Christian films’ success deserves more faith
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.”