pro­duced and starred in God’s Not Dead, an un­apolo­getic, un­sub­tle Chris­tian drama that be­came a word-of-mouth hit, earn­ing $62 mil­lion against a shoe­string $1.2 mil­lion bud­get. Today, the film—about a col­lege stu­dent whose faith is chal­lenged by an athe­is­tic phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor—is the fifth-most-prof­itable movie by per­cent­age in cinema his­tory, with a re­turn on in­vest­ment of 2,627 per­cent (po­si­tion­ing it, iron­i­cally, di­rectly be­hind Grease).

God’s Not Dead was part of a mini­wave of faith-based films that year. Now we’re see­ing a flood of bi­b­li­cal pro­por­tions. When its se­quel— God’s Not Dead 2, about a pub­lic school teacher on trial for men­tion­ing Je­sus in her class­room—hits the­aters on April 1, it joins a con­spic­u­ously crowded mar­ket of Lent sea­son releases, in­clud­ing Mir­a­cles From Heaven, the story of a sick child whose re­cov­ery de­fies med­i­cal science, and Risen, which ap­proaches the Res­ur­rec­tion from the per­spec­tive of a Ro­man cen­tu­rion.

In­dus­try watch­ers as­sumed that Mir­a­cles and Risen would earn money slowly and steadily lead­ing up to the Easter holiday. In­stead, they surged in their open­ing week­ends. Risen out-earned buzzy hor­ror flick The Witch and Jesse Owens biopic Race, trail­ing only Mar­vel’s Dead­pool and Dreamworks Pic­tures’ Kung Fu Panda 3. Mir­a­cles re­couped its $13 mil­lion pro­duc­tion bud­get in just four days, knock­ing the J. J. Abrams-pro­duced 10 Clover­field Lane out of the top three earn­ers for the week. Ex­plain it how­ever you want: savvy po­si­tion­ing or divine in­ter­ven­tion. But when it comes to box of­fice re­turns, God is good and only get­ting bet­ter.

There’s noth­ing new about Bi­ble films at­tract­ing rap­tur­ous au­di­ences. Af­ter all, the movies are as old as the sil­ver screen it­self. Ce­cil B. Demille’s The Ten Com­mand­ments was nom­i­nated for the Academy Award for Best Pic­ture in 1956, and it’s still the sixth-highest- gross­ing movie of all time do­mes­ti­cally when ad­justed for in­fla­tion. “What’s dif­fer­ent is peo­ple call­ing [these films] faith- based,” says di­rec­tor Cyrus Nowrasteh, whose film The Young Mes­siah, pro­duced for an es­ti­mated $16 mil­lion and dis­trib­uted by Fo­cus Fea­tures, pre­miered last month. “When I was a kid, we went to see The Bi­ble and Hur. They were just big movies, and peo­ple went.”

Hol­ly­wood’s view of Chris­tian films grew more ag­nos­tic in the en­su­ing decades. A 1977 in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tion of Je­sus of Nazareth be­came a small-screen suc­cess. Martin Scors­ese’s The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ (1988) was a hereti­cal light­ning rod. But for the most part, spir­i­tual sub­ject mat­ters were ig­nored. Then in 2004, with the re­li­gious mar­ket largely rel­e­gated to the low­bud­get, di­rect-to-video for­mat, Mel Gib­son’s The Pas­sion of the Christ banked $83 mil­lion in its open­ing week­end, on the way to a mam­moth $611 mil­lion world­wide gross, shat­ter­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of what a Chris­tian pro­duc­tion could earn.

“All of a sud­den, ev­ery­one was in­ter­ested,” says White. Some ma­jor stu­dios cranked out a stream of high-pro­file com­mer­cial hits, from the al­le­gor­i­cal (Walt Dis­ney’s The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia, 2005) to the tra­di­tional (New Line Cinema’s The Na­tiv­ity Story, 2006) to the feel-good in­spi­ra­tional (Warner Bros.’ The Blind Side, 2009), while oth­ers—in­clud­ing 20th Cen­tury Fox, the We­in­stein Co., and Lion­s­gate—an­nounced faith-based la­bels or right-of-firstre­fusal part­ner­ships with Chris­tian film­mak­ers. But ap­peal­ing to Chris­tian au­di­ences turned out to be more com­pli­cated than sim­ply mak­ing movies about Je­sus. If you’ve never heard of The Ul­ti­mate Gift or The Last Sin Eater— both put out by Foxfaith, Fox’s faith-based unit—there’s a rea­son for that. Within a few years, most of those di­vi­sions and deals had with­ered and died.

“Point­ing at The Pas­sion and say­ing, ‘This is a great model of what faith-based films can do’ is like point­ing at Star Wars and say­ing, ‘This is what a sci-fi movie can do.’ It’s the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of a par­tic­u­lar genre,” says Rich Peluso, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Sony’s Chris­tian shin­gle, Af­firm Films, which has fared bet­ter than most. (Af­firm is be­hind both Mir­a­cles and Risen, as well as 2014’s Heaven Is for Real, which grossed more than $91 mil­lion in the U.S.) “But it did cause peo­ple to pay at­ten­tion to the fact that the faith com­mu­nity will re­spond to a film and come out in droves.”

