Chris­tian films’ suc­cess de­serves more faith

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - USA TODAY LIFE - Pa­trick Ryan

It’s about time Hol­ly­wood had some faith in Chris­tian en­ter­tain­ment. ❚ When I Can Only Imag­ine bowed with $17.1 mil­lion last month, scores of jour­nal­ists breath­lessly de­clared it a “sur­prise hit” and “the big shocker of the week­end.” But the mod­estly bud­geted film — made for $7 mil­lion, and based on the true story be­hind the Mer­cyMe song — is hardly the first re­li­gious movie to blind­side box of­fice pun­dits. ❚ Since 2014, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real and War Room have made sim­i­lar head­lines af­ter their de­buts, prov­ing that it’s time for a new nar­ra­tive about the might of Chris­tian movie­go­ers.

The word ‘sur­prise’ “should be re­tired,” says Adam Holz, a se­nior as­so­ciate ed­i­tor for Fo­cus on the Fam­ily’s Chris­tian pop cul­ture site Plugged In. “We should be able to re­mem­ber we’ve had six or seven of these movies that have made $50- or $60 mil­lion. For an $8- or $10 mil­lion movie, that’s a great turn on in­vest­ment. Hol­ly­wood seems to have a short-term mem­ory on that.”

That’s not to say ev­ery re­li­gious movie is a suc­cess right out of the gate. Paul, Apos­tle of Christ star­ring The Pas­sion of the Christ’s Jim Caviezel made back its $5 mil­lion bud­get in its first week­end, al­though it still trails the open­ings of other Bib­li­cal epics.

So what does it take for a faith­based film to have a prayer at the box of­fice? Here are four lessons stu­dios can learn from past hits and misses:

1. Look to pre-ex­ist­ing ma­te­rial.

Some of the big­gest Chris­tian hits of the past few years have been based on best-selling books, in­clud­ing last year’s The Shack ($57.4 mil­lion to­tal) and 2016’s Mir­a­cles From Heaven ($61.7 mil­lion), while 2014’s Son of God ($59.7 mil­lion to­tal) was adapted from the hit minis­eries The Bible.

It helps to have a fa­mil­iar story or fran­chise, says Paul Der­garabe­dian, se­nior me­dia an­a­lyst for comS­core. “Hav­ing that built-in brand­ing and a ref­er­ence point for those who may have read the books that these films are based on may be more im­por­tant in this genre than oth­ers, be­cause that source ma­te­rial will give the film in­stant cred­i­bil­ity.”

2. Of­fer a fresh take on the Bible.

While straight­for­ward tellings of Je­sus’ life such as 2006’s The Na­tiv­ity Story ($37.6 mil­lion to­tal) have flour­ished, it helps to see the story through fresh eyes. Mel Gib­son’s 2004 block­buster The Pas­sion of the Christ ($370.8 mil­lion) of­fered a gritty, vi­o­lent take on the Cru­ci­fix­ion, and 2016’s Risen ($36.9 mil­lion) charted a Ro­man sol­dier’s search for Je­sus’ body af­ter the Res­ur­rec­tion.

Risen “framed it al­most as a CSIstyle


who­dunit, so that was a re­ally in­ter­est­ing premise, whereas Paul is more of a straight-up his­tor­i­cal drama­ti­za­tion of what we know about Paul the Apos­tle’s life,” Holz says. “I think we live in a cul­ture right now that isn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in his­tory, so with his­tor­i­cal epics, you al­most need some (hook).”

3. Don’t shy away from God.

Three of the five high­est-gross­ing faith-based movies are The Chron­i­cles of Narnia se­ries, re­leased in the mid-2000s. All are based on C.S. Lewis’ young-adult nov­els and made more than $100 mil­lion at the U.S. box of­fice. The fran­chise wore re­li­gious sym­bol­ism on its sleeve. A Wrin­kle in Time more re­cently skimped on its source ma­te­rial’s mes­sag­ing, which some be­lieve may have put a dent in its earn­ings ($90.3 mil­lion so far).

“(Au­thor) Madeleine L’En­gle had a lot of scrip­ture and ideas that drew from the Bible, and a lot of those things re­ally got ironed out (of the film),” Holz says. “The pro­duc­ers said they wanted to make the movie re­ally in­clu­sive, but I think when you ... take those out, that’s a po­ten­tial turnoff to your core au­di­ence.”

4. Meet peo­ple where they are.

Rather than splurge on flashy mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, films have scored with grassroots com­mu­nity out­reach: host­ing spe­cial screen­ings, and pro­vid­ing churches with cus­tom­ized ser­mons and study guides tied to the movies.

“It may be the most im­por­tant part of the suc­cess of all of the films that have done well in the genre,” Der­garabe­dian says. “Your lo­cal clergy or pas­tor can have a pro­found in­flu­ence on (pa­trons). On the church level, if you’re be­ing en­cour­aged to see I Can Only Imag­ine be­cause it may re­flect your world­view, that can be a very pow­er­ful draw for faith-based au­di­ences who feel they’re left out of the Hol­ly­wood equa­tion.”


Por­tuguese ac­tor Diogo Mor­gado por­trays Je­sus in “Son of God,” which made $59.7 mil­lion at the box of­fice when it was re­leased in 2014.


Colton (Con­nor Co­rum) tells his fa­ther, Todd (Greg Kin­n­ear), how he ex­pe­ri­enced heaven dur­ing emer­gency surgery in “Heaven Is for Real.”


“Risen,” star­ring Joseph Fi­ennes, left, and Tom Fel­ton, took a “CSI” ap­proach to the Res­ur­rec­tion.

John Michael Fin­ley stars as Bart Mil­lard in “I Can Only Imag­ine.”

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