The most suc­cess­ful Chris­tian films of the last few years have largely de­fied Hol­ly­wood con­ven­tion. Star power takes a back seat to a loud-and-clear mes­sage. Many of the leads in God’s Not Dead and its se­quel—kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain, Melissa Joan

Hart—reached peak fame in the mid-’90s. In­de­pen­dent pro­duc­ers and dis­trib­u­tors like White’s Pure Flix have found a foothold in the space by pro­vid­ing sup­ple­men­tal study ma­te­rial for church groups and launch­ing a home-stream­ing ser­vice in the Net­flix mold. An­other out­fit, Echolight Stu­dios—whose chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer is for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia sen­a­tor and one-time pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Rick San­to­rum—has ex­per­i­mented with a distri­bu­tion model in which films are first re­leased to church au­di­ences to drum up grass-roots sup­port.

Ul­ti­mately, con­ven­tional wide-re­lease en­gage­ment is still the goal. “We’re look­ing for the same thing that Sony and Warner Bros. are look­ing for,” says Echolight Pres­i­dent Jeff Sheets. “That’s ubiq­uity. We want our movies to be avail­able as soon as pos­si­ble to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.” If Tin­sel­town val­ues a great story above all, how can it re­sist the Great­est Story Ever Told? “There’s an au­di­ence out there for these films that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily Chris­tian,” The Young Mes­siah’s Nowrasteh says. “It’s not as if sec­u­lar peo­ple can’t ap­pre­ci­ate them.”

Chas­ing cross­over ap­peal can be risky, though. Take Ex­o­dus: Gods and Kings, di­rec­tor Ri­d­ley Scott’s 2014 Moses-pharaoh show­down, which went heavy on Chris­tian Bale and light on ac­tual Chris­tian­ity and failed to re­coup even half of its $140 mil­lion price tag do­mes­ti­cally. Darren Aronof­sky’s Noah, star­ring Rus­sell Crowe as the Old Tes­ta­ment ark builder, did bet­ter at the box of­fice the same year but drew protests from faith groups for not be­ing true to Scrip­ture. “Aronof­sky is a self-pro­claimed athe­ist,” White says. (Aronof­sky has de­scribed him­self in in­ter­views as a hu­man­ist, not an athe­ist.) “The stu­dio heads aren’t re­ally in­ter­ested in this mar­ket, nor do they re­ally know it, so they’re think­ing, We’re spend­ing a hun­dred mil­lion, so let’s try to make it a cross­over movie—a dis­as­ter epic. Let’s do the least amount that we have to do to gather the faith au­di­ence, be­cause they’re stupid; they’ll come to any­thing that has the Bi­ble in it. But the prob­lem is, the faith au­di­ence isn’t stupid. They’ve been treated by Hol­ly­wood for years and years as if they are, and they’re tired of that.”

A dozen years af­ter the post- Pas­sion start­ing to learn from the sins of the past, scal­ing back glut­tonous bud­gets and vow­ing not to bear false wit­ness in pro­duc­tion and pro­mo­tion. “Stu­dios like Sony have seen that these movies are low-cost, and, if mar­keted cor­rectly, they can be very prof­itable,” says Matthew Bel­loni, ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter. “It’s hit-and-miss, but the down­side isn’t big. If one thing works, ev­ery­one will try to copy it.” Para­mount Pic­tures has two faith-based films on its calendar: a re­make of Ben-hur, for which it en­listed Mark Bur­nett, the TV su­per-pro­ducer be­hind 2013’s most-watched minis­eries, The Bi­ble; and Same Kind of Dif­fer­ent As Me, an in­spi­ra­tional love-thy-neigh­bor drama star­ring Renée Zell­weger, based on a best-sell­ing mem­oir that got 4.5 out of 5 stars on Chris­tian­books.com. In May, up­start dis­trib­u­tor Broad Green Pic­tures will try its luck with Last Days in the Desert, with Ewan Mcgre­gor as Je­sus and three-time Os­car win­ner Em­manuel Lubezki as cin­e­matog­ra­pher.

“Suc­cess begets suc­cess,” Af­firm Films’ Peluso says. “As these films make a big­ger im­pact, they start to at­tract other pro­duc­ers, direc­tors, and ta­lent who say, ‘Wow, this can re­ally work.’ ” White’s grate­ful to have the zeit­geist on his side, but he’s not de­pend­ing on it. “God’s Not Dead talks a lot about re­li­gious free­doms and lib­er­ties. It’s very cur­rent to what’s hap­pen­ing in our so­ci­ety,” he says. “And it was a great story—a clas­sic story of David over­com­ing Go­liath. It’s our hope, cer­tainly, that [the se­quel] will go above and be­yond, but we’ll serve our au­di­ence first.”

Echolight’s big play for main­stream suc­cess will come in Septem­ber, with the re­lease of Van­ished: Left Be­hind—next Gen­er­a­tion, a young-adult Rap­ture drama. Star­ring a crop of MTV ta­lent, it in­vites com­par­isons to HBO’S The Leftovers and dystopian fea­ture films like Diver­gent. While the Chris­tian base may be more than enough to make the film a right­eous profit, Sheets is bank­ing on en­gage­ment be­yond the Sun­day school crowd. “One of the great­est com­pli­ments I re­ceived was from a Lion­s­gate ex­ec­u­tive” who saw an early cut of the film, he says. “She told me, ‘In the same way that you don’t have to be­lieve in vam­pires to watch Twi­light, you don’t have to be a fol­lower of Je­sus to watch Van­ished.’ She’s ex­actly right.” <BW>

